By Maayan Jaffe
The topic of women’s empowerment in the workplace is not a new one. Whether you call it the challenge of the “mommy track,” the “sticky floor” or the “glass ceiling,” women continue to grapple with how to move ahead while balancing work-family life.
For more than a decade, women leaders have tackled the subject from different perspectives. In 2000, author Eve Nagy pointed out in an article published by Sulam that women in top Jewish communal leadership roles earn as much as $20,000 less than their male counterparts – a statistic that has not nudged. In 2010, Dvora Meyers reported in an article published by Repair the World that female Jewish communal professionals earn $28,000 less than men working in the field … and that is even if women can get to the top spot.
Within the Jewish Federation system, for example, women account for only 9 percent of the top leadership at major Jewish federations, according to Rebecca Dinar, managing director of communications and media relations for JFNA. And this is despite women comprising 70 to 80 percent of the federation workforce.
But it is not all doom and gloom for women, according to Shifra Bronznick, a feminist activist who focuses largely on Jewish women’s rights and organizational life.
“Look in the foundation world. Look at national Jewish publications. Look at the Jewish social justice world,” said Bronznick naming a list of top women leaders such as Rachel Garbow Monroe, president and chief executive officer of the Weinberg Foundation; Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, president of the Wexner Foundation; Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, executive director of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality; Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc; and several editor-in-chiefs of some of America’s largest Jewish publications like Forward and Tablet. “Before, all those [organizations] had males at the top. There are certain parts of the world where there has been little progress. In these other worlds, we are seeing a lot more. Elka, Stosh and Rachel had all been number twos in their institutions and were selected to be the heads of their institutions. That is a fundamental shift in the selection process for women and changes the leadership landscape.”
Bronznick said she thinks many legacy Jewish organizations – federation, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, AIPAC – “are concerned they are declining in influence, power and prestige” and therefore are terrified of change. The stats reflect that assumption.
But Dinar sees it differently. She said JFNA has been working to better position women in its system. For example, in 2006, JFNA launched a formal paid leave policy and a flexible work policy:
“We recently assessed the costs and benefits of our maternity leave policy. … We found the benefits far and away outweighed the costs,” President Jerry Silverman wrote in a 2010 letter to local federations, encouraging them to reach out to Advancing Women Professionals & the Jewish Community (AWP) for resources and support to move a similar initiative forward. Few federations have adopted the same policy, but JFNA has adhered to the model.
Further, the Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence reports over the past six months, on average 30 percent of prequalified candidates were women, Dinar explained.
“We are providing a good pool of qualified women candidates,” said Dinar. “Ultimately, the final decisions are made locally.”
Last year, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia named Naomi Adler as its head. Adler told eJewish Philanthropy she considers herself a non-traditional candidate, since she was recruited from outside the federation system, from United Way. She was a CEO before taking on her new role and is also a lawyer. She said she has the “ability and flexibility” to make her role work, with a husband and children who are “in it with you.”
“This is a very time intensive, high-pressured job,” said Adler, noting it is not a matter of women not having the skills for the role, but the right women pushing themselves to be in the applicant pool. Federations, she said, need to shy away from interviewing “token women” candidates, but instead should look outside the traditional pool of candidates for women like her.
Women also have to do their due diligence by making themselves well-rounded by pushing themselves into lay or professional roles that offer a combination of relationship building, fundraising and programmatic experience, Adler explained.
“It is important to find mentors – female and male,” said Adler.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, expressed similar sentiments. She said women leaders should find other women leaders and work together for incremental change. She said women also have to learn to stand up for themselves to effect change.
Jacobs told how one time she had been asked last minute to give an afternoon talk to an area organization. In the email request, the male author noted he “understood the talk could cause childcare issues.”
Jacobs, who runs a national organization has fulltime childcare, but also knows the statement would never have been made if that same email had been sent to her husband, for example. She couldn’t make the talk due to a previous commitment, but in her reply she not only declined but kindly noted the inappropriateness of the man’s statement in hopes he would think twice before making that same assumption in the future.
“She could say yes or she could say no, but it is not something that should be assumed without asking,” said Jacobs.
New Programs, New Paradigms
AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps recently launched AVODAH Women Leading Together career and leadership development initiative. According to Director of Alumni and Community Engagement Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, the program, which includes several forms of coaching and educational seminars, is meant to help participating women “prepare for, secure and succeed in leadership positions in and outside of the Jewish community.”
A program at Rutgers University has a similar mission: Advancing women’s leadership for a just world. That program serves as a catalyst and incubator for innovative programs, creating model programs that link theory and practice in fields such as health, media and technology, and philanthropy in the nonprofit sector, while continuing to build interdisciplinary leadership education opportunities that deepen understanding of critical issues affecting women.
As women emerge from these programs and join legacy Jewish and other nonprofits, said Ruskay, “they can make cultural change there.”
Rafi Rone, vice president, Jewish & Israel Initiatives at Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, has been partnering with leaders such as Bronznick for more than a decade, and studying how to help women move forward in Jewish communal life. He said a new collaborative leadership style he sees emerging will help women achieve desired top roles.
“Leadership in the sector, in general, has become more collaborative – it is a style of leadership that has been more traditionally perceived as female than male,” Rone said. “It’s really in the last 15 or 20 years and the consistent influence of this continues to move the field forward.”
Early on in his career, Rone took a pledge along with several other male Jewish leaders not to sit on any panel that does include at least one woman.
“That is how we push the agenda,” he said, noting the goal is not to make change by toppling current organizational paradigms, but rather to have an impact panel by panel, as one of many strategies intended to create change until a culture shift becomes normative.
For her part, Bronznick said what is most important is that we keep the dialogue going and not be afraid to dialogue loudly.
“It is very easy to get thrown off the island when you criticize donors, organizational leaders or institutional choices. Lack of dialogue is not healthy for a community that needs to make profound decisions about its future,” she said.
Bronznick continued: “This is not just about women. There is a link between what is good for women and what is good for everyone, a link between advancing gender equity and what we will need to sustain a healthy, vital Jewish community.”