Local programs win Women’s Initiative Challenge Grants
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Local programs win Women’s Initiative Challenge Grants

Orthodox Union grants planned to support women’s learning, spirituality, sense of community

Rena Levin of Teaneck, left, and Shoshana Charnoff, an educator from the OU’s JLIC program, work together at a women’s learning event at Queens College. (Courtesy OU)
Rena Levin of Teaneck, left, and Shoshana Charnoff, an educator from the OU’s JLIC program, work together at a women’s learning event at Queens College. (Courtesy OU)

Three inaugural local programs have won Women’s Initiative Challenge Grants from the Orthodox Union. The grants are earmarked to support the spiritual, religious, and communal growth of Orthodox women.

The Summer Women’s Beit Midrash (Congregation Keter Torah, Teaneck), Women’s Professional Mentorship Program (Congregation Darchei Noam, Fair Lawn), and Women’s Institute of Learning and Leadership (Congregation Shomrei Torah, Fair Lawn) are among 16 innovative programs in 11 states selected from a field of 93 applicants.

Gail Stechler, a member of Keter Torah, explained that she and fellow congregant Yael Landman participate in many of the shul’s existing learning programs. They wanted to offer a more intensive text-based option for women on summer evenings, geared particularly for teenagers returning from gap-year programs in Israel that devote many hours to deep textual study.

Twice-weekly classes in Jewish law and Talmud will be offered for beginners and advanced learners during the Three Weeks — the semi-mourning period that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz on July 1 and ends with the fast of the 9th of Av on July 22 — taught by three female teachers engaged specifically for the program.

In addition, the Summer Women’s Beit Midrash at Keter Torah will arrange evening study partners for women who may be students or professionals, as well as one-on-one tutoring for girls 10 years old and older. Tutors will be eligible to receive a stipend.

“We’re trying to expose women to areas of learning which the shuls in the community do not usually offer to women,” Ms. Stechler said. “We also wanted to give women an opportunity to teach as well as learn.”

The program is free of charge and open to the greater community.

“If there is enough interest in beginners Talmud, we may continue it throughout the year,” Ms. Stechler said.

Congregation Shomrei Torah is launching the Women’s Institute of Learning and Leadership, promoting multifaceted programming for girls and women of all ages, including a mentorship program, a bat mitzvah program, and virtual learning in both class and study-partner settings.

Dr. Sara Markowitz, clinical psychologist and the wife of the shul’s rabbi, conceived of the program “with an amazing group of women.”

“It’s always been on my mind that there is something we could do more for women,” she said. “I had different types of ideas and the OU challenged us to think about this with our collective wisdom as women.”

Scheduled to start in the summer or no later than the High Holiday season in early fall, the Women’s Institute of Learning and Leadership is designed to tap into existing talent in the 300-family synagogue to enhance the Jewish study opportunities and personal connections of girls and women.

“A lot of people don’t have the capability to learn interactively, perhaps if they’re confined to the house or working full time,” Dr. Markowitz said. She also envisions mentoring relationships between younger women or girls and older women.

“I think there will be an undercurrent of empowering leadership informally, and we hope to have formal leadership training for different ages as well,” she continued. “We’ll start in our own shul community, with a core group, to pilot different aspects of the program, so that we can monitor that it’s making the impact we want it to. Eventually we could open it up to a lot of people.”

Shira Donath, wife of the rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam and also its yoetzet halacha — a certified adviser in laws and practices relating to a married couple’s intimate life — is using the OU grant to create the Women’s Professional Mentorship Program to begin in October.

“We are always trying to come up with new and innovative programs for the community,” Ms. Donath said. “We already provide women’s leadership and learning programs. In general, there’s a lack of professional mentorship opportunities, particularly for women, and Orthodox women have unique challenges in the workplace. So we wanted to put a religious spin on a professional development program.”

Those unique challenges can include, for example, how to handle a project deadline that coincides with a two- or three-day Jewish holiday when the woman will not be at work; how to deal with the expectation of attending a business conference that takes place on Shabbat; and how to answer interview questions about Sabbath and holiday observance.

“We’re planning to have three ‘See You In Person’ meetings throughout the year, in which we’ll bring in professionals who have expertise in a certain area,” Ms. Donath said.

“Our first speaker will talk about what a mentorship relationship is on a practical level, and will give a survey to the women in our program to match up mentors and mentees based on skills they want to improve or are strong in. We’re hoping these mentor pairs will speak once a month and we’ll check in by email to see how it’s going and suggest prompts for conversations.”

Another in-person session is planned on the question of how to give and receive effective feedback at work. The third session will feature breakout discussion groups on issues such as work-life balance, ethical dilemmas, and practical advice about modest dress, behavior, and kashrut in the workplace.

“Our shul is growing rapidly; currently we have about 135 member families and the majority of the women work professionally,” Ms. Donath said. “Even if women are reaching or past retirement age they could serve as mentors. We’re also open to stay-at-home moms mentoring each other.”

She said the OU grant “will allow these women to feel connected and empowered in a way that they haven’t before.”

Dr. Adina Shmidman, founding director of the OU’s Department of Women’s Initiatives, which was launched this year, said that the challenge grant “captures the positive energy of so many communities. Once these programs are piloted, they can be offered widely in other communities so that they too can benefit from the wisdom and experience of successful initiatives.”

Applications for the challenge grant were evaluated based on the creativity of the proposed program, the target audience, and whether the project could be replicated in other communities.

The Women’s Initiative ran a Shavuot speaker series for women and by women in member shuls across North America; many of those shuls had not ever hosted women educators in this capacity. Upcoming programs include a multi-city training course to sensitize mikvah attendants to medical and mental-health needs, an evening of spiritual inspiration between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the creation of the Women’s Impact Institute, a leadership training program.

“For more than a century, the Orthodox Union has addressed the religious and spiritual needs of the American Jewish community,” the OU’s president, Moishe Bane, said. “Ever-changing circumstances and challenges, however, compel the ongoing exploration of new approaches to advance our connection to God, both as individuals and collectively as a community.

“We therefore feel particularly privileged to be partnering with women of extraordinary vision and commitment from across the community, to pursue exciting and innovative initiatives seeking to enhance the religious and spiritual growth of the contemporary Jewish woman.”

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