Jewish Women's Network

Guidelines for Running Workshops or Discussion Groups for Women, Across the Community Spectrum

The Jewish Women's Network (JWN) aims to create workshops and discussion groups where:-

Preface and Acknowledgements

Since my involvement in the Jewish Women's Network (JWN) I have participated in a wide range of discussions for Jewish women 'across the spectrum': secular, religious, single, divorced, married, lesbian, heterosexual, with children, without children, Mizrachi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, older, younger women and so on. Issues we have discussed have ranged from disability awareness, inter-marriage, circumcision, family abuse and bereavement through to writing novels, religious matriarchs, and the use of Mikveh.

I have noticed that where a workshop is well facilitated the women who participate leave it having felt heard, learnt from others, developed their own thinking and satisfied that they have contributed to developing a wider picture together on the topic.

Several years ago the JWN Working Group developed some guidelines for facilitators of our day event workshops. We didn't assume that the facilitator had no experience, but rather wanted to help them to set a scene that we have found useful to enable women from across the spectrum to participate together. This booklet goes on to elaborate on these original guidelines.

In compiling this booklet I have used skills I have learnt and developed in running groups in a variety of settings over the years. I am a project manager and trainer in my work, and that gives me the opportunity to provide events and workshops on a range of subjects. Some of these are quite straightforward in content such as skills for taking minutes of meetings, whilst others are emotive topics such as working with domestic violence.

I would like to thank all present members of the JWN Working Group who have contributed to developing the JWN workshop style: Estelle Pearlman, Avril Mailer, Ruth Bean, Janet Cohen and Lydia Burman. There have been many others who have provided workshops at our events over the years, and in effect have contributed as well. You know who you are, and thank you to you all.

It's a great pleasure to present this booklet to Jewish women across the UK as my contribution to us taking our own issues seriously. I believe that when we take a step for ourselves we in fact do so for everyone. So - No Limits!

Vicky Grosser: JWN Chair (2003)

Contents Page

Click on the title to be taken straight to the section.


Guiding Principles

We Recommend Two Facilitators

Setting the JWN Ground Rules for Discussion

Learning and Taking Action Together

Guiding Steps for Successful Workshops or Discussion

Contributing to the picture of Jewish women in the UK


Over the years the Jewish Women's Network has gained a very good reputation for its workshops for women across the spectrum of the community. Women tell us that our workshops are enjoyable, interesting but perhaps above all a safe place to air a range of views and experiences about themselves and their take on being Jewish women.

Many of us in the community have had training or "facilitation" experience, whether learnt from a course or developed through trial and error. Others may not have these skills, but they care passionately about an issue that is dear to them as a Jewish woman, and want to provide a place for dialogue and thinking together. How do you take these passions or interests to a group and hear other women's contributions? You may be asking yourself, what do I need to do to set up such a situation? You may think 'I am not the best woman to take a lead on this'- or feel scared about taking the steps to set up a workshop or group. This pamphlet is for you.

Over recent years JWN has been approached to provide workshops for women at a range of events across the community. Sometimes JWN members who run our workshops are able to facilitate them, but on some occasions we are not able to send a facilitator who is familiar with our approach. This situation has led us to decide to produce some guidelines so that other women can provide a good, inclusive session for Jewish women across the spectrum. These notes will not provide you with all the skills to facilitate a discussion group or activity for women. If you have some experience of running groups they will guide you in providing a good environment for women to dialogue and learn from one another when there are many different views and experiences to be shared amongst a diverse group of Jewish women.

The Network has always held learning as one of our core objectives. We have therefore decided to develop this pack for use as a guide for facilitating workshops for women based on our own model. We hope that women will use it and give us feedback which can develop it further in the future, thus providing more and more workshops which provide real stimulus and thinking towards action to further the position of women in the community.

