Nineteen participants, including recent pre- and post-bat mitzvah girls, their mothers and two grandmothers, took part in a week-long pilgrimage to Israel this past February that combined Torah, chesed and absolute fun for an unforgettable experience. Led by Chana Reichman, rebbetzin of the East Hill Synagogue in Englewood for the past 14 years, the pilgrimage has been ongoing for 12 years and now has graduates who are married with children but will never forget the impact the trip made on them. Whether the participants had been on prior family trips to Israel or had never been to Israel before, the trip was a unique experience of meaningful interaction with different segments of the population and hands-on participation in outstanding chesed organizations. This year’s bat mitzvah girls are primarily residents of Englewood and are students at Moriah, Yavneh, Ben Porat Yosef and RYNJ. One of the participants was Ayelet Reichman, the second daughter of Rebbetzin Reichman to participate in the trip.
Upon landing at Ben Gurion, the group was witness to the welcoming of 100 Indian olim by Bnei Menashe musicians, a festive initiation into a week of celebrations. Then on to the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled where they were greeted by Boaz, a silver Olympic tennis medalist, who, from his wheelchair, inspired them with his grit and determination. On to the Blind Museum where they experienced the world of darkness that individuals live with on a daily basis with courage and insight, an inspiring lesson for those blessed with sight. The group went on to create decorative pillows for The Lemonade Fund, a chesed organization that helps defray the expenses of women undergoing cancer treatments.
Shabbat at Bet Elazraki, the highly regarded Emunah Children’s home in Netanya, with renowned director Yehuda Kohn, provided the group with 24 hours of pure and mutual love. Beginning with the hadlakat nerot letters the girls sent their mothers, and throughout the festive meals marked with singing and swaying together with the Bet Elazraki girls, bonds of love and appreciation were formed that ended with tearful goodbyes after a heartfelt havdalah.
For Eliana Stein, daughter of Dr. Shlomit Stein, who had prepared for her recent bat mitzvah with her grandfather, grandmother and father, the trip added another special dimension to her becoming a bat mitzvah. In the words of Dr. Stein, “The mission was great as it taught us both that chesed is accessible to everybody and can be experienced in many different forms. For Eliana, the Shabbat at Bet Elazraki enabled her to form powerful emotional connections with girls she had never known. She came to realize that she has a lot of love to give. She also came away with a fuller appreciation of so much of what she has to be grateful for in her own life.”
After Shabbat, it was off to Yerushalayim. For a few in the group, the visit to the Kotel on Sunday morning was their first, and made even more intense by the reminiscences of speaker Ruchama Alter, mother of Moriah Head of School Rabbi Daniel Alter, who described her own emotional realization of the dream of finally being able to daven at the Kotel after seeing it from a distance for so long.
At Shaarei Zedek Hospital, the group shared their teddy bears with young patients who were ever so cheered up. Then on to the new, magnificent Shalva Jerusalem Campus, a state-of-the-art facility catering to children with severe disabilities. They were greeted by Yossi Samuels, the son of the founders of Shalva, who is blind and deaf, yet whose smile reveals his joy in knowing that in his zechut, hundreds of children are helped daily to achieve their potential.
For Melanie Sosland, seeing her daughter Mikaela interact with the children at Shalva, singing and dancing with them as if they were long-time friends, was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
“At each stop, the commentary of Rebbetzin Reichman added to our experience. She was truly a role model for us and our daughters as she exclaimed that each stop we made was her ‘favorite’ spot in Israel.”
For Sosland, the visit in Beitar to a branch of Yad Leah, the clothing salvage organization based in Passaic, New Jersey, was another highlight of the many visits during the trip. Her family connection to the co-founder of the organization, her sister-in-law Jessica Katz, as well as her own involvement in clothing drives on the Upper West Side as well as in Englewood made the words of gratitude by a recipient that much more poignant. In fact, her daughter Mikaela’s ongoing chesed project is collecting winter coats for babies through young teens that will be presented to Yad Leah recipients in the fall to coincide with Mikaela’s bat mitvzah.
Balancing chesed and fun, the group activities included packing at Pantry Packers, a Chabad-sponsored food pantry, and visiting Pina Chama in Gush Etzion, which provides soldiers with welcomed refreshments and clothing, as well as jeeping on the hills of Yehuda and sifting through excavations in the Old City, and so much more…
On the final day of the trip, the group met with Debra Applebaum, mother of Naava Appelbaum, Hy”d, who was murdered in a terrorist attack the night before her wedding. Ayelet “Nava” Reichman was named in honor and memory of Naava Applebaum. The trip provided her with her first meeting with Debra Applebaum. After Applebaum’s presentation to the group, Ayelet expanded upon her inspirational words with stories of Naava’s elegance, smile and chesed.
In her inspirational parting letter to the participants of the mission, Rebbetzin Reichman wrote, “What a special week it has been. Each day was precious because of the people we met and the experiences we shared. You have found treasures at every stop, and these gems are yours for life. You have heard pearls of wisdom and seen people who sparkle like diamonds through their pure acts of goodness. May they be a source of strength for you always.”
By Pearl Markovitz