Sister Spotlights
6 MIN. READ

Sisters through simcha and sorrow

“You can’t miss us Momentum women – we are the ones with the big backpacks and the huge goofy grins.”

With a professional storyteller’s eye for drama and humor, writer Merri Shapiro Cohen documented each day of her 2013 Momentum Trip to Israel. While her group slept, she stayed up late typing up memories for her virtual travel diary, Matzah Ball Mama.

“Some people sing or do art,” said Merri. “I write.”

Merri captured the big moments, like dancing at the Kotel on Shabbat and immersing herself in the mystical mikvah of Tzfat.

Perhaps more importantly, she preserved the small details, too – the inside jokes, cathartic cries, and multiple miraculous hashgaha pratit, or higher power, moments that otherwise would have been lost to time.

Finding a lifeline to a Jewish past – and future

During the Covid-19 pandemic, as the Cohens coped with Russell’s prognosis and the isolation of social distancing, Momentum’s virtual gatherings became Merri’s lifeline to Jewish life.

“I was working from home, and every day at one in the afternoon, no matter what I was doing, I would stop and watch Momentum Boost. On Fridays, I would turn up the volume and dance in my kitchen.”

That lifeline gave Merri a chance to deepen and expand her relationship with Judaism. As a writer, she has published countless family-friendly recipes and suggestions for celebrating Jewish holidays – which she also applied to her own family.

“We always tried to make Judaism fun for our kids,” recalled Merri. “When they were younger, the holidays were big celebrations. We went apple picking for Rosh Hashanah, and we would host crazy costumed Passover seders.”

As they’ve grown older, she has guided her children to connect with their Judaism in new ways – through Hillel, through networking groups for young Jewish professionals, and through research projects that illuminate their family’s history.

“My children learned about my grandmother, their great-grandmother, who was an amazing woman,” said Merri. “She traveled to the land of Israel all by herself, and we actually have her travel diary.”

Merri recalls telling Lori Palatnik about her grandmother’s journey, and how keeping her own travel diary might honor her namesake.

“Lori told me, ‘When you’re named for someone, you hold on to some of their spark.’”

A connection to women around the world

Merri began her Momentum Trip to Israel surrounded by friends. Her cohort included her college roommate, a fellow summer camp parent, and friends from her synagogue in New Jersey.

On the trip, she saw a new side of the women she had known for years. “There was so much singing and laughter,” recalls Merri. “I’ve known my college roommate for thirty years, and I saw her find an entirely new kind of happiness. Israel was where she was supposed to be.”

Since that very first day, her community has expanded even further – now, it circles the entire globe.

“Anytime I hear about something Momentum-related, I want to be involved,” said Merri. That enthusiasm has brought her to international conferences, gatherings, and immersive retreats. “I’ve made friends with people from South Africa, from Canada, from Mexico,” said Merri.

She finds that most cultural barriers can be overcome through laughter, conversation, and the one thing that unites them all: Judaism.

“I know I can be a little extra, and sometimes I feel misunderstood, but we all have a Jewish spark. Being around these women, I can’t help but feel like, ‘Oh my god, these are my people.’”

Calling in a favor

Since their Momentum trip, Merri and her sisters have stuck together during times of simcha and sorrow. “At my youngest son’s bar mitzvah, I called up my ‘yellow pashmina sisters’ for a candle-lighting ceremony,’’ said Merri, “and we have been there for each other during funerals, surgeries, and shiva calls.”

Merri’s worldwide circle of sisters know they can call on her for anything – a favor, a listening ear, or a story guaranteed to make them laugh.

Now, it is time for her to call on them in return. Merri’s husband, Russell, needs a kidney transplant, and they face a difficult chapter ahead.

The pool of potential matches is small. “His family members aren’t great candidates,” explained Merri, “and someone of Ashkenazi Jewish descent is most likely to be a match.”

Yet, Merri’s Momentum sisters are ready to spring into action. Inspired by Momentum Founding Director Lori Palatnik’s own story of donating a kidney, “they are spreading the word, making flyers, and we’re even talking about planning an event.”

Finding a lifeline to a Jewish past – and future

During the Covid-19 pandemic, as the Cohens coped with Russell’s prognosis and the isolation of social distancing, Momentum’s virtual gatherings became Merri’s lifeline to Jewish life.

“I was working from home, and every day at one in the afternoon, no matter what I was doing, I would stop and watch Momentum Boost. On Fridays, I would turn up the volume and dance in my kitchen.”

That lifeline gave Merri a chance to deepen and expand her relationship with Judaism. As a writer, she has published countless family-friendly recipes and suggestions for celebrating Jewish holidays – which she also applied to her own family.

“We always tried to make Judaism fun for our kids,” recalled Merri. “When they were younger, the holidays were big celebrations. We went apple picking for Rosh Hashanah, and we would host crazy costumed Passover seders.”

As they’ve grown older, she has guided her children to connect with their Judaism in new ways – through Hillel, through networking groups for young Jewish professionals, and through research projects that illuminate their family’s history.

“My children learned about my grandmother, their great-grandmother, who was an amazing woman,” said Merri. “She traveled to the land of Israel all by herself, and we actually have her travel diary.”

Merri recalls telling Lori Palatnik about her grandmother’s journey, and how keeping her own travel diary might honor her namesake.

“Lori told me, ‘When you’re named for someone, you hold on to some of their spark.’”

Are you considering donating a kidney?

Contact Renewal at (718) 431-9831 x209, or email them at 24368@Renewal.org. Be sure to let them know you are calling on behalf of Russell Cohen.


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