If you survey Lori Palatnik’s accomplishments over the past 30 years—bringing thousands of Jews back to Yiddishkeit through community work, writing (her books include Friday Night and Beyond: The Shabbat Experience Step by Step, and Remember My Soul: What to Do in Memory of a Loved One), public speaking, teaching and a video series, “Lori Almost Live” on Aish.com—you might have the urge to ask her to buy you a lottery ticket. Clearly, everything she touches turns to gold. Her impact on the Jewish world is doubly remarkable when you consider that as a child, the extent of her Jewish involvement was attendance at her Conservative synagogue twice a year, on the the High Holidays.
But 28 years ago Lori went on a six-week Jerusalem Fellowship with Aish HaTorah, a pre-Birthright program that brought college students to Israel—and everything changed. At the end of her trip, instead of returning to her native Toronto and her job writing commercials for a radio station, Lori decided to stay. “I fell in love with Israel,” she says, “especially between G-d and Israel and Torah and Jewish history, Jewish destiny. It just all came together for me.” A self-proclaimed idealist, Lori was drawn to Aish’s belief in every person’s ability to change the world. She spent a year studying there, supporting herself by teaching aerobics classes.
By year’s end, she had become Orthodox. After a brief writing stint for Aish back in Toronto, Lori returned to Israel and soon met the man who would become her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Palatnik, also a baal teshuvah who had been teaching at Aish for a decade. They married and made aliyah, ready to settle in Israel forever. But four and a half months into “forever,” Aish came calling; they needed Rabbi Palatnik in Toronto to learn with executives. At that point, says Lori, she was much more in the background. “Who was I? I was an aerobics instructor.” But they followed the call, committing to stay for three years.
Three years became 13. In Toronto, the Palatniks started the Village Shul, Aish HaTorah’s first outreach synagogue. Beginning with only five families in the basement of another shul, Lori says, “with the blessing of the Alm-ghty…it took off.” By the time the couple left 11 years later, the Village Shul had moved to a gorgeous 24,000-square-foot building and brought thousands of families closer to Torah. “We’re now going to the weddings of those families’ kids,” Lori says. “I just went to one; I cried like it was my daughter getting married.” During this time Lori’s self-confidence grew.
She discovered she had a gift for writing and public speaking that left her audiences, women especially, inspired. “Hashem gave me a gift for communication,” she concedes. “And because I had my journey, I understand where they’re coming from.” Also part of her appeal, Lori speculates, is her background in advertising, which she studied in college. “I’m still in advertising,” she jokes. “I just have a better product.” After their success in Toronto, the Palatniks felt the time had come to help another community. They moved to Denver, doing kiruv with Aish there for four years, then headed to Rockville, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC. In Rockville, where they have been for the past nine years, the Palatniks have continued their community work, which Lori loves deeply. “These families become your best friends,” she says. “Each one inspires me.” But Rockville has also become the birthplace of Lori’s latest and most ambitious project to date.
Speaking in communities and on campuses across the county, Lori saw close up the widespread risk to Jewish continuity, as illustrated in the Pew Report. Instinctively, she knew that the tipping point would not be achieved through campus outreach but by inspiring families at their foundation: with the mothers. “The community lives and dies by the women,” Lori explains. “I believe in campus outreach, but I saw more and more that you can inspire a 21-year-old boy…but he also has a 17-year-old sister and a 14-year-old brother. But if you can inspire the mother, then you’ve inspired the whole family.”
On a four-day retreat, Lori put forth a challenge to the seven other women with her—to change the world through a Jewish women’s movement. The group, whose members spanned the spectrum of religious observance, went to the drawing board, and with the help of a consultant they cemented their vision: a Birthright program for women. For ten days, the trip would take Jewish mothers who were not yet observant and give them the opportunity to experience Israel. The goal was to inspire them and empower them to go home and inspire their families. The program would be called the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project.
Since its first trip in 2009, the JWRP has had a groundbreaking impact. Along with inspiring thousands of women around the globe, dramatic changes take place in their families after they come home. According to their data, Lori reports, “the women are on fire. They’re doing everything from increasing their observance to giving tzedakah to putting their kids in day school. They’re going home and they’re making real change.” More importantly, those changes are sticking.
One year after their return, according to the JWRP’s data, 89 percent of these women increased their Jewish learning, 75 percent took on Shabbos observance, 88 percent observed more mitzvos, 74 percent went to shul more often and 66 percent plan to return to Israel. In addition, 97 percent are encouraging family and friends to go to Israel, and 30 percent are now keeping taharas hamishpachah. The numbers don’t lie; Lori Palatnik has started a revolution. It’s ironic that of the 25 years since Lori Palatnik decided to stay in Israel “forever,” she has spent most of them in chutz la’Aretz. When she has returned to the Holy Land, it is to inspire other women the way she was inspired all those years ago. So does she have any plans to return to Israel permanently? “I would love to go back,” Lori says. “But it says that if the land of Israel spits you out, you have to merit coming back. I guess I just haven’t merited it yet.” Until she does, Lori will just have to continue saving the world.