Guiding Principles

JWN aims to create workshops where:-

We Recommend Two Facilitators

Facilitators needs to keep in mind the purpose of the workshop, but in particular make them welcoming to all women. JWN has therefore almost always provided sessions with a pair of facilitators, with different backgrounds or affiliations. The relationship between these two women is key, and together they can provide differing attention to different aspects of the sessions as well as the participants' needs.

We have found that it is important for the facilitators to take time to talk through views and experiences together on the topic we will facilitate, as well as raising any concerns about the subject or strong feelings about it, in advance. This also, in my experience, helps with the planning of the session: which of you will lead each piece, and how you can support one another. This relationship is also a model to the women participating in the session of our respect and working together despite differing perspectives on the issue.

For example, when Ruth Bean and I did our session on Intermarriage, we talked together beforehand about how we became married to non-Jewish men, what we have liked about it and our challenges in the relationships. We shared many perspectives, but differed on how we wanted to present the strengths of this choice. So we listened to one another, discussed how we could use our differing perspectives in presenting the session, and came up with a programme that showed our differences but with a caring and open approach. I believe this enabled women to say openly what they thought about this issue, and it certainly was a workshop where many diverse perspectives were heard, without the women participating being hard on one another.

Setting the JWN Ground Rules for Discussion

When we run JWN workshops we ask women to agree to the following, so that we may enjoy our diversity:-

In three years of Chairing the Network I have never heard anyone say "No" to these requests. In fact I think they are much of what creates the safety and willingness to hear one another, with women sometimes expressing quite contradictory ideas or beliefs. They create a more relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, where women can think and create ideas for the future together, incorporating different aspects of an issue.

To give an example, JWN held a session on the use of Mikveh at Limmud in 2001. We advertised it as a place to hear about the history of Mikveh as well as some feminist perspectives, followed by discussion towards developing a more inclusive use of Mikveh in the future. We asked women to agree to our ground rules, and then invited them to say what had brought them to the session. This invitation gave women an opportunity to say a little about themselves. We heard from women who go to Mikveh and love the space for themselves each month, from those who go but don't find it a fulfilling experience, from women who have never been but would like to consider the use of Mikveh in the future in ways which are not connected to a relationship with a man. So we already had a wide range of aspects relating to the use of Mikveh in the room, from the women themselves.

Estelle Pearlman and I then presented some material about the history of Mikveh, and feminist perspectives. As we did this we related some points to issues women had mentioned in their introductions, so that it was relevant to the women in the room. Knowing that open discussion would come after our presentation, the women enjoyed listening and took in what we had prepared.

After our presentation, we asked the women in the workshop to pair up and listen to each others views on the subject. This provided some space for each of them to voice feelings about the issue or what they had heard from our presentation, but also to develop their own thinking.

We then asked them to contribute their thoughts to a vision for us together as Jewish women in terms of the use of Mikveh in the future. I wrote up their thoughts on flip-chart, which kept our shared thinking visible to us all. In the process one women said, 2I have a vision of a cross- communal Mikveh". Everyone expressed delight at this possibility, and both Orthodox and Progressive women said that they would like to contribute to developing a JWN publication on this issue for the future.

From this shared space where women were able to fully contribute their feelings as well as thinking, JWN was able to identify that women across the spectrum of the community would appreciate a publication that would respect the traditions of Mikveh, whilst also broadening its use for women across the community in the future in the UK.

Learning and Taking Action Together

I believe that we do want both to learn from other women as well as have a place to contribute our thinking. When simple boundaries are not set, group discussions can easily get out of hand: women stop listening to one another and become anxious that their view will not be heard. Conflicts then more easily arise. The result is not a creative and fulfilling experience for anyone, including the facilitator!

In my experience, where effective facilitation takes place, Jewish women respect one anothers different perspectives and are pleased to be open in contributing their own views. Those who have controversial or different views to the majority are also more likely to contribute them. The result is a wonderful combination of the perspectives shared by many, without leaving out the differences.

