Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative Leads First Israel Mission in Support of Israeli Women

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20 Dec 2023

Contingent of Rebbetzins and Lay Leaders Represented 10 communities across North America

Standing in the ravaged, eerily silent community of Sderot in the burned out home of Nir, a young husband, father and OU Israel employee, one thing stood out for the 22 rebbetzins and lay leader participants of the Orthodox Union’s recent Women’s Initiative (WI) Israel Mission: amid the devastation, onions were sprouting in a plastic bin. 

“We were expecting them to be moldy as a reflection of the horrors that had transpired there,” says OU WI Assistant Director Adeena Mayerfeld. “Instead, they were growing. To see a sign of growth as we walked through the destruction was a reflection of everyday citizens’ heroism, and it gave us tremendous chizuk.” 

The contingent representing 10 Orthodox communities throughout North America traveled to Israel for four days to bring support and hugs to Israel’s women —wives, mothers and daughters of chayalim, hostages, and the wounded, and others who are bereaved. Yet the mission participants returned equally strengthened by the resilience of the nation and its citizens. 

“I really wasn’t sure what we were going to offer,” says Rebbetzin Sara Markowitz of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fairlawn, New Jersey. “I thought, while we have so much love to give, how will it be received? But it became very clear that every person is consequential. It matters to show up.”

Markowitz, a clinical psychologist and co-author with Dr. Simcha Chesner of Kosher ADHD: Surviving and Thriving with ADHD in the Torah Observant World, reflects on an encounter she had with a group of displaced 10 and 11-year-old-boys.

“I brought them letters of support from the children in our

community and I was trying to figure out how many I should leave. One boy saw what I was doing and he said, ‘Most of the kids are not here. Would it be okay if I take all of those letters back for them?’ That was so powerful. Every letter we wrote meant something to the recipients.”

Rebbetzin Rachel Isaacs of Phoenix’s Beth Joseph Congregation was also not entirely sure what to expect from the mission, but quickly perceived the tremendous impact of the group’s support.

Rebbetzin Rachel Issacs, Phoenix, Michal Miller, Boca Raton, Rebbetzin Aliza Blumenthal, Boca Raton, and Rebbetzin Sara Markowitz with the mother and girlfriend of a wounded soldier

“I was not focused on getting anything personal out of the trip although I had a strong feeling that I’d get a lot more than I gave, and that was indeed the case. I witnessed such a strong sense of Jewish pride — so many Jews, of all ages and demographics, truly thankful to be part of Am Yisrael.”

OU Women’s Initiative Director Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman notes that the combination of rebbetzins and lay leaders, many of whom are professional listeners and connectors who also happen to be mental health professionals, contributed to participants’ love and sensitive approach at a time when many Israeli women are especially vulnerable. 

“Our women came from two very different communal backgrounds,” she says. “Yet it became very clear that first night, when we had a processing session, that it had to be these two groups; the situation is so catastrophic, so big, that everybody needed to be present. Throughout the mission, it wasn’t just the pastoral voice; it was everyone’s voice. Everyone was at the table, and the breadth of the communities we represented really set the tone for the entire trip.”

Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg sharing letters of chizuk from Boca with chayalot

The jam-packed itinerary included sessions with OU Israel Executive Director Rabbi Avi Berman, Chief Rabbi of Gush Etzion, Rosh Yeshiva of Lev Academic Center (JCT) Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon, Mitzpeh Yericho Mayor Aliza Pilichowsky, and OU Israel employees and residents of the South, like Nir, whose lives were overturned on October 7.

The group also heard from Executive Chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement Rabbi Doron Perez and Kiryat Arba Mayor Eliyahu Libman whose sons are hostages, and Jen Airly and Idit Eliyahu whose sons were killed in active duty.

Stops included OU Israel’s Makom BaLev youth center, the police station and war room in Sderot; Assuta Ashdod hospital where the women visited a wounded soldier and met with the hospital’s Emergency Services head; Bet Shemesh, Almog, Karmei Gat and Chevron, where they visited bereaved families, displaced women, and wives of chayalim; Jerusalem’s Museum of Tolerance where they packaged supplies for soldiers with Kehillat Eretz Chemda; and Machaneh Reim army base where they led a challah bake for chayalot and hosted a barbecue for all the soldiers.

Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman with Leah, who has been displaced from her home in Shuva since October 7

Boca Raton Synagogue Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg chose to attend the WI Israel Mission expressly because the mission’s beneficiaries were female.

“I had seen a lot of pictures and videos of men visiting army bases and hospitals, which were heartwarming and beautiful,” she says. “But I felt that the women who were impacted in Israel needed the same attention, love and chizuk. This trip was directed at visiting and spending time with soldiers’ wives, displaced women and chayalot, and I felt that was a meaningful and important way to visit Israel right now and an appropriate mission to be part of as a rebbetzin and female community leader.”

