When 1998 Covenant Award recipient Rabbi Elana Kanter established the Women’s Jewish Learning Center in Phoenix, Arizona in 2010, she often heard the same questions over and over: “Why are you starting a learning center for women only?” “Isn’t that a step backward?”
Kanter understood the sentiments; after all, our society has come a long way since the days of Betty Friedan and the women’s liberation movement over fifty years ago. There’s far more openness now, and more opportunity for women to study and learn in ways they never could in the past. So why, then, would one intentionally separate men and women in study? What would the benefit be?
Kanter’s response was unequivocal, and she’ll tell you the same thing today: It’s not necessarily better to have women learning separately from men, but rather, it’s different, and it’s important to pay attention to why that is.
“There’s no question that the dynamic changes when women study alone versus in a mixed group. That’s just absolutely true,” she says.
Kanter and her colleagues wanted to give women space to learn and explore in a safe and supportive environment and the WJLC was established to do just that. Focused on offering “accessible, high-level, and creative Jewish learning for women” in the greater Phoenix area, Kanter, together with her colleague Rabbi Tracee Rosen, have been teaching Talmud, literature and topics related to Jewish spirituality there for the past 8 years.
But there has always been another motivation behind the work that Kanter does, and it’s one that recently has begun transforming the lives of Jewish women in Phoenix—and soon, much further afield—in new and exciting ways.
“We’ve always been interested in helping women develop leadership skills,” Kanter explains. “In 2014, we decided to poll three major Jewish organizations in the greater Phoenix area to really understand the landscape of Jewish leadership in our region, and we found that 10 of the 11 officers at the heads of those organizations were men. That truly made the urgency for a leadership initiative palpable.”
As the only non-denominational women’s adult education institution in the Phoenix area, WJLC was in a unique position to affect change.
“We couldn’t believe that there was such a dearth in women’s leadership. We thought, ‘how can this be?’ Our goals quickly expanded [at the WJLC] and we began to focus on increasing the presence of women in communal leadership roles, while also deepening the Jewish character of that leadership,” Kanter said.
And so, the Women’s Leadership Initiative was born. Co-run by WJLC and PJ Library of the Greater Pheonix area, it aims to equip Jewish women with both the skills needed to succeed in the business and education spheres as well an immersion into dialogue with Jewish texts that have a leadership focus.
“As it happened,” Kanter explained, “PJ Library of Pheonix, our partner in this endeavor, was basically being run by one woman, alone, for five years going. She carried the entire program on her own, signed up a couple of thousand families, but she needed leadership training and support. During the first year of our Institute, we mentored someone who became the new PJ Library co-chair, and also added to their cadre of professionals besides.”
Ten women between the ages of 25-45 are chosen for a cohort each year. The candidates must be nominated by a community leader or member of a previous WLI cohort and then complete an application. The program requires that each member of the cohort attend an opening retreat, meet once a month for a year to join together in study, attend part or all of Limmud Arizona, and meet regularly with a mentor. They are also required to take on a community project or position of their own choosing, of any size, small or large.
Kanter explains that the applicant criteria, is simple. “We are looking for people who are open to growing Jewishly, open to growing as leaders, and open to making connections with people outside of their own sphere.”
She shared that a common denominator amongst the first three cohorts that have completed the WLI so far is that there are always several who are active in their synagogues but don’t know anyone outside of that community and truly want to connect with people living and working right next door, who they might not be familiar with.
“As a result of our year together,” Kanter said, “each participant in the Institute connects with 10 other young Jewish women from different synagogues and communities who have varied interests and those connections yield not only lasting friendships but very fruitful partnerships.”
Equally as important, Kanter adds, are the mentor-mentee relationships that are the crux of the Institutes’ mission. In addition to the group study meeting that occurs once a month, all of the women in each Institute cohort meet with their mentor once a month. Initially, they are given a study assignment for each meeting but toward the end of fall, the meetings move toward a focus on the specific project that the mentee has taken on, and how the mentor can support her in her endeavor.
