By S. Gottlieb
Liana was a young mom of two, at the height of her career, when she was invited to attend a JWRP trip through J-Inspire, a program of Aish Hatorah that activates religious people in communities to invite less connected Jews to join them on trips to Israel, to Israel, along with a group of women in her community.
Although Liana had never before experienced a Shabbat meal or kept the Jewish holidays, her children were growing older. She wanted to give them a taste of their heritage, to have them grow up with a strong Jewish identity.
That trip, spearheaded by Mrs. Shulamith Zakutinsky of J-Inspire, turned out to be life-altering, in more ways than one. After an incredible, inspiration packed week, during which she made new friends and learned so much about herself, a horrific accident occurred.
On the final day of the trip, when she was already packed to go back home, Liana got caught under the wheel of a speeding bus. She sustained serious injuries in the accident, and the doctors didn’t think shewould survive.
Liana remained in the hospital for weeks, racked with pain and unable to move, dress, or feed herself. But during her extended—and miraculous—recovery, Liana learned of the power of the Jewish heart, and how we are truly one family.
“People came to visit me from all over Israel, spending time at my bedside, encouraging me when I was in pain, and cheering me on as I made progress,” Liana recalled.
Upon her arrival in New York and a stint in rehab, Liana made the commitment to keep Shabbat each week and to make her kitchen kosher, bringing so much joy and meaning into her life. At her beloved son’s bar mitzvah, hosted by her newly found J-Inspire sisters and friends and the extended community,Liana expressed her gratitude to the women of Aish, her sisters, with her in both pain and joy.
Liana, who addressed a crowd of over 1,000 at the Aish HaTorah Partner’s Conference, was one of the many heroes and heroines of Aish, the men and women and children who have turned their lives around and are now passing the baton by teaching and inspiring others.
The weekend began with a rousing pre-Shabbat concert by the famous Glaser brothers, Rabbi Yom Tov, a senior Aish lecturer, and Sam, who have inspired crowds around the world with their classic and enduring story of return. The Friday night prayers by the musical group AKA Pella were soul-stirring, the atmosphere eclectic.
Rav David Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel, was introduced by Rabbi Yaakov Meyer, the director of Aish HaTorah of Denver and a tireless organizer of the stellar program.
Simultaneously, Mrs. Rachel Burg, the dynamic Director of Camp Dina, spoke passionately to a roomful of women about Mindful Mothering and how to raise our children as individuals.
Watching the give-and-take during the Friday night dinner was a true example of the diversity and beauty of our nation. The 1,000 plus participants were spread over four dining rooms, assigned to specific seats. There was a roomful of Aish Hasbara members (activists in training), along with their teachers; J-Inspire groups, who, under the auspices of Project Inspire, are learning and growing; many graduates of Ilana Cowland’s highly successful Jewel groups; as well as prominent lay leaders. There was an entire dining room of secular and religious partners from J-Inspire communities in the tri-state area and Toronto, sharing and discussing what they had learned and absorbed through the weekend, in keeping with Aish HaTorah’s goal.
During the lavish meal, the spirited dancing erupted simultaneously, as they danced through the crowded dining rooms, pulling everyone into their orbit.
At the keynote session, Rabbi Yossie Friedman, COO of Aish HaTorah, and Managing Director of Project Inspire, introduced Dr. Stuart Hytman, who, along with his wife Andrea, are the true heart and soul behind Aish. An intense night of breakout sessions and a delectable party kept us awake long past our bedtime, but Rap with the Rabbis, the stimulating question and answer session which ended way past midnight, was well worth the time. The panel of Aish Rabbis didn’t shy away from even the most provocative questions, tackling them with candor, humor, and honesty.
The following day was more of the same— inspiring singing, gourmet food, and stimulating lectures. At the keynote session, introduced by Mr. Allen Isaac Gross, Convention Chairman, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa and Founder of the Worldwide Shabbat Project, delivered a moving talk on Making Shabbat Relevant.
Rabbi Chaim Sampson, Founding Director of Project Inspire, chaired an intense session where Project Inspire participants, such as Mr. and Mrs. Yiddy Klein, discussed the incredible impact of reaching out, of inviting Shabbat guests or just smiling and showing an interest in our fellow Jew’s lives.
One of my favorite sessions, “Making a Good Marriage Great,” was delivered by the Cowlands, Rabbi Jamie and Ilana, an Aish ‘Power Couple’ whose wise insights shed light on “T.M.T.—This Means That,” a brilliant insight on how we base our current reactions on past experiences, and how to set ourselves up for success.
Havdalah came all too soon, with another masterful Carlebach style experience by the Glaser brothers and a heartwarming story by Rabbi Tzvi Sytner of the Village Shul in Toronto. This was followed by impromptu dancing, as we gave expression to our emotions of unity during this unforgettable weekend.
The Saturday night breakout sessions included some of the famous Aish Discovery presentations, including the fascinating “Codes in the Torah” by Rabbi Moshe Zeldman, and the Purimfest slide, connecting the ten sons of Haman with the Eichmann trial. This Aish classic is highly recommended, truly a must-see.
The climax of the weekend was the Saturday Night keynote, where Rabbi Steven Burg, the dynamic Director General of Aish HaTorah, presented an update of how Aish has blossomed all over the world.
The Sunday keynote session featured Justice Richard Bernstein, an Orthodox blind judge whose journey of courage and faith was profiled on Aish.com, setting an example of perseverance despite the odds. Justice Bernstein, an avid athlete, and proud Jew, has never allowed his disability to limit or hinder his growth, achieving great things with sheer willpower.
As the weekend drew to a close and we reluctantly packed our bags, we felt both inspired and empowered, filled with the desire to reach out to our brothers and sisters who live in our midst and make our mark on Jewish continuity.