By Madelyn Bucksbaum Adamson and Stephanie Blumenkranz
We have all heard about them – people who saw a problem and took the leap to devote their lives to solving it. Changemakers, visionaries, activists who say “I can do something about this.”
We met and spoke with some of these inspirational people on January 30th at Change: Powered by Women, Inspired by Jewish Values, an event sponsored by JWFNY and UpStart. The speakers were trailblazing Jewish women social entrepreneurs: Rachel Zaslow from Mother Health International, Ilana Ruskay-Kidd from The Shefa School, and Shira Berkovits from Sacred Spaces.
Each of these women had their defining moment when they realized they could not turn away from a need they saw. Each took a deep breath and stepped forward. We heard their inspiring personal stories about the paths they have taken and the challenges they have encountered and overcome.
Rachel Zaslow’s “ah ha” moment was immediately following her trip to Gulu, Uganda, where she worked in a hospital birthing unit. She saw too many preventable deaths of both babies and mothers during childbirth, and upon returning to her home in Brooklyn, asked herself, “How could I turn my back? But, at the same time, how could I put myself in harm’s way?” Her answer came to her when she realized, “I had to create what G-d looks like.” Determined to decrease the maternal mortality rate in northern Uganda, Rachel returned and started Mother Health International, a nonprofit dedicated to training birth attendants and creating maternal care systems in areas of disaster, war, and extreme economic poverty.
Ilana Ruskay-Kidd witnessed too many families leave Jewish day schools because they did not meet the needs of their children with language-based learning challenges. And she saw the families resent the Jewish community because there wasn’t a place for their children in the Jewish educational system. At a time when we are supposed to be “celebrating children’s differences,” Ilana explains that children are too often not accepted for who they are. Unsure about where to begin, and even if she had the skills to accomplish her goal, Ilana remembered the Pirkei Avot text, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” Ilana realized she knows how to get things done and how to surround herself with smart, talented people. It is these traits that enabled Ilana to get The Shefa School, a Jewish community day school that specializes in serving students with language-based learning disorders, off the ground.
Shira Berkovits has her own personal story. She was interested in helping camps and Jewish organizations create ways to keep children safe, but was unable to make any headway. She turned to writing, hoping to have her message heard in one format or another. She quickly learned that she needed to increase her knowledge base, along with the rest of the Jewish community. Shira’s guidance came from an unexpected place, a religious Christian leader in Minnesota. As an intern, she shadowed him and learned how other faith communities are handling the issue of abuse. Shira brought the Jewish community resources that had never been available before. The resources were the start of her organization Sacred Spaces, which provides Jewish institutions with the professional services to develop policies and training to prevent abuse.
After a panel discussion with these three women, five other Jewish women social entrepreneurs joined the conversation to facilitate table discussions: Miryam Kabakov, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Eshel; Elizabeth Mandel, Founder and Executive Director of jGirls Magazine; Yocheved Sidof, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Lamplighters Yeshiva; Brooke Stern Okoth, Co-Founder an Chief Executive Officer of SOUL Foundation; and Tikvah Wiener, Founder and Head of School of Idea Schools.
It was humbling and uplifting to hear their stories and perspectives. Discussions centered around three questions: 1) How does gender play a role in entrepreneurship? 2) How can we better support Jewish women social entrepreneurs? And 3) How do you want to have an impact?
At JWFNY, we fund and promote Jewish women social entrepreneurs who are changing the world, one issue at a time. Their Jewish values, determination and courage have helped them to step forward and make a difference. These women are truly inspirational, demonstrating to us all how to be authentic, passionate leaders. For more information on how to become involved with JWFNY, UpStart, and the organizations mentioned, please see resources and action steps.
Also in response to Change: Powered by Women, Inspired by Jewish Values, read Yocheved Sidof’s post Jewish Entrepreneurship: A Man’s World?
Weren’t able to make to to the event? Watch the video recording of the opening and panel discussion: