Empowering Jewish Women as Leaders

By Liran Avisar Ben-Horin

Recently published data reveals a looming crisis in the Jewish world: women are less likely than men to see themselves as Jewish leaders. As a community, what exactly are we doing about it?

In Masa Israel Journey’s survey of nearly 1,000 alumni of its Israel experience programs, conducted by Rosov Consulting and released in August, 53 percent of men and only 42 percent of women considered themselves a “Jewish leader.” Women are also less likely to serve on the boards of Jewish organizations. Moreover, men than hold the same positions with the same number of reporting staff report that they hold leadership positions while women report that they hold mid-level management positions.

The Rosov study confirms long-held fears that the global Jewish community is perched on a precarious cliff when it comes to leadership. A 2014 study by The Bridgespan Group found that an estimated 75-90 percent of Jewish nonprofits do not have talent to fill executive leadership roles that are opening up, largely because these organizations are not sufficiently developing leaders in their pipelines, are failing to attract new talent, or have allowed gender gaps and bureaucracy to push talented young professionals out of the field.

This challenge is not unique to the Jewish community. According to a Pew Research Center study released in April, women comprise just 5 percent of CEOs in corporate America. At the same time, young Americans are yearning for younger leaders. A poll published by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV in July found that 79 percent of Americans ages 15-34 believe leaders from their own age group would do a better job running their country.

But where and how will we find these young leaders? If women do not sufficiently perceive themselves as worthy and capable of leading, Jewish nonprofits will fail to close their growing talent gap, and the causes these organizations promote – missions that are near and dear to so many of our hearts  – will suffer the consequences.

As a female leader of a Jewish nonprofit, I see the problem up close. It is personal for me. I grew up in the periphery, in a small town in northern Israel, first one of my family to gain an academic degree. I yearned for better opportunities than those were offered in our community, which I eventually found with the help of great mentors. When I worked for the Prime Minister, for the Attorney General and now as the CEO of Masa, I have been surrounded by men in top leadership positions, and I ask myself: how can we give young women in the Jewish world oppurtunities to become leaders, to believe and evaluate themselves for their unique and qualified ledership style?

At Masa, we have learned that an immersive, long-term experience in Israel makes a powerful contribution in cultivating leaders. In fact, as the Rosov study found, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of our alumni who see themselves as “Jewish leaders” also view themselves as “leaders” in the workplace.

That is why, in the wake of the study’s release, we have committed significant new resources to the Masa Leadership Academy: a first-of-its kind initiative that will cultivate and develop 1,000 Jewish leaders from around the world by 2021. This will be a critical source of talent for the leadership pipline of the Jewish world, that Israel is part of its leadership identity. One of the core objectives of the Academy is to address the alarming gender disparity in leadership. The program will feature a special track for women that cultivates leadership for both future lay leaders and Jewish communal professionals.

We are encouraging women to embrace and act upon the vast potential and capabilities that they already possess. Compared with men, women are more likely to possess key leadership skills such as valuing multiple perspectives, feeling more able to collaborate with others, displaying high attention to detail, and absorbing significant amounts of information.

Alongside the broader imperative of motivating women to lead, the academy will maintain a specific focus on fostering leadership among Haredi women, who are key changemakers in their religious community and serve as a bridge to the rest of the Jewish world and society at-large.

In recent years, the official figures released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics have consistently found that the employment rate for Haredi women hovers near 75 percent, compared to roughly 50 percent for Haredi men, while Haredi women are increasingly embarking on careers in the high-tech sector. Employment and leadership are inextricably connected, as the Rosov study found, and Haredi women – just like women in general – are natural leaders.

This is a problem that the Jewish world can no longer afford to ignore. We can cultivate a new culture, which reinforces that Jewish women have a unique ability – and responsibility – to lead, providing women with the tools and opportunities to secure seats in the C-Suites and board rooms of our communal institutions. The Jewish future depends on it.

Liran Avisar Ben-Horin is the CEO of Masa Israel Journey.