Understanding our communities
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Understanding our communities

Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative offers leadership training to educators and rabbis’ wives

Standing, from left, Peninah Kelman of Bradley Beach and Orit Gruber of Staten Island, and seated, from left, Shira Donath of Fair Lawn, Jordana Baruchov of Clifton, Dina Muskin Goldberg of Englewood, and Shoshana Sturm, assistant director at Sinai Schools at JKHA in Livingston were among the participants at the OU Women’s Initiative conference in Stamford.
Standing, from left, Peninah Kelman of Bradley Beach and Orit Gruber of Staten Island, and seated, from left, Shira Donath of Fair Lawn, Jordana Baruchov of Clifton, Dina Muskin Goldberg of Englewood, and Shoshana Sturm, assistant director at Sinai Schools at JKHA in Livingston were among the participants at the OU Women’s Initiative conference in Stamford.

“If you deal with people today, you are dealing with mental health,” Jordana Baruchov of Clifton, said. “Through my 28 years of teaching, I see this issue has become more prominent and prevalent, even if only because we’re more willing to talk about it. So it’s important to be educated.”

Ms. Baruchov, who is the dean of the middle school at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, recently participated in a two-day, in-person inaugural conference, “Understanding Our Communities,” organized by the Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative and held in Stamford, Connecticut.

According to its website, the Women’s Initiative, an Orthodox Union program, “implements national programming for women of all ages and stages of life to help each woman find her personal and communal leadership voice.”

About 90 educators, congregational rabbis’ wives, and outreach professionals from across North America and Israel attended the conference, along with 30 women who’d just completed the Women’s Initiative inaugural seven-week fellowship program, “Foundations of Community Mental Health Support.”

Dina Muskin Goldberg, whose husband, Daniel, is the associate rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, was among the participants.

Her main takeaway from the program “was the best practices on how to deal with delicate mental health issues and concerns that come up as a rebbetzin,” Ms. Goldberg said. “We were given tools for how to navigate complicated conversations.”

(“Rebbetzin” is the Yiddish word for a rabbi’s wife. It’s an informal role and usually it is unpaid, but in many Orthodox congregations the rebbetzin acts in a leadership position, providing classes to groups as well as guidance to individual congregants. The title also is used in many contexts to denote an Orthodox female scholar.)

Ms. Goldberg said she also “benefited tremendously from the network the program created for me of other fellowship participants from across the country that I otherwise likely would not have crossed paths with.”

The opportunity to connect with other rebbetzins was invaluable, she said.

“Rebbetzins marry into their roles, while our husbands frequently experience training in pastoral care and often mental health. Having access to training through the OU Women’s Initiative has given me more confidence to be present and supportive during times of need in my community.”

Some of the conference topics included:

• Building an inspired community

• Navigating compassion fatigue

• Listening skills and counseling concepts

• Understanding, destigmatizing, and providing communal support for people suffering from mental health issues and addictions and for those families with a family member in an in-patient program

• Mental health triage for teachers of brides-to-be and outreach professionals

• Mental health issues in the educational setting

• Ethical issues surrounding privacy and confidentiality

• Contemporary challenges of marriage and divorce

• Financial health and its impact on the family dynamic

• Women’s health: cancer, perinatal and postpartum mental health issues, intimacy, abusive relationships

• Eating disorders awareness, support, and referral

• Grief and trauma support

• Addiction and mental health issues

• A Torah perspective on mental health

• Supporting singles in the community

Ms. Baruchov said that in addition to the presentations, the personal networking at the conference was beneficial to her not only as a day school administrator but also as a public speaker and podcaster. Her podcast, “Drink It In,” aims to inspire women worldwide.

“I deal with women from so many different walks of life, of many ages and religious affiliations, and it was amazing to network with other women and learn how to help myself be more knowledgeable and become a better resource,” she said. “It was as much about helping us as about the people we’re helping. I learned that if you set time for pauses for yourself you can better serve the community.”

Other local participants were Shira Donath, who is the wife of Rabbi Jeremy Donath of Congregation Darchei Noam in Fair Lawn and the congregation’s yoetzet halacha – a certified adviser in Jewish laws and practices relating to a couple’s intimate life; Chaya Miriam Gerson, a teacher and religious guidance counselor at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and the wife of Rabbi Chayim Gerson of Congregation Israel of Springfield; and Sarah Proops, an educator who is married to Rabbi James Proops of Suburban Torah in Livingston.

Ms. Gerson said she enjoyed “hearing from all these unbelievable speakers and to be able to have mentorship from them.”

The presenters included several from Bergen County: Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, who is the director of professional rabbinics at Yeshiva University; Dr. Efrat Sobolofsky, director of YUConnects and rebbetzin of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Bergenfield; marriage therapist Rabbi Dr. Ari Sytner of Bergenfield, who is both the author of “The Ultimate Relationship Workbook for Couples” and a professor at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work; and attorney Lianne Forman of Teaneck, founder and executive director of Communities Confronting Substance Use & Addiction.

The director of the Women’s Initiative, Dr. Adina Shmidman, said that providing support for women as they deal with difficult scenarios has been part of the OU Women’s Initiative’s mission since the Orthodox Union launched it in 2017.

“There is no greater investment we can make than in the women who act as the first responders to critical issues facing individuals and families in our communities,” Dr. Shmidman said. “The OU sees it as our responsibility to help women fill their toolbox with the resources and relationships that will help them help others with confidence and sensitivity.”

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