Since Chana Heller arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, she worked almost exclusively with one demographic: young professionals. It’s an exciting group of people to work with because young people are out in the world on their own for the first time and figuring things out for themselves, or just beginning to build their families, says Chana.
So, when Lori Palatnik, Momentum’s Founding Director, reached out to ask if Aish, the organization where Chana works, was interested in bringing a group of mothers on a trip to Israel, Chana politely declined. “I’m sorry, but we really don’t do moms,” Chana told her.
But Lori was persistent, and in 2010, Chana said yes and brought a group of 18 Jewish mothers from Los Angeles on the MOMentum Trip to Israel. The next year, they brought 45. “We suddenly realized, moms are a really underserved demographic,” Chana said. “We started looking around and it became clear that no one else was reaching out to Jewish moms.”
So, together with Sharon Shenker, of blessed memory, Chana launched Aish’s Jewish Women’s Initiative. Now, they take at least one bus of moms to Israel with Momentum each year and always have multiple applicants for every spot.
“Moms are hungry for this”
Chana loves working with young professionals because it’s such a pivotal time in their lives. “They are free spirits, they’re not attached, and they’re open to thinking differently about their lives,” she said. “So, initially I thought, mothers who already have kids are probably quite constrained in the amount that they want to grow and change. They’ve got their lives and their families already. But then I saw how hungry moms are for this.”
Chana found that the mothers in her community were looking for new ways to connect with their kids through Judaism, as traditional options like Hebrew school or Jewish youth groups tend to get crowded out by other extracurriculars. Mothers of older kids were especially eager for ways to make Judaism feel more relevant.
The impact has been incredible, she said. Some participants have returned from the trip and made career switches to work in the Jewish community. One started working at the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, and another now does marketing for a Jewish summer camp. Another started a monthly volunteering group with her cohort of Momentum sisters. During the pandemic, two Madrichot organized Friday afternoon Zoom calls to get into the Shabbat spirit together.
“There’s so much going on in the community of Momentum alums that I can’t even keep track of it all, and I’m constantly being surprised by what they plan together,” said Chana.
A year of growth, extended
The Jewish Women’s Initiative also extended Momentum’s 12-month Year of Growth journey to an 18-month program, giving their cohort even more opportunities to dive deeper into learning, including launching a book club and hosting a Shabbaton weekend. This past year, they embarked on a six-week session on understanding and finding deeper meaning in the siddur, or prayer book.
The success of the MOMentum Yearlong Journey has catapulted Aish into totally new communities, allowing them to grow their reach overall. “After a few years, the men started asking, ‘what are we, chopped liver?’ So we started running a MoMENtum Men’s Trip, which has also been very successful,” said Chana.
“One of the ways we know the program is successful is because after many of the lectures on the MOMentum Trip, women will come up to me and say, ‘That teacher was talking directly to me! Everything she said was exactly how it is in my life!’” said Chana. Though the participants come from vastly different backgrounds, somehow each one felt that the lectures were uniquely relevant to their lives.
Today, the Jewish Women’s Initiative focuses on moms of all ages. Over the past 13 years, they have brought more than 500 women to Israel – strengthening their connection to their shared Jewish homeland and transforming families and communities through Jewish values.
For Chana, the shift couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Momentum provided the perfect segue for me to start working with a different demographic,” said Chana. “Now, I have this enormous community, this sisterhood of other moms like me, who I love and respect and learn from. They always say you learn more from your students than your teachers, and I’ve found that’s absolutely right.”