Dual Loyalities

How the field of Jewish women’s philanthropy has divided into two categories

by Deborah Skolnick Einhorn

When asked what I study, I often simply answer “Jewish women’s philanthropy.” By far the most common response to my response is: “Oh, my grandmother was in Hadassah!” Eagerness to make the connection, between a grandmother’s membership in the largest Jewish women’s Zionist organization in history (Hadassah) and my own work, is a wonderful form of Jewish geography. But, as this essay describes, the field of Jewish women’s philanthropy is both bigger and more nuanced than those cocktail party exchanges might reveal.

To assess whether something qualifies as Jewish women’s philanthropy, one could ask: “Are the funds donated by Jewish women for Jewish causes?” and/or “Are the funds donated by individuals to benefit Jewish women and girls?” These questions clearly narrow the scope to those donations that affect the Jewish world. They also divide the field into what I call “women’s philanthropy” and “feminist philanthropy.”

A look at Jewish women’s philanthropy

Women’s philanthropy, as I define it, includes all giving by women through a women’s organization, auxiliary, or branch. Jewish women’s philanthropy, therefore, is both a broader field and philosophically more broad-based than feminist philanthropy, and is determined primarily by the gender of the donor. In other words, it is Jewish women’s philanthropy simply because women are giving with other women, no matter what the cause, and the causes seem endless; they range from maintaining synagogues through Sisterhoods, to feeding the hungry in Ukraine, to sending young Jews to Israel through the Women’s Philanthropy departments of the Jewish Federation. These organizations and sub-organizations have been key gateways to women’s philanthropic participation, firmly insisting on the power of women to give in their own name and their own style. This often translates into more gentle solicitation of donors and niche social opportunities for women who seek communal connections.

Notably, in Jewish women’s philanthropy, donors are not always the decision makers regarding fund allocation. In organizations in which women’s dollars are funneled through a women’s auxiliary, branch, division, or department, the money becomes part of the general operating budget and allocations pool, and is then distributed by the overall organizational leadership. As is well documented, with women poorly represented in top leadership positions at these Jewish communal organizations, female voices are not always part of the conversations or outcomes.

A look at Jewish feminist philanthropy

Whereas I define Jewish women’s philanthropy by the entry point, I define Jewish feminist philanthropy based on the end point. Feminist philanthropy – no matter the donor’s gender – seeks to create social change for women and girls. Jewish feminist initiatives cite the absence of women from top leadership roles as a major factor in the drastic underfunding of women’s and girls’ needs in the Jewish world (and beyond). Feminist philanthropy, through programs like Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and organizations like Ma’yan, supports leadership initiatives for teen girls. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance seeks to find greater roles for women within the bounds of halakhah (Jewish Law). In seeking equality and diversity for this specialized group, donors to feminist philanthropies are also seeking a more inclusive Jewish community overall.

More similar or different?

Notably, these two types of Jewish philanthropy share their most important resource: donors and volunteers. A Venn diagram of the two donor pools would show significant overlap between donors to women’s Jewish philanthropy causes and Jewish feminist causes. Although the philanthropic strategies are distinct – and sometimes even at odds philosophically – they attract many of the same women.

What those donors and volunteers typically share, aside from their gender, is a significant commitment to Jewish communal needs. Compared to feminist philanthropists who have thrown their hands up at the “Jewish patriarchy” or women philanthropists who have decided their dollars are better leveraged in the general nonprofit sphere, donors to Jewish women’s and feminist causes have faith that their dollars can still be well spent in the Jewish world.

Perhaps it is my over-simplified answer to the question of what I study that prompts so many “you should interview my bubbe!” responses. The widening and ever-more-complicated sphere of women’s and feminist philanthropy in the Jewish community feels like both a blessing and a curse. While there is something for everyone – those who seek to give to any of a broad range of causes with other women, and those who seek to give to benefit other women – there is no longer a standard giving or volunteer portal that attracts Jewish women more universally. The question remains: How will new modes of giving (and getting) impact what women give to and get from their own philanthropy?

Deborah Skolnick Einhorn is a doctoral candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic studies department at Brandeis University. Her dissertation focuses on [all kinds of] women’s philanthropy in the Jewish community. She also teaches about contemporary Jews and Judaism at Tufts University and Hebrew College.

This article originally appeared in 614: HBI eZine – an online magazine published by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to spark conversation among young Jewish women about hot topics relevant to their lives. Reprinted with permission.

image courtesy Karen Pike Photography