Pictured above: The Women’s Leadership Institute’s third year of mentors and mentees.
Rabbi Elana Kanter established the Women’s Jewish Learning Center in 2010 as a center for high-level Torah study for women. Part of the mission of the center is to help develop women’s leadership within the community. The Women’s Leadership Institute is helping to fulfill that mission.
Started in the fall of 2015, the Women’s Leadership Institute brings mentors and mentees from the community together to deepen their Jewish learning, develop leadership skills and work together on social service projects.
Originally, Elana had to reach out to agencies and synagogues to see who would be a good fit for the program. “But after the first year we had no issue in terms of getting the next cohort,” she says.
“We have been blessed with these groups of great young women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who are willing to commit the time to something serious, they put a lot into it, but also get a lot out of it.”
Elana is the matchmaker when it comes to pairing mentors and mentees. “We ask the mentees a few things that they are looking for in a mentor, then we try to see who might be compatible and see who might have some interests in common,” she says. She admits it’s not an exact science.
The group holds an overnight retreat in September so that everyone can get to know each other better. They will have a group study sessions monthly where the rabbi puts together a lesson on a leadership topic and a corresponding piece of Jewish text. Then the mentors’ job is to do some follow up work after these group study sessions.
“In November, we have an agency night where we have representatives from the community come, and the mentees learn from them about possible opportunities for their project,” says Elana. “Once agency night is over, then the mentor and mentee start talking about the project.”
Past projects have ranged from one-night programs to something that has kept going for 2-3 years now. “The mentee is researching what she wants to do and how she wants to do it, and the mentor is helping her with other connections in the community, being a sounding board and a cheerleader,” says Elana.
A few of this year’s projects include a Jewish Storyteller’s Program (Meghan Dorn), marketing materials for the Jewish Genetic Diseases Center of Greater Phoenix (Maryn Gordon), Financial Literacy Guide for Jewish Free Loan (Jessielyn Kreitzer) and connecting the Jewish community to assist the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Effort (Jill Roig).
Elana is also hoping to grow the Women’s Leadership Institute concept by bringing it to other cities. Her family moved to Arizona from Birmingham, AL, where they had lived for seven years. She returns there once a year to lead a women’s retreat.
“We were talking to various people about this (program) – is this something you would like to start in your city – and Birmingham jumped on it,” says Elana. “They’ve got their group of mentees and mentors, and they started their program in September.”
She said that there are conversations in the works with other cities as well. “We are giving funding to Birmingham to start their program, but then they have to agree to fund and start a group in another city,” Elana explains. “They have to raise a small amount of money and it will become a ‘pay it forward kind of thing.’ ” Their funding comes from the Molly Blank Fund, Goldberg Trust, Jewish Community Foundation, Covenant Foundation and private donors.
The growth of the program is exciting – and essential. “One of the things we have discovered from ‘Me Too’ is that the picture for women is not nearly as advanced as we might have thought it was. We came to see some very hard realities on what the conditions for women are in the workplace,” she says.
Elana believes that harnessing the energy of young women and unleashing it on the community can only be a blessing. She says, “It’s understanding that leadership cultivates other leadership, and if we want some serious changes in terms of the Jewish community’s welcoming of women into leadership and so on, we need to expand the numbers.”
For more information on the Women’s Leadership Institute, visit womenlearning.org.