The very well received JWN Bereavement Booklet grew out of just this process. Over several years we held workshops to hear women's feelings and views about bereavement as Jewish women. These workshops provided us with the contents of the booklet. We listened, and then we asked women to tell us what they would like included in the booklet. Next we invited women to contribute their personal stories to illustrate the different sections. And finally Estelle Pearlman and I linked the different elements together. The result is a booklet that came from Jewish women right across the community.

Guiding Steps for Successful Workshops or Discussion

1. Decide on a topic for the workshop

We have found that choosing a subject that you care about, or are interested in putting forward for discussion and thinking about with other Jewish women, tends to make things go well. The aim of presenting your interest as facilitator is not to persuade others to your views but to stimulate discussion and provide an arena for a wide variety of perspectives to be heard.

If you have very strong views or feelings about the subject it is important to be aware that participants will notice this. There's no hiding it! Being open about your strength of opinion is useful, and in addition running the workshop with another women with a different perspective can help make a balance that will ensure that women who come to the workshop or group feel able to contribute their differing views and experiences.

2. Prepare and read background material, consult others and discuss with your co-facilitator

Even when we know a subject well, it is useful to prepare well. Reading diverse materials and discussing the subject with different Jewish women can help with getting a sense of the various perspectives about the topic.

We've found that providing a short presentation at the beginning of workshops or groups from a mixture of sources helps women prepare to make their own contributions. This could include:

    a) Background information or historical perspectives

    b) Two diverse views on the issue

    c) Reading a short passage or two on the subject

    d) Sharing a little of your own views or personal perspective on the issue.

Taking the time to talk the session through in detail with your co-facilitator is crucial. This may include deciding which parts of a presentation you each want to make, trying out what you want to say from a personal perspective and agreeing who will lead or facilitate each part of the session. Preparing in this way will also help you to prepare to handle differences of opinion you may have from one another as well as what you will do if difficulties arise during the session.

3. Develop a workshop plan

Generally JWN has found that it is important to keep plenty of time for the participants to contribute their views, experiences and skills on the subject.

This is a guide for the plan for a 1.5hr session:

    a) Introductions 10 mins

    b) Ground rules 5 mins

    c) Presentation (with handouts) 15 mins

    d) Listening pairs 10 mins

    e) Open discussion and comments 25 mins

- write contributions on flipchart paper

    f) Recap on the key points raised 15 mins

- inform women what will be done with their comments

    g) Close the session. 10 mins

As you develop the details of this plan, think about groups or workshops that you have enjoyed participating in, in the past.

Use these experiences to plan your session.

4. Advertise the workshop or discussion group

Think about how you want to invite women to participate from as widely across the spectrum as possible. How will you reach them to hear that your workshop or group is taking place? You might:

    a) Put up posters in places Jewish women go to such as shops, nurseries or Synagogue.

    b) Put an advertisement or article in a newspaper or newsletter

    c) Let women know by word of mouth - we have found this particularly important in attracting participants

    d) Send a personal letter or email invitation

    e) Provide the workshop as a part of another community event. It will then be advertised in the programme.

Taking time to give the workshop or group an eye-catching title is helpful in attracting women. Writing a short piece about the session and how it will provide space for women to contribute their views also makes a difference in JWN experience, especially as many workshops facilitators often leave little time for others to contribute.

5. Setting the scene for women who come to participate

When we run JWN workshops we ask women to agree to enjoy fully the diversity of the group. This will mean doing the best they can not to jump in and contradict another woman if her views differ to their own. At the end they will have had the treat of hearing views and experiences that they may have never heard before. The result is a place where women can be open and talk from a personal perspective if they choose to.

This type of atmosphere can provide women with increased confidence in their thinking and they are therefore more likely to act to address their concerns at a personal, community, political or other level if they choose to. Taking charge is what comes naturally when we are well listened to and respected as we develop our views as Jewish women.

