Womens Israel trip creates sisterhood, compassion

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Dr. Karen Fiske returned from Israel several weeks ago with a suitcase full of edible cargo — poppyseed cake, tahini, rugelach, halvah. She also brought back her first taste of the Jewish state, and has been unpacking memories of the trip ever since.

The physician from Moraga was one of 18 women who toured Israel on a trip sponsored by Lafayette's Temple Isaiah. Rabbi Judy Shanks organized and led the all-female trip, setting up meetings with Israeli and Arab women leaders along with the usual sightseeing.

For Fiske, traversing the country with a group of women provided a sense of emotional ease.

"Everybody let their hair down. With no men around, we were much more free, free to cry, to truly be ourselves, to react on a different level," she said.

At one point, Fiske was even inspired to do something the busy mother of three never does at home; she wrote a poem. After a trip to the beach of Caesarea, where the rabbi lead a prayer service in the sand, Fiske woke up at 4 a.m. with a poem in her head. She later read the poem to the group.

In one stanza, she describes a snapshot image of her rabbi:

She never led a prayer service

in those cool Oakley sunglasses before.

Purple silk of her tallit

fluttering on the salty breeze

That image is one many of the women remember about the trip and their rabbi, who said leading a trip to Israel for the first time met all of her expectations.

As for the all-female aspect, Shanks said she planned the trip in response to requests from her congregation. There seems to be an increasing demand for such trips, she said, noting that congregations Sherith Israel and Emanu-El in San Francisco are jointly planning a women-only trip in November.

Shanks said she wanted the women in her group to "get to know Israel as a place they could call their own," and to connect spiritually to the country and to each other.

By all accounts, the female bonding she hoped for was surpassed. Participants said crisscrossing the country in a purple-and-white bus, swapping clothes, crying together at Yad Vashem and dancing together in the streets of Jerusalem on Israel Independence Day created a closeness with other women that they hadn't felt since college — or even summer camp.

"When I first met the group, I felt the nervousness of walking into a dorm and getting a new roommate," said Orinda artist Alisa Metzner. Back in college, however, she said she was "still a kid. Now we've seen the world; we can be more compassionate, understanding."

"We realize how fragile life is, how fragile Israel is," she said.

For Metzner, who has two young daughters, being with a group of mostly mothers made the experience even richer. For once, the care-givers had no one else to pack for, no one pulling on them or making demands. "It was very freeing," she added.

It was also an education. The women had a chance to meet with Israeli and Arab women leaders. They also visited some of Israel's most inspiring social programs — an absorption center for orphans, a shelter for battered women, a school for Arab and Israeli women to study together, a workshop for the elderly.

In contrast, the women were surprised by gender inequities in the Israeli army, on kibbutzim and especially at the Western Wall, where women lack the legal right to pray aloud. The group prayed in hushed voices with the Women of the Wall, a group campaigning for the right of women to pray aloud and wear tallitot at the Wall.

Now that they're back, the East Bay women have vowed to support their Israeli contemporaries in their legal battle for a voice at the Wall. They will be educating the community about the Women of the Wall, even selling T-shirts to help raise funds for legal fees.

The women and their rabbi have vowed to keep this issue in the forefront. As they swap pictures and memories, they also hope to keep the friendships begun in Israel thriving at home.

As for the rabbi, her traveling congregants can't kvell enough over their leader. Shanks' reviews have been more glowing than the summer sun over Jerusalem.

"She's totally real and totally cool," said Metzner. "It's great to have a rabbi you can totally respect, but also float in the Dead Sea with. She's what a rabbi should be."