Fighting for Gender Equity on Purim

By Barbara Dobkin

Today, we celebrate the holiday of Purim – wearing costumes, feasting and drinking, giving gifts and charity, and reading the Book of Esther. It’s a strange book, with an oblivious king (Ahaseurus), an evil vizier (Haman), a non-compliant queen (Vashti, quickly jettisoned in the first chapter), and a young Jewish girl (Esther) who is given to the king’s harem by her strategic uncle, and goes on to speak up for her people who are about to be eliminated.

In modern Jewish practice, this is a kids’ holiday, played for fun and silliness, despite its persistent themes of extravagant carelessness, exploitation, and violence. But the undercurrents are deadly serious and deeply resonant, calling us to pay attention to the dynamics of power, gender, and authority in which we are all implicated.

This year, I’m thinking particularly about relationships around money, gender, and power. I have founded several organizations devoted to giving women’s voices their rightful place in the Jewish community and beyond – organizations that remain dependent on the support of funders like me to do their work. Gender equity has never been a funding priority for most individuals or foundations, though there has been some increased recognition of its importance of in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

I recently learned that an organization I helped found and continue to serve as a board member has been selected to receive a grant for women’s empowerment from the Genesis Prize Foundation. This is great news. Funding for women’s empowerment is not easy to come by, not to mention that the staff devoted untold hours to the grant writing process, and board members put in time, effort, and our own money to secure the significant matching funds required by the Genesis Prize Foundation to be eligible for the grant.

Unfortunately, I received this news just days after the Genesis Prize Foundation reaffirmed their commitment to honoring Robert Kraft, their chosen “laureate” for the year, who is facing two first-degree misdemeanors charges of soliciting prostitution at a Jupiter, Florida, spa whose employees are suspected victims of human trafficking. The dissonance, of course, is striking: Genesis Prize declares their commitment to bringing greater gender equality to the Jewish community. And at the very same moment, they reveal their belief that devotion to Israel and to fighting antisemitism – the values for which they are honoring Kraft – outweighs any involvement in the mistreatment of women. Women’s human rights, according to this equation, simply do not measure up to the value of these traditional Jewish communal priorities.

Our organization will accept the Genesis Prize grant because we need it to do the work of women’s empowerment, and not taking the money will do nothing to further that work. We do not believe that our organization – or other organizations who have been doing the daily work of fighting for gender equity for years – should have to pay the price for the Genesis Prize Foundation’s decision to stand behind Kraft.

The Genesis Prize Foundation has chosen not to make a public announcement of their women’s empowerment grants, perhaps in an attempt to avoid attention to the dissonance between their grant and prize decisions. But their silence does not demand my own.

I’d like to think the Genesis Prize Foundation is demonstrating Ahaseurusian obliviousness, rather than a more calculated belief that giving money to a cause will absolve them of other actions that undermine the very same cause. The Genesis Prize Women’s Empowerment grants should not be allowed to provide cover for the Foundation’s compromised values in their choice to double down on honoring Kraft. While giving money is necessary, it is not sufficient. Genesis Prize’s distribution of $2 million in grants for women’s empowerment does not fulfill their obligation to work for greater gender equity in the Jewish community; in fact, it only begins their commitment to do so.

How can Jewish philanthropists model holistic change that goes beyond allocating money? What will it take to create communal conditions in which funding gender equity is not treated as window dressing, but as a serious commitment to equity and accountability in decision-making processes, including those that involve powerful donors?

The narrative of money reinforcing power is an age-old, familiar one. But Purim is about flipping the narrative and turning the world upside down; it is an invitation to speak up and do what feels scary and impossible. As we celebrate Purim this year, I hear the voices of Vashti and Esther calling to us more loudly than ever, and urging us to add our voices to their own.

Barbara Berman Dobkin is a Jewish feminist philanthropist. Her vision, dedication, generosity and financial commitment have contributed significantly to changing the landscape of Jewish women’s organizations and funding in both North America and Israel. Dobkin co-founded Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project and has served as the chair of The Jewish Women’s Archive and the Hadassah Foundation.