The Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations in Maryland hosted its 101st convention May 11 at Temple Oheb Shalom, attracting a couple hundred women and grappling with how to keep their organizations relevant in today’s world.
The federation is home to nearly 30 Jewish women’s organizations — mostly congregation sisterhoods and service organizations — and celebrated 100 years of existence last year. With the annual convention, the federation looks to provide education and networking opportunities. It often attracts up to 300-some women, according to Carol Caplan, a past federation president.
“Education is a key [part of the convention],” said Linda Boteach, first vice president of the federation. “So, the women can go back to their organizations and start these conversations.”
The day started with an invocation from Rabbi Steven Fink of Oheb Shalom who praised the women’s work, which he said too often is behind the scenes and unrecognized.
Then a number of federation officers presented reports and remarks about federation operations before the morning’s first program began, a panel presentation called “Being Jewish Women in Today’s Changing World.” The panel was moderated by longtime WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller and featured Lara Franks, a certified health coach and partner in a food service company; Liz Minkin Friedman, director of development and strategic advancement at Krieger Schechter Day School; and Rina Janet, general chair of Israel Bonds Maryland.
Miller’s first few questions centered on how to recruit younger volunteers and what younger women are looking for in groups they join. The women on the panel said they believed you had to meet women where they are at and change the paradigm of times and places they could help.
“They want to feel like you’re going to use their skills,” said Friedman. “They don’t just want to put their name on a project.”
Miller also opened up the floor to some audience questions, and one about the role of addressing social justice for Jewish organizations really sparked a lively conversation.
Franks, especially, dove in with an impassioned response against the increasing polarization of society.
“I feel as a Jewish woman we really need to have the ability to go beyond labels,” she said. Franks is Orthodox, while the woman who asked the question, federation past president Sheila Derman, is Reform. “So we couldn’t possibly come together to work on a project coming from different observances? That’s rubbish. There’s much more that unites us.”
Practically speaking, however, Janet said, from her experience, organizations are probably only going to speak out on a controversial issue when it directly affects the group or its mission to avoid the risk of alienating members of different political backgrounds.
“If it’s a political decision that affects what they do, they might take a stand,” she said. “But if it’s a political decision over there that doesn’t affect them, their goals or the Jewish community, they probably won’t.”
After the panel, attendees headed to a catered kosher lunch, where a number of local politicians (or aides) showed up to mingle, praise the women’s work and present official recognitions of the federation. Politicians who came or sent representatives included Sen. Ben Cardin (whose wife, Myrna, came in his stead), the state director for Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Rep. John Sarbanes, Baltimore County executive Kevin Kamenetz, Sens. Delores Kelly (D-10), Bobby Zirkin (D-11) and Jim Brochen (D-42) and Dels. Jay Jalisi (D-10), Shelly Hettleman (D-11) and Dana Stein (D-11).
The post-lunch portion of the convention installed officers for the 2017-18 year of the federation, featured the keynote speech and gave out awards.
The keynote speech, “Jewish Women’s Organizations: Relevant or Relic,” was given by grassroots independent consultant Sammie Moshenberg (formerly with the National Council of Jewish Women). In it, she said it might be time for some of the old structure and ways of doing things to change for the future but emphasized that the mission of Jewish women’s organizations is more important than ever.
“I don’t need to tell you that there are challenging times for Jewish communal organizations,” she said. “But I’m here to tell you that the mission of Jewish women’s organizations could not be more relevant today.”
She pointed to a number of Jewish social justice organizations that have popped up in recent years that attract numerous young people. Those groups, she said, would love to partner with longstanding ones like those within the federation, both for guidance and to engage on issues that reflect Jewish values.
The women who attend the convention, generally in their 60s and older, reflecting the populations of their organizations, appreciate what the convention has to offer.
“I’m always very impressed with whatever the federation does. I thought that the speakers were well-informed,” said Gail Potashnick, a 12-year member of the Baltimore chapter of Brandeis National Committee. She added that issues raised at the convention often help her know what’s going on in the broader community and what needs to be done.
Arlene Block of Miriam Lodge, a philanthropic women’s organization founded in 1873, agreed and said she also hoped that more people would realize all of the good these organizations do both in the Jewish community and in the broader one.
“It’s a wonderful networking opportunity,” she said. “It’s great to hear what other organizations are doing.”
In the final part of the day came the awards. The E.B. Hirsh Lifetime Achievement Award went to Debra “Debs” Weinberg for her longtime service and community leadership. After that, one person from each organization was presented with the Embracer of Change Award, honoring that person’s “inspired leadership,” as the program put it.
Overall, the federation wanted to start its next 100 years off on the right foot, summed up by the end of Moshenberg’s keynote: “I have every confidence that as you enter your second century, you are up to the task.”