Jewish Community: Zero?

by Shannon Sarna and Ruthie Warshenbrot

More than half of the 2010 Slingshot organizations are headed by women.

More than half of the 2009 Avi Chai Fellows (“the Jewish genius grant”) award winners are women. More than half of the current Joshua Venture Fellows are women.

And over 70% of Jewish professionals are women.

The number of women finalists in the Jewish Federations of North America’s recent Jewish Community Heroes campaign: Zero.

The Jewish Heroes project fails to accurately reflect the landscape of the Jewish community’s best and brightest. When the vast majority of professionals working to enrich the Jewish community are women, how should it come to pass that not a single women is counted among our top five heroes?

According to JFNA’s website, this is the community’s opportunity to “shine a national spotlight on the unsung, whether their work impacts five people or 5,000.” We believe such an initiative is honorable, and that the finalists deserve to be recognized. However, the selection by a panel of judges (11 out of 17 of whom were men) of all-male finalists excludes the work of hundreds of Jewish women throughout our communities who are organizational heads, educators, teachers, thinkers, spiritual leaders, and, well, heroes.

One of JFNA’s goals for initiating this campaign was to demonstrate the new face of the organization and the relevance of their brand. But without representation of women, JFNA is missing a serious part of the Jewish landscape.

The judges were asked to select candidates that show “exceptional qualities and commitment in line with the mission of Jewish Federations of North America, strengthening Jewish community, and the ideals of tikkun olam.” Nothing in that description should inherently marginalize women.

On the other hand, this campaign raises a number of difficult questions: What does it mean in an open voting process that the Jewish community did not vote for women in the same numbers as they voted for men? Only six out of the twenty semifinalists, selected by popular demand, were women. In our Jewish tradition, women are revered, respected and valued in so many ways. What is different about contemporary Jewish life that regards female leadership as less heroic?

Dan Brown, of and one of the judges said, “It was particularly noticeable when I received the final packet of nominees for review. Were women not nominated, or were women not as successful at deploying their social networks?”

While JFNA cannot control who the Jewish community votes for (or which nominees have the broadest social networks), it is their responsibility as a major Jewish institution to ensure that a campaign of this scale is one that shines a spotlight on all our unsung heroes, including women. In today’s world of limited resources and unlimited opportunity, JFNA is often put on the defensive to justify their good work as a “legacy organization.” By selecting an entirely male cohort of Jewish Community Heroes finalists, JFNA presents itself as horribly behind the times in the very campaign it launched in an attempt to demonstrate the organization’s renewed relevance. We need to stop letting ourselves and our institutions off the hook if we are committed to a vibrant Jewish future.

Shannon Sarna is the External Relations Coordinator at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Ruthie Warshenbrot is the Lisa Goldberg Fellow of Jewish Professional Leadership at NYU Wagner/Skirball Dual Degree program and a Wexner Graduate Fellow.

For a related article on the gender gap in our Jewish world, read The Jewish Communities Gender Deficit.

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  1. says

    Shannon and Ruthie,

    thank you very much for this thoughtful post. I’m sure the finalists are all people who are having a significant impact, but in 2010 if we can’t find at least ONE female Jewish heroine for my daughters and I to be inspired by, there is something significantly wrong with the process of this contest.

    Results like this push us to reconsider: what is heroism? For families with children, we know that women (whether working or not) take on more family responsibilities, and men devote more hours to work. The result is that some men have more opportunities to be passionate and visible about a public cause, while some women may be the “private heroines” who devote long hours to the small but critical tasks of raising children. In that sense, some women are at a disadvantage this kind of contest.

    To give just one example from the contest itself, look at Zvi Gluck. His bio mentions his selflessness in helping people who are down on their luck, and specifically says that, “his wife Aviva is the one who makes it all possible” since she’ll cover for him when he needs to go help someone. Shouldn’t she considered to be a heroine also?

    Some of my heroines are my female friends and colleagues who are challenged every day to keep the needs of their families in balance with the passion that they feel about their work. These women may never get thousands of votes…but in considering their large and small impact, I know that they are heroic. My hope is that the JFNA can figure out a way to acknowledge this also.

    Renee Rubin Ross

  2. Michael Horen says

    My first reaction to the sub-category and winners was that there was not an equal representation of women. I totally agree with the points mentioned, women are more than an integral part of the mix. Perhaps the next time this contest rolls around the committee could structure a contest that selects equal numbers of men and women.

  3. Desh says

    I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about the results of a popular vote like this, other than who is the most successful at spamming their Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

    There’s about a 13% chance that choosing 5 out of the 20 semifinalists purely at random would exclude all 6 women. Not being qualified to judge them on their merits, I’m less inclined to lay blame at that part of the process, and more inclined to point fingers at the spammy, annoying, near-worthless semifinal popularity contest. My Facebook feed has only recently recovered, but it still has PTSD.

  4. Rela Mintz Geffen says

    Very disappointing to say the least. I had thought that we were beyond this stage in mainstreaming women into the Jewish establishment in the US. JFNA is definitely “so twentieth century” (or perhaps nineteenth?) as the kids say – where were the heads of the judges? The whole point of judges evaluating the top 20 (semi-finalists) was to prevent any concerted campaigns (such as the obviously well organized Chabad effort) from dominating the list of finalists.
    How could Jerry Silverman not have noticed this faux pas? Or perhaps it is good that this happened to show us how fraught the situation really is behind the positive rhetoric about “leveling the playing field”. RMG

  5. says

    Women are not as good at using social networks. Women are not as good as men at sales. Women can’t be linemen. Women can’t work sanitation department trucks. Women can’t be heads of federations (but they can run their federation bosses’ lives and then some.) Women don’t get equal pay for equal work. HELLO? Does any of this sound like a pre-1970 aria about women? That’s because in many, many ways, especially in the Jewish world, while things seem to have changed, they really haven’t. It’s gonna still take time to reprogram men’s brains. And we women are the ones who have to do it.

    Can’t social network? Women? We ARE the social network of Judaism.

  6. says

    This opinion piece ignores key facts:

    1. Six of the judges who pick the final round are women. Heroic women, at that:

    2. It’s a popular vote. Should we complain that Hillary Clinton losing was sexism?

    3. If women winning was so important to you, where were you while they were campaigning? This was an open and public competition. The time to boost their vote count was during the voting.

    4. Why are the top five people men? Because the top five vote-getters *happen* to be men. There were women in the Top-5 last year (Devorah Bejamin and Bassie Shemtov). You’re the ones making it about gender.

    5. I’ve been told Dmitriy Salita punches like a girl.

    Ari Teman
    Your undeserved Jewish Community Hero ’09

  7. says

    A huge thanks to Shannon and Ruthie for writing this article. I am most struck by their question about what it means “in an open voting process that the Jewish community did not vote for women in the same numbers as they voted for men.” Frankly, I do not believe that the process can be understood as “open.”

    When the votes cast for semifinalists so overwhelmingly favored men, when the committee lacked gender balance, and when its members were not cognizant of the fact that they chose five men (or aware of the message that this choice conveys), then the process was far from open. The process, from the beginning, was hindered by a lack of critical consciousness about the prevalence in our community of:

    1) male privilege (unearned advantages that benefit men at the expense of women)
    2) male power (the empowerment of men—-over women-—to control circumstances)

    If 70% of Jewish communal professionals are women, then maybe it is time for 70% of Jewish organizational CEO’s to be women as well. Let’s start from the top down, because clearly, men can’t be left in charge to make the right decisions.


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