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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, of the Lower Merion Synagogue in the Philadelphia suburbs, has been named founding director of the Orthodox Union’s Department of Women’s Initiatives.  With extensive experience in Jewish communal work and 20 years teaching female high school students, Dr. Shmidman told The Jewish Link there are already many strong leaders working in our communities, whether in the home, on boards, in education or at lay leadership levels, and that the Department of Women’s Initiatives will work with them, and others, to help propel the community forward in a positive, halachically permissible fashion.

The creation of Shmidman’s position is a culmination of hundreds of hours of work by the OU and its poskim. Last February, the OU released a statement and rabbinic response regarding the halachic parameters of women’s participation in synagogue life. One of the statement’s directives indicated there are significant untapped resources in today’s Orthodox women leaders, who serve the community in many capacities. The rabbinic panel recommended that new approaches be developed to encourage leadership opportunities for women in every halachically permitted facet of synagogue and communal life.

The OU established a national search committee, comprised of its president, COO and four female board officers, to find the director of a new department to develop these approaches throughout its member synagogues, divisions and departments. “The OU is committed to putting its full array of resources into this bold, new department,” said OU President Moishe Bane.

“We engaged in a months-long national search to lead what is an enormously important new program and department and were hugely successful in identifying just such a person,” said Allen Fagin, the OU’s executive vice president and COO. “Adina Shmidman is a well-known educator, has served in communities large and small, and so has the perspective of the range of communities that we hope will avail themselves of the services of this new department. She is familiar with the educational institutions and synagogues of our community,” but, “what may be her most important credential is she is personable and dynamic and a visionary and absolutely dedicated, as we are, to increasing opportunities for women in the areas of learning, leadership and spiritual growth.”

In working as both a community rebbetzin and an educator with a PhD in educational psychology from CUNY, Dr. Shmidman said she learned alongside her grandmother, Elaine Wolf, z”l, who was a founding rebbetzin in the then-virtually nonexistent Jewish community of Great Neck, New York, which is now an incredible center for Torah and communal vibrancy. Dr. Shmidman, because of that relationship with her grandmother, became the founding chair of the Rebbetzin Elaine Wolf a”h Rebbetzin to Rebbetzin Mentoring Program at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, which was formed to create mentor-mentee roles for rebbetzins.

However, this new role is not all about rebbetzins. Dr. Shmidman’s role in this new department is about entire communities and how they work together effectively. She said the most important skills she brings to the job are careful listening and a sensitive ear. “It is about looking at things with a growth-oriented, constructive eye, and take what’s already there to solve problems in an impactful way,” she said.

An example of this is in considering inclusion of women with special needs who need to use a mikvah, or in making sure that women’s sections in shul are retained for women who want to daven, even if there are significantly fewer women in shul on any given weekday. “It’s really about saying that people are thinking about each other as a community and being sensitive to other people’s needs. Maybe it’s retaining 50 seats out of 200 if a women’s section is needed by men for a larger minyan, but also making sure it is done in a sensitive way,” she said. Another example might include evaluating and addressing the need for babysitting services at Shabbat scholar-in-residence events to enable more women to attend. It’s about using women’s strengths collaboratively and creatively, in as many ways as possible.

Dr. Shmidman also demonstrated a deep understanding of the experience of living both “in town,” like where she grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, and in the 120-family community of Birmingham, Alabama, where she served as a pulpit rebbetzin for nine years. “I never understood that 10 (to make a minyan) was such a big number until I lived in Birmingham,” she said. “Understanding that the New York community is filled with a lot of infrastructure, it was meaningful that our reach in Birmingham was not limited to people who were ‘like us,’ but we had friends and relationships with people who were not observant in the same way, but also passionate about their Judaism and the value of a Jewish community and were Jewishly minded.”

Dr. Shmidman understands her work will impact all communities that house member institutions and must be rolled out sensitively and in consideration of the varied communities under the OU’s umbrella. She indicated the value she places on the OU and the honor she feels to be entrusted to guide the initiative.

“The exciting part about working for the OU is not just the resources that they are investing. There is a lot happening, people are passionate and excited to be helping and contributing to klal Yisrael, using the resources to work together to roll this out effectively and impactfully. We can tap into the latent brain trust of these professionals and work with or alongside the departments that are already working in synagogue services, NCSY—rolling out the Department of Women’s Initiatives throughout the OU and the synagogues,” she said.

She noted that she could not take this job without her “teammate,” her husband Rabbi Avraham Shmidman, who, along with their four sons, looks forward to supporting her as she commutes a few days a week to New York from Bala Cynwyd.

The OU will implement the department’s new programs and initiatives through its extensive network of hundreds of OU synagogues, more than 200 NCSY locations, Yachad’s 12 regional chapters, and OU-JLIC’s 24 campuses, and will engage and partner with local communal and national institutions.

Some of the early initiatives of the department will include defining leadership roles, developing lay leadership and training opportunities, initiating learning groups, promoting and providing opportunities for female scholars to serve as speakers and scholars-in-residence, creating opportunities for high-level Torah learning, creating events for young women for Torah and secular learning opportunities, wellness, developing ways for capturing community feedback, and understanding and optimizing synagogue usability.  

“We envision the [Department of] Women’s Initiative[s] as being a center of innovation, integration and growth for women in the Orthodox community,” said search committee member Marian Stoltz-Loike, who is dean at Lander College for Women and an expert on diversity and work-life issues.