Most often, the mentor-mentee relationship is intergenerational and really serves to knit the fabric of the community together, Kanter said. She culls mentors from professional colleagues she’s encountered either through her teaching, women’s organizations she’s been involved with or in her travels throughout Jewish spaces in the Phoenix area.
In some cases, the matches between mentor and mentee foster connections that never would have happened otherwise. Kanter recalls a pairing of a young woman from one of the reform synagogues in Phoenix, who was looking to expand her knowledge of the larger Jewish community, with a mentor from the orthodox community in Phoenix, which yielded a wonderful match for both of them.
“This program is really about the networking,” Kanter said. “Many of our mentees are high-powered young women who run businesses and raise families and want to meet other like-minded Jewish young women but they don’t want to do it at a happy hour. Rather, they want to network through meaningful volunteer work that will make a difference in their community.”
The mentors are also supported with training and resources. What’s more, each mentee has access to all of the mentors beyond the one that she meets with regularly. Because of that, the network becomes ever more vast and effective.
“For example,” Kanter explains, “one of our participants who was helping PJ Library wanted PJ Library to participate in a literacy night at the Pardes Day School. As it happened, the Head of School at Pardes was a mentor in our cohort to another woman. And so, an introduction was made and a partnership, launched.”
Some of the other projects that have launched as a result of the Institute include a program to help integrate Jews by Choice into their communities, a teen leadership program at the East Valley JCC, a Jewish Storytellers program, a Financial Literacy Guide created for an in partnership with the Jewish Free Loan Society, a re-launch of a Passover Seder for Gesher– for people with disabilities, a community of practice for Jewish preschool teachers, programming that connects the Jewish community with the Syrian refugee resettlement effort, and much, much more.
Kanter speaks with pride about the success of these projects, focusing on their sustainability, in particular.
“One of our mentees decided to launch a PJ Library Camp weekend, and expected that she would enroll 30-40 people. Turns out she had over 140 people attend—a sold out event. She is now running the program for a second year. This isn’t a requirement anymore—this is something she is inspired to do.”
Now, news of the Institute’s success has spread. Kanter regularly hears from colleagues and friends in cities outside of Phoenix who want to run a WLI in their neck of the woods. She has now begun to train Jewish professional colleagues in certain areas to run programs of their own, beginning with the Jewish community in Birmingham, Alabama, where Kanter and her family used to live.
“We offered to train them and help them get the program off the ground,” Kanter said, “and we gave them a little bit of funding to do it. They’ve already recruited a cohort of 12 mentees and mentors for next fall.”
Across town from Scottsdale at the East Valley JCC, another WLI cohort will launch in Fall 2019, and Kanter is also in conversation with colleagues in St. Louis who are looking to launch their own cohort soon, too.
“The thing about this program that makes it so replicable,” Kanter explained, “is that it’s very low budget, and the curriculum is there.” (Teachers and administrators of the program do receive a small stipend, but it’s far less then a salary they might command in the private sector doing similar work.)
“All we ask is that each subsequent city that launches a WLI then goes on to find another pilot city to teach, so that we are all ‘paying it forward,’ so to speak.”
Just last week, Kanter hosted the third annual Women’s Celebration, honoring the most recent graduating cohort of the WLI. “We really want to raise the profile of this program,” she said. “The community should know what’s happening.”
At the celebration, a female rabbi from the community begins with a few words of Torah, and then each cohort member has the chance to share details of the project they’re working on and are joined by a representative from the agency they’ve partnered with.
In an article reflecting on her experience as a mentor to the first cohort of the WLI, Ellen Sacks, Associate Executive Director of Jewish Free Loan, shared that there’s a “magic” element to what happens amongst the women who participate in this program.
“Good thing we, as a community, get to see and experience it in the coming years,” she writes. “As these amazing women continue their leadership journeys and become a true force for change.”
By Adina Kay-Gross, for The Covenant Foundation