Esti Coates of Teaneck was not sure what to expect at the inaugural Leadership Summit sponsored by the Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative on May 20-21 at the Hilton Woodcliff Lake.
The ad she had seen for the lay leadership conference promised a program “designed to encourage and develop women serving as lay leaders within their communities.”
This intrigued Ms. Coates, who is involved in volunteer endeavors and is the program administrator of a new partnership that allows young ultra-Orthodox women from the Sara Schenirer Seminary in Brooklyn to earn a master’s degree from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
“I really wanted to learn how to be a better leader, how to have a better balance, and be part of a really strong network of women I could call upon to become the best me I can be,” Ms. Coates, the mother of eight, said.
Ms. Coates was one of nine Bergen County women accepted to the summit; the process required an application and a recommendation from a communal leader or mentor.
The participants heard lectures and engaged in discussions with about 90 other female lay leaders from 56 communities around the United States, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.
“The goals of the program were to nurture lay leadership, enhance leadership skills, and create a collaborative space,” said Dr. Adina Shmidman, founding director of the OU Women’s Initiative.
Sessions focused on leadership strategy and communication, public speaking, engaging and retaining volunteers, creating compelling programming, effectively using social media, honing and growing your personal leadership strengths and work-life balance, community spiritual growth, and board and donor relations.
Ms. Coates reported that the summit far exceeded her expectations.
“I’ve never been in a space with so many accomplished, diverse, powerful women,” she said. “It was really outstanding. It helped me to step out of my own thinking and see things from a different perspective.”
From a keynote session led by George Washington University associate professor Erica Brown — who attended the Frisch School in Paramus and has written books including “Take Your Soul to Work: 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership” (Simon and Schuster, December 2015) — Ms. Coates took away a new determination “to make sure I nurture myself and don’t just run, run, run.”
“Erica Brown explained that when you say ‘yes’ to something you’re really saying ‘no’ to something else,” Ms. Coates said. “That was powerful for me to understand. I realized that I have to give of my time and talents to places where I can really make a difference because I can’t say yes to everything — although I’d like to.”
Among the other presenters at the summit were several Bergen County residents: Rachel Cyrulnik, founder of RAISE Nonprofit Advisors; writer-director-producer Allison Josephs, the founder and director of JewintheCity.com; Suzy Schwartz, an assistant vice president at Yeshiva University; licensed clinical social worker Dr. Linda Goldmintz; and Tamar Snyder, an award-winning journalist and marketing and communications director at the Jewish Communal Fund.
The OU’s executive vice president, Allen Fagin, noted that many of the professional women at the summit also volunteer in their local synagogue, school, mikvah, hospital, chevra kadisha (burial society), or other groups and institutions. He emphasized that one person can make a big difference. “One person with the right drive, energy, skill, and ambition can singlehandedly inspire a community, transform a shul, propel a yeshiva to new heights, and drive organizational change through the formulation of strategy and mission,” he said.
Deena Jarashow of Fair Lawn, voluntary director of the Leah Sokoloff Nursery School of Congregation Shomrei Torah for the last 20 years, says she discovered at the summit that many issues facing her shul community are mirrored everywhere else.
For example, one discussion touched on how to keep older movers and shakers engaged in synagogue leadership roles even as they pass the baton to younger members, who may be charting a different direction for the future.
“It struck me that a lot of these women were there because they cared about the perpetuation of their communities,” Ms. Jarashow says. “It was amazing to see the cohesiveness and the power of these women. I felt such vibrancy and a feeling of togetherness.”
She also is active in Shomrei Torah’s Women’s Institute of Learning and Leadership —- which received a competitive Women’s Initiative Challenge Grant from the Orthodox Union last year — and at Yavneh Academy in Paramus and the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, from which her younger son now is graduating.
Her main take-home message, from Erica Brown’s talk, is that Orthodox synagogues have to focus more effort on being friendly and open to newcomers. “Our first job should be to make sure everyone is greeted when they come into shul,” Ms. Jarashow said.
To ensure that the networking accomplished at the summit can continue and grow, the OU Women’s Initiative created a Facebook page, “OU Women Lead,” and a WhatsApp group for the participants to keep the conversation going.
The other women from Bergen County at the summit were Rachel Krich of Fair Lawn and Becky Katz, Esther Friedman, Miriam Gedwiser, Miriam Greenspan, Adeena Mayerfeld, and Naomi Rotblat, all from Teaneck.
OU President Moishe Bane was appreciative to “the lay activists here today, who, along with Jewish women throughout history, have committed countless hours of their precious time and tremendous energy to ensure the blossoming of Torah Judaism in America and around the globe, and who have been pivotal to the success and impact of our most valued institutions and programs.”
The OU Women’s Initiative develops professional and lay leadership training for women in the Orthodox Jewish community and works with Orthodox communities nationwide to identify and address spiritual, educational and communal needs of women at all ages and phases. For more information, go to https://www.ou.org/women/.