The author rides a camel in the desert near the Dead Sea.

How a Trip to Israel “for Jewish Moms” Changed My Outlook

Two years ago I first heard of this “free Israel Trip for Jewish moms”. That’s about all I knew about it except that it had something to do with an organization called the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and AISH Minnesota. My first thought was, NOPE! I know how those orthodox Jewish programs work… their real goal is turn me into a wig-wearing, strict-Shabbat-observing, Torah-learning, 613-mitzvot-doing Jew.

But over the next two years, the daily grind of balancing three kids under the age of seven, managing a home, a family and a real estate career was starting to take its toll on me. My days consisted of schlepping my kids around, being on my phone with clients, yelling a lot (at my kids, not my clients!) and worrying about what to make for dinner… again. I was anxious, stressed out, and not enjoying the people I loved most in the world.

carajerusalem

The view from the roof of the AISH International headquarters located in the old city.

So, last spring when the time came around to apply for this program, it was actually my husband who encouraged me to take the leap. The trip, they told me, would be an opportunity for personal growth, a gift I was giving to myself and to my family. And since what I was doing clearly wasn’t working, what did I have to lose?? And frankly, I needed a vacation!

In spite of my hesitations, I applied for the program, got accepted and prepared to take the journey to Israel. Though I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, when my kids asked why I was going to Israel, I told them the only truth I knew: I was going to become a better mommy.

The Trip Begins

By the time the plane lifted off for Israel I felt homesick for my family, and still had no idea what JWRP was! Nevertheless, I pushed forward and in the days that followed we road tripped from north to south exploring the Jewish homeland. From Tzvat, where I was inspired by women adorned by the most magnificent head wraps and clothing I’d ever seen, to Masada where we were challenged to think about the kind of role models we have and want to be, to the Kotel, where I stood my with God, my heart overflowed with love and appreciation.

Themes on family, Judaism, and values were woven throughout the experiences. The themes were highlighted by seminars and stories told by JWRP leaders— dynamic and captivating women who believe that the key to keeping Judaism alive lies in the with the moms—the heart and soul of families, and the keepers of Jewish traditions for millennia.

One such theme that particularly resonated with me was the value of giving. I want to give and know I should give—of myself, my time, my money—but I always seem to fall short. So when challenged with the idea that, “The more you give, the more you love, something inside of me awakened: It’s not just about check writing! If I give a little more attention to my husband and kids (and a little less attention to my cell phone) could I have an even happier marriage and enjoy my kids more? After all the bills are paid and we feel there’s nothing left, could we still manage to give a little more? I think we could, and ultimately we’d be the happier for it.

This notion of giving as a path to love that they taught in our seminars was amplified as I got closer with the incredible women on the trip with me. I was inspired not only by the ways in which they gave back, but also their strength. During our long bus rides we shared stories of surviving breast cancer, losing loved ones, battling fertility issues or opening a home to a foster child.

Finding Deeper Meaning

Of the multitude of “ah-ha” moments I had during this trip, one of the most powerful occurred at the Kotel. I’d been to the Western Wall as a teen, but now it seemed that a lifetime stood between then and now—marriage, kids, loss and mortgages. Somehow, I brought new meaning to this holy place, or maybe just a different me. Every breath I took felt different, as if divinely put into my lungs, and I felt, for a moment, the inner peace I’d been searching for. You see, for much of my life I questioned God’s existence… right up to the day that I gave birth to my first child and knew for sure God was out there, somewhere. Yet the notion that God’s responsible for, or somehow in control of, the mundane moments of daily life always seemed a little too religious”.

But standing with my head against this awe-inspiring structure, I had an undeniable belief in God. I placed two pieces of paper inside it. One I wrote myself. The other was from home, written by that baby, now seven, who’d put the awe of God into me the first time I felt her kick.

Praying at the Western Wall

Praying at the Western Wall

From that moment, I decided that if Judaism is to be an integral part of my family, I could no longer separate it out of my daily life. I realized that if I believed God was with me in times of strife and great joy, why couldn’t I look for God when my kids are in full-throttle meltdown mode, in the middle of a supermarket, in my pajamas? If I can believe even for an instant that there’s some Divine meaning in my life, I can take some solace believing that things are just the way they’re supposed to be.

I imagine right about now some of you reading this are thinking “Yep, see, right there. She drank the Kool-aid!” But, now I realize that thoughts like this that promote pre-conceived notions begin to break us down. It’s no secret that many secular Jews are skeptics when it comes to orthodox outreach organizations. As one of those skeptics myself, I can say with confidence that they are not the enemy! Actually, they’re pretty amazing people doing a great service to the world’s Jewry. The truth is that our numbers are dwindling and hostility towards each other is not the answer. There are enough people against us already, and I assure you that they aren’t distinguishing between reform, conservative, orthodox, or anywhere-in-between Jews. So let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.

In October, I left for a trip hoping to get some perspective on this chaos I call life. While there, I met 26 strangers who are now a constant source of inspiration for me. When I’m having a day that seems to have hit rock bottom before 9:00 a.m., I reach out to these women who provide some solace and pretty good advice. When I’m feeling down and out I remember my blessings and my commitment to giving because there is always someone worse off than me.

You see, when I left for Israel I thought I was beginning a journey, but the truth is that my journey has only just begun…

jewishmoms

After graduating from the University of Arizona, Cara moved to Minneapolis in 2001 to work in the Mpls Jewish community as the Asst. Director and then the Director of North Star BBYO.  Originally from Philadelphia and then Phoenix, she met and married her husband Andy here in the Twin Cities where they are now raising their 3 daughters– Emerson (7), Joee (4), and Sophia (3)– in Minnetonka.  Cara is now a full time REALTOR® as well as a mom, wife, and sometimes writer.

 

 

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