Over 150 Female Lay Leaders Convene at Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative Leadership Summit 2023 in New Jersey

Over 150 experienced and emerging female lay leaders from 40 cities across the U.S. and Israel recently drew inspiration, exchanged ideas and fostered connections at the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative Leadership Summit at the Sheraton Eatontown Hotel in Eatontown, New Jersey.

Geared for community builders of all ages, the two-day biennial summit launched in 2019 offers participants a chance to learn, grow and network with fellow professionals while learning best practices and honing communication, leadership and fundraising skills in a relaxed environment.

“Seeing so many impressive women leaders gathered in one room to invest in themselves and their communities gives me a sense of optimism for our future,” said OU Women’s Initiative Director Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, a featured speaker who also delivered the opening and closing remarks.

Rivka Ravitz, who served as chief of staff to former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, delivered the keynote address on “Behind the Scenes of State Leadership—A Personal View.” Participants were moved by her personal story of raising 12 children while maintaining her high-profile role and remaining steadfast in her faith.

The summit’s 35 presenters included Barbara Gottesman, founder of California-based BGCoaching & Consulting and a motivational speaker; Baltimore’s Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, academic dean of Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary/Maalot; Brooklyn’s Cindy Darrison, director of Organizational Advancement of HASC Center Inc., an educational nonprofit involved with school-based Holocaust education; New York’s Rachel Cyrulnik, founder of RAISE, a consulting firm specializing in resource development for nonprofit organizations; and Baltimore’s Chana Siff, Executive Director of the Neuberger Family Foundation.

“The diversity was truly remarkable and it gave me the opportunity to learn about the extraordinary work of so many women,” said Siff. “The summit provided me with connections, tools and inspiration to continue to grow professionally and contribute to my community.”

Collectively, the participants lead over 150 organizations and represent diverse communities, ages, hashkafic views, and professions. Each one is a leader who impacts the community in a meaningful way, dedicating time, energy and funds to the klal.

Attendees chose from 33 sessions including “Trust or Bust: Building the Critical Foundation for Successful Organizations,” “The Art of Productive Nonprofit Boards,” “Effecting Change: Leadership Lessons from Women in Tanach,” and “Crowdfunding for the First Time.” Themes focused on collaboration, addressing common challenges, achieving successes and making a communal impact. Topics spanned everything from budgeting and effective communication to team-building and volunteer retention.

“The sessions were wonderful and professional and I learned from each one,” said World Emunah President Tema Klauser of Efrat, Israel. “The number of young women in attendance was so impressive. It’s difficult for Jewish non-profits to bring in young leadership. The OU has tapped into a goldmine of women, each tremendous.”

Shira Isenberg, of Bergenfield, New Jersey, is vice president of the board of directors of Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey and secretary of the board of directors of Torah Academy of Bergen County. A first-time participant, she was asked to speak about her experiences with fundraising, board governance and finance committees. Her presentation was so impactful, that participants from Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Nevada and Houston have all arranged to meet with her for further guidance in the coming weeks.

For her part, Isenberg was incredibly inspired by the conference overall. “I was so impressed by the level of seriousness with which the conference leaders and participants approached what they were learning and sharing, the topics discussed and the excitement about sharing ideas and best practices,” she said. “The conference was so successful because every single detail was carefully thought through.”

Assigned lunch-seating facilitated the cultivation of new relationships and professional connections, with women involved in similar initiatives grouped together. Joy Sklar of Bergenfield, New Jersey, and Tzivia Weiss, of Houston Texas, were among two participants who developed an instant friendship based on their shared projects; both are working on consolidating all of the chesed resources in their respective regions so that they can be accessed on one cohesive website.

Sklar volunteers with Bergen County’s Chanukah Toy Drive and Shearit HaPlate, which salvages surplus food and distributes it to the needy. This was her first time attending the summit, and she was grateful for the opportunity to meet and learn from Weiss.

“Tzvia created a website for all things Jewish in Houston; a place where people can find everything from financial help, to food, to help with their local hospital,” said Sklar. “We have hopes in the future of creating [a similar] type of website. I plan to [apply a lot of what I learned] from her experience.”

Weiss, cofounder of Lev Echad Houston, a community chesed clearinghouse, and Kivun Houston, an organization dedicated to women’s inspiration and growth, attended the summit for the second time, and was equally delighted to meet Sklar.

“It was an absolute pleasure meeting Joy and her team,” said Weiss. “We discussed what may work for her specific community, and have both learned a lot from each other to take back home. We look forward to working together and developing our professional and personal friendship! At both this conference and the previous one, I developed relationships that continue to assist me in navigating this incredible world of chesed.”

A networking room enabled attendees to meet with mentors, including OU Chief Human Resources Officer Josh Gottesman, and participants enjoyed night activities including learning at shiurim, swimming, exercising and painting.

Said OU Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph: “The energy at the summit was palpable. I was blown away by the quality of the programming and the level of detail-orientation that the conference planners actualized.”

OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer noted: “What we observe and experience in every realm is the immense power of joining with others in shared experiences of Torah study and Jewish activity. Via the OU’s Women’s Initiative, the Orthodox Union has prioritized creating community amongst women who engage together in meaningful Torah experiences and undertakings. The Women’s Initiative conference was an outstanding example of that, and it was a privilege to see the energy that it generated for participants.”

[Press Release]

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