Anna Vainer

Mother to Mother: A Blueprint for Educational Visits to Israel During Wartime

“You stand here, as mothers from the Jewish Diaspora,” said Ronen, an officer wounded at the police station in Sderot on October 7, during my recent visit there.

Ronen spoke with us in Hebrew, and in short, painful sentences. Every one of them packed an emotional punch.

“Do you know what was done to our innocent children? Do you know what they did to a pregnant woman and her child from one of the kibbutzim?” Ronen went one to describe the atrocities, but the Israeli participant in our group, who took it upon herself to translate, could not continue to describe his version of events as he told them. She omitted some of the graphic details, and I found myself gasping with relief.

But at the end of that testimony, another bilingual mom approached her. “You should not omit details in translation,” she said. “We came here to learn the whole truth.”

This moment captured what my colleagues and I from the Jewish women’s movement Momentum were struggling with as we planned our first “Mother to Mother Unity Mission” to Israel which was organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism. Eighty mothers from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa, including 20 mothers of lone soldiers and 10 Israeli mothers took part in the six-day experience that ended this past Sunday. It encapsulated what living in Israel feels like these days: sad, beautiful, tragic, tense, raw, uplifting. It’s history in the making.

It was an intense week, preceded by sleepless weeks of planning. This first-of-its-kind mission is part of a broader “Momentum Mobilizes” campaign, one the largest solidarity missions to Israel since October 7. It was also an uncharted educational undertaking, coupled with a complex and constantly changing operating environment.

The trip was just one aspect of the campaign which was a multi-pronged initiative spearheaded in the early days of the Iron Swords War to create a connection to what’s happening in Israel through the lens of the organization, deliver support through educational initiatives, and to inspire action through opportunities to do something positive. It was able to launch this initiative by tapping into its extensive community of alumni that span over 23,000 women from 34 countries, who through their immersive experience in Israel, have returned to their home countries to be dedicated ambassadors for not only the country but Jewish values.

However, the trip posed unprecedented questions we were struggling to resolve for ourselves as well as for the participants:

How could one experience the truth of what took place on October 7 without being deeply traumatized? When visiting sites, how can we adhere to the strictest safety standards all while knowing that nobody can really assure us that visiting them is truly safe?  What is the most sensitive way to speak with those who lost all their loved ones? What is the appropriate tone to take in each teachable moment; what music should we play; when is it finally okay to crack a joke and fill the room with laughter?

As the last of the participants departed Israel, with words of gratitude for what some said was the most “transformative experience of their lives,” here are a few points to keep in mind for those thinking about and planning educational visits to Israel.

Hineini: Being here is already a powerful statement. The rest is secondary. I lost track of the  times where Israelis approached us on the street and thanked us for coming. Seeing groups, especially in those numbers, makes a powerful statement. You came; therefore, you care. And knowing that we stand in this together, in Israel, currently, already speaks louder than words. One of those moments of showing up for this mission was making an overnight change in our itinerary so we could march together with families of kidnapped and taken hostage to a shiva call of Noa Marciano, in Modi ‘in. This is not the time to shy away from visibility, on the contrary, it is crucial – it speaks louder than words.

Being of value. Meaningful volunteering component is a must, every day. Anything less would not feel real, would not adhere with what the country really needs, would fall short of inspiring stories of volunteering we have witnessed daily. Our itinerary included harvesting crops in a Leket field; packing thousands of care packages together with Thank Israeli Soldiers; making art with girls from an evacuated boarding school on a southern border; hosting a  party for other moms, wives of reserve soldiers, who did not have a break ever since their husbands were drafted; and organizing a massive barbeque for combat soldiers when we came to visit them. Every visit must bring tangible value not only to the participants of the mission, but to the very site and audience we came to stand with.

Mother to mother. Relationships are a source of support and resilience, and making connections is easier when there are similarities in the background. And what is more encompassing and powerful than being a mother, at this time? Holding each other’s pain, hugging each other, being there for one another? Motherhood was our narrative, our power, our lenses. Our first speakers were Nira and Dor Shpak, a mother and a daughter from Kibbutz Kfar Aza. During our visit to Sderot, a voice of one of our speakers, a councilwoman Alona Rabinovich, cracked when she realized that every single woman in the audience is mother herself. Her contained testimony turned into a powerful cry for the children, killed and held hostage. The wives of reservists said they felt seen and loved. The soldiers, who said that he felt every hug he received from 80 mothers on this mission felt like his own mom. Common denominators build common ground.

Helping effectively. There are so many worthy goals and so many different audiences in need:  supporting the soldiers, sending equipment and medical supplies to frontlines, helping people who were evacuated, giving a hand in agriculture, raising funds for an organization who can provide sustainable support, advocating for Israel are all meaningful ways to help. Our team planned each visit together with specific guidelines as to what should be brought to the specific audience we are visiting. Dozens of breast pumps donated to women-soldiers in reserve, who still breastfeed; beauty supplies and fashionable clothes for the evacuated teenagers; a ping pong table for the unit; a personalized wedding registry for the soldiers who got married after the war. Every site our mission visited included a giving component, that came directly from the participants, deeply meaningful for both sides. Regardless of the financial capacity of your participants and nature of your mission, include research on current needs and build in an opportunity for focused giving in every experience you plan.

Civic Initiatives are a source of strength and inspiration for mobilizing action. According to a Hebrew University study, nearly 50% of Israeli citizens volunteered during the first weeks of war, to create over 1,000 diverse civil initiatives, encompassing gender, age, politics, and religious and secular affiliations. These initiatives are grassroots efforts without offices, facilities, staff or sleek presentations about their mission and scope. This is exactly what makes them so powerful. A story of a single person or group of friends, who did not wait for the official institutions to step in. Our first day included making 4,150 meals for soldiers together with Sharon Adam, and her son, Omer, who sang his heart out in pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. We gathered at an improvised location in Or-Yehuda, together with dozens of her friends, who were kind enough to chop hundreds of onions before we arrived at the scene. Be prepared to broaden your range of visits beyond the established NGOs circuit, to collaborate with volunteers on the ground. 

This mission was designed as an opportunity to experience Israel, as at aches, fights, and volunteers in an authentic and meaningful way. And as its result, Diaspora and Israeli Jewish mothers who attended it, feel stronger and together than ever before.

About the Author
Anna Vainer is Momentum’s senior partner relationship manager in Europe and Former Soviet Union.