By and large, it may still be a man’s world in 2017, but there are a few intrepid Jewish women looking to change that.
Wielding a powerful combination of creativity, entrepreneurship and gumption, these ladies are working to change the world for the better.
In honor of International Women’s Day, The Jerusalem Post spoke with three of these women about how their projects celebrate what it means to embrace all the positive aspects of femininity.
Sarah Waxman – At The Well
As a California girl at heart, Waxman’s vocabulary is rife with what some may dismiss as “hippy-dippy” lingo that could throw people not in the know about the wellness movement for a bit of a loop. Waxman is open about her journey, which resulted in her creating At The Well, a community group that fosters frank discussions about how embracing one’s womanhood, Judaism and the wellness industry can (and do) intersect.
Her women’s wellness brand offers content for discussion groups called Well Circles, where women freely discuss those subjects. Taking place every Rosh Hodesh (new month in the Jewish calendar), the organization has rapidly grown since its October 2015 launch.
There are currently 49 circles in 12 cities around the world. From an Orthodox circle on the Upper West Side, to a circle of transgender women in Portland, to a circle of midwives in Seattle, each group encompasses a diverse array of women.
“Something I love about Rosh Hodesh is that it’s a tradition we share with almost all the indigenous people on the planet,” Waxman explained. “There’s only ever been four books that have been written about Rosh Hodesh and its rituals in English and I think not only can’t we be surprised that this ritual has been mostly lost, but there’s a huge need for people to share and learn from each other.”
The ritual derives from “Red Tent” practices of the bible, where women would gather at the start of every new moon, which would coincide with their menstruation.
“Sometimes people will teach each other about women’s health or menstruation or women’s empowerment, and sometimes they teach about Judaism,” Waxman said, adding that the main takeaway is that Well Circles aim to enrich a woman’s body, mind and soul.
For Waxman, who has eight years of experience teaching mindfulness, the need for a Jewish-based wellness program is a dire one.
“There are a ton of lifestyle brands, but zero brands rooted in Judaism as a spiritual practice though,” she pointed out. “However, I only see opportunity in that and a chance to connect with a lot of Jewish women.”
Specifically, she also sees this as a way to reach out to unaffiliated Jews who claim to be spiritual and not religious.
For Waxman, who considers herself a post-denominational Jew and observes Shabbat but not in a strict halachic sense, she hopes At The Well will give women the freedom and encouragement to get in touch with their roots.
Launching the brand has been a gratifying experience for Waxman, but its genesis wasn’t always obvious. Raised in a Conservative American Jewish home, it was only when Waxman played lacrosse at the University of Pennsylvania that she decided to seek out alternative ways to treat her body and mind. Interest in yoga and mindfulness quickly followed, but it was an observation during a meditation seminar that made her realize there was an aspect of herself she was severely neglecting – Judaism.
Noticing most of her instructors were Jewish and were immersed in Eastern traditions, not Jewish ones, made her realize that perhaps there was a certain void in the movement she could fill.
After speaking to a friend, she started a small and intimate Rosh Hodesh meeting which “altered [her] life.”
In an age when women’s health has become a hot-button issue in America, Waxman thinks these kinds of meetings provide essential knowledge women need to know.
“We’ve been living in a society for too long that has put this conversation in a place of shame,” she said.
Paula Kweskin Weiss – Censored Women’s Film Festival
When the film Honor Diaries debuted in 2014, filmmaker Paula Kweskin Weiss ventured into uncharted waters. While the phenomenon of women being abused by the honor system was known, culturally it was a topic mostly shoved under the carpet. Honor Diaries was the first film to bring these stories out from the shadows and reveal how devastating the honor system can be to women across the globe. Specifically, the film spotlighted nine women and their struggles against issues like forced marriage, domestic violence and female genital mutilation.
Since its debut, the film has been screened at the United Nations, on Capitol Hill and at some 200 college campuses, and it has been translated into several different languages, including Urdu, Arabic and Farsi.
The success (and controversy) of the film motivated Weiss to launch the Censored Women’s Film Festival – a forum to “give voice to these voiceless filmmakers and activists,” she said.
After two successful runs in Washington and Berlin, Brooklyn College will host the festival’s third run for the next three days to coincide with International Women’s Day. Another event will be held in Miami and a mini-festival will be held later this month at the United Nations.
Making Honor Diaries was a moving experience for Weiss, who saw firsthand how her film impacted the lives of other women. “We’ve had women say when they saw the film that it inspired them to get help and to reach out – which I find so incredible and heartwarming,” she recalled.
She’s also seen tangible results – the film sparked a US inquiry into female genital mutilation and revealed that in the United States, 500,000 women are at risk.
On paper, it may be a bit incongruous that Weiss, a white American Jew, would take up speaking out against the treatment of Muslim women as her cause. But Weiss makes no apologies for her work and believes it to be extremely pertinent.
“I think that all women’s rights are everybody’s business and I think it’s unconscionable that we would only care about human rights issues that are happening in our own community,” she said.
“What happens is religion is politicized and used as a weapon to prevent women from achieving or living free lives, and people from all backgrounds should be able to talk about this,” she lamented, adding that women who consider themselves feminists should care about this cause too, even though it may not directly impact them.
Narkis Alon - Double You:
Since women have enjoyed their meteoric rise in the business world, the subject of how they should comport themselves in the boardroom has been a matter of debate between men and women alike. Narkis Alon, co-founder and CEO of Double You, believes that women should never stop being the most genuine version of themselves. In fact, embracing their femininity can be an asset for any aspiring female entrepreneur.
"I never thought of myself as someone who would specialize in working with women," Alon began. "But I had a lot of experience with professional retreats as a participant and I always wanted to create something for entrepreneurs that would combine off-the-grid focus on meaning while also focusing on your venture." And her company, Double You, does just that. With some 100 members already, Double You offers retreats where women must disconnect in order to immerse themselves in free and open discussions with other women where they are encouraged to be creative and talk about ideas for future projects.
"When we talk about female and male, we're really talking about being yourself and your emotional, spiritual and mental needs. It's not that men don't need that, it's just that men formulate a pattern when they do business, and some aspect of those needs are shut down," she explains, adding that women tend to have more difficulty ignoring those needs.
Thus, Double You retreats teach women how to both be a strong leader, but also not neglect their feminine side.
These retreats are essential, Alon believes, because sometimes women can be their own greatest enemy. Not being true to themselves or fueling competition between other women in the workplace can easily hold a woman back from achieving her goals.
At these retreats (the next one is slated for May in Costa Rica), participants wear the same clothes so a strict sense of equality is enforced. Accepted applicants come with a business idea and, ideally, by the end of the retreat, they have acquired the confidence to execute it.
The company also offers mini-retreats to their local community. Last week, one was held for female immigrants in south Tel Aviv. Speaking to a group of impoverished women that have potential, but don't know how to tap into it, was an emotional experience for Alon.
"The vision for the future, we want every community to adopt another in need of growth. The only difference between us and them is that we were more privileged than them," she said.
All three women are members of the Schusterman Family Foundation’s ROI Community, a group of unique Jewish leaders spanning the globe who have set out to turn their vision for good into reality and find a way to create their own version of tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of improving the world.
“From working within the Jewish world to connecting Jewish work to the developing world, these are fantastic examples among many more women who are doing incredible things today to blaze a trail of confidence, equality and dreaming big for generations of women to come,” said No’a Gorlin, associate executive director of ROI Community. “These women and their creative leadership fill me with hope that my daughters and their generation will have every opportunity to forge their own paths, contribute to society and lead change for others.”
This article was written in cooperation with ROI Community.