A bat mitzvah ceremony is a milestone and a common ritual for Jewish women. Less common is the way Paula Levinsky celebrated hers.
Just about 40 years past the traditional bat mitzvah age of 12 or 13, Levinsky stood at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in Israel and read her D’var Torah speech in front of hundreds of Jewish women from across the United States. That same day, the women danced and sang with young female Israeli soldiers at the Kotel, and many of them couldn’t help but think that what they were experiencing was magical. They all sang songs in Hebrew and danced the hora, nearly 6,000 miles from their New Jersey homes and families.
They were in Israel as part of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which aims to empower women to “change the world through Jewish values.” The 10-day trip, called Momentum, is a key part of the organization’s mission. Three Central Jersey partner organizations participated: Shalom Heritage Center in East Windsor, L’dor V’dor of Central New Jersey and Princeton Hadassah. The women pay for their flights and other expenses, but JWRP covers the cost of lodging, ground transportation and some meals.
Over the course of their trip, which lasted Nov. 13-23, the women rode camels through the desert, slathered themselves with mud in the Dead Sea, brought gifts to the children’s wing of a hospital, and listened to and reflected on lectures. They participated in religious ceremonies and rituals, and Levinsky was one of 18 women on the trip to have a bat mitzvah.
“It was a really special moment for me to get up at the Kotel in front of all my new family and friends and be blessed,” she said. “I did a D’var Torah like my kids do. I did a community service project. I connected my life to the Torah portion of the week, just like my kids did. I honored my kids by doing it that way because they were kind of sad that they couldn’t be there for it.”
Levinsky, a Lawrence resident, and her husband, Stuart, have three children: Darrah, 19, Noah, 17, and Adam, 14. She and the other women met the only two requirements to apply for the trip—they are all Jewish women with at least one child under 18 still living at home.
Marriage and motherhood were common themes of the trip—and it put all of the women on common ground before they even met, said Carol Brugger of West Windsor. Brugger and her husband, Mark, have two songs, Joshua and Daniel.
“JWRP delivered in terms of the quality of the speakers and their ability to connect with us,” she said. “There was that intellectual aspect, but they hit us where we lived as mothers, as wives, as women in the workforce, as women with Jewish backgrounds. It managed to connect with each of us differently.”
It was Jill Chevlin’s fourth Momentum trip. After her first in 2013, she knew she had to go again—and she wanted to bring more women along with her. Chevlin, a doctor from West Windsor, worked for the last three years to get Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization, to partner with JWRP so that group could go, too. She appealed nationally to the CEO and president of Hadassah, and they approved her request. Princeton Hadassah is the first chapter in the country to go on the trip.
Each December, the Princeton Hadassah women sponsor a holiday gift wrapping booth at the Quaker Bridge Mall to raise money for their organization. They got to see firsthand where that money goes when the visited and volunteered at a hospital and youth village operated by Hadassah in Israel. The hospital admits patients of all religions and backgrounds. Melissa Magid of West Windsor said it was a powerful experience.
‘I want to pass down not just the traditions, but a real understanding of what it means to be Jewish, and why we follow these traditions.’
Chevlin had been to Israel several times before her first Momentum trip, but she saw the country in a different light with JWRP.
“This was a trip that I had heard was really based on spirituality for women,” she said. “That was the part that I know we had touched on on other trips, but I really hadn’t had a full taste of it. That was really what inspired me to go on the trip, and once I was there, I was blown away. I was really inspired hearing all of these incredible speakers and these core truths that sort of ring true to you.”
Other women who had been to Israel before felt the same. Some went as teenagers or with their families, but they didn’t connect with their surroundings like they did on this trip.
“It was a very different experience to go with a group of women, focused on women’s and, more specifically, mothers’ issues,” said Brugger, who works in the oncology division at Novartis. “I think that was the common bond. That was really interesting. The speakers and the intellectual approach to some of it, the study piece that has been missing for so long from religion for me, I found in doing it with a group of women.”
Every day centered on a different topic, and as each day passed, the themes grew more intense, ranging from talking about gossip on the first day of the trip to discussing prayer and marriage later on.
Many sessions ended in reflection and processing what they just took in. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough time, said Michele Kaish, a West Windsor resident who is currently serving her second term on the school board, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Every day was so packed,” she said. “I’m still processing. Maybe it was good to do that because it’s actually going to do what they want, to make you want to continue your journey, not just coming back to Israel, but here. They just give you these little nuggets, and you come back with the desire to learn more. It’s very physically and emotionally challenging.”
Those quiet, reflective moments were vital for Linda Leonard of Robbinsville. The single mother of Rachel, Nathan and Jack had never been to Israel, thought it was always a goal for her and her parents. But when Jack died last year at 15 years old after battling Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, a rare central nervous system disorder, she found herself grappling with grief and little time to confront it.
When Leonard, a human resources director in global diversity at Bristol-Myers Squibb, heard about the trip through Beth-El synagogue, she could not pass it up. The opportunity was twofold—not only would she fulfill an aspiration that she felt was out of reach for most of her life, but she also saw the trip as a chance to reflect on herself, her children, what kind of home she wanted to build for them. She found that and more.
“Although the trip is loud, and there’s lots of laughter and people, there are also moments of quiet and solitude,” she said. “For me, that allowed all of the challenges and the worries to come through in a way that at the same time I was also being empowered by the learning that was happening everyday, I also felt like I could control my own destiny a little bit more and not be afraid of the quiet moments of reflection.”
Part of the goal of the trip is bringing a new piece of Judaism or spirituality into the home, whether it’s keeping kosher or observing Shabbat and lighting candles as a family. The women said they felt no pressure to become stricter or to go further than they wanted.
Magid, who owns Black Bear Lake Day Camp with her husband, Mark, said she initially applied for the trip just to go to Israel, but she left wanting to do more.
“I was expecting to be proselytized, someone trying to make me more religious,” she said. “I kind of put up a wall against that. What I felt at the end was that I want to be more spiritual and bring stuff back to my house. My kids are teenagers. Nobody’s ever around. I’m like, ‘OK, Friday night, we’re lighting candles.’ It’s this little tiny moment, but it’s a chance to just connect and remember, not even so much for religious reasons, although I feel like now I better understand why.”
For Leonard, who grew up in a traditional conservative Jewish home, the trip allowed her to connect those customs to their importance within the religion. Throughout the course of the trip, she often found herself thinking, “Oh, so that’s why we do that.”
“I wanted to understand the significance of lighting candles, or why we have two challah at the Shabbat dinner,” she said. “I want to pass down not just the traditions, but a real understanding of what it means to be Jewish, and why we follow these traditions.”