“We want to create programs that will inspire women of all ages and stages to find their personal leadership voice – to lead others and lead themselves toward greater religious growth,” said Dr. Shmidman, a dynamic community leader and teacher for more than two decades in New York, Alabama and Pennsylvania. Dr. Shmidman, whose doctorate is in Educational Psychology, currently serves as the rebbetzin of the Lower Merion Synagogue of Bala Cynwyd, PA. She is the founding chair of the Rebbetzin Elaine Wolf a”h Rebbetzin to Rebbetzin Mentoring Program at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. She will begin as Director of the Department of Women’s Initiatives on November 1, 2017. “By strengthening our commitment to women, we hope to advance spiritual, religious and communal engagement and infuse lives with renewed energy and meaning,” she added.
“The OU is committed to putting its full array of resources into this bold new department,” said OU President Moishe Bane, “and dedicating all means necessary to ensure that every woman in our community is not only connected, but feels encouraged to grow and reach new spiritual heights.”
Allen Fagin, Executive Vice President of the OU, said, ”I’m excited that after an extensive, nationwide search, Dr. Shmidman has agreed to undertake this role and to shape the OU’s commitment to encouraging female Orthodox leadership for the next century, and to enhancing the Orthodox experience for women across the continuum of Jewish life.” Allen Fagin served on the search committee along with OU Officers Etta Brandman Klaristenfeld, Barbara Lehmann Siegel, Dr. Marian Stoltz-Loike, Esther Williams and OU President Moishe Bane, who was responsible for forming the committee.
“We want to create a department that meets the challenges religious women face and will continue to face in the 21st century. Whether spiritual, professional or health-related challenges, we wanted to ensure that Orthodox women have all the resources they need,” said Etta Brandman Klaristenfeld, member of the OU executive committee and an attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. “We envision the Women’s Initiative as being a center of innovation, integration and growth for women in the Orthodox community,” agreed Marian Stoltz-Loike, Dean, Lander College for Women, and an expert on diversity and work-life issues.
The OU will implement the department’s new programs and initiatives through its extensive network of hundreds of OU synagogues, more than 200 NCSY locations, Yachad’s 12 regional chapters, and OU-JLIC’s 24 campuses, as well as engaging and partnering with local communal and national institutions.
Some of the many initiatives that the OU hopes to implement within this new department include:
- Defining Leadership Roles: Fostering community dialogue with a view toward developing guidelines for synagogues that encourage employment of women in senior professional positions in synagogues, with appropriate titles, compensation and benefits that reflect the dignity and significance of such roles.
- Lay Leadership and Training: Encouraging and cultivating women to take on significant roles within the community by providing professional development training and facilitating women serving on boards of synagogues and in other leadership positions within local and national communal organizations.
- Community Learning Groups: Engaging women in regular, weekly or monthly group learning programs that provide regular contact and an exchange of ideas with other women in their local communities.
- Female Scholars: Facilitating scholars-in-residence series – regardless of synagogue size – that give women teachers and scholars greater opportunity to share their teaching with broader audiences.
- High-level Torah learning: Devising continuing learning opportunities for women, including midrasha programs and yimei iyun.
- Youth: Enhancing the spiritual involvement of young women in our synagogues through mother/daughter weekly learning programs and other initiatives.
- Wellness: Partnering with other organizations to develop a platform of courses and forums devoted to women’s health and well-being.
- Community Feedback: Conducting surveys and holding focus groups across the country geared to identifying the ever-changing needs of our communities, large and small, metropolitan and suburban.
- Synagogue Usability: Sharing best practices for synagogues to encourage female involvement in all aspects of synagogue life, including having the ezrat nashim [women’s section] exclusively available to women at all times of day and the redesign of synagogue spaces to make them “user-friendly” for all congregants.
- Think Tank: Establishing a think tank of women representing the diversity of the female Orthodox constituency that seeks to focus our resources and identify needed programming and resources for women, regardless of age or marital status.
“The OU has included women in its most senior professional and lay leadership roles for quite some time. We believe that the Women’s Initiative can establish an even more robust pipeline of leadership talent,” said search committee member Esther Williams.
“It is critical that our communities’ women be inspired, engaged and growing in their avodat Hashem,” said OU Executive Committee member and Senior Vice President, attorney Barbara Lehmann Siegel. “We applaud the OU for its leadership in seizing this opportunity to assure that this crucial goal becomes a reality.”