My forehead is pressed against the Kotel, my fingers spread across the warm, ancient brick. All my anxiety, my prayers prepared with such purpose and held tight, all the desire to do it properly, respectfully, are released and now all I feel is love and calm and togetherness.
I’m in Israel. I’m touching the Kotel and I feel an overwhelming connection to everything around me; all that came before me and all that will come after me. How can I put this in words? The sun is on my back. There are birds nesting above me. The land is pulsing. Israel is alive, and I feel like I’m on speed dial to God.
This is the overarching feeling I still carry from my recent, first-time, trip to Israel. I was extremely lucky to be part of Momentum, an eight-day trip organized by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project in partnership with JET Ottawa, lovingly led by Lauren Shaps, our city leader. The trip was a gift where participants paid just their air fare. We visited the holy city of Tsfat, toured ancient synagogues, strolled through charming artists’ shops, gazed at the blue of the Dead Sea from atop Masada, then soaked in its healing minerals, rode camels, danced, sang and ate meals dripping with date honey and the freshest produce.
But we were treated to more than tours of beautiful sites and landmarks. We were given the gift of connecting to our homeland and to hundreds of other Jewish mothers. That’s the premise of the trip – how can you inspire the most people? First you reach the mothers! They will bring home this inspiration to their families and their communities.
And inspiration is truly what we have brought home. I have spoken to other women who went on this trip in previous years, and everyone describes it in powerful terms. But, for those of us who just returned, I think our experience was perhaps intensified by the ongoing terror attacks taking place in Israel. This is not because of the increased security we faced, or the amended itinerary changed to keep us safe, but because of the tremendous gratitude shown by every Israeli we encountered.
Again and again, I spoke with Israelis, tears in their eyes, who thanked us for coming, for being there for them, for standing with Israel. I learned a new phrase: Achdut Yisrael, the unity of Israel. This sense of solidarity, of shared purpose, of caring for each other, of being part of the entire Jewish family was incredibly meaningful. It didn’t matter what our religious practice was or where we were from. We were all Jews, standing strong together in full support of each other.
Unity. Can I bring home anything better than this? We are so much stronger together. We know this and yet I would hazard a guess that every Jewish community around the world, suffers from in-fighting.
My trip coincided with the Shabbat Project and, while it was chaotic, one of the highlights was joining more than 3,000 other women in Tel Aviv to make challah. Can you imagine this experience? We were side-by-side, all of us in a shared purpose, making challah and helping each other to help others. It was powerful and an honour to be part of this. If we could keep the unity we experience during the Shabbat Project alive all year, wouldn’t that be an awesome gift?
The old joke is that if you have two Jews in a room, then you have three opinions. Well, that might be true. But what we must remember is that we have one heart. In Israel, that heart beats very loudly. You can feel it in the streets, at the Kotel and in the eyes of all the Israelis who welcomed us “home.”
I’m still processing everything I experienced on this trip of a lifetime, but my first take-home lesson is: Achdut Yisrael. I hope you will join me in keeping that spirit of unity going.
Visit www.jwrp.org for more information about the JWRP.
Pauline Colwin is communications manager for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.