OU Women’s Initiative helps communities re-engage through challenge grant

“This immersive experience provided inspiration, education, connection and an opportunity to learn about, discuss and support one another,” said Young Israel of Fair Lawn’s Rebbetzin Rebecca Belizon.

Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman. Credit: Courtesy.
Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman. Credit: Courtesy.

Thanks to a creative incentive from the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative, women are once again engaging in their shuls and Jewish communal life after a long pause caused by COVID.

Launched in 2017 by director Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, the OU Women’s Initiative aims to create and promote programming focused on Torah study; community leadership; and spiritual, personal and professional development for women of all ages.

When the pandemic began to wane and in-person events resumed last year, the OU Women’s Initiative devised a competition to encourage communities to reignite women’s communal involvement: The OU Women’s Initiative Challenge Grant 2022 for Innovative Women’s Programming. Open to North American synagogues and community institutions, the grant awarded $3,600 to 10 nonprofits that designed imaginative and inspiring women’s programming.

“Women are at the heart of their homes,” said Rebbetzin Shmidman. “They need spiritual nourishment, and they thrive on networking and being connected. When we saw, as a result of COVID, that women were less engaged, we wanted to help draw them back, and reignite their spiritual energy and excitement.”

About 90 submissions were judged by a panel of OU staff and lay leaders who assessed the programs’ creativity, feasibility and scalability. The ideas were both impressive and diverse, noted Rebbetzin Shmidman, appealing to women of various ages, life stages, backgrounds and interests.

The 10 winning programs are based in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Wisconsin, Texas, California and Montreal, Canada. They center on an array of themes, including religious outreach; the laws of kashrut; mitzvot between one person and another; self-care; charity; and business law.

A number of initiatives incorporated experiential cooking, art, music and theatrical activities, and some were geared towards specific demographics like teenagers, business leaders and singles. All programs included Torah learning and provided a forum for participants to strengthen their spirituality and connections with one another and their communities.

Myriad networking and spiritual support opportunities included a Shabbaton for young mothers at Young Israel of Fair Lawn, N.J., led by Rebbetzin Dina Schoonmacher. The event included a Friday-night Oneg Shabbat, two Torah classes and a women’s shalosh seudos.

“This immersive experience provided the women with inspiration, education, connection and an opportunity to learn about, discuss and support one another in the many hats they wear,” said Young Israel of Fair Lawn’s Rebbetzin Rebecca Belizon.

“It was something the women looked forward to and it exceeded all expectations,” she noted. “It is hard to describe the energy and excitement that the women had in coming together in these unique ways … the topics [centered on issues] the women wanted to delve into, understand, learn about and discuss. One woman told me that she normally brings coffee to stay focused and listen to shiurim that are at night, but it was not necessary for this as she was so excited and engaged the whole time.”

Shmidman added that “the shul changed the entire minyan schedule so that the men could daven early on Shabbos morning, then return home to enable their wives to come to shul, recharge as a community, learn Torah and be inspired.”

The Mikvah Emunah Society in Silver Spring, Md., used the Challenge Grant to run a creative series educating women about the centrality of the mikvah and the laws of ritual purity in personal and communal life.

“During the pandemic, the organization found that some attendees felt more comfortable asking questions online because they could keep their cameras off and use chat boxes anonymously,” said Shmidman. “They carried the successful online element forward while also holding two in-person events in order to maintain that comfortable space for participants.”

Another unique aspect of the Mikvah Emunah Society’s program, said the rebbetzin, was that they had different sessions for women at every life stage, including teenagers and women who no longer use the mikvah. “They found a way to connect everyone to their organization and to highlight its importance as a communal institution. They bridged the community and united women through their programming.”

Although 10 nonprofits won the Challenge Grant funds, Shmidman stated that all of the applicants emerged on top.

“The grant created awareness and motivation to re-engage women in the community,” she said. “The [possibility of winning the] grant was an extra push to get people thinking, and a lot of them ran their programs even if they didn’t win the challenge.”

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Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
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