As summer turns to fall and the air turns cool and crisp, students return to the classroom and parents everywhere are reminded of a familiar worry: This may be the year that their children encounter a feared and legendary phenomenon, otherwise known as the class bully.
Not if Ilana Weiss ’03S has anything to say about it, though. As the Associate Executive Director of RESPECT, a non-profit dedicated to preventing school bullying, Weiss helps provide many schools and communities in Nebraska with educational theatre assemblies and theatre-based training sessions for students on bullying and healthy peer and friend relationships. A lot of her job is writing—to school administrators, or grant writing—and she credits her skills in that area to her time at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.
Growing up in Fair Lawn, NJ, in a traditional family, Weiss started to become more observant during high school, and joined the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, NCSY. “By the time I was a senior, I was committed to Torah observance and I wanted to attend Stern so I could develop my Judaic knowledge and skill set,” Weiss explained. “I also wanted to be in an environment that was conducive to a Torah-observant lifestyle.”
At Stern, she did an “art-shaped major” with a focus on graphic design, thinking that she would parlay her high school yearbook layout design experience into a career. But, by her own admission, she was more adept at the technical elements of graphic design than its artistic potential. She focused on developing strengths in other areas, including writing.
“Of all of the courses I took, I think the one that I remember the most and gave me the greatest number of tools was my very first English Composition course with Professor Manfred Weidhorn,” said Weiss. “I will never use a dangling participle because of him. I do a lot of writing in my job and I know that much of my skill in that area was honed in his class.” Weiss also loved her courses with Rabbi Dr. Basil Herring (who would later become one of her bosses). She made time to enjoy the city with her friends and roommates, and participate on Torah Tours and other service trips to assist Jewish communities across the country.
During her junior and senior years at Stern, she worked at the Rabbinical Council of America, while Rabbi Herring was its Executive Vice President. “My experience at the RCA was my first real office experience and allowed me to feel like I was a part of history,” said Weiss. “On a single day, I could be going through the archives of the older generations and then handling the intake of applications for new rabbis. During my first weeks working there, I typed a letter dictated by the President of the RCA to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and faxed it over. It was a small task, but it seemed pretty significant to me.”
Weiss won a spot in YU’s prestigious Presidential Graduate Fellowship program following her graduation. Working in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and getting a feel for nonprofit management proved to be an invaluable experience. Weiss specifically highlighted the usefulness of learning the fundamentals of public speaking and networking, as well as fundraising. “The knowledge and experience that has stemmed from the Fellowship has been a real asset to the positions I’ve had since,” said Weiss.
After finishing her Fellowship, Weiss married Yaakov (Jeffrey) Weiss ’03YC, ’05R, ’07AZ, whom she had met at her roommate and fellow Presidential Fellow’s engagement party. And so began a period of jet setting for the couple. They spent their first year married living in Israel. While Yaakov completed his semicha at the Gruss Campus in Jerusalem, Weiss interned in the fundraising department of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, where she acquired invaluable grant writing experience. The couple then spent a year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Yaakov found a job as a congregational rabbi and Weiss worked as a Jewish educator and program coordinator. Finally, they moved to Omaha, NB, where Weiss worked at the Institute for Holocaust Education, which, at the time, was a division of the Plans States region of the Anti-Defamation League.
In 2010, she began working at RESPECT, and founded its first Student Advisory Committee. “I quickly began taking on more responsibilities, and was eventually promoted to become the Education Director and then the Associate Executive Director, my current position,” said Weiss. In her current role, she performs an array of tasks, including grant writing and reporting; overseeing the Student and Community Advisory Committees; handling the publicity and communications for the organization; and working with schools throughout Nebraska to create specific program packages for each school according to its budget and needs. And, each year, she organizes a major conference for educators, counselors and other youth-serving professionals on bullying prevention, which draws between 75-100 people.
The organization creates programs tailored for schools with very young students and features kid-friendly costumes and catchy songs teaching children about how to make and treat friends, and it also creates programs for schools with students in high school and college, which can include a discussion about what to do if they’re in an abusive dating relationship. The programs are all performed by professional actor-educators under the supervision of RESPECT’s Executive Director, who is a child psychologist. RESPECT produces about 200 programs each year. Weiss’s job is more in the background, working to get the funding to provide the programs and coming up with ideas on developing new programs and publicizing them.
While there’s no typical workday, a recent one looked like this: Weiss had a 7:30 a.m. meeting with RESPECT’S Community Advisory Committee to get feedback on a new program before it was presented to students, followed by a meeting with staff to discuss how to update additional programs, and then a phone meeting with a school principal to brainstorm ideas for a sustainable anti-bullying campaign at his school. Finally, Weiss worked on various grants and administrative duties.
“RESPECT’s work setup is very different from most other companies and organizations in that we are a very small administrative staff and we all work according to our own schedules,” said Weiss. “I usually work from home or out of coffee shops. This is a huge plus for me as a mom, because I can always make time for my kids, and on days that are less busy, I can pick my kids up a little earlier. When I am very busy, if I need to be somewhere for personal reasons, I can take some time off during the day and get back to work at night. I don’t think there are many jobs out there with so much flexibility, but that’s also a challenge; Not being in an office at the same time as everyone else means I have to be clear in phone calls, emails and text messages about what needs to be done and who is doing it. I keep a to-do list for every little task so I don’t miss anything.”
In addition to her work with RESPECT, Weiss also runs regular events for children of the three synagogues—one Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform—for the Federation: A Synagogue Discovery Tour for 1st and 2nd graders, A Mitzvah Fair for 3rd and 4th graders and an Historical Jewish Omaha Tour for 4th and 5th graders.
Weiss and her husband have three daughters: Naama, 5, Meira, 2 ½, and Adira, 7 months. They enjoy life in Omaha, where Weiss said the people are extraordinarily friendly and nothing is ever more than 20 minutes away—even in rush hour. And Weiss relishes being one of the relatively small number of Orthodox Jews in Omaha, where she knows others look to her and her family as an example of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew.
“It was my experiences through YU on Torah Tours that sparked my interest to live in a smaller Jewish community, where every person makes a difference,” said Weiss. “Here in Omaha, I essentially live Torah Tours all year long. In fact, the way that I came to work for RESPECT is that I was giving a class for women on Simchas Torah in a style that I came up with during my Torah Tours experiences, and it just so happened that the Executive Director of RESPECT had started attending our shul and came to my class, and she offered me a job soon after!”
That Weiss works for an organization dedicated to helping others, though, is no coincidence, especially given her professional history working for so many worthy causes.
“I can’t imagine working for a cause that I didn’t care for strongly,” she declared. “As a mom now especially, I want to know that the time that I spend away from my children is filled with meaning, and I feel blessed that I can find purpose in what I do every day.”