In 2015, WRJ gathered “deep in the heart” of Austin, TX for our biennial Fried Leadership Conference. The conference welcomed over 230 women from more than 100 women's groups, including current and rising sisterhood leadership, WRJ Board members, and WRJ Board alumnae. Together, our leaders learned important leadership skills to thrive in sisterhood and community life, and learned about today’s issues close to the hearts of women, WRJ, and the Reform Movement. With a focus on social justice, Israel advocacy, and spirituality, it was a meaningful and busy weekend!
“We all have different leadership styles, but passion is part of what makes a good leader, and this was a passionate group of women. The insight gained ... was valuable, not only for sisterhood, but for recruiting temple members for various committees and the temple board as well.”
—Rhonda Kleiman, Congregation Shaarai Shomayim Sisterhood, Lancaster, PA
Our leaders gathered at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center at the University of Texas-Austin campus. More than 40 women had an opportunity on Friday morning to start the conference early with the first-ever Speaker Development Program, where they learned from top WRJ leaders how to articulate their messages eloquently and memorably to groups small or large. This program was hugely successful and featured as a highlight of the conference by WRJ Board member Rozan Anderson on the WRJ Blog! Other women who arrived early were able to visit the Bullock Texas State History Museum for a special tour.
The conference really kicked off on Friday afternoon with two blocks of workshops led by WRJ Board members and WRJ staff on a wide variety of topics, including: fundraising, running effective meetings, facilitating transition and change, mentoring and developing new leaders, enhancing WRJ’s involvement in social justice, organizing successful programming, providing effective marketing and communications, and preventing and managing conflict. Featured presenter Rabbi David Wolfman helped participants consider how to engage the younger generations and reimagine their sisterhood’s mission and relationship to the Reform Jewish community. Another featured speaker, Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem of Congregation Kodesh Ve’Chol in Holon, Israel, spoke about her experience as a female Reform rabbi in Israel and the significant impact WRJ has had in furthering gender and religious equality there.
“Where do I start? I learned so much. The information that we all shared from sisterhoods all over the U.S.A., Canada, and Israel is very helpful. I feel better equipped to take on leadership roles within my sisterhood.”
—Marlene Spolane, Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood, Houston, TX
Workshops were followed by our opening session, with greetings from WRJ President Blair C. Marks and WRJ FLC 2015 Program Co-Chairs Laurel Fisher and Sharon Zydney. To facilitate new friendships, participants took part in a “WRJ Bingo” icebreaker, where they had to find fellow participants who fit certain criteria (e.g. recently travelled to Israel, could read Hebrew, or attended WRJ FLC 2013). Afterward, at dinner, participants were seated by their WRJ District and heard a stimulating keynote address from WRJ President Blair C. Marks.
Beautiful Friday night Shabbat services were led by WRJ District Presidents Denise Levine, Becky Markowitz, and Lynne Turry along with Songleader-In-Residence Julie Silver, who afterward held a special song session where many of the WRJ women were dancing in the aisles. Those under the age of 35 headed to the hotel’s pub/restaurant to bond with other young and upcoming leaders… where they promptly ran into many of the other convention attendees!
The next morning, early risers were able to get energized with a yoga session. Afterwards, all attended spiritually moving Shabbat services led by WRJ District Presidents Sandy Adland, Madi Hoesten, and Rachel Maryn, again featuring music by Julie Silver. WRJ Past Presidents Lynn Magid Lazar, Rosanne M. Selfon, and Dolores K. Wilkenfeld led hakafah and WRJ Vice Presidents Sharon K. Benoff, Abigail S. Fisher, Sara B. Charney, and fredi Bleeker Franks had Torah honors. Sisterhood presidents, WRJ event first-timers, and WRJ District Area Directors chanted the aliyot for Torah readers Cheryl Harper, Trina Novak, and Jackie Zev, respectively and WRJ Executive Director Marla J. Feldman delivered an inspiring D’var Torah on Parashat B’shalach.
“The most moving, inspirational Shabbat morning experience of my 24 years attending URJ/WRJ events.”
—Barbara Merino, Congregation Rodef Sholom Sisterhood, San Rafael, CA
Following lunch, many WRJ women visited the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, where they listened to President Johnson’s phone conversations held in the Oval Office, viewed items from his life and time in office, and learned about his impact on the civil rights movement and other social justice issues. Upon return to the hotel, they enjoyed snacks before heading off to WRJ “Face Time” sessions, in which they discussed issues facing their respective affinity groups, including sisterhood presidents from various-sized congregations, WRJ District Area Directors, fundraisers and YES Fund chairs, membership chairs, marketing and communications chairs, those desiring better inclusion for LGBTQ Jews, and WRJ Board members. Afterwards, participants attended their final two workshop blocks.
After some free time to change into their finest Texas attire, the group reconvened for Saturday night Havdalah services, led by WRJ District Presidents Phyllis Bigelson and Deb Mayworm with music from Julie Silver. Dinner was a real highlight, with Texas-style barbecue and “fishbowl” seating. An authentic honky-tonk band played while the women danced the evening away, taking an occasional break to snap a “selfie” for the first-ever WRJ Social Media Scavenger Hunt or dress up in silly hats and accessories (in addition to their own cowboy hats and boots!) for the photo booth.
“The most important thing I learned was to ask women, 'What do you want? What do you need?' If we can learn to address needs we ask about, rather than guessing what those needs are, I think sisterhoods and congregations will continue to be relevant for many years to come.”
—Susan Glazer, Women of Temple Shalom Sisterhood, Louisville, KY
Sunday morning featured an optional town hall-style drop-in session, followed by the final event: the YES Fund Breakfast. WRJ President Blair C. Marks welcomed everyone and WRJ Executive Committee member Rozan Anderson introduced keynote speaker Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, who spoke of her struggle to establish a woman-led Progressive congregation in Israel and the importance of voting for ARZA in the World Zionist Congress elections in order to further gender and religious equality in Israel. WRJ Vice President Sharon K. Benoff spoke about and helped raise money for the important work of the YES Fund, and honored several members with presentations of their new Lifeline pins, including Joanne B. Fried (the benefactor of the WRJ Fried Leadership Conference). WRJ Assembly 2015 Program Committee Co-Chair Rachel Lambermont helped us look ahead to reconnecting at Assembly 2015 in Orlando, FL before WRJ President Blair C. Marks made her closing remarks and the women gathered arm-in-arm to sing for the final time of the weekend: the WRJ anthem, Limdu Heiteiv.
For WRJ FLC first-time and return attendees alike, the weekend in Austin was informative, spiritually uplifting, and incredibly impactful. These women are looking forward to seeing one another again and meeting new WRJ sisters at the next WRJ event!