The Coastal Star

Finding Faith: Birthright trip life-changing for Jewish Federation worker, her brother

Francesca Watt and her brother Charlie in Tzfat. Also called Safed, this city

in the northern district of Israel is considered one of Judaism’s four holy cities,

along with Jerusalem, Hebron  and Tiberias.

Photo provided by Koby Wexler

By Janis Fontaine

   In August, Francesca Watt received the best gift, but she didn’t get it from her parents or her brother, her fiancé or even a close friend.
    The gift was her birthright trip, a 10-day all-expense-paid trip to Israel given to Jewish young adults age 18 to 26 and paid for by Birthright Israel and, in Watt’s case, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.
    Since 2000, Birthright Israel has sponsored more than 500,000 young adults on this educational trip of a lifetime.
    The goal of the trip, called taglit meaning “discovery” in Hebrew, is to build a bond between young Jewish people and Israel by giving them an opportunity to “see it, experience it, talk about it, and think about what Israel means for them and the Jewish people.”
    The group travels with two local staff members who supervise them from start to finish. They also have a tour educator, and a medic/security person.
    Since this was a South Florida trip, all the tour-goers came from Palm Beach and Broward counties. It was a diverse group: There were new college grads, a graphic designer, a chef, a speech pathologist, a professional dancer, a physician’s assistant and some engineers.
    For Watt, 24, an FAU graduate who works at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach as an event planner, the trip was life-changing, especially since she shared the experience with her big brother, Charlie, older by 11 months.
    “There were a lot of brothers and sisters on the trip,” Watt said. “It was great to meet kids with the same background and moral foundation.”
    Watt, who was born and raised in Boca Raton, said the emotion grabbed hold of her as soon as her plane landed. “You touch down and you want to cry,” she said. “It’s not something that you can explain. It was the best experience of my life and I’ve traveled quite a bit.”
    The trip through the Holy Land included emotional visits to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust, and to the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, where Israel’s presidents and prime ministers are buried.
    But it was fun, too. Travelers went hiking in the Golan Heights, floated in the Dead Sea, got splashed by the waterfalls at Banias National Park, scaled Masada, the desert fortress, rode camels and slept in a Bedouin tent.
    But the moment that is burned into Watt’s memory was celebrating Shabbat at the Kotel, the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the most significant site for the Jewish people. Jews come here from around the world to pray, and many people write prayer notes on tiny slips of paper and wedge them between the stones of the wall.
    “There were a lot of people praying and crying,” she said. “I felt like most of the people were crying with joy. It was amazing to see people from so many walks of life. I was so proud. I thought, ‘This is where our voices can be heard.’ ”
    And Watt had a special prayer, a personal prayer: “I’m engaged, and I was praying for my marriage, that it would be blessed and happy and healthy.” (A March wedding is planned.)
    Most of the 40 people on Watt’s trip came from traditional Jewish homes, but some had grown up without religious education or observance. They are still welcomed and entitled to the taglit.
    “On the last day, we had people who got bar mitzvahed, including one of our tour guides. It changed their lives”, Watt said. “For me, I think the most important thing was getting to discover myself. It was a trip of self-discovery, religious discovery, and spiritual discovery.”
    For more information, visit

New rector named
    After an arduous search, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Delray Beach has chosen a new rector.
    On Sept. 20, the church announced that the Rev. Paul J. Kane had accepted the position. Kane is currently the priest in charge at St. James in the Hills Episcopal Church in Hollywood. Before that, Kane worked for Food For the Poor for four years. From 1996 to 2010, Kane served as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He was received as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 2013.
    The institution of Rev. Paul Kane will be held on Dec. 1. He will lead services at St. Paul’s for the first time on Saturday and Sunday, December 5-6.
    A reception for Father David Knight, who served as interim rector while the committee searched for a permanent replacement, will be held Nov. 7-8.
    Kane and his wife, Irene, live in Boca Raton.

Local school renamed
    In September, Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito of the Diocese of Palm Beach announced that Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton has been renamed. The school is now called Saint John Paul II Academy. The name change reflects that Pope John Paul II, for whom the school was named in the 1980, was canonized in April 2014, and elevated to a saint.
    The school was designated an “academy” to honor its relationship with the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

Boca Church needs
choir director/organist
    First United Methodist Church of Boca Raton is accepting applications for a part-time organist/pianist/choir director for its west campus church location. The position requires a two-hour commitment every Sunday as well as two services on Christmas Eve. Call Minister of Music Bob Sheffey for more information at 910-7635 or email him at

Music in the Museum:
The Schola Singers
    The Schola Singers from St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church will perform at 3 p.m. Oct. 4, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real in Mizner Park, Boca Raton. The concert will feature songs inspired by the exhibitions,. The concert is free with museum admission. Call 392-2500 or visit

Hungarian Torahs
find new home
    Sibyl Silver, a retired teacher and grandmother from Boca Raton, recently rescued three Hungarian Torahs, once in the hands of the Nazis, from a Russian library and got permission to bring them back to South Florida with her.
    The Torahs — parchment scrolls containing the first five books of the Old Testament — were stored in a library basement in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, and are in fairly good condition.
    Silver founded the Jewish Heritage Foundation, and is in the process of raising money to restore the scrolls — $180,000 per scroll, she hopes. A portion of those funds will be used to start Jewish schools in Nizhny Novgorod and for the recovery of additional Judaica from Eastern Europe.
    These three works were dedicated at the Boca Raton Synagogue on Sept. 20, where Silver is a member, which will house them as they undergo repairs. Call 394-0384 for more information.

Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at

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