Five Feminist Principles to Strengthen Jewish Organizations Today

By Jordan Namerow and Lilach Shafir

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, countless women have come forward to share their accounts of harassment, sexual assault, and abuse at the hands of powerful men in nearly every industry. As our Facebook feeds swelled with #MeToo stories, we were sorely reminded of the ways in which all institutions – including Jewish ones – tolerate sexism and misogyny in day-to-day interactions. Most of the testimonials we’ve heard are not as severe as the allegations lodged against Weinstein, but they are all part of a system of injustices that hold women back and harm Jewish organizations as a whole.

As women in our 30s who have worked in the Jewish professional sphere for over a decade, we are deeply invested in building vibrant Jewish communities that uphold values of respect and collective responsibility. Furthermore, we believe that correcting the power imbalance between women and men can reduce incidents of harassment and sexual assault.

In the spirit of building healthier Jewish environments – not only for women but for people of all genders – here are five feminist principles that we invite Jewish organizations to integrate into their workplace ecologies. These principles may seem obvious, but until our society is free from aggression and sexism, we cannot underestimate their importance.

1. Give credit where credit is due.

Too often, women in the workforce generate important ideas and contribute volumes of ‘behind-the-scenes’ work but fail to get proper credit. To the contrary, their male peers frequently receive the recognition that women deserve. Heather Sarsons, a PhD candidate at Harvard, explored this phenomenon in a 2015 study, and the findings are startling. Sarsons notes that one consequence of the gender bias in attribution is that fewer women, particularly in academia, get promoted than their male colleagues. Leaders of Jewish organizations must strive to publicly recognize the contributions of women who are not on the public stage, and acknowledge the unseen work that is fundamental to success.

2. Democratize opportunities for thought leadership.

For too long, gender inequality has imperiled the Jewish institutional world. In 2013, The Forward reported that among 74 executives in Jewish organizations, only 10 were women; they earned about 66 cents for every dollar that men earned. This dismal landscape indicates that the Jewish community is not only missing out on women’s ideas, but denying itself the opportunity to benefit from women who very well can, and should, have leadership roles. To shift this dynamic, Jewish organizations should offer women prominent platforms to speak and write in order to deeply influence our communal discourse. We applaud the critical work of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) in presenting actionable opportunities, such as challenging Jewish leaders to put an end to all-male panels, that have helped correct the gender imbalance in Jewish life. But we know that this work is far from finished.

3. Use inclusive language.

The words we say and the phrases we hear have a profound impact on organizational culture and how institutions relate to their employees. In meetings, emails, marketing materials, and water cooler conversations, strive to use language that respects the diversity of people you work with, including women. For example, use a mix of gender pronouns in an employee handbook. Refer to a committee “chair” rather than a “chairman,” and if your organization advocates for policy changes, why not do so with a “Member of Congress” instead of a “Congressman?” These adjustments may seem trivial, but they matter deeply. When we use inclusive language, we shatter the assumption that people in charge are, by default, men.

4. Listen attentively.

Last June, The New York Times published, “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women,” an op-ed highlighting a dynamic we experience too frequently. Our sector – Jewish organizations – is dominated by the currency of talk, but we would do well to embrace listening as a core value. If you are someone who usually speaks up right away, step back to let other people speak first. And if you hear someone say that you interrupted her, acknowledge what transpired, and take her feelings seriously. Listening attentively isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to create work environments in which everyone feels valued and every idea is vetted. It’s also a vital source of resilience to help Jewish organizations more adeptly manage conflict.

5. Support flexible work arrangements.

The World Bank reports that women spend at least twice as much time as men on domestic work, and when all work – paid and unpaid – is tallied, women work longer hours than men. Additionally, women bear disproportionate responsibilities in caring for children, the elderly and the sick, and spend two to 10 times more time each day on unpaid care than their male counterparts. This is true across the board and we, in the Jewish community, are no strangers to these inequities. If