For Rebbetzin Goldberg, the time spent with the female soldiers at Reim was particularly meaningful.

“The simcha in the room during the challah bake, the singing and dancing, one would forget that we were in the middle of a war,” she said. “Following the hafrasha and the fun we experienced together, we switched gears emotionally and listened with intensity as a captain described the unit’s experience on October 7. It occurred to me at that moment — and many others throughout our trip — how the Jewish people are so accustomed to transitioning from sorrow to simcha, from crying to dancing. We know how to mourn and how to feel pain, but at the same time we so badly want and need to feel joy and good in the world. Throughout the millennia, we as a people have always found a way to hold both the good and the bad, to feel simcha and sorrow simultaneously. This is something that was articulated by Rabbi Doron Perez. That’s how we’ve moved on as a nation. That experience drove that point home in real time. I will never forget it.” 

Lay leader Rebecca Ashkenas and Rebbetzin Sara Markowitz, of Fair Lawn, NJ, at the challah bake with chayalot

Rebbetzin Issacs was equally moved at Reim.

“Many of these chayalot are still trying to pick up the pieces and move ahead,” she says. They are still in the thick of things and many didn’t seem to have a sense of what was going on in the rest of the world, yet they maintained their spunk and positive demeanor. Their support of one another was very inspirational. One girl asked if we knew there was a war. She thought we had just come to visit. Of course once we explained that we came precisely because of the war, they were shocked, many tearing up at the idea that we would leave our families and travel across the world to let them know how appreciative we are of them and how much we love and support them.”

Beyond the refuat hanefesh that the rebbetzins and lay leaders imparted to those they visited, the women also brought refuat haguf in the form of various gifts. Chayalot, displaced women and wives of chayalim received Ahava cream gift sets, and beautiful cards featuring the tefillah for hadlakat neirot, and adults and children were gifted cozy sweatshirts.

“One of the things that struck me is that the recipients are not used to taking things,” notes Mayerfeld. “They’re used to taking care of others. In giving, we needed another level of sensitivity because most of these people were the doers and the givers.”

A group of eight displaced Bnot Mitzvah also received engraved siddurim and journals, and pairs of earrings, as part of a unique bat Bat Mitzvah celebration led by the WI contingent. Beautiful gift bags were prepared for the Bat Mitzvah girls’ mothers as well.

As Rebbetzin Shmidman explains, the party itself was a sensitive matter as the girls and their moms were emotionally conflicted. “On the one hand, they wanted to move forward with the Bat Mitzvah programming for their community,” she says. “On the other hand, they didn’t want to have something too celebratory.

A number of organizations had offered to make them a Bat Mitzvah and the girls kept declining. When they heard that there was a group of rebbetzins and leaders from the States who wanted to be with them to mark the occasion and meet them where they are at in a way that they deemed meaningful, they agreed.”

Mission participants set up the party in a small tent at a Dead Sea hotel. They brought in a woman to lead a jewelry making activity, and everyone connected around it. While the girls and their mothers did not want a DJ, Rebbetzin Shmidman brought a guitar, and by the end of the night, everyone was dancing.

“The Rebbetzins understood how to hold the celebration together with the pain and to navigate both very carefully,” she says. “The mothers and daughters entrusted us with the Bat Mitzvah, which was really a gift. The feedback we received was that for the two hours that we were together, they were able to be just moms and daughters. They were so deeply grateful that we provided that meaningful space with a sense of real connection.”

Mayerfeld adds, “The mission participants kept saying the emotional connection was meragesh — so touching. It was like we were all family; as if we found long lost cousins and sisters wherever we went.”

Now back in the States, mission participants are determined to maintain the new bonds they cultivated with individuals and communities.

Rebecca Ashkenas recently completed a three-year term as the vice president of Membership at Fairlawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, where she helped to grow the shul community. Now a board member and active on the Hospitality Committee, Ashkenas believes the mission was simply the start of future relationships with Israeli women.

“There are so many kibbutzim and moshavim in the South,” she says. “We had a chance to connect one-on-one with some, but we would love to continue to expand our relationships with others.”

Rebbetzin Isaacs created a WhatsApp group between mission participants and the Israeli women they visited, and the 10 North American communities intend to offer continued help where needed. 

“I have started, and will continue, to spread the messages, stories and experiences I gleaned from this mission,” says Rebbetzin Goldberg. “I want the community to hear about what’s happening in Israel and how much there is to do and to give there. How much people there appreciate all of our letters and support — how it means the world to them that we in America are thinking about them, davening for them and care so deeply about them.”  

Rebbetzin Markowitz adds, “We celebrated a simcha with them — the Bat Mitzvah — and we want to continue to celebrate smachot with communities in the future. We plan to stay connected. We’re in it for the long term.”