By Stacey Dresner
WESTPORT – For 35 years Rona Wall has been a practicing therapist specializing in relationship issues and trauma.
She is also the wife of Rabbi Greg Wall of Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport, “which makes me rebbitzin by default,” she says with a laugh.
“We have been here six years and when we first came I was asked to start a group to teach women how to daven in the shul,” she says, “because even though we are Orthodox, most of [our congregants] don’t have religious backgrounds. It’s a small, very friendly Orthodox shul, but most people are learning and growing and not practicing so much… yet.
“So I started this group on Shabbos morning basically to teach women about the structure of the prayer service and how to daven. And we started a conversation about prayer, about God and faith and it just evolved into something called the Women’s Spirituality Group,” explains Wall, who also teaches Hebrew at Beit Chaverim through the National Jewish Outreach program.
Recently, however, she begin to feel at a “bit of a crossroads.”
“I wasn’t sure if I was doing the best job here… of exactly what my role is here,” she says. “[The Women’s group and teaching Hebrew] are the two things I took on as a Jewish leader in the shul community and enjoy. But often I [have been] just questioning my role as a leader: Am I really doing the best thing? I would sometimes feel frustrated because I might have certain expectations and they didn’t match with what the women [in shul] necessarily want or need.”
It was no wonder then, that when the Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative announced its inaugural Leadership Summit, Wall eagerly signed on.
“When I learned about this summit I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to step back, reflect, learn from others,” Wall says. “I really am a lay leader. Even though I am a rebbetzin, it is not my professional job and I wanted to do the best job possible leading women in my community. I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn and re-think and maybe set some new goals that would be more receptive.”
And so, Wall became one of 100 women from throughout North America, Israel, the United Kingdom and South Africa to participate in the OU Women’s Initiative Leadership Summit, held May 20-21 at the Hilton Woodcliff Lake in New Jersey. The summit was designed to encourage and develop women serving as lay leaders within their communities.
That goal is in sync with the overall goal of the OU Women’s Initiative, which, according to its press material, works with Orthodox communities to identify and address women’s spiritual, educational and communal needs by enhancing Torah learning opportunities by women and for women, and creates programming to meet the needs of all women. It also focuses on the development of professional and lay leadership training for women in the Orthodox Jewish community.
The two-day Leadership Summit that Wall attended featured lectures and workshops on a broad range of topics, including leadership strategy and communication, public speaking, programming, effective use of social media, growing personal leadership strengths, work-life balance and other lay-leadership challenges for 21st-century Orthodox women.
Wall was especially energized by a talk given by Erica Brown, associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. A columnist and the author of 11 books, Brown lectures extensively on Jewish leadership.
“Her talk was very inspiring,” Wall says. “She brought in Torah sources about times when Jewish leaders in history and in the Torah were called by God to lead. She talked about having a calling. I don’t know if we talk about that in Judaism that much…but it is a Jewish idea and she validated [that] we are the most effective when we listen to the part of us that is tuned into what God really wants us to do.
“Each of us – and this was a theme throughout all of the workshops – has unique gifts and we should tap into our own personal, unique gift and use that. Not try to be like somebody else.”
A talk by Allison Josephs, founder of “Jew in the City,” in which she shares information about the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, also motivated Wall.
“She has been successful because she follows her passion and did what she really believed in,” says Wall. “And that’s how success comes because it means it is driven by God, really — God and our connection to God, and doing what we are supposed to do. If we all do that then communities will get what they need because we all have different ideas and passions to offer.”
Dr. Adina Shmidman, founding director of the OU Women’s Initiative said, “It was inspiring to see a group of women, incredibly diverse in age, experience and hashkafa (outlook or guiding philosophy), coming together to share their passion for the Jewish community.”
Wall says she returned from the summit energized and uplifted.
“I feel rejuvenated and inspired to share my passions…I feel more clear in giving myself permission to teach what I love to teach and not feel like I have to do what I am not meant to do. I will continue to focus on my passions.”
Now, says Wall, now only will she continue to lead Beit Chaverim’s Women’s Spirituality Group “with renewed gusto,” she is also eager to introduce the group to Amen, a movement founded on the belief that saying “Amen” is equivalent to saying a blessing oneself. In Amen, Orthodox women join to recite the Morning Blessings together to enable each other to respond “amen,” or gather at dinners around Rosh Chodesh to say the appropriate blessings over five types of food to allow everyone to respond “amen.”
Judith Rubin, who is part of the Amen group in Lawrence, N.Y., spoke at the summit.
“It’s something I wanted to do for years and have led single events of what we would call Amen events over food,” Wall said. “Judith Rubin spoke very beautifully and said she was willing to go to communities to help start these groups that are so powerful. That is on my takeaway, to-do list – to have her come to Westport.”