The Orthodox Union’s Department of Women’s Initiatives, launched last month under the direction of Dr. Adina Shmidman, will have the OU putting extra emphasis on women’s programming and offering women of all ages from all segments of the Orthodox Jewish community a full array of opportunities designed to advance their spiritual, religious, and communal involvement.
Among Dr. Shmidman’s long list of accomplishments are a doctorate in educational psychology and twenty years of service as a community leader and teacher in New York, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. The wife of Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd and the mother of four sons, Dr. Shmidman is the founding chair of Yeshiva University’s Rebbetzin Elaine Wolf Rebbetzin to Rebbetzin mentoring program.
Dr. Shmidman and Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Allen Fagin shared their thoughts with The Jewish Press on the new department’s ambitious agenda.
The Jewish Press: How did the Department of Women’s Initiatives come about?
Allen Fagin: We have been trying to put all of the Orthodox Union’s programming for women under a single department for some time and in the process we have been planning on expanding the amount of programming we offer to women.
What made this the right time to put those plans into play?
Fagin: We wanted to have the necessary budget in place for this project in addition to making sure we had done a complete, exhaustive, national search for the right person to head this new effort. This is the culmination of several years of planning and ambition to ensure that we had created the right structure for the initiative.
What was your vision of the ideal candidate for this position?
Fagin: I think it is fair to say we were looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
We were looking for someone who had a national reputation in the area of communal service as well as the appropriate education and professional pedigree; someone passionate about the dissemination of Torah and increasing the spirituality of women and the contributions of women to the leadership structure of our community, with the vision to organize and implement a wide array of appropriate programming.
We were also looking for someone with the right temperament to be able to work with the very broad spectrum within our community including men, women, lay leadership, rabbanim, and educators.
Above all, we were looking for someone who was fully capable of listening carefully to the women in our vast network of communities about gaps in our existing programs and who would be able to turn all of that information into a coherent set of programming we could offer to communities across the United States and Canada.
Can you describe the search process?
Because we had a long list and a lot of boxes to check off, we spent months on the search process. We received a large number of resumes that we reviewed and we conducted a fairly extensive interview process with the group of finalists we’d chosen. We are delighted that Dr. Shmidman agreed to take the position because there is not a single box on our lengthy list of requirements that she wasn’t able to check off.
Dr. Shmidman, how do you feel your background qualified you to take on this complex and potentially historic effort?
Adina Shmidman: Growing up in New York, living in Birmingham and now in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and teaching such a wide array of subjects has given me a unique perspective of the Jewish community. It is important to know how programs fly in different communities because it is easy to design a program but it has to have traction and be able to resonate with its target audience.
Having been exposed to and involved in different communities I can understand and appreciate that. And having had grandparents who were the rav and rebbetzin in Great Neck and in-laws who served in those roles in Montreal, the ideas of mission and contribution resonate very strongly with me. I look forward to being able to take all of my education and experience and pay it forward.
What were your thoughts on being named director of the Department of Women’s Initiatives?
Shmidman: I am humbled to have been entrusted with something as delicate and sensitive and valuable as this, which has to be treated with reverence and care and respect but at the same time also has to be robust so that it can accomplish its intended purpose.
I saw this for myself when I started the Rebbetzin to Rebbetzin program at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future where a survey of rebbetzins showed us that the biggest challenge they faced was confidence in their communal roles. As a result, we created a mentoring program and a structure to help these women develop the skills they need because they are leaders in their communities, and by nurturing and supporting them we are creating something that filters down to the entire community.
The OU has made it very clear that this program creates leadership opportunities for women without casting them in the role of clergy. Where do you draw the distinction between those two areas?
Fagin: It was very clear from responses we received from our rabbinic panel that there are so many roles women could fill in a shul that would not place them in a clergy position. They can certainly teach Torah, engage in pastoral counseling and spiritual development, and hold managerial and administrative roles in a shul, all of which were found to be entirely appropriate by our rabbinic panel, which was unanimous in its decision that the one area that would not be appropriate for women was that of holding rabbinic positions.
Shmidman: I think it is extremely important for a rebbetzin to be able to connect with both the men and the women in a shul in a variety of ways. There are times when a man might feel more comfortable discussing certain things with a woman rather than a man and I am happy that people feel comfortable talking to me as a rebbetzin. The tenor of the department is to be positive and creative within the parameters of Orthodoxy. There are a lot of things we can do within those guidelines and we plan to focus on those.
What kind of feedback have you received so far?
Fagin: The response has been incredibly positive, with many in our community seeing this as not only important but also long overdue. I think the real test will come as we begin to roll out programs and see what the reactions will be.
What initiatives are you working on right now?
Shmidman: We already have our rebbetzins mentoring in motion and are looking at messaging Torah through podcasts and introducing communities to impactful women role models. We are also working on a listening tour that will take us to different cities.
Fagin: It is critical to listen because the needs in Bergen County may be very different from Dallas or Las Vegas or Kansas City. Every community is built differently and has its own needs, demographics, populations, and resources available to them. So a large part of what Dr. Shmidman will be doing over the coming months is not just designing programs where there is an existing need but also listening closely to pinpoint gaps in programs that are already in place.
What do you think this department will look like in five years?
Shmidman: I would hope we’d be providing impactful and inspiring programming that is growth oriented and contributes greatly to women’s spiritual lives in today’s world.
Fagin: I expect that by that time it will be a term that will roll off people’s tongues easily. I am confident that people will recognize it as a high quality department with a strong impact and that they will have a sense of trust in its value and all that it has to offer.