After “The Week All the Jewish Women Turned Invisible,” Voices Are Quietly Emerging
By Esther D. Kustanowitz
In August, in response to some news items and conversations posted in the Year of the Jewish Woman (and Allies) Facebook group, I wrote a draft of a piece about raising the visibility for women in Jewish organizational life. Within a few days, dozens of others had contributed edits, and when it was formally published on eJewishPhilanthropy.com, it had 11 co-authors and 176 co-signers, a sign that the content was resonating widely. (After publication, that number grew to its current total, 559).
Some people thanked me for writing it, as the byline had been totally mine, and others said, “did you read that great fairy tale piece?,” seemingly unaware that I’d been involved at all. In almost every case, it was followed by a validating statement, like “this is so needed” or “I experience this literally every day at the office.” The article has broken the seal of silence on this issue, validating hundreds of women who work in and adjacent to the Jewish world who had previously thought, “it must just be me,” or “maybe it’s just this particular organization.” From distant corners of the Jewish world, we became a heterogeneous collective, maintaining our separate identities and engaging in diverse actions, but working toward similar overall goals.
The initial impact had been like an earthquake: a movement that, in magnitude, was surprising and even seemed threatening, but then receded to aftershocks, and then to much smaller vibrations, many of them too small to discern. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Several additional pieces, citing the original “Turned Invisible” piece and the Year of the Jewish Woman Facebook group as inspiration, have been published including Deryn Pressman-Mashin’s “Giving Thanks for a Great Female Leader”; Rabbi Rachael M. Bregman’s “To Increase Diversity and Decrease Bias, Start with God”; “Ally is a Verb,” by Rachel Gildiner, Haley Schreier, and Tilly Shames; and “An Accounting of the Soul: Cheshbon HaNefesh – A Reflective User’s Guide to Thirteen Principles for Ensuring Equity in Jewish Communal Workplaces,” authored by Dale Glasser, Dana Sheanin and Sara Shapiro-Plevan. Over on LivethePledge’s Instagram, you may have seen the recent “#Dedic8ted” series of video posts by Jewish professionals pledging to amplify women’s voices, especially non-binary folks and women of color. And some men have also stepped forward with their own versions of advocacy, vowing to be better allies, in some cases taking to heart the specific list of core principles, situations and actions we included in the “Turned Invisible” piece.
Being Better Allies in 2020
In this new year, there are so many ways in which we can better advocate on behalf of gender equity and inclusion. In meetings, making sure everyone gets to talk – noticing who stays silent, or who gets cut off most frequently, or who dominates; it’s not enough just to bring diverse voices to the table–those voices actually have to be audible. Or when your organization is seeking new leadership, making sure the hiring committee operates with diversity as a value. Or in writing pieces of Jewish communal significance, making sure that reporters interview prominent women in the field as well. Sometimes it means being linguistically inclusive of a person’s gender pronouns or ethnic identity, or physically inclusive of those with accessibility issues, bringing in organizations like Keshet, JQ International, Jews in All Hues and Matan to do awareness trainings. And of course, working toward the extinction of “manels,” panels that are composed entirely of men; as soon as a panel grows beyond a duo, make sure there’s some diversity. If you don’t know who to call, call a woman who is a co-author or a co-signer of our original article – we can be resources, and are developing tools that the Jewish community can use to become more inclusive.
After ‘Equity Ever After’
There are concrete efforts that have emerged around salary/pay equity: collecting salary information from people who have worked at Jewish nonprofits, so we can examine the range of compensation and see where adjustments need to be made, or sharing information about freelance article rates. New members are joining the Year of the Jewish Woman (and Allies) Facebook group weekly and sharing their concerns, crowdsourcing advice and solutions on a regular basis. Gathering data, analyzing it, creating an action plan – these things are undoubtedly coming, but will take time.
Other more amorphous outcomes lead to questions of how to assess impact. How do you measure the number of conversations that hundreds of women, their colleagues and organizations have had since the article’s publication? How many people printed out the list of principles and hung it up in their workspaces as a reference or for inspiration? Who is undergoing infrastructural change or alterations to the hiring process, taking their own small and important steps to speak up in meetings or make sure others are heard? Which people and organizations are applying for grants to help study these trends? Which foundations and institutions are making these issues a funding priority, improving professional development for employees, recruiting from within?
If you’ve got anecdotes, share them. The steps you took toward allyhood. The times you suggested women be promoted to higher positions, or be panelists or representatives for your organization or company at meetings or conferences. Those moments when you said no to “boys’ club” style camaraderie culture and embraced safe, non-sexualized space (no more important meetings in hot tubs or over a humidor at a Men’s Club night). What about that time you hosted a safe and respectful workplace training for your company or insisted that the recruiting firm look at women as candidates for that high-profile job? Remember when you told the CEO that the C-suite search should also look at women candidates from within the organization who had been toiling for years in lower-level and lower-paying positions and were ready to step up to make a more high-profile impact? These kinds of changes are important. They require thoughtful analysis and feedback from people who are doing the work and those who decide how that work should be done. Making this type of change means having more seats available at the table, making the tent bigger, or whatever inclusive metaphor you’d like to employ to describe this brave new world.
We talked about the article as earthquake, causing a seismic shift in the status quo. But if you prefer, you can also think of Jewish community as a mostly calm lake, a rich natural resource, an environment that feeds its own growth. Under the surface, there is a bustle of aquatic life of all sorts, some of it functional and some of it less so: it’s invisible from the shoreline, but it’s there. Those of us who wrote or co-signed or published the original article hurled that piece of writing forward like a boulder into this lake: not to displace or injure anyone, but to shake things up and create a wave that’s still rippling. When the ripples settle into a default calm, hopefully what happens beneath that serene surface is more dynamic and inclusive, and results in a Jewish communal life that is more accountable, equality-minded, self-replenishing, reinvigorated and more vibrant for us all.
If the original article made an impact on you or your organization, or if you are having these kinds of conversations socially or professionally, consider taking one of the following actions:
- Comment below to share your stories
- Join the Year of the Jewish Woman and Allies page and contribute to the conversations, resources and community there
- Share your experience or challenge on Facebook and tag someone who can help amplify that experience
- Email the Gender Equity in Hiring Project or Taamod, a project of The Good People Fund and Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, about working with them to make changes in your workplace
- Contribute an item to the LiveThePledge website
- Contribute a relevant article to eJewishPhilanthropy.com
Stop, pause and observe the ecosystem around you. What changes are you noting? Who do you want to share this with? Invite a colleague to join you for coffee and conversation (in person or virtual) to talk about what’s changing and how you can advocate for or partner together toward change. Make some new friends and colleagues. Then repeat. The space of Jewish communal life is ours–all of ours–to grow together, so we can live with equity ever after.
Esther D. Kustanowitz (estherk.com) is a writer and consultant based in Los Angeles. She was one of the original authors of “The Week All Jewish Women Turned Invisible,” contributes to the Jewish Journal and J. The Jewish News of Northern California, and co-hosts The Bagel Report podcast.