by Meredith Jacobs
“Why are you pulling her out of school for a luncheon?” my mom asked incredulously when I told her I had bought my then-teenaged daughter a ticket to join me at JWI’s Women to Watch luncheon. Though it’s rare that I know better than my mother about anything, in this case, I knew exactly what I was doing. After all, I had been to Women to Watch many times over the years. This was not your typical luncheon.
I so clearly remember my first Women to Watch in 2006, when my friend, Rabbi Sue Shankman, was honored with the Community Leadership Award (now named after philanthropist Sondra D. Bender). I had not heard of JWI or Women to Watch, but was quite active on the Jewish women’s organization luncheon circuit. I had assumed it would be another lovely afternoon – schmoozing with friends and picking at a bland chicken breast while some famous Jewish woman made a speech. Instead, as I approached the registration desk, I saw tables displaying information about “Strong Girls” and “Good Guys” – programs talking to teens about healthy relationships. I saw a life-size model of a children’s library, giving attendees a glimpse into the libraries JWI builds in domestic violence shelters across the country.
I learned about JWI’s “Life$avings” work, empowering women of all ages with financial literacy. I hadn’t realized the devastating connection between domestic violence and financial abuse, nor had I grasped that a woman who understands and controls her budget controls her future. I remember thinking, “I need to learn more. I need to talk to my children about healthy relationships.”
I had arrived early enough to hear the “Up Close and Personal Symposium,” an intimate session with all ten honorees sitting onstage in conversation. (In later years, when I was editor-in-chief of the Washington Jewish Week, I would be fortunate enough to moderate this discussion.) Tears welled as I struggled to write every word they said on the margins of the only piece of paper I could find in my purse. I wanted to remember everything these funny, wise, warm women were saying. The symposium was over too quickly; I could have listened to them speak and share for hours.
Then it was time for the luncheon to begin. The room was gorgeous, of course: A grand ballroom overflowing with flowers and beautifully-dressed guests. But then the lights dimmed and one after another, the honorees were introduced and delivered their “Pearls of Wisdom.” Although each of the women was highly accomplished, these were not lists of achievements lifted from their resumés. These “pearls” were gems – small gifts of inspiration. The atmosphere changed. The flowers and food and all the loveliness faded away, while these women and their words filled the room with inspiration that touched every last guest.
Each year there is a moment when the room becomes silent. A woman walks to the microphone to share her painful story. Some years she is a college student, some years a mother, but she is always a survivor, and through her story, we begin to understand the importance of JWI’s mission to end violence against all women and girls.
Eleven years and 110 Women to Watch later, I think I’ve figured out what makes this event so special. Unlike other gala luncheons, the speakers aren’t celebrities – they’re real women, who care enough to change the world in ways big and small. In a year when Wonder Woman is a global blockbuster, these women are heroes without superpowers. Actually, their superpower is being able to look at the world, see a need, and do what they can to help.
Having now had the privilege to work directly with the honorees as part of the JWI staff, I can attest that each year, each and every honoree at one point says to me, “Who am I to be honored? What have I done?” That humility not only makes them special, but truly allows those in the room to recognize their own potential to become leaders and create change in the world.
Ellen Stone is just one example of the kind of women we honor each year. The chief marketing officer for Bravo Network, Stone is now vice chair of JWI’s board of trustees. I asked her what it was like on her end: What was it like being a Woman to Watch, and why did that honor lead to deeper engagement with the organization? She told me, “It was an honor to be a 2011 Woman to Watch along with many women who are not only leaders in their industry but serve as role models for others. In fact, through the organization I’ve met many smart, dedicated and accomplished women who are amazing leaders in all aspects of their lives, from business to personal and family.
"I was drawn to the sense of community that JWI creates, supporting women and girls through programs that address financial literacy, domestic violence, and providing support for young professional women through mentorship. When asked to join the board I jumped at the opportunity to take a more active role in this organization during a time when women need to support and celebrate each other more than ever.”
This is the great gift of Women to Watch – the inspiration from amazing women role models to do more, be better. And my daughter? As we drove home from the luncheon, she turned to me and said, “Mom, I want to be a senator.”
As inspired as I was, it was seeing a spark ignited in her – a realization that she could do and be anything – that made this event worth far more than I had paid for her ticket. Being inspired by Jewish women leaders was something she never would experience at school. Six years later, she’s in college, an English major with no plans in the immediate future to run for political office. But she raises her hand each and every day. She does not shrink from opportunities to lead. She embodies the question, “Why not me?” Even more so, that feeling of “Of course me” has stayed with her and grown. The unquestioning knowledge that women lead and the work we do makes the world better – that fire was lit at Women to Watch.
They say you can’t be what you can’t see. Come to Women to Watch and see.
Meredith Jacobs is the vice president of marketing at JWI.