Westwood Kehilla Wins the OU Women’s Initiative Challenge Grant

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Westwood Kehilla Wins the OU Women’s Initiative Challenge Grant

Yehudis Litvak

A local synagogue, Westwood Kehilla, won the Orthodox Union (OU) Women’s Initiative Challenge Grant for its new Inspiring Women’s Leadership program. Westwood Kehilla, a small congregation with approximately 60 members, is one of 16 recipients of the OU grant. It was selected out of 93 applications from congregations throughout North America.

“The Challenge Grant is an exciting initiative that captures the positive energy of so many communities,” the founding director of the OU’s Department of Women’s Initiatives, Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, said in a press release. “The Women’s Initiative is proudly empowering our communities to develop creative approaches to addressing spiritual and communal needs. Once these programs are piloted, they can be offered widely in other communities so that they too can benefit from the wisdom and experience of these successful initiatives.”

Westwood Kehilla’s Inspiring Women’s Leadership program aims not only to provide programming that meets women’s needs, but also to involve its current female members in leadership roles within the synagogue. They are currently looking to hire a part-time Women’s Leadership Development Director, whose job will involve identifying and utilizing women’s talents and strengthening their abilities as leaders.

The initiative has already begun to make an impact on the community. “People are very interested and excited,” says Andrea Smith, a board member of Westwood Kehilla. “We are engaging people who weren’t so engaged before.” The hiring committee itself consists not only of board members, but also of women who were not previously involved in leadership.

“It’s been a learning experience,” says Mrs. Smith, explaining that the committee members are learning to work together and to participate in decision-making. Once the Leadership Development Director is hired, the women of Westwood Kehilla will continue to volunteer, developing and coordinating programming for women together with the director. “It will be a chance to learn indirectly what skills one needs as a leader,” says Mrs. Smith.

In the next year, the Westwood Kehilla is planning to create 16 events for women, “engaging them spiritually, intellectually, culturally, artistically, and socially, and to promote personal growth and deeper and broader engagement in synagogue and Jewish communal life,” according to the grant proposal. The events are intended for all Jewish women, including those who are not currently members of Westwood Kehilla and who may or may not be Orthodox.

Rabbi Avi Stewart, the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, has high hopes for the program. “Klal Yisrael needs leaders on many levels, beginning with being leaders of themselves,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing when people begin to take achrayus and learn how to be leaders.” He explains that in this generation, women need to be intellectually stimulated and passionate about Judaism, and leadership is one way to develop and maintain this passionate connection. “Enabling women to be part of the congregation is a good thing for Klal Yisrael,” he says.

The OU is expecting to see positive changes come from the Challenge grant recipients, including Westwood Kehilla, that can also be extended to other communities. The OU President, Moishe Bane, said in a press release, “For more than a century the Orthodox Union has addressed the religious and spiritual needs of the American Jewish community. Ever changing circumstances and challenges, however, compel the ongoing exploration of new approaches to advance our connection to God, both as individuals and collectively as a community. We therefore feel particularly privileged to be partnering with women of extraordinary vision and commitment from across the community, to pursue exciting and innovative initiatives seeking to enhance the religious and spiritual growth of the contemporary Jewish woman.”