Dr. Madelyn Katz, Associate Dean, Jack H. Skirball Campus, Los Angeles, created and led the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) Wilkenfeld International Women’s Leadership Seminar on April 12-14, 2016 in London, England. She writes:
Twenty progressive Jewish women leaders, from seventeen countries all over the world, in one small meeting room in a hotel in London. Spending less than a total of 48 hours together. Learning about leadership, sharing personal stories of Jewish identity, reading and singing the liturgy we all share, and, of course, eating together. We began our time together on a Tuesday early evening as relative strangers and concluded on Thursday afternoon as Jewish women united in our dedication to further strengthening Progressive Judaism throughout the world.
It was, by far, one of the most powerful experiences for all of us.
Fewer than half of the applicants were selected to participate in this prestigious program. This year’s attendees were from: Brazil, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. The Seminar was the brainchild of WRJ Past President Dolores Wilkenfeld and reflects her passion for cultivating women’s leadership and her lifelong support for WRJ and WUPJ.
“This was a unique opportunity to deepen the connection between these women and Women of Reform Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We look forward to seeing them apply the lessons learned in this seminar to fortify their local Jewish communities and expand their own leadership roles,” expressed WRJ President Blair Marks. She added, “We are thrilled to expand our global reach through these women, and we look forward to supporting them in their growth as religious and community leaders.”
The Women of Reform Judaism, an affiliate of the Union of Reform Judaism, a North American organization, spends a lot of time and energy promoting the identity of Progressive Judaism throughout the world. The WRJ chose to inaugurate this leadership seminar in London immediately prior to the European Union for Progressive Judaism's conference in April. From the very beginning, the seminar was a combined effort of the WRJ and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Having worked on leadership development with the Western region of the WRJ, I was asked to shape and facilitate the seminar, thereby bringing HUC-JIR into the fold of Progressive Jewish organizations supporting this unique and powerful agenda - to work with rising Jewish women leaders from all over the world.
For any of the women sitting in this room who were unaware of what Progressive Judaism looked like throughout the world it was a startling experience. From young women leaders from the Former Soviet Union who spoke of the challenges they are facing when synagogues are in competition with one another, to the woman leader from Denmark who expressed the reality that ”fundraising” isn't part of the culture of Denmark (it is considered very “American”). Hearing all of us sing Debbie Friedman melodies during tefillah and then a Torah trope completely unfamiliar to many of us. We recognized how much the world of Progressive Judaism has evolved over the years and yet how there are still some pretty important ways we express our Judaism in the very same way. These similarities stretch across the miles and the years. In addition, we shared ways of expressing our Judaism as Jews by birth and Jewish by choice.
In addition to the leadership work in which we were engaged, we had the inspiring opportunity to visit the Leo Baeck College and to learn from their Principal, Rabbi Dr. Deborah Kahn-Harris. We were also greeted by rabbinical student Haim Casas, who will be the first Spanish Progressive Jew to be ordained as a rabbi. Other Leo Baeck students led us in Birkat HaMazon, which, in and of itself, was a wonderful example of unity and diversity, as we sang in unison for much of the blessing but then thoroughly enjoyed hearing the various “camp” melodies from regions all over the world. (Imagine seeing the hand motions Jewish kids use in Holland. We have a lot to learn!) We also were blessed to have two Leo Baeck rabbinical students lead tefillah on Thursday morning, and were able to feel our unity as we shared common melodies and then appreciated our diversity as we listened to the Torah portion being chanted in a Western Ashkenazic trope which was new for many of us. It was quite exhilarating for everyone.
The best aspect of the program was that the ending was, in fact, just a beginning. Each woman went home with a specific action plan to be implemented within her community – a plan which she worked on in consultation with other seminar participants. In addition, that action plan is being shared with the World Union regional representatives who will assist the women in achieving their goals.
Finally, the message to everyone was how strong the global Progressive Jewish community is and what exciting possibilities exist within the many organizational partnerships we have available. Watching the voices of these twenty international women engaged with the WRJ, the WUPJ, and HUC-JIR left us all feeling quite energized to do more work together to achieve the goal of global unity.