A Mitzvah of Egalitarianism

by Shaul Kelner

Several years ago, a friend at a Jewish feminist organization asked if I would consider joining some of my male colleagues in making a pledge: to not participate on all-male panels and to make the inclusion of at least one woman a condition of my involvement. The idea was to enlist men as allies in the ongoing struggle for gender equity in Jewish communal life.

I had conducted research on gender and power in Jewish organizations, some of it for the group that was now making the request, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. I knew the hard figures about the glass ceilings, pay differentials, and devaluing of women’s achievements in the synagogues, day schools, community centers, federations and agencies I had studied. Agreeing to the request was therefore easy, and I quickly responded, “I’m in.”

It was clear to me that the issues that my friend, Rabbi Joanna Samuels, was raising, were important ones: Whose voices are given platforms in the Jewish public square? What message does an all-male panel send about who is valued, who is worth listening to, who has something important to contribute to a conversation?

As I considered these questions, I recalled a situation a few years back when a Jewish think tank convened a “visioning the future” conference to which they had invited not a single woman. More like visioning the 1950s, my fellow sociologist, Steven M. Cohen, and I wrote at the time in an op-ed that took the organizers to task. But words after the fact are not enough to really solve the problem. Better I and like-minded men should speak up beforehand, and not allow our presence in public forums to legitimize women’s forced absence from them.

When event planners are faced with criticism over lack of female representation in their speaker line-ups, a common dodge is to claim that they are under pressure to bring in “big names” and that these are just more likely to be men. But there is a circular logic here. Someone becomes a “draw” when they have appeared in many public settings, when they are invited to be on important committees, and when they are invited to address large convenings. The absence of women from these settings is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since accepting AWP’s challenge and making a pledge two years ago not to participate in all-male panels, I have had the opportunity to invoke the pledge in a number of professional and communal settings. (Not too many, thankfully. That is a good sign.)

I cannot speak for the dozens of other Jewish male leaders, scholars and activists who also made the pledge, but in my case, push has never actually come to shove. My convictions have not yet been tested. I never had to refuse participation because, so far, not once have the conveners failed to “find” a woman who can participate. Generally, the conversations have gone something like this:

“Prof. Kelner, will you teach at our all-night Shavuot study session?”

“Sure. I’d be happy to. Who else is on the program?”

“Abe, Isaac and Jake”

“You couldn’t find any women to teach? Look, I’d love to join the program, but I’ve made a pledge not to participate in all-male panels. And anyway, do you really want to send the message that there are no qualified women?”

“Wow! You’re right. Thank you. We’re going to fix this.”

“Do that, and I’ll be happy to participate.”

Perhaps I would encounter more resistance were my response seen as an idiosyncratic choice. Presenting it as a “pledge” – a commitment that I have made and that other men have made, too – gives it a certain force that it might otherwise not have.

As it stands, the responses I get from program organizers usually include some expression of thanks. People want to do the right thing. When I mention the pledge, it is a values-clarifying moment that typically leads people to realize that they care about gender equity and need to act on these values. Significantly, when the same conveners have invited me back a second time, the problem of all-male panels has not repeated.

Many men, particularly of my generation, have already committed themselves not to speak on panels and in programs that exclude women’s voices. Hopefully, more and more will use their influence in this way.

The pledge is a mitzvah of egalitarianism. And as the sages teach, mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, one mitzvah leads to another. Together, we can help build a community that values men and women equally as leaders and as teachers of the Jewish people.

(If you are interested in learning more about this pledge, please contact Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community at info@advancingwomen.org)

Shaul Kelner teaches sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism.