Lori Palatnik recalls a conversation some years ago in which she asked a woman if her children enjoyed the after-school religious program they were attending. When the woman said they hated it, Palatnik asked why she sent them.
“She said, ‘Well, I hated it. My husband hated it.’ That’s our tradition,” remembered Palatnik sadly. “You could laugh or you could cry. This is what we’ve got. We’re turning off a whole generation. We don’t even know there’s another option, that there’s another choice.”
Presenting that other choice has been a goal of Palatnik’s for some time now. The author and educator will bring her message to the Jewish Community Center next week courtesy of a program co-sponsored by Aish HaTorah and Nishmah. Internationally known as a speaker, Palatnik is also founder of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which has often been likened to a version of Birthright geared specifically to a female audience. Starting with eight participants in 2008 on a trip to Utah, the JWRP has brought close to 2,000 women to Israel since its inception.
Palatnik, a blunt-spoken Toronto native with an engaging personality and the unique claim to fame of having once donated a kidney to a recipient she didn’t even know, said that the key to understanding the problems facing the Jewish community is to look at how children are brought up. Often, she says, they are being forced into rote recitations of the faith instead of becoming inspired by its power.
“Unfortunately, we all went through the bar and bat mitzvah factories growing up,” she said. “Our bar and bat mitzvah’s became our graduations out of Judaism instead of what they are supposed to be – your graduation in. A lot of people’s bar mitzvahs were more bar than mitzvah.”
She said that her own history was an example.
“I wasn’t raised in a religious home. I was raised classically Jewish,” she said. “Apples and honey. Spinning the dreidel. The Passover seder seemed to get shorter and shorter every year. Judaism was not a factor in my life in terms of the major decisions I was going to make.”
Later, however, Palatnik visited Israel in her 20s and found the Jewish State stirred emotional ties within her. On a subsequent journey there, she met the Aish rabbi who would eventually become her husband.
“It really gave me a completely different perspective on my Judaism and my feelings for being in Israel, which I understood as coming from a very deep place,” she said.
Now, she tries to convey that to others. But engendering a sense of meaning in a world beset with strife can be difficult. People often wonder why God so often seems to send troubles their way. Palatnik views such challenges as tests, indications that the Creator cares.
“A teacher gives a test because he wants to make sure that the student is going to be proficient, work hard, dig down deep and realize their potential,” she said. “So, too, with the Almighty. The Almighty wants us to get the highest grade possible in the subject of life. The only way to do that is to send tests.”
She said people are more open to that message than one might think. The important part is to avoid blaming others or ourselves during challenges in life. That doesn’t relieve others of responsibility for wrongs done to us but she said sometimes even bad people have a reason for being placed in our lives. Instead, people who have suffered wrongs tend to be angry.
“It’s human nature that we credit ourselves on the way up the ladder,” Palatnik said. “On the way down we blame God.”
Palatnik’s focus on women is no accident. She maintains women influence many family decisions, from education to socializing to where to live. If women themselves aren’t educated Jewishly, that doesn’t get conveyed to children when big decisions are made.
“Because we are all a product of an upbringing where Judaism is not inspiring or empowering, Judaism is not a factor in choices,” she said. “The results are that our kids are disappearing Jewishly. They are vulnerable on campus to assimilation, intermarriage. Our children are not educated in terms of answering and standing up to the Palestinian lobby on campus. They’re hiding. They’re afraid.”
She said the answers are closer than one might think.
“I try to show [women] that the Torah has practical advice and they are not on their own,” she said. “The Torah is not exclusive to any stream of Judaism. It’s their Torah as much as any rabbi’s Torah.”
The effects of a trip, retreat or session, she said, are not limited to the women who experience it.
“Many of the husbands, once the women come home, come up to me and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” Palatnik said. “My wife is happier, their marriage is better. The one thing women always say on the trip is I want my husband to hear this.”
Mimi Pultman, a participant on JWRP’s summer 2010 trip, called Palatnik an inspiring and dynamic personality who moved her to redouble her efforts at studying Torah. She would later help lead a trip the following year.
“I’m just thrilled to have her here and to have people get the chance to experience her firsthand,” said Pultman, an event committee co-chair for Palatnik’s visit. “She’s interesting and you learn from her without even realizing you are learning from her.”
She said Palatnik’s message is an uncomplicated one and she hopes men and women will come out to absorb it.
“It’s just about wherever you are, being proud of where you come from and wanting to continue that and inspire people in your home, inspire your spouse or significant other, inspire your kids and your community,” Pultman said. “It acts like a drop in a pool. The rings just keep going and going.”