In 2006, when Meredith Jacobs was writing “The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat,” she had two young kids and a website where she posted recipes and parenting advice.
But her book was going to be more focused: How to navigate the Sabbath as a modern, non-Orthodox family. For example, how do you create a meaningful Shabbat meal when your kids are coming home late from soccer practice?
“It was coming from a mom’s perspective of, how do we use the traditions and teachings of the Friday night dinner and Shabbat to help us grow and strengthen family,” Jacobs says.
Now, Jacobs is finishing her first month as CEO of Jewish Women International, an organization that seeks to empower and protect women and girls. Her route from the Modern Jewish Mom to a member of the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s board of directors, to the top executive at JWI epitomizes her long-standing involvement in the Jewish community and championing women’s causes.
She says she’s proud to be making an impact for women and girls at a legacy organization — JWI has been around since 1897, when it was founded as B’nai B’rith Women.
“I want to continue to build everything that’s already in place,” she says. “So all of our programs, all of our advocacy, I want those to get even deeper and bigger.”
She’s sitting at a round meeting table in her eighth-floor office at JWI headquarters near Dupont Circle in Washington. Jacobs, 52, has held several roles with the organization, beginning in 2009 as a member of the board of trustees. She was hired as vice president of communications in 2014 and later promoted to chief operating officer.
The transition to CEO has been smooth, says Jacobs. Her predecessor, Lori Weinstein, now CEO emerita, has been mentoring her for years.
“It’s such a lucky and fortunate and unusual opportunity when people can work together seamlessly in a transition of leadership and responsibility,” says Weinstein, who retired at the end of last year. “I thought that she really had a wonderful — not just the skillset, but a vision that would make her an excellent leader and successor.”
Weinstein says it takes perseverance, resilience and dedication to run a women’s organization that has been fighting for a lot of the same issues — education about sexual misconduct, financial literacy for women and issues of gender and power on college campuses — for 50 years. She says Jacobs has a lot of the qualities necessary to do the job well.
“Meredith is incredibly smart, she’s got a big vision, she’s very creative. She has wonderful interpersonal skills for [being] a good leader that I think is so important,” Weinstein says.
Back in 2006, when she was working on the “Guide to Shabbat,” Jacobs wanted a rabbi to check that everything was accurate. She asked Rabbi Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation, who was also a mom of young children at the time, to look through the book.
Shankman says Jacobs considered all perspectives and made everything very accessible.
“[The idea was that] any mom could do this, and that as a community we have to help each other to navigate what it means to be a Jewish mom in the 21st century,” Shankman says.
That year, Jacobs decided to attend Jewish Women International’s yearly Women to Watch awards, where Shankman received the Community Leadership Award. That was Jacobs’ introduction to JWI, and she says she was so inspired that she immediately wanted to get involved.
Jacobs is particularly excited about two programs she’s overseeing: the Jewish Communal Women’s Leadership Project and Men as Allies.
The Jewish Communal Women’s Leadership Project, which will facilitate discussions between women who are in senior leadership positions, is being piloted in Washington. Men as Allies focuses on educating men on how they can be helpful allies to the women around them.
Jacobs says the men who train in the program, often on college campuses and at Jewish community centers, appreciate JWI’s approach.
“We work with men not as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, but as partners,” Jacobs says. “And so that’s our approach that makes it easier for men to come to the table and be part of changing the culture.”
Shankman, who is on the JWI board, says Jacobs’ evolution as a leader has been natural, and she’s excited to see her friend at the helm of JWI.
“What I believe is going to happen is Meredith is going to build on Lori’s foundation, but also use her own voice and qualities to take it that next step,” says Shankman, “but continuing to strengthen the role that JWI plays in the lives of girls and women, but also men and boys.”
And Jacobs wants to get more people involved with the organization. “I’m so tired of people saying, ‘What’s JWI?’ and then I say, ‘We’re 120 years old!’ I think the time is right for women who are looking to be engaged in community. And I think the issue areas that we work on are really resonating right now.”
