Israel trip changes women’s lives

For five years, it was a dream of Sara Oppenheim to take groups of Jewish women to Israel to enhance their appreciation of Judaism and pride in their heritage.

Oppenheim is a rebbetzin (Hebrew for rabbi’s wife), educator at the Charlotte Torah Center in south Charlotte, and the mother of five children, ages 14-26.

Oppenheim had lived in Jerusalem for 20 years and had seen groups of women visiting.

“I saw the other end of (the mission trips), saw the women animated and full of life,” said Oppenheim, who has lived in Charlotte since 2008 with her family.

Oppenheim wondered what it would be like to lead a trip to Israel, inspire women and impact the Charlotte community.

As a Jewish educator, Oppenheim had known about the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) before it officially became a movement in 2008. She decided to become a JWRP city leader and started planning and fundraising for trips.

In December, Oppenheim’s dream became a reality when she led 18 women on a subsidized nine-day trip to Israel through the Jewish Renaissance Project’s T.A.G. (Transform and Grow) Israel Tour. Participants only had to pay their airfare and a $36 registration fee. “The mission of the JWRP is to create a Jewish women’s movement that inspires a renaissance of positive Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our community,” said Oppenheim.

T.A.G. tours are designed primarily for women who are raising children, younger than 18. The JWRP is looking for leaders in the Jewish community who will come to Israel with open minds and take their experiences from the trip and bring education and leadership home, said Oppenheim.

The hope is that these women will then facilitate trips, classes, events, speakers, and community action, said Oppenheim.

Laurie Berzack, 44, professional matchmaker and mother of two sons ages 14 and 11, hadn’t been to Israel since her early 20s until the tour. “I love Israel…I really liked the idea of going on an all-women’s mission as a way to connect spiritually as well as visit my homeland,” said Berzack. “I would highly recommend this trip to others as I felt like I made a major shift in my thinking while I was over there which allowed me to view my life in a new, more meaningful way.”

The T.A.G. trips are filled with learning opportunities and action: hiking Masada and kayaking down the Jordan River. The participants, who hail from different countries, travel to several Israeli cities, such as Tiberias, Tzfat, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They swim in the Dead Sea, sample the culture, visit historical sites, celebrate Shabbat at the Western Wall in the Old City and take inspirational classes.

During the T.A.G. tour, participants learn how to “insert ‘Jewish’ into values for character development and for becoming the best people,” said Oppenheim.

“At first, I had concerns about leaving my family for 10 days but those concerns quickly diminished when I realized the wonderful gift I received,” said Charlotte resident Cheryl Rabinowitz, 48, former admissions director of Charlotte Jewish Day School, and mom two children, ages 18 and 15 ½. “This trip by far, was the trip of a lifetime for me. The very best part was the incredible sense of unity all of us felt. Israel is literally the centerpiece of the universe for several religions. But for me (and all Jews), I truly felt that I did not travel to Israel but that I returned home.”

“2013 is totally booked,” said Oppenheim, but she is already planning for 2014.