Jackie Braslawsce had traveled before to Israel — but never on a personal retreat. Certain moments from the November trip, even after she returned to her Squirrel Hill home, seemed beyond magical.
“The craziest, most fun thing ever was going to the [Western] Wall in the middle of the night during Shabbat,” Braslawsce said. “It was so surreal and so much fun. It was so special. It was so awesome.
“To me, that was what I really needed.”
Braslawsce was among 12 Pittsburgh mothers to take part in Momentum, a kind of Birthright for moms, and travel to the Jewish state from Nov. 1 to 8. It was the fourth group to travel from Pittsburgh as part of the yearlong program, and the first to go since the onset of the pandemic.
Joining the trip was another group of 12 women — all mothers, like Braslawsce — from Momentum partner city Warsaw, Poland.
Pittsburgh’s Momentum program is sponsored and subsidized by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Classrooms Without Borders.
Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for Pittsburgh’s Federation, said Momentum “is a real bonding trip.”
“The whole point is to make a cohort of this group so they have a personal connection to Jewish life,” he said.
It worked wonders for Braslawsce. Since returning to Pittsburgh, she has faithfully lit Shabbat candles alongside a shinshin — a teenage Israeli emissary — who lives with her this year.
“I really needed to reignite my spark and my spiritual self,” she said.
A big part of the inspiration stemmed from daily lectures and themes that tied the group to places like the Dead Sea and Masada, as well as day trips to Sfat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Karmiel and Misgav, said Kim Salzman, Israel and overseas director at Pittsburgh’s Federation, who lives with her family in Misgav.
“We had inspiring lectures every morning,” Salzman said. “They dealt with Jewish values, values as a mother, as a Jewish mother. These lectures, the women are expected to take back to their homes with them.”
Braslawsce, who has worked extensively for Jewish organizations, had traveled before to Israel.
This time, though, was different — she was the layperson taking it all in.
“It was a completely different experience,” she told the Chronicle. “It is really nice when you can sit back and soak in the surroundings. And it was really special. When people ask, ‘How was Israel?’ [I say] ‘It was magical.’ It was really a great experience.”
Braslawsce attributes the success of the trip largely to the organization skills of Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill, who helped guide the Momentum experience. She also managed to have a bunch of “It’s a small world” interactions with people she knew in her 20s, 30s and beyond.
“It was such a beautiful experience,” she said. “Just walking on the land — it felt so safe and it felt so free. It felt so good just to be in Israel. It felt like home.”
Braslawsce also had a great time in Karmiel and Misgav, Israel’s Pittsburgh’s sister city and sister region, where Momentum participants were hosted by local families. Braslawsce even got to meet the Karmiel family of the Israeli girl who’s been living with the Braslawsces in Pittsburgh.
Braslawsce’s final take?
“I recommend everyone doing this trip — it was amazing!” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.