Writing her way up
Jacobs was born outside Philadelphia. In the early 2000s she was making her way around Maryland media markets.
She became WYPR-FM in Baltimore’s resident Jewish mom, talking about Jewish holidays and practices. Eventually, she was hosting her own radio show, “Connecting Family,” from 2007 to 2011.
She had a parenting column at the Baltimore Jewish Times (now an affiliate publication of Washington Jewish Week) from 2005 to 2014.
In 2011, Washington Jewish Week editor Phil Jacobs hired Meredith Jacobs as managing editor. The two are not related.
She didn’t have a journalism background, but Phil Jacobs says he was looking for someone who could build connections in the Jewish community.
“Learning how to write an article in a newspaper, I knew she had the tools and the ability to do that,” Phil Jacobs says. “It was more of helping the newspaper reflect what was going on in the suburban Washington Jewish community, so I needed that strong right hand person to do that.”
When Phil Jacobs stepped down in 2013, she was named editor of Washington Jewish Week.
A year later, she left the Washington Jewish Week to become vice president of communications at JWI. It happened after a conversation with Weinstein, who had become a friend through Jacobs’ involvement with JWI. When Weinstein suggested that Jacobs take the job, Jacobs says she said, “I was hoping you would say that.”
Her work at JWI has allowed her to cultivate a career she’s especially passionate about.
“My family is so important,” she says. “And if I was going to do something that was going to pull me away from them, I wanted it to be something that I felt was really giving back to the world. And I really feel that here.”
Her family has been a constant part of her writing career as well. She and her daughter, Sofie, have co-written a series of two-person journals — the first was a journal meant to help mothers and daughters communicate — called “Just Between Us.”
“Sofie was 9 … when she said, ‘Could we start keeping our journal together and write back and forth?’ and that’s what’s turned into all of these books,” Jacobs says. “And some is funny and some is serious.”
This spring, a mothers and sons version, which Jacobs wrote with her son, Jules, will be published. In her office, a big poster of mock-ups for the journal’s artwork stands framed on a shelf.
She says she’ll always be the Modern Jewish Mom at heart, but before JWI announced her new position, she changed her Twitter handle from @modernjewishmom to @meredithljacobs.
“That was weird for me. It was like letting go,” she says. “It was letting [part of my identity] go, because I almost don’t want to be the Jewish mommy anymore … It’s not who I am right now. My kids are young adults. It’s time for me to really put on the JWI hat.”
The head of JWI
In her first month, Jacobs has had a stream of meetings, phone calls and programs to attend to. But she’s eager to get rolling.
“I’m excited to, as scary as it is, to be the one where the buck stops with me. To say, ‘This is my vision and this is what I want to do.’ I want us to be bold.”
Jacobs says she brings many perspectives to the job.
“Being VP of communications and then COO, I got to work with all of the departments, so … I’ve had a part of everything we do, whether it’s working with the college students [or] being on the hill,” Jacobs says.
Weinstein agrees that those perspectives will help Jacobs in her role as CEO.
“What’s been fantastic is that Meredith has had [these positions] within JWI so she had seen how the organization has flourished in the last 10 years, and she’s been a part of it,” Weinstein says.
Plus, she has a lot of connections in the Jewish world.
Jacobs adds, “I have deep ties to the community. I’ve been able to build a lot of wonderful partnerships with the Jewish community kind of tying us really closely to our Jewish roots and finding ways to bring our work to more parts of the community.”
Those ties are part of what makes Meredith an obvious choice for the job as CEO at JWI, says Phil Jacobs — she brings “oxygen to the community.”
“She is the perfect leader in that sense. She fits right into the puzzle of Jewish suburban Washington. Jewish Washington is made better by her elevation. You want Meredith Jacobs in charge, OK?” he says. “She’s going to use her vision, is going to raise everyone’s game on the team, and is going to transcend JWI.”