Created Equal: Expanding Current Conceptions of Leadership in the Jewish Community

gender-equalityBy Rabbi Ellen Flax and Mijal Bitton

With the recent closing of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) as part of its well-planned “exist strategy,” one of the key questions going forward is how this group’s critical agenda will continue to be advanced. AWP was at the forefront of making the Jewish community consider such critical issues as work-life balance, paid family leave, as well as the dearth of women in leadership positions in communal institutions. AWP’s game plan, as stated for the past several years, was that its network of supporters, both institutions and individuals, would carry this work forward.

Both the Hadassah Foundation and the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America are proudly accepting this challenge. The Foundation – investors in social change to empower girls and women – and SHI-NA, which is shaping the future of North American Jewish life through transformative teaching, educating leaders, and raising the tenor of the public discourse, have joined together to create a graduate student seminar focused on questions of gender equity in Jewish leadership.

This program, called the ‘Created Equal Graduate Student Seminar,’ is grounded in a new curriculum developed by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in consultation with AWP, called Created Equal: Men, Women and the Ethics of Shared Leadership. This curriculum mines the Jewish tradition for discussions about the ethics and the politics of leadership, the methodology and challenges of change, as well as the cost of maintaining the status quo. In this seminar, students will wrestle with questions of what Jewish leadership for the 21st century should look like, with a particular focus on gender parity in Jewish institutional leadership. The questions that the students – all of whom are enrolled in graduate programs focused on Jewish communal leadership – will grapple with include: How can we better live up to our stated values by promoting ethical leadership models in our community? What systemic problems keep us from realizing more ethical leadership in our community? How does the issue of gender inequity relate to other challenges within our Jewish leadership landscape? How can we diversify our images of Jewish leaders and leadership in order to lead an ever-changing North American Jewish community?

The students, drawn from graduate programs from across the country, will engage in distance-learning sessions with Hartman scholars this spring. The Seminar will conclude with an in-person leadership conference called Ethics, Leadership and the Jewish Future, in partnership with the UJA Federation of New York’s Wiener Educational Center on May 25th, to which Jewish leaders will be invited.

Our goal through the graduate student seminar is to create a cadre of future leaders who will be open to questioning the assumptions – often based on essentialized understandings of gender roles – that propel many hiring and operating decisions in the Jewish community. Equally important, we hope that these future Jewish communal leaders will create and shape institutions that will truly value and reward the contributions of all, irrespective of their parenting or caregiving status.

In addition to running the Graduate Student Seminar, Hartman, with the support of the Hadassah Foundation, will be adapting the Created Equal curriculum for use with a variety of other cohorts: clergy, campus professionals, lay leaders, among others. We anticipate that this learning will invite a much needed conversation in the Jewish community about who is a leader, and what a leader should look like.

Only by spurring a much larger conversation among all segments of the Jewish community will we be able to achieve our goal of a truly inclusive communal leadership.

Rabbi Ellen Flax is the director of the Hadassah Foundation.

Mijal Bitton is a faculty member and Doctoral Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.