Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative Program Creates Critical Peer Network for Community First Responders

hero image
21 Jul 2023

The Fellowship for Women Community Leaders Teaches Foundational Skills of Mental Health Support

On a recent Monday in mid-July, 45 women from across North America united for a two-day seminar at a cozy boutique hotel in Great Neck, New York. Their purpose: to meet in person for the first time and exchange ideas stemming from two months’ worth of learning and skills they had just acquired as participants of the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative annual Foundations of Community Mental Health Support Fellowship.

L-R at OU’s Women’s Initiative Foundations of Community Mental Health Support Fellowship Seminar: Rachel Isaacs of Phoenix, A.Z.; Esther Friedman of Teaneck, N.J.; Deena Rabinovich of Queens, N.Y.; Shira Heidemann of Baltimore, M.D.; Rachel Yaghobian of Houston, T.X.; and CM Gerson of Springfield, N.J.

The fellows included select rebbetzins, kallah teachers, and kiruv and chinuch professionals who were among the first and second cohort trained to identify and support community members struggling with mental health issues. As those who regularly interact with community members, these women largely serve as “first responders” when it comes to identifying and dealing with personal, marital and familial crises.

“Women in community roles do not have a natural chevra to connect with for support – there is no rebbetzin school,” says OU Women’s Initiative Director Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, who launched the fellowship in 2022. “They’re very alone. The fellowship is a space of support and of insight, and it is sacrosanct in offering them both the toolbox and the peer group to tackle mental health issues in the community.”

Mental health is a topic of prime importance to Rebbetzin Dr. Shmidman, who holds a master’s degree in school psychology and a PhD in educational psychology, and serves as rebbetzin of the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. She has always felt strongly about the need to support women in communal leadership roles, and says the fellowship was born from this passion. 

The program’s objectives include introducing general mental health concepts, developing participants’ intuition to learn to recognize when and how to support community members and refer them to professionals in the field, and creating a network that enables them to consult with one another long-term. It does not, however, train participants to practice as clinicians or coaches.

L-R: Rebbetzin Dr. Jessica Kalmar and participant Aviva Wercberger of Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Leaders from across the Jewish communal landscape are experiencing a dramatic rise in issues related to mental health,” says OU Managing Director of Community Engagement Rabbi Yaakov Glasser. “While treatment remains the domain of mental health professionals, a broader understanding of the related issues empowers community leaders to support their constituents in their personal challenges, and more effectively connect individuals with the help that they need. The Women’s Initiative convened leaders from many different contexts of institutional life, creating a community of devoted professionals who can work together in elevating the health and well-being of our broader community.”

This year’s cohort of 33 women explored common psychological issues; counseling skills such as effective listening, confidentiality and building trust; understanding family systems and the impact of troubled relationships; providing support and calming crises; gathering the necessary information to identify when to refer to professionals; an introduction to common diagnoses including anxiety, depression, OCD and ADHD; the impact of traumatic events; and issues related to adolescence. 

OU Women’s Initiative Director Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman and presenter Debbie Fox

Debra Green of Far Rockaway, New York is a Judaic Studies teacher and 12th grade advisor at SKA (Stella K. Abraham) High School for Girls, a kallah teacher, and a helpline advocate at Ani Ledodi, a referral helpline that addresses concerns regarding intimacy and women’s health. In her almost three decades as an educator, she has been the first point of contact for people of all ages dealing with mental health challenges. She says the fellowship was absolutely vital to her leadership roles, and she would participate again in a heartbeat. Beyond the scope of information she acquired, the experience inspired her to continue learning more on the topic. She also greatly valued the opportunity to refine her listening skills, among others.

“For community leaders to offer a safe place for people to discuss their problems, people need to feel that we are empathetic,” she says. “We may not have all the answers, but we can guide people onward and be that listener for people to come to, to talk. I know I’ve been a good listener already, but now I think I can hone in on being more open to hearing and understanding.”

Each week, the fellows attended a two-hour, virtual course taught by licensed clinical social workers, therapists, psychologists and psychotherapists – many of whom are university professors and directors of mental health programs who also serve as rebbetzins in their communities. Following an hour-long presentation on a mental health-related subject, the professionals moderated small group discussions unpacking the presentation or tackling issues relevant to their respective communities.

Rebbetzin Dr. Jessica Kalmar was a fellowship program facilitator and seminar presenter both in 2022 and 2023. As rebbetzin of Anshei Sfard Kehillat Torah (ASKT) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she knows firsthand what it’s like to serve as the first point of contact for those seeking help for mental health challenges. As an associate professor of psychology, a psychology laboratory director and an honors program coordinator at Wisconsin’s Lakeland University, she also understands how communal professionals without any background or training in mental health may feel ill-equipped when presented with constituents’ concerns. 

Rebbetzin Dr. Kalmar says, “With the high-quality training provided by the OU Women’s Initiative, these communal professionals can now listen to constituents’ concerns with a newfound confidence and the knowledge that they are more adept at listening with an educated ear and have the skills to direct people towards the assistance they might need.” 

Rebbetzin Dr. Kalmar notes that although people talk about a reduction in the stigma surrounding mental illness, research supports that it persists and that it remains a large concern for those suffering, as well as health care professionals and policy makers. The stigma also continues to serve as a barrier towards seeking treatment, societal productivity, and allocation of resources towards mental health, she says. 

