For two days, a group of 100 Orthodox Jewish women representing 56 communities across the United States and abroad gathered to learn together, network and gain leadership skills that will enable to them to better serve their communities as lay leaders.

The inaugural Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative Leadership Summit was held on May 20-21 at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. It is the latest endeavor of the Women’s Initiative that began in November 2017 and provides programming for Jewish women including online Torah classes, a speakers’ bureau and challenge grants for innovative women’s programs.

Jessica Katz, founder of Yad Leah, an organization based in Passaic, N.J., which sends gently used clothing to Israel, said she found it “beneficial to meet with other women who are driving and leading other organizations, to be able to share resources about organization policy, development and infrastructure, so we can interact, pool ideas and learn from one another.

“Sometimes, we meet with others in the nonprofit world [to develop ideas and strategize], but meeting specifically with women, with Jewish women who share the same values, is particularly beneficial,” she said.

Jessica Katz (right), founder of Yad Leah, an organization based in Passaic, N.J., with Esti Coates from Teaneck, N.J. Credit: Courtesy.

The leadership summit, however, was perhaps the initiative’s most challenging endeavor to date, as organizers weren’t sure what the response would be; there was simply no roadmap for what they were doing. Would communal organizations nominate local women with the power to lead for the program? Would women want to attend a leadership summit? What would such a summit look like?

In the end, 100 women of different ages, geographic locales and representing the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism were selected and engaged in networking, formal and informal discussions, and workshops on volunteer recruitment, public speaking, forming nonprofit boards, team-building, dealing with donors, having difficult conversations with others and more.

Acknowledging that many of the women are trying to come up with ideas and initiatives on their own, Chamie Haber of Norfolk, Va., said, “I think if we weren’t here, we’d be lonely. … The energy that there are this many women who are giving of their time to [G-d] is inspiring” and shows every person should spend time on a cause they care about.

One of the keynote speakers was Erica Brown, director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University, where she is also a professor in the Graduate School of Education. She taught several workshops, including one that focused on reframing how women approach difficult conversations—something that is crucial in leadership roles.

Using examples from the Tanach, Brown also highlighted what it means to be “called to lead” and provided examples of how leaders should behave. She noted that even Moses faced challenges to his leadership and questioned his own ability when G-d first approached him.

‘Moving in the right direction’

According to Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the marker for success will be “not just what the women will pick up during the summit, but what they will take back to their communities, and that will have an enormous impact on any number of institutions that are critical to our community. That is precisely the impact we hoped the Women’s Initiative would be able to foster.”

Orthodox Union executive vice president Allen Fagin addressing the Women’s Initiative Leadership Summit. Credit: Courtesy.

Within moments after the summit ended, participants were already turning to each other via social media to continue the dialogues, suggesting programs and ideas that might help others.

For Ashira Krakowski, who lives in Jerusalem and runs a surfing program for girls at a women’s only beach in Israel, the summit was well worth the trip.

“I feel that in order for me to empower other women, I needed to feel empowered,” she said. “I got more strategies for making sure I am moving in the right direction, and I am making good connections.”

Rebbetzin Adina Shmidman, founding director of the O.U. Women’s Initiative, shared that she was pleased to meet and network with the women at the summit.

She described it as “a powerful moment of gathering and growth with a diverse group of talented and bright women across the Orthodox community,” adding that “I am inspired and energized to move forward with a strong network and charge to contribute.”

*Editor’s Note: Faygie Holt was a paid participant of the O.U. Women’s Initiative Leadership Summit and attended the conference on behalf of her local synagogue.