Rabbi Alice Goldfinger has visited Israel's Museum of the Diaspora nearly a dozen times. But when she returned there in November, she noticed something she had never seen before.
"There were almost no women [represented] in the museum," said the rabbi of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel. "I was standing before a wall [tracing] the history of modern Jewish thought. There was [Martin] Buber and [Raphael Samson] Hirsch, but not a single woman.
"I asked the tour guide why. She said because no women had ever come up with anything new in Jewish life."
Goldfinger was shocked at the response. So were her 22 Jewish traveling companions — all of them women.
The women traveled to Israel and Jordan Nov. 7-20. Their trip, sponsored by San Francisco Reform Congregations Sherith Israel and Emanu-El and led by rabbis Goldfinger and Helen Cohn, focused on the role of women in the Middle East, largely in Israel.
In addition to visiting popular tourist sites, the group met with women fighting for equal prayer rights at the Western Wall; performing feminist theatrical interpretations of midrash in a bomb shelter in Jerusalem; and running a shelter for women and children.
"Our intention was to see society from a women's perspective in as many ways as possible," Cohn said.
Many of the women were visiting Israel for the first time. Some mothers came with daughters; some sisters traveled together. Cohn recalled the roommates who decided to travel separately during the day so they could compare notes at night.
Traveling with only women "made us more independent," Cohn said.
Added Arlene Sukolsky, 63, "traveling with women made it an experience of the heart and the soul. Women are more willing to look at the human sides of issues."
Sukolsky, who lives in Sausalito and is a member of Emanu-El, planned the trip as the "perfect maraschino on my ice cream reward to myself."
Earlier this year Sukolsky celebrated her bat mitzvah. Her first trip to Israel was another step in her quest to understand her Jewish identity.
Sukolsky made detailed journal entries describing children making designs on the sidewalk with yahrtzeit (memorial) candles and a Reform woman rabbi leading a prayer service dressed in jeans and sandals.
She found the everyday use of Hebrew most striking.
"I've just learned to read Hebrew. To read from the Torah and then hear the same language on eveyone's lips on the street is quite amazing," Sukolsky said.
Sherith Israel member Susan Cole had visited Israel four times before the women's trip. But like Sukolsky, she was also moved by the use of Hebrew in Israel — especially in Reform services at Kol Haneshema.
"I don't know Hebrew. I can't read it. I don't know most of the songs. So you hum or whistle along. And you feel the energy coming out of the congregation," Cole said.
The inclusive feeling Cole described permeated nearly the entire trip. "We really bonded," she said, not only with each other, but with women they met in Israel and Jordan.
For example, a Jordanian woman "reminded me of a Reform Jew in many ways," Cohn said.
Cohen had hoped the group would meet with an average Jordanian woman. Instead they met with a television broadcaster who had lived in California.
She called herself a Muslim. However, she did not wear a veil. She smoked and she drank wine.
"She felt a freedom to make choices in her relationship with her religion. She was not apologetic about those choices," Cohn said.
The group spent two days in Jordan. They shopped in Amman and watched King Hussein's festive 60th birthday parade — a stark contrast to the grim mood in Israel immediately following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Cohn recalled in rich detail standing at Mt. Nebo in Jordan, "where Moses stood at the end of Deuteronomy overlooking the Promised Land." The differences between men and women, Jew and Muslim, faded across the horizon, she said.
"On a clear day you can see clear to Jerusalem," Cohn said. "Land doesn't have its own boundaries. The lines we draw on a map don't show up on a landscape.
"Looking at the beautiful Jordan Valley into the hills of Israel, it all seemed to belong together. And I thought about how we should be able to share the land peacefully."