Young women taking part in program sponsored by the Orthodox
Union that seeks to pair a a female member
of a synagogue’s staff with a teen to learn.
Photo courtesy Orthodox Union.

By Elizabeth Kratz

(JNS) A multigenerational women’s leadership initiative, pairing teens and young women with veteran members of the synagogue to develop new solutions to old challenges. A part-time female member of the shul’s professional staff to engage specifically with female members. A training program for women to learn from the experts to craft and present incisive Torah classes. A coffee-nook inside a synagogue, equipped with multimedia capabilities, comfy chairs and couches, designed to create a flexible, trendy, comfortable area that will host specialized programming for women and girls in an inviting environment.

What do all these programs have in common?

Answer: The synagogues who proposed them, as well as 12 others nationwide, have all been funded with Women’s Initiative Challenge Grants from the Orthodox Union. Officials say this initial round of grant-giving is part of an effort to empower women with the opportunities to develop their own models for learning and leadership based on what they believe the women in their own communities want and need.

With more than 400 congregations in its synagogue network, the OU is the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry. In recent years, the OU’s women members have sought a greater voice in Torah scholarship and learning; in other Jewish movements, passion for Jewish learning has, in recent decades, translated into women pursuing the rabbinate. However, for OU shuls, such approaches do not include women serving as clergy. To bridge what was seen as a gap in the array of leadership roles available for women, last year the organization launched an initiative designed to provide a multitude of opportunities for women in OU communities in the many ways that are acceptable in halachah.

Adina Shmidman, the founding director of the department, told JNS the OU initially planned to make 10 grants, but was “bowled over” by the detailed, erudite applications, of which the organization received 93 in total. In all, the OU secured funds for 16 grants, noting the high interest and excellent submissions.

Shmidman shared that the women who were passionate about their ideas – who got together and built their program proposals – did so with energy and care. “The Challenge Grant gives us the opportunity to hear from communities: what they need, what they want to see on the ground, and actually address those needs directly,” she said.

Demographically, the OU received 31 applications from New York and New Jersey; six from California; two from Canada; and single grants from states including Maryland, Florida, Michigan and Ohio. The winning synagogues were Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City; Young Israel of Oceanside, N.Y.; Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation of Baltimore; Young Israel of Southfield, Mich.; Young Israel of Greater Cleveland; Young Israel of Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Congregation Agudath Sholom, Stamford, Conn; United Orthodox Synagogues, Houston, Texas; Beth Jacob Congregation of Oakland, Calif.; Westwood Kehilla in Los Angeles; Keneseth Beth Israel, Richmond, Va.; Young Israel Toco Hills in Atlanta; Suburban Torah, Livingston, N.J.; Congregation Keter Torah, Teaneck N.J.; Congregation Darchei Noam, Fair Lawn, N.J.; and Congregation Shomrei Torah, Fair Lawn, N.J.

Reach across the spectrum of women and girls

Sara Markowitz, who was on the team from Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, N.J., said “at various stages in life, women find themselves being pulled in different directions, but what stays constant is the wish to be connected spiritually and socially within the Jewish community.”

What they proposed is called Shomrei Torah’s Women’s Institute of Learning and Leadership, which is a center for women and girls to engage in meaningful spiritual growth, as well as gain and pass on skills from generation to generation.

“This new initiative will provide programming and learning opportunities that reach across the spectrum of women and girls in our communities and leverage technology to support broader accessibility to synagogue resources,” she said.

Bracha Poliakoff shared thoughts on her program from Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation of Baltimore, which will seek to connect women who are “out of the loop” of synagogue programming. “We are very much looking forward to a unique hybrid learning program with Shalvie Friedman [an Jewish women’s education specialist from South Africa who is now a sought-after teacher at MMY, a seminary in Israel] that will target women who have traditionally had more difficulty engaging in shul programming due to their age and/or stage in life,” she said.

The rabbi at Congregation Keter Torah, in Teaneck, N.J., pointed to a broader view on winning the grant. “Throughout the years, we have looked for gaps in our Torah offerings, and we have successfully developed learning programs for retirees, people who spend much of their professional lives traveling, and other innovative projects,” said Rabbi Shalom Baum, who is also the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “With this generous and thoughtful grant, we will begin to fill a void for very busy women and students who yearn to use their evenings to continue to develop their Avodat Hashem,” defined as “God’s work” or “Divine service.” Shmidman noted that each $5,000 grant comes with a small caveat – to check in with the OU at the beginning, middle and at the project’s completion, so that the organization can learn how the project is going and gain from the synagogue’s experience.

“We want the projects can be duplicable or scalable in other communities,” she said. “Once these programs are piloted, they can be offered widely in other communities so that they can benefit from the wisdom and experience of these successful initiatives. Part of the grant, too, is for each synagogue to agree to be an adviser synagogue to other synagogues that are interested in replicating the program.”

While not all 93 of the grants were able to be funded, Shmidman noted that both the total and overwhelmingly high quality of submissions were noteworthy: “93 is an amazing number. That’s not 93 people, but 93 groups of people who sat down and worked at this. They own their programs; they are empowered. We are looking at what can we learn from that and share that with other people. How can we try to address our community’s unique needs?”

Cross-posted from