Mom to mom

With ‘Unity Trip,’ Momentum brings dozens of Jewish mothers to war-torn Israel

'This has been the most critical and powerful and most inspiring trip for us,' Lori Palatnik, the group's founding director, tells eJP

Roughly 80 Jewish mothers from around the world marched through the streets of Modiin, holding signs reading “Bring them home” and “We stand with Israel,” alongside hundreds of other demonstrators and the families of hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza as they marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Thursday.

The relatives of one hostage, Merav Tal, stopped to speak with the group of women, participants on a “Mother to Mother Unity Trip” organized by Momentum. Tal’s cousin, Hagit, described the family’s horror at discovering she’d been kidnapped by Hamas from her home in Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7, along with her partner and his two children, finding out by seeing footage of the attack that was shared on Telegram. 

Hagit said her cousin’s immediate family was too distraught to do anything but stay home and wait for news, so the extended family had taken on the task of advocating for Tal. 

After Hagit finished speaking, Linda Norton, from Sarasota, Fla., stood up to tell her that the group was there for her and her family.

“We’re here to tell you that we love you and we want to do whatever we can to support you and to bring your loved ones home. You’re our family and we’re here for you,” Norton said.

Hagit thanked them and asked them to do whatever they could back in their home countries to raise the issues of the hostages. According to Lori Palatnik, the founding director of Momentum, that has been a constant refrain on the trip.

“Everybody who’s meeting with us is saying, ‘Shout — tell the world what’s going on here,’” Palatnik told eJewishPhilanthropy. “I think that these women are going to be ambassadors.”

The roughly 80 participants came from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, South Africa, Thailand and Israel. Some had been on Momentum trips before, some were donors to the organization, which is supported from both donations and the Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry. Twenty of them were mothers of “lone soldiers.”

The group arrived in Israel on Tuesday morning and almost immediately set out to meet survivors of the attack on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in which more than 100 residents were murdered out of a population of less than 800.

The trip has been split between volunteering work — making 4,000 sandwiches for soldiers; picking sweet potatoes with the food insecurity nonprofit Leket — and meetings with survivors and first responders.

Palatnik told eJP that the idea for the solidarity mission arose almost immediately after the Oct. 7 attacks. “We put the word out and said, ‘You have 48 hours to sign up,’” she said. The trip filled up almost immediately. Later this month, Momentum plans to bring another trip for mothers and another for fathers. 

“This has been the most critical and powerful and most inspiring trip for us,” Palatnik said.

Momentum launched in 2008 and has so far brought more than 25,000 women — mothers, specifically — to Israel from around the world under the assumption that they are the keystone of Jewish families as they have historically played an outsized role in children’s education, family practices and religious observance.

In addition to meeting survivors from Kfar Aza, the group also visited the city of Sderot, which is still under regular rocket attack from Gaza. As they arrived, an air raid siren went off and the participants had to take cover in a bomb shelter.

During the visit to Sderot, the participants met a resident, who serves on the city council, who gave first aid to two people who were seriously injured in the attack on Oct. 7. “And during it, she’s messaging her ex-husband who had her children and telling him: ‘I’m not going to get out of this, tell the children that I love them,’” Palatnik said.

“[The participants] were just blown away,” Palatnik said. “And everybody’s asking themselves, ‘What would I have done?”

Naama Kaminer-Mevorak, an Israeli psychologist who is accompanying the trip, said that experience was challenging for many of the participants. “Being in a warzone was extremely difficult,” she said. 

In general, Kaminer-Mevorak said that the enormity of the attacks and the ongoing war has been overwhelming for the participants “They are having a hard time processing what happened,” she said.

Palatnik said the group thought it was critical to have mental health professionals take part in the trip, providing both immediate help to specific participants in need and general direction to the groups overall with guided discussions at the end of each day.

“I felt like Oprah. ‘You get a therapist, and you get a therapist,’” Palatnik joked, referring to a famous segment of the daytime talk show.

In one case, one of the mothers of a “lone soldier” learned that another soldier in her son’s unit had been killed in Gaza, bringing home the grave danger her son was in.

“Can you imagine if she’d been at home, across the world with that?” Palatnik said. “But she was here, in Israel, with us.”

Some of the mothers of “lone soldiers” had been able to meet their children, but others could so far only speak to them by phone. A few of them, whose sons are operating deep inside Gaza, had not even been able to do that; their sons have not yet been informed that their mothers were in the country in order to not distract them from their missions.

Ordinarily, this is Momentum’s busiest time of the year. Some 2,000 women were supposed to come to Israel on its trips this fall — more than half of all of the participants that were meant to come this year — but they were canceled because of the war.

With a pronounced can-do spirit, Palatnik said the organization hopes to bring even more participants than normal next year, with a focus on reconstruction.

“I think there’s going to be an explosion of people who understand that we have to rebuild the nation,” she said. “But while they rebuild the nation, they’ll be rebuilding themselves. And we need to make that happen, so that’s what’s going to happen.”