RABBI ELANA KANTER: Cultivating leaders

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“It came to my attention that on certain boards of our community women are underrepresented,” says Rabbi Elana Kanter, director of the Women’s Jewish Learning Center in Scottsdale. “I really believe that our strength as a community depends very much on having enough women in leadership roles, together with men. To have women underrepresented in our day and age is not good for anybody, … it’s not good for the whole Jewish community.”

An intrinsic part of the center’s mission is “to strengthen and express the presence of women in Jewish communal leadership” for the benefit of the Greater Phoenix Jewish community. Last year, that goal became a reality with the first cohort of the Women’s Leadership Institute, a joint project of the center and PJ Library.

Rabbi Kanter, who was part of the first class of women rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, put together a program that pairs 10 up-and-coming leaders, ages 25-45, with 10 seasoned mentors, women with years of experience as either professionals or volunteers who share her commitment to developing a new generation of women leaders.

“There was a time where we thought there might be a crisis in leadership, as we looked around and saw that those of us who got really active in our 30s and 40s were not going to be replaced so easily,” says mentor Berry Sweet in a video created to mark the completion of the first cohort’s program of study, this past June.

In addition to monthly group study sessions, the mentors and mentees meet one-on-one monthly. “The mentors are supporters and cheerleaders, and an extra set of eyes that can help, [and provide] insights from their own experience,” Rabbi Kanter says.

Each of the younger women also takes on a project to benefit the community, which continues through the end of this year. Several are involved in PJ Library, one woman spearheaded the first Passover seder for the Council for Jews with Special Needs and another is working with Limmud AZ.

The impact, however, will be felt far beyond these individual projects. “These women will be a future core that our community should call upon to take on many leadership roles throughout the vast community that exists in Metropolitan Phoenix,” mentor Tina Sheinbein says in the video.

Rabbi Kanter stresses the importance of the relationships and the network of support, which will stay with these women as they each follow their own paths to leadership. But she also notes the impact on the mentors: “[In] any teacher-student relationship … the student grows the teacher, while the teacher tries to help the student grow. That’s been true of the mentors and the mentees, in really interesting ways. It’s definitely furthered the learning of the mentors. It’s been a win-win for both.”

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