Women gather for first conference for advocacy

About 200 women, as well as a couple of men, turned out on Oct. 30 for the first Jewish Women’s Conference, sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women of Los Angeles (NCJW/LA), Hadassah and Na’amat USA, and held at the NCJW/LA headquarters on Fairfax Boulevard.

The day focused on the challenges women continue to face in the domestic setting as well as professionally, and, in keeping with the missions of the three organizing forces, was established with the hopes of advocating for a larger voice for women politically and in the workplace.

Mayim Bialik, an actress with a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA, began the day with a keynote address about her own Jewish family, the influences of her mother and grandmothers, and her commitment to balancing work and family. Julie Stern, senior vice president of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, gave an additional inspirational lunchtime keynote about believing in oneself, describing her professional journey through positions at Lifetime Entertainment and on “Project Runway” to meeting Winfrey.

Panel discussions focused on social action, issues facing women in Israel today and the economic impact of health care on women and families. Panelists on a session titled “Protecting Women’s Rights: Practices, Politics and Policies” included Laurie L. Levenson of Loyala Law School; Robin Sax, a victim’s advocate and former prosecutor; and Joyce Schorr of the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP). They spoke of the increasing threat to the right to abortion, including through new laws in North Carolina and Mississippi, among other states. Levinson said that women are often behind such initiatives: “It’s women like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, who feel that being the anti-women is the way to make their mark.”

Sax, calling herself a third-generation feminist, has moved from working within the court system to serving as a media personality because, she said, “The wheels of justice are too slow to change the world. The 30-second sound bite can do more and reach more people. I can effectuate change in 10-second, 140-character tweets.”

Levenson called for more “speaking truth to power,” and Schorr described how WRRAP seeks to help women get procedures when they are needed. “I care about the fetuses,” she said, “but I care about the woman first.”

A final session was a discussion focused on founders of organizations, including Melissa Balaban, executive director of IKAR; Janice Kaminer-Reznik, a co-founder of Jewish World Watch; and Rachel Levin of Reboot and associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, and moderated by this writer.  The founders all spoke of finding Jewish values in their work, and of being driven by spiritual as much as professional goals.

The conference ended with assurances that this would be the first of an annual event.