Women to watch

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Once the words came out of my mouth I realized how strange they sounded. “I won’t be in on Monday, I have women to watch.” My staff laughed. What I meant, of course, was my favorite event of the year, Jewish Women International’s annual luncheon honoring 10 amazing Jewish women. Dubbed “Women to Watch,” it never fails to humble and inspire. This year, as in years past, the list of honorees was powerful and diverse including philanthropist and innovator, Lisa Eisen; television producer (whose credits include Weeds, Chicago Fire and The Sopranos), Danielle Gelber; Mexican-Jewish chef and television host, Pati Jinich; outreach educator and founder of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, Lori Palanik; fashion blogger and advocate for body diversity in the fashion industry, Nicolette Mason; community leader and advocate for assisted reproductive technologies, Meryl Rosenberg; and more. Each was equally moving as she spoke about her journey and shared her “pearls of wisdom.”
One bravely set aside her many graduate degrees to follow her dream, much to her father’s concern. One told of how she negotiated for the right to leave work at 5, so she could be home each night to have dinner, supervise homework and tuck in her daughter. One made us laugh as she spoke of walking into her sorority at the University of Michigan in full ROTC fatigues, the first Jewish girl to do so. And one said while it is every Jewish mother’s job to make her children comfortable, what she wants is for her children to get uncomfortable — because that’s when things get interesting.
This year, JWI did something different. And while I’ve always said that the morning’s “Up Close and Personal” symposium, where the honorees answer questions about family, community, Judaism and leadership, was the part I loved most about Women to Watch, this year, the first (hopefully annual) Young Women’s Leadership Conference, held on Sunday, was what stood out for me. The YWLC gathered honorees from this and previous years with young women in their 20s and 30s. The older (ouch! considering I was among them) women gave advice, answering questions about finding mentors and sponsors, about balancing work and family, about negotiating salaries and finding time for self and spirituality.
The workshop I participated in, “Advice to my 25-year-old self,” had Gelber, Jinich and Kim Holstein, JWI Board chair and founder of The Crave Bar, and yours truly reflecting on what we wish we understood then. But I could hear echoes, as I was talking, of my mother and other women saying the same things to me years ago. I know, as much as Danielle, Pati, Kim and I said, “Don’t rush … you are so young, you have time,” the young women in the room felt old and rushed. I know they feel that at 26, they have to have their life figured out and be firmly on their path. We all said, the path is not straight. Life winds and turns in unexpected ways, but follow it and you’ll be fine. Keep your eyes open to opportunities. Be brave. Be uncomfortable. Leap before you look. And raise your hand.
One young woman told us of an opportunity she had to take the year off and travel the world, but she was concerned it would take her off of her career path.
“Go!” we all said. “We’ll pack your bags,” we offered, telling her now was the time in her life to have such an adventure and that later on, with children and spouse and responsibilities, it would be almost impossible. And, we added, think of everything you will learn and experience in that year that will make you a richer and more interesting person.
I wonder if she will go. I know I wouldn’t have. I, like the young women in the room, was in too much of a hurry to get to wherever it was I was supposed to go. Funny how once you are there, you realize you didn’t have to rush.
The young women were incredibly impressive. Many were young staffers at national Jewish organizations like BBYO and Hillel, there, perhaps because of Lisa Eisen, who is the national director for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. A friend of mine, who is a former honoree and a highly accomplished and sought-out professional, told me that while there’s only so much time to offer advice or mentor, she found herself offering her help.
I was saddened to hear one of the honorees explain that a man only needs to feel 20 percent confident before raising his hand at a meeting, while a woman needs to feel 80 percent sure before speaking. We need to change that. It’s not enough for women to be at the table. We need to be brave and bold and loud and strong. We need to be fearless and funny. And we need to continue to have moments like we had this past Sunday and Monday, when we listened to and learned from each other.
On another note, Rabbi Paul from SULAM emailed me that a donor has offered a $50,000 matching fund until the end of December. If you are interested in donating, go to sulam.org for more information or to make a credit card donation. You can also email the program directly at [email protected]

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