6. Introducing Participants

Invite each woman to give her name and very briefly say what interested her in coming to the session. In the process you will get a sense of each woman's issues on the topic, and they will have broken the ice and so be more likely to speak up in the later discussion.

7. Introducing the JWN ground rules

Ask the women to agree to these three basic rules: JWN has found that these create a space for all contributions.

Also ask if women need other ground rules in order to contribute fully. This may depend on the subject. Common additional requests are:

8. Presenting some background material

Give your contribution on the subject as facilitators. This helps the women to focus on the issue and start to prepare their own contributions. It is important to not take up too much time, or women start to get restless and feel that their space is being taken up. You may want to start the presentation by saying something like - 'we will talk for about 15 minutes from some historical sources and our personal perspectives and then give you time in pairs to talk about your own views before we open up the group discussion.'

When you prepare a presentation, consider providing some handouts for women. If you give them out during your presentation, women will tend to read the notes rather than listen to you. You may therefore hand them around later or at the end of the workshop.

When we prepare a workshop we often anticipate how the discussion will develop and the range of aspects that will be raised by participants. A small warning: stay flexible and ready to hear something you had not expected. If the discussion needs to move to an issue that doesn't seem to fit the workshop aims, stay flexible and allow for these differences. Then link these additional aspects back to your starting point. The result can be a wonderful widening of perspectives on the chosen issue for the workshop as well as learning for everyone involved.

For example, during a JWN workshop on bereavement, a participant said that her experience of divorce had included many similar emotions to those of a loss through someone close to them dying. Several other women shared similar perspectives. This led to greater understanding of the links between key life changes, even though we did not cover divorce in our later JWN publication on Jewish women and bereavement.

9. Listening to one another in pairs

Ask the women to pair up for about 6 minutes and take turns to hear one another on the subject before the full group discussion takes place. Let them know that limiting interruptions and comments or debate at this stage will help the other woman have thinking space to formulate her own views and think about the subject from a personal perspective. She may also have some feelings to off-load, which will also assist her to clarify thoughts towards the wider discussions.

Ensure that each woman has had some time to be listened to. You might remind women to switch around after 3 minutes so that they both get time to think. Then draw the pairs to a close for the wider discussion to take place

10. Sharing thinking and discussion

Having had time to hear one another in pairs, usually women are more patient to hear differing views in this wider discussion. It is useful to remind those who are ready to speak a great deal to leave space for others who may be less forthcoming. In JWN workshops we sometimes ask, after a number of women have spoken once, for them to wait before speaking again to enable those who haven't said anything to also contribute.

Holding clear timing boundaries and letting women know that they have a certain amount of time will also help many focus their contributions. Keep welcoming a diverse set of opinions, so that everyone is encouraged to say whatever their views are.

Then as the time closes, perhaps ask for those with who have said less if they have final comments.

11. Recording the contributions

Use flip chart paper to write up a resume of what is said so that everyone can keep track of the differing thoughts. Make them quick bullet points so that you don't lose the various points made, rather than trying to write long sentences. If you use the words that the women say you will get a correct record. Women will usually correct you if you make a mistake in noting their point!

These points can then be used to write up a report or article later on the subject discussed in the session. Do let women know that you will be writing their views up and check that they are happy with this, before the session ends

12. Using the workshop contents and outcomes

Draw together the contributions and if it is the focus of the session, propose an action for after the session. This might be for further discussions to take place in a future group, writing up the comments made from the flip chart to circulate or have published, or some other action that will use the contributions from the women present.

It may not be possible to determine exactly what actions will come about from the workshop. There may also be several proposals from different women. You may want to take telephone numbers / email addresses to contact women again at a later date.

It is not crucial that actions come directly from the workshop. Having space to think and consider actions is important in itself. Women may go back home to their communities and develop something from the inspiration they received through attending the session.

