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Toba Cohen-Dunning is the President of Beth Israel’s Board of Directors; in that role, she certainly has her hands full. Recently, she attended the OU Women’s Initiative First Lay Leadership Confab, which addressed challenges of modern Jewish communal leadership. This conference is designed to encourage and develop women like Toba, who serve as lay leaders within their communities. The 100 participants were nominated by 56 communities around the United States, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom and South Africa.
“As president of Beth Israel and as a member of a variety of boards that encompass Jewish Omaha,” Toba said, “I was honored to be invited to attend this conference. It’s important for us as Jews to continually work to grow our communities and grow ourselves personally and professionally. It’s helpful to see what orthodox communities are doing around the country and the globe. It affords us the opportunity to understand what best practices are being implemented, what programs are enhancing the area, how activities that we have not considered “here” have made such a welcoming impact “there.” For instance, I met a woman who sits on the executive committee of her shul in a smaller city in New York who developed a welcoming program for new congregants. Just the extra touches, the extra efforts that they are making “there” are creating this warm and inviting religious home. It’s not to say we don’t do some of it in our shul; it’s that listening to what others are doing provided great inspiration. Bringing the shared practices back to Beth Israel will provide new volunteer opportunities, as well. You want everyone to feel engaged – and this conference was a glowing example of how getting almost 100 women in the same room to  network with each other makes us all feel empowered to return to continue promoting Yiddishkeit (as was mentioned several times by so many participants).
Sessions focused on leadership strategy and communication, public speak- ing, engaging and retaining volunteers, creating compelling programming, effective use of social media, honing and growing one’s personal leadership stre-ngths and work life balance, community spiritual growth, board and donor relations and other lay-leadership challenges for 21st century Orthodox women. Expert lecturers, educators and leaders in the field delivered workshops, sessions and other presentations throughout the program.
Executive Vice President of the OU Allen Fagin addressed the summit and recognized the many contributions of the successful professional women in the room who volunteer in their communities as officers, members of executive committees and board members of synagogues, yeshivas, day schools, mikvaot, chevra Kadisha, bikur cholim, youth committees, adult education and a wide variety of community groups and institutions.
“You recognize the enormity of our communal challenges and, even more importantly, the enormous opportunities we have to meet those challenges, to benefit our communities and reach out beyond them,” said Fagin. “And you each recognize what I believe is the most important lesson of leadership and that is the power of one – the ability of one person. One person with the right drive, energy, skill and ambition to singlehandedly inspire a community; transform a shul; propel a yeshiva to new heights and drive organizational change through the formulation of strategy and mission.”
For Toba, one of the many rewarding aspects of the conference was connecting with women who had a connection to Omaha:
“As a Jewish Midwesterner, it’s a great deal of fun to meet new people across the country,” she said. “Being from Nebraska, many from either coast are not that familiar with our long heritage of thriving communities in this part of the country. It was remarkable to me, when women who were attending the conference found out I was from Omaha, shared such meaningful connections to current or former members of our community. For instance, one day at lunch I sat next to Mrs. Nancy Klein who was being honored by the OU for her work over the decades with the women’s branch. It was a fascinating history of the work of so many women across the country who built sisterhoods, raised funds for scholarships, dorms at YU, mikvahs and so much more. As she found out that I was from Omaha, she asked if I knew Jeanette Nadoff whom she worked with for many years building sisterhoods across the country! I explained that Rabbi Isaac Nadoff (of blessed memory) and I shared the same bar/bat mitzvah parsha! He was my rabbi for years growing up at Beth Israel; we had the best Talmud Torah and Mrs. Nadoff was an extraordinary role model. I told Mrs. Klein how my mother volunteered for the many Jewish women’s organizations because of Mrs. Nadoff and shared wonderful memories of the differences they made together.
“In addition, I met friends of our beloved Rabbi Dembitzer who support Camp Simcha,” she continued. “I met friends of Rabbi Gross who get to see him in Baltimore, friends of Josh and Amanda Gurock who are now in New York, friends of Ilana and Rabbi Yaakov Weiss who are now in New Jersey. Every one a wonderful Omaha connection…. So, on this note, at breakfast on day one, Ilana Weiss kindly introduced me to a dentist, Dr. Dvasha Stollman who asked if I was familiar with the last name Arbitman of Omaha.  Of course from the late 1960s! Dora Arbitman and Mary Fellman were my role models as a child and it happens that these great women were Dvasha’s great grandmother and great aunt. It was so fulfilling. Dora and Mary were female icons in the Omaha Jewish community and their legacies live on.”
Good conferences not only help forge connection; the programming helps participants ask the right questions:
“Sometimes you get so engulfed in your own community that you forget what’s going on with others outside of your world. Are we doing the right things to attract new families to the Midwest, are we providing the best and most welcoming experience at Beth Israel, are we using the right mechanisms to increase membership, are we engaging the congregation enough through volunteerism, programming and fundraising… and the list continues,” Toba said. “To have been among this particular group of lay leaders (doctors, lawyers, dentists, nutritionists, directors, teachers, administrators, strategists, philanthropists, social workers, et al.), to have learned with them, talked with them, davened with them, to have taken a deep breath with them… was inspiring, invigorating, meaningful, energizing, hopeful and remarkable. The power of Jewish women is limitless. We shouldn’t take it for granted… this conference reminded us why.”