A Young Mom’s Israel Journey Surprises with Baltimore Connections

By Jillian Book

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself in Israel on the Ashkelon Agricultural Farm, Hava Haklayit, with the breathtaking Ashkelon skyline in the backdrop. While newly jet-lagged, taking in the view of the city behind the farm, and breathing in the sweet Israeli air, I passively heard our facilitator mention “a seed can be planted anywhere in the world, but it will always yield a different variation of fruit based on its soil, then from that very flower grows the fruit.”

During this trip, I was in good company. I was traveling with eight moms I’ve gotten to know over the past two years. We are all Community Connectors for The Mack’s Center of Jewish Education (CJE). Our goal: to bring the joys of Judaism to families unaffiliated with synagogue life and empower these families who are often unconfident practicing Judaism in the comfort of their own homes.

Together, as Connectors we brainstorm activities and events big and small to bring Judaism to all things from coffee dates to cooking demos. But this opportunity, carefully crafted for us by both Huppit of the Afooda cooking world and Julie Wohl of the CJE, was an absolute treat. It was, for many of us, not only the first time we traveled without our children for such an extended period, this trip was a way for all of us to grow Jewishly, together.

I’ll never forget locking eyes with one of my closest girlfriends that I have made during my time as a Connector when the trip was announced. In just that initial eye contact, we both knew we would do whatever had to be done – lock in whatever child care was needed and make sure work was taken care of- so this trip could happen. We made it happen because of our love for Judaism and our connection to Israel.

Our goal on this trip of traveling from Baltimore to Ashkelon, our sister city, was to learn more about the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, and, in turn, deepen our personal connection to Israel and our own Judaism. I found myself learning about the great impact Baltimore has on Israel, with eight like-minded women and mothers who have all become family through the program, and even further through this trip. Although some of us are sadly at the end of our two-year Community Connector commitment, we learned about other opportunities and ways to become more involved, affiliated and connected in Baltimore’s deeply rooted love for Israel, and how we can keep it flourishing.

During our trip, we met the Director of the Partnership, Sigal, and facilitator, Roni. Each of them personally took the time to connect and match each of us with a host family for Shabbat. They took us to a Gan (kindergarten) in Ashkelon to teach us about the PJ ABC program. In this new age pen-pal program, Israel’s youngest students are paired with like-minded families in Baltimore to form a connection, a bond and a relationship that can last not only a year, but a lifetime. This particular class of kindergarteners happened to know students from Beth Tfiloh, a school where a few of my fellow moms send their children.

As the Director of Education at Bolton Street Synagogue, it is no secret that I favor the CJE’s Shevet Achim and Israel High curriculum, where Israeli high schoolers match with Baltimore high school students. Being able to watch a similar connection between Israel’s youngest students with Baltimore’s youngest students even further enhanced my love and appreciation for the Partnership. As soon as I returned to Baltimore, I knew I had to bring PJ ABC to my younger students.

It’s no secret I’ve always connected Jewishly. As a child, I was the one that looked forward to Hebrew school. Passover has always made me reflective of “breaking free” from my own “personal mitrzrayim.” Even now, lighting Shabbat candles in my grandparents (Bubby and Zaidy’s) kosher kitchen, makes me smile.

Upon graduating from high school without much direction or exciting goals, I fell back on the one thing that was always there for me, my Judaism. I decided to travel to Israel for a gap year. While initially this was an opportunity to uproot myself, leave my environment or my “soil” and replant myself, it became an opportunity to return to it, and not just to return to it but to flourish in it. That’s right – It took me traveling across the world to find the great impact my small-but-mighty Baltimore community has on small-but-mighty Israel.

As a pre-college student, I was luckily introduced to the opportunities Baltimore offers to stay involved. I learned that I could nurture my connection and my passion for Judaism with my love for Israel by being part of the Baltimore Jewish community. Following my gap year and during college, I returned to the same Baltimore synagogue, Beth El, where I looked forward to Hebrew school. I was seeking ways to become more involved and to reconnect with my “soil.”

This is the same place where I attended preschool. The same synagogue where I chanted Torah to celebrate my Bat Mitzvah, where I danced the Hora at my wedding, and where I am now getting ready to celebrate my daughter’s pre-school graduation.

Here I am, privileged enough to watch my little seed flourish in the same soil where I was planted. She is just as passionate about her love of Judaism and her smile shows me her comfort in all things Jewish. Right now she is too naïve to realize just how lucky we are to live here in Baltimore, a town constantly taking care of our soil, but I can’t wait to teach her about The Associated’s passion for the Partnership.

I also can’t wait to teach her about The Associated’s passion for the Partnership and how farms providing lunches and everyday food to students in Israel were provided by community members in our town – congregants at our synagogues, congregants we pray with during High Holidays, congregants with whom we have shared Shabbat dinners. I know one day I will take her to Israel so she too can learn how our home town nourishes our homeland.

Back on the farm, hearing our facilitator say “From the flower grows the fruit …” meant so much more in that moment then farming. It meant taking care of our environment and teaching our children to take care of our environment, so they too can flourish. In this instance, the environment was the soil. As a parent, it meant passing on my love of Judaism to the next generation so they too can live Jewishly and then pass on their love for Judaism to the next generation. As a connector, it meant we are creating the soil for these families to feel comfortable and thrive in the Baltimore Jewish community.

Two years ago, when I was offered the opportunity of becoming a Community Connector, it seemed like a nice way to give back. It would be easy. I would meet new families in my vicinity, connect them with other like-minded moms, move on to the next “mommy match,” repeat.

What I didn’t expect was to exponentially grow my own village, and to make my own connections with families of all Jewish backgrounds across Baltimore. This opportunity has allowed me to further ground my Jewish Baltimore roots, to take care of my soil and to find additional ways to grow and help others flourish.

These past two years have connected me with women who have become family, women who have the same interests as I do, and women who care about nurturing our environment so our soil bares the sweetest fruit.

So, there we were, on a farm in Ashkelon. Eight moms that would have never been connected without this remarkable program, picking our very own vegetables to cook lunch, we would enjoy together. And this was just Day one.

I am so grateful to have had this amazing opportunity. In one short week I learned so much about myself, my community, my friends and Israel. My thanks to The Associated, the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership and the Macks Center for Jewish Education for providing this amazing opportunity.

Explore Israel during winter break with your family and join The Associated’s Centennial Family Mission. Learn more at associated.org/upcomingmissions.

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The Associated is a home for everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community. We offer several email lists to help people find a community, engage with their peers and support Jewish journeys around the world.

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