“While evidence that stigma is abating is limited, anecdotally we are aware of an increasing openness towards discussions of this most sensitive topic,” says Rebbetzin Dr. Kalmar. “The OU Women’s Initiative seized on this developing zeitgeist, and is working in this space to build more awareness of the true experiences of those who suffer from mental illness, and to dispel the mistaken beliefs that lead to stigmatization and shame.”

The program is transformative for participants, says Rebbetzin Dr. Shmidman, in that it provides them with a framework, a vocabulary and a safe space to navigate personal issues with professionals.

“It was such a treasured space for the first cohort in 2022 that we actually continued the small group facilitated conversations throughout the year, and the women were so intent on being present,” she says.

The fellowship was particularly meaningful for Rachel Isaacs, who became rebbetzin of Phoenix, Arizona’s Beth Joseph Congregation after a career change and therefore had not spent years training for the role. Phoenix is a growing community with a diverse population, says Rebbetzin Isaacs, and complicated situations and tragedies naturally arise.

“Prior to the fellowship, I often found myself unaware of what resources were available and who to turn to,” she recalls. “With tragedies and mental health disorders, each situation is so unique and there’s no single organization that you can have on speed dial that is able to assist all the people involved in each case. I did my best under the circumstances and that had to be good enough, but I often felt that my best just wasn’t enough for the people struggling. After completing the fellowship, I feel so much more knowledgeable and prepared to refer people to the appropriate helplines and to find them support while they go through the process. I now have a solid support system with extensive resources.”

A highlight of the fellowship for Green was meeting so many peers holding similar roles from across the country, and developing a strong network of friends and professionals that she can now consult moving forward. One theme that resonated deeply with Green was the fellowship’s focus on the participants themselves.

I didn’t realize the fellowship was also going to touch upon ourselves, our roles and how they affect us as people — emotionally, our family life, and our time management,” she noted. “It was really nice to be able to share our ups and downs with people from different places and to have a facilitator help us to analyze our feelings. That was a really good experience and for me, it reinforced the importance of self-care.”

The fellowship culminates in a two-day seminar, which was held this year at the Inn at Great Neck, a quaint hotel that Rebbetzin Shmidman and her team selected for its intimate setting. 

“I wanted everyone to feel that togetherness,” she says. “The place we chose conveyed to participants, ‘You have our support. No matter where you work, whether in New York or the middle of nowhere, you have the largest international Orthodox organization holding you. Know that we are here for you, with you and we’ll support you down the line.”

This year’s seminar featured 18 presenters including Rebbetzin Dr. Kalmar; psychologist and author Dr. David Pelcovitz, who holds the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University; clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist Dr. Bea Hollander-Goldfein, who is the director of the Transcending Trauma Project, a comprehensive research project investigating coping and adaptation after extreme trauma at the Council for Relationships (CFR); Dr. Rona Novick, dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University, associate clinical professor of child psychology at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Medical Center and co-educational director of Hidden Sparks, a program for children with learning differences; Rachel Hercman, a psychotherapist specializing in relationships, sexual intimacy, and trauma who serves as a consultant for clergy, educators, and therapists and is clinical director of the Layers Project Magazine; and Debbie Fox, a licensed social worker and founding director of L.A.’s Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute.

“Debbie Fox took us through a thought-provoking exercise that helped us to visualize our various roles and how we relate to them,” recalls Rebbetzin Isaacs. “Although we did the exercise with our eyes closed, I found it to be very eye-opening and insightful, and could feel my body’s physical response to her clear and calming directives. She ended the seminar with a similar exercise, and after spending two days of enrichment, learning, personal advice, sharing, and support from the experts and veteran presenters, it was quantifiably clear to all that we had gained more than we could have ever imagined.”

Green particularly appreciated the chance to learn from, and connect with, presenter Cheryl Epstein, dean of Philadelphia’s Kosloff Torah Academy and an experienced teacher who serves as a consultant to Torah Umesorah, mentoring leaders of girls’ schools. 

“I found her approach to be wonderful,” says Green. “Mrs. Epstein spoke about neuroplasticity with teenage girls and understanding the teenage brain, and I thought her presentation was excellent. I’m definitely going to look at my students and children differently now. We also sat and spoke for a while as professionals, and she offered me career advice. I really enjoyed our interaction.”

Rebbetzin Dr. Shmidman moderated a panel discussion featuring OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer, Mrs. Fox and Dr. Pelcovitz. Participants chose from a variety of moderated sessions on topics such as navigating issues of confidentiality and disclosure; sensitizing our communities to single-parent homes; eating disorders; relationships and intimacy; and addictions and numbing behaviors. There were also sessions on practical issues related to the referral process and de-stigmatizing mental illness.

Among the many lessons that Rebbetzin Isaacs took home from the fellowship is the idea that community members struggling with mental health issues can lead happy, fulfilling lives with the right support.

Rebbetzin Isaacs said, “Although sadly some people spend extended periods of their lives in turmoil battling mental health issues, everyone can struggle for a short time due to a specific circumstance, but their need for assistance often goes undetected. With the right help at the right time, people can deal with the crisis and move forward to lead blissful and meaningful lives. We have been empowered to recognize such a situation that may need intervention, and what type of help would be most effective. This can potentially improve the quality of life for so many people and the network they interact with.”