Jewish Women Change Makers, Talking to Each Other and Their Community

Courtesy JWF of NY

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
for eJewish Philanthropy

Here were about 300 women, all immersed in the impact sphere from myriad angles – visionaries and change makers themselves, as well as funders, Jewish community leaders, and other supporters.

Their gathering just before the High Holidays was singular in the Jewish space, designed as it was to elevate Jewish women social entrepreneurs, mark and herald their accomplishments, and equip and empower them in the communal universe and beyond.

The Convening – as it was officially called – was organized by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY). It was the first of what will be an annual conference that by its very nature and definition fills a void in the Jewish arena, dedicated as it is to the issues and challenges facing Jewish women social entrepreneurs who until now have not had such a prominent, meaningful, and ongoing forum.

Courtesy JWF of NY

“We have three goals,” said JWFNY CEO Jamie Allen Black. “To get everyone to think differently and more broadly about what social entrepreneurship is and who social entrepreneurs are; to understand, viscerally – to feel their stories – and understand what it means for these particular women to be in the world as entrepreneurs; and to leave here ready to do something, anything, to have all of our voices heard and leave our mark on the status of women and girls in the U.S., in Israel, and the broader global community.

“JWFNY is unique as a philanthropic organization focused exclusively on enhancing the recognition, standing and capacities of Jewish women as social entrepreneurs and leaders.”

For sure, the issues explored during this one-day conference – from support for women social entrepreneurs on college campuses, to gender harassment, to the arc of innovation through a gender lens – and the hallway conversations that took place all underscored the imperative of this event and its future.

“We are living in an exciting time when women are at the forefront of change in our society and our community and we are getting more credit where we deserve it,” said Gabrielle Fondiller, Co-Founder and Director of Hatua Likoni, an organization promoting education and employment among youth in Kenya. “But there is still such a long way to go.”

Rabbi Benay Lappe, Founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA, a Chicago-based yeshiva dedicated to inclusive and accessible Talmud study through a queer lens, described an environment created deliberately to nurture lasting connections and collaborations. “Any of us would say it’s empowering being in a group of innovative women – and women-identified folk – because we all share similar profound experiences of walking through a misogynistic world and trying to change it. 

“There’s a feeling of comfort as you come through this space and talk to others who are perhaps 15 minutes ahead of you, who’ll share advice or with whom you can make a connection and feel that you have a mentor or someone who cares in more of a familial way. I haven’t been in women-only spaces organized as such in a long time and I miss them. They’re not simple, but as long as they include trans women, and have a radical gender lens – until the patriarchy’s gone, they’re going to be necessary.”

Fondiller and Rabbi Lappe are two of ten members of JWFNY’s recently announced first class of social entrepreneur grantees, known as The Collective. Each member – selected for her promise and potential to make great impact on some of the most daunting societal issues and challenges – receives three years of capacity building and general operating support, professional development funding, skills-building opportunities, and access to a formal and dynamic network of Jewish women visionaries for idea exchanges, support and partnerships.

Each spoke at The Convening about their atypical approaches to a range of social issues, from drastically lowering infant mortality rates in Africa, to ending rampant sexual abuse of female and LGBTQ inmates in American penitentiaries, to fighting global sex trafficking.

“When you start an organization, particularly one serving marginalized people, it’s a tremendous amount of work and you don’t expect to have success from day one,” said Evie Litwok, Founder and Director of Witness to Mass Incarceration and a Collective member. “But one measure of success is to be able to stand as one of ten women who are all doing amazing work and being in a crowd of supporters and knowing what we started may have some impact because we have partners to enable us.”

Beyond the tangible, intended takeaways of The Convening – assets such as connections, visibility, support and idea exchanges, for instance – there was also the symbolism, and the notion that Jewish women social entrepreneurs gathering in such a public way would send pulses into the Jewish community and beyond.

Courtesy JWF of NY

“Everything that happened here reflects the diversity of the Jewish community – women, Jews of color, LGBTQ activists and more,” said Ruth Messinger, former President of American Jewish World Service who is working with JWFNY on a year-long professional development curriculum for The Collective.

“It sends a message to the Jewish community that it is changing and growing and that many now see themselves as recognized and welcomed and supported.”