13. Closing the session

Rather than leave women to drift off or lose the sense of the session at the end, leave time for at least a few words from each participant. Ask women to say briefly what they got out of participating in it, something they learnt or a piece of action they want to take as a result of the session. Often it is helpful to go round the room so that each woman gets a brief opportunity to say something.

You don't need this closing section of the workshop to be long, but it enables women to notice how they have contributed and been a part of an across the spectrum experience. It also supports women to voice any next steps or actions they want to take on the issue discussed.

14. Handling Difficulties in the Group

No group runs completely smoothly. You may have difficulties with the venue / space for the group. You may find that materials you need are missing, such as flip chart and pens. On the other hand, you could have a member of the group who becomes disruptive and wants to make their views heard and in the process does not respect other points of view or listen well to other women.

It is useful to think ahead a little together as facilitators about how you might handle difficulties, and have some form of plan should they arise.

Allow for practical problems such as there not being flip chart paper and pens available by taking some along as a back up. Do some signs for the door, to let participants know that they have come to the right place.

It can be helpful to tell one another what difficulties you are each most anxious about. For example, one of you may find women with certain mannerisms hard to relate to, so the other facilitator may take on handling participants who, for example chat to their neighbours all the time.

Spend time personally welcoming women as they arrive. I usually find that this assists women to arrive and engage with the topic. By talking with most of the women at least briefly before the workshop or group starts, I can often tell if someone is likely to have a strong opinion or finds it hard to participate.

Women can have difficulty contributing as a part of a group for many reasons, which may show as, for example, being very quiet and in the background; tending to take over and not allow time for others to speak; chatting to others around them when you are presenting information, or wanting to make suggestions about how you could do the workshop differently or even say they don't want to participate in part of it.

Rather than keep them at arm's length, I prefer to make good contact with women who are anxious or may be disruptive. Appreciating their contributions whilst also reminding them of the agreed guidelines and staying firm about each women getting equal space to contribute usually works well.

On the other hand, it is important not to get too sidetracked if one woman is disruptive. The other group members can get uneasy if the programme does not progress. You can end up doing a bit of a balancing act, but this is where two facilitators are so much more effective than one.

Finally, not everyone will always leave a group satisfied. It is a real challenge to meet everyone's needs as well as stay to the topic in a flexible manner. We will learn a great deal from our mistakes and from feedback in all its forms, as we facilitate groups.

15. Debriefing as facilitators

Find some space as soon as you can to debrief together as facilitators after the session.

The purpose of this debriefing is to notice whether the session met the original aims, what went well and what you learnt in facilitating it. You may also think about ways you would lead a similar session differently in the future: make improvements.

It never hurts to be pleased with ourselves, and so do spend some time noticing what you personally each did well as facilitators.

Finally, what do you want to do with what came out of the session? In my view there can never be too many contributions about Jewish women's lives, including our experiences and thinking. Consider what you would like to put out and how.

Contributing to the picture of Jewish Women Across the Spectrum in the UK

In conclusion, I believe that we will benefit as a whole community if we are able to hear the voices and respond to the changes needed for the full involvement of Jewish women across the spectrum in the UK.

Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us has learnt, whatever our age, what is good about being in the Jewish community as well as the challenges as women. We are able to bring about change. This is demonstrated in the many pieces of action that Jewish women have taken already. One recent example is the setting up of Jewish Women's Aid for women and their children living with domestic violence, which was carried out despite some very mixed responses from within the community. The same applies to the Agunot 'chained women' campaign, which brought many women and men supporters across the spectrum out on the streets to take a stand for these women in the UK.

There are many more issues for us to address. What do you think needs to happen next? How will you build support from other women in the community?

In the past I think that as Jewish women in the UK we have frequently turned to other Jewish women outside of these islands to take the lead, such as those in the United States or Israel. I hope that these workshop and discussion group guidelines will assist you to take action where you think it needs to take place for Jewish women here in the UK.

Vicky Grosser

JWN Chair

December 2003