by Lori Weinstein
There are moments when you feel as though you are in the right place at the right time – when everything you have learned and experienced and accomplished in life has prepared you to be part of the change. Call it the hineni moment – that when called we answer “here we are" – but this is exactly where Jewish Women International finds itself today.
Our legacy of inspired Jewish women’s leadership, of being the leading Jewish voice working to end violence against all women and girls, of fighting so that all women have access to long-term economic security, of working with students so that our campuses are safe, of building harbors for the youngest victims of violence, and of mentoring the next generation of women leaders – this is what we draw upon now. This work is the source of our strength.
For those readers for whom this is your introduction to JWI, we were founded 120 years ago as B’nai B’rith Women. Always a progressive women’s organization, BBW was the first Jewish organization to support the Equal Rights Amendment. In the 1980s, one of our members was shot and killed by her husband and our mission became focused on ending violence against all women and girls. Our approach is preventative and holistic, branching from our three pillars of ending violence; ensuring financial literacy; and empowering and spotlighting women’s leadership.
Like our founding members did, thousands of JWI supporters participated in women’s marches across the country this past January. In D.C., at the site of the main march, JWI partnered with the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue for Shabbat services and workshops. I had the wonderful opportunity to lead the day’s final workshop, teaching attendees how to harness the inspiration gleaned from the day to make a difference. We had already planned to expand our civic engagement program created last summer under the banner “Vote Like A Girl”– encouraging young women to educate themselves around issues critical to women and girls that would inform their vote. But the power of the diversity of women’s voices rising together, speaking out on issues that have been our issues for decades, let us know we were on the right track.
So this past year, JWI has created local and national events – from private briefings to advocacy days – putting women face to face with lawmakers to speak out about dangerous loopholes in guns laws; about access to reproductive health; about pay equity; and about provisions that will make our campuses safer for all students.
We now begin each week with our 3-2-1 Action email, giving readers three easy actions to take on issues that threaten the ability of women to thrive. A nod to the stressful nature of these times is given in the final “Just for you” item on each email that makes a suggestion for self-care –from taking a walk through sunflower fields to baking a peach cobbler – we need to share ways to focus on what is good in the world.
Our advocacy work expands to other faith organizations through JWI’s Interfaith Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Under JWI’s leadership, this coalition of 40 faith groups works together on behalf of unifying issues including the introduction and passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) and ending gun violence.
As a respected voice on Capitol Hill, JWI is proud to be at the helm of the Engaging Men as Allies taskforce for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. JWI was a leader in rallying the Jewish community at the last VAWA reauthorization. This time, it is our unique expertise working with men in the quest to end violence that is being called upon.
Our work with men is one way JWI is different from other groups working to end sexual assault and domestic violence. We are proud to be the education and philanthropic partner of the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) national fraternity. Our work with ZBT and our other philanthropic partner, Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) sorority, led to the creation of the award-winning Safe Smart Dating workshop. Safe, Smart Dating is the first co-ed, peer-led healthy relationship and bystander intervention workshop created specifically for the campus Greek community.
This interactive workshop allows space for young men and women to come together to better understand what is and is not a healthy relationship. It shows them how to spot warning signs and know how to help when a friend is in either an unhealthy relationship or a potentially dangerous situation. This past year, Safe Smart Dating was held on 13 campuses throughout the country, including Cornell, UCLA, University of Wisconsin, and Rutgers. And, this summer, Green Light, Go!, the event ZBT chapters host on campus to raise awareness around consent, was honored with the Laurel Wreath award for outstanding work in the fraternal world. Safe Smart Dating had previously been honored with a Laurel Wreath.
Our work on campus extends beyond fraternities and sororities. Our Change the Culture programs allow students to lead critical discussions on campus on topics such as the importance of the language we use that can create a culture of violence. Change the Culture is being brought to ten campuses this coming year thanks to grants from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York; the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta; the Dept. of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women; and the Mt. Sinai Community Foundation.
We are recognized as a thought leader for our innovative work in the Orthodox Jewish community. Our Boy to Mentsch workshops for fathers and sons in the Baltimore Orthodox community was recognized by the Slingshot Fund as one of the most innovative in the Jewish world. And, the world renowned acapella group, the Maccabeats, contributed a song to raise awareness of our important Get Smart series – hoping to end get abuse by normalizing the signing of the halachic pre-nuptial agreement.
Understanding the dangerous connection between domestic violence and financial abuse, and that women with resources have more options to secure their safety, JWI is committed to educating women of all ages about financial literacy. Our Life$avings workshops are hosted by SDT chapters and open to all women on campus. JCCs, synagogues and community groups bring JWI to their communities to teach workshops for mothers and teens as well as women approaching retirement. And each of our four Young Women’s Leadership Network groups (D.C., N.Y., Denver and L.A.) cycle financial literacy workshops throughout their yearly offerings.
And this year, JWI created special workbooks, made specifically for the women who live in the shelters that receive our Mother’s Day Flower Project bouquets. These workbooks help the women better understand the budgeting process and give them foundational tools to rebuild safe homes for themselves and their children.
National Library Initiative
Our work with survivors of violence is not limited to Mother’s Day. JWI is committed to building children’s libraries in domestic violence shelters across the country. In these comforting spaces, these shelters within shelters, the youngest victims of violence can find resources to keep up with their disrupted schooling as well as brand-new books that allow them to escape through the adventures on the pages. These libraries are restocked annually as children are encouraged to take favorite books with them as they leave the shelter. JWI is excited to announce that we will be cutting the ribbons on six new libraries in the upcoming year – taking us to 70 libraries toward our goal of 100 nationwide.
Which brings us to Women to Watch. This gala event is the foundation of our work – the importance of shining the light on women leaders – of celebrating our voice and our work and the power that comes when we help one another. Our Young Women’s Leadership Networks, the Young Women’s Leadership Conference, and our 1-On-1 mentoring partnerships are outgrowths of Women to Watch as we responded to requests from both the role models and the women just starting their careers, to learn from each other.
This is the power of JWI. We not only continue in the footsteps of the women who came before. We pave the way for women to follow.
Lori Weinstein is the CEO of JWI.