By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
My friend Yonina tells people that I’m super-chilled when it comes to being open to new adventures. She can suggest just about any outing and I’ll be game.
I suppose that in some ways I’ve always been that way, but I was still somewhat limited in the things we could do because of the seemingly never-ending role of motherhood that prevents some of the ideas we’ve had that wouldn’t get us home before dinnertime.
Like joining a group of women on a tour around Israel for eight days.
It all started a few months ago when Yonina mentioned a challah bake at Young Israel of Woodmere, arranged by the organization she had recently become involved with.
What began as a program by the name of “TJJ,” The Jerusalem Journey, which caters to public-school teens, eventually evolved into another program for the mothers of these teens, which became TJJ for Moms.
The programs run yearlong for these women who aren’t religiously observant but express interest in learning more about their Jewish heritage and attend the events (that are planned around each rosh chodesh) that TJJ offers. This strengthens the knowledge of the women who run their homes, arming them with information about frumkeit that can positively impact their homes, their spouses, and their children.
The challah bake was one such event, and the women who attended had been chosen among many applicants wanting to join the Israel tour led by Nechama Kamelhar, the director of family engagement for New York NCSY.
Along with Yonina Wind, Osnat Zinar, and Stephanie Sokol, who are former TJJ alumnae as well as current leaders for the Israel trip, I watched a room full of women and their daughters put together their first challah dough as Nechama spoke about that week’s parashah and the religious significance of baking the bread we eat every Shabbos.
Thinking that this was a perfect opportunity to capture something special and outside my normal Thursday-night activities, I did what I do best—I grabbed my phone and started recording the event on my Instagram stories, tagging the appropriate handles. I was placed at a table by Yonina, whom I had planned to visit briefly while saying hi to the ladies she had met while conducting interviews for the Israel trip, and the next thing I knew, I had gloves on and was shaping challah dough in tins for the ladies to bring home and bake.
And that, in a nutshell, is how I became a part of a trip I thought would come and go without much involvement on my end. Little did I know at the time, shortly after the challah bake, that Nechama would attend a Shabbos event where an NCSY staffer asked her who was capturing footage of the trip to post on different social media platforms … and the rest is history.
When I got the phone call from Yonina and met with Nechama, other ladies who are leading the trip, and the 51 women who are touring Israel with us, I was still skeptical that this was actual reality.
I guess because it’s been so long since I’ve been to Israel (24 years, in fact), and the way this whole thing came about seems so out of the ordinary and, at the same time, par for the course in my life.
It’s been a running theme for the last 42 years or so. Things will happen in my life in the most inadvertent ways. Like attending a challah bake at a local shul and being asked to travel with the group to Israel.
Sorta like that.
I usually just go with it because I read between the lines and realize that these are the opportunities to grab ahold of, as they become life-changing events.
It’s something that Nechama said during our first meeting that really resonated with me. She’s been working in kiruv for years and part of that was having Shabbos company from all walks of life. It’s easy to have company that you want, but how about having people who can observe the way you live and having a positive effect on them for life? That’s something else entirely. That epitomizes the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.
The one thing Nechama didn’t realize was that this wouldn’t only impact the non-observant families who came to her on Shabbos—it would change her and her family for the better as well. It came to a point where she didn’t know who benefited more.
I know that this will be the case on this Israel trip, even before I step foot on the airplane. I know this will be a transformative week in my life that I’ll not only capture on Instagram for others to see (and to spread awareness about the great work NCSY does all year long) but it will change the lives of every woman on this trip.
As I spoke to one woman who was going on the trip about what she looked forward to, as someone who’s already been on this trip previously, she said, “Whatever you’re looking for on this trip can be found if you’re open to it—if you want to seek out spirituality, you will. If you want to meet new friends, you will. If you want to explore religious observance, you can. If you feel stuck and want this to be a springboard onto discovering a new way of life, this is it.”
That paralyzed me for a few minutes as I sat there thinking about her words and realized that I had been given a true gift to have the chance to hear about the perspectives of all the women I was about to spend a week with. About how they’re willingly opening themselves up to new traditions, new friends, new experiences in life.
I want to take this opportunity to thank NCSY, Nechama, and the other leaders on TJJ Moms for having me join them. I want to thank the 51 women who I’m looking forward to getting to know better for being so open and welcoming to me when I joined their group pretty recently.
In Mishlei, it states that the wisdom of a wife can save a household. It brings down different examples historically of the women in Tanach who did just that. In our “already frum” communities, there tends to be an emphasis on learning for men and their obligation to learn Gemara.
But it’s often the women who most directly influence the children, the practices and energy and the home, and the family’s future. So investing in Jewish education needs to be a priority as well, especially for those who were not born into a Torah-privileged life. There are so many Jewish families who are not yet even privy to the wealth of opportunity, holiness, and mesorah that is their birthright. It’s easy to lose sight of that when surrounded by other observant families.
But the enrichment of the outreach experience goes both ways: When we share our knowledge of Judaism, we offer the greatest gift to others, which in turn, can inspire us to appreciate and connect with parts of our lifestyle that can become rote and taken for granted.
I’m excited for both sides of this experience.
The last few decades of Jewish history and the last few years for me and for my family have been about grieving, healing, and rebuilding. The process is still ongoing, but finding Jeremy has been a real yeshuah, and now that I’m in a happier and more stable place, I feel honored to be able to move forward and be able to give more fully.
In our modern times, in 2022, I truly believe that’s the mission of NCSY and the parallel programs they run for Jewish youth as well as the parents. Together with them and other wonderful kiruv efforts, we can educate, inform, and inspire a mesorah for future generations.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, and a social media influencer.