Participants in a trip one likened to a “Birthright Israel for women” returned with a renewed commitment to Judaism.
The 34 women of a wide age range traveled in July with Torah Links, the Orthodox outreach group. They met up with 200 other participants from across the United States taking part in the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project.
The 10-day trip included explorations of spirituality, lectures, and familiar tourist activities like visiting the ancient tunnels under the Western Wall and rafting down the Jordan River.
Chani Gross, leader of the 12-member delegation from the East Brunswick-based Middlesex Torah Links and the wife of its director, Rabbi Dovid Gross, said the mission was “all about the power of women.”
Calling it “an honor and a privilege” to lead such an “amazing” group of women, Monmouth delegation leader Toby Oratz said the trip was “eye-opening” and “life-altering.”
“We were all mesmerized, awakened, and enlightened about our heritage, our lives, and our religion,” added Oratz, whose husband, Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz, is director of the Morganville-based Monmouth Torah Links.
The mission was heavily subsidized by Torah Links and Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach group, but participants came from a mix of denominations.
Participant Deborah Rettig of Manalapan said most of the 22 Monmouth County residents on the trip are affiliated with Conservative and Reform synagogues. Many had never been to Israel.
Given the sponsorship, said Terri Silverman of East Brunswick, “I was a little apprehensive that the purpose of this trip was to convince me to become ultra-Orthodox. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong,” said Silverman, a member of the Conservative East Brunswick Jewish Center.
The goal, she said, was to instill Torah values that the women could bring back to their families.
The aim of the trip, said Gross, “was about making these women leaders in their community and teaching them about Israel and how important it is to have positive feelings about Israel,” said Gross.
Rettig, who is office manager for Monmouth Torah Links and a board member of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, was among those going to Israel for the first time.
“What I got out of it was a sense of belonging,” she said. “We went to an army base and spoke to soldiers. They weren’t upset about having to serve their country at age 18. They understand why.”
Rettig said the travelers felt “comfortable and very safe” and many were so moved, they have now taken to lighting Shabbat candles.
“I’m not saying they’re shomer Shabbos [Sabbath observant], but these are people who never lit Shabbat candles,” she said.
The Monmouth group has met twice since returning and plans to get together again before Rosh Hashana for a hallah-baking event. Rettig said she plans to return with the JWRP mission next year, when the goal is to bring at least 40 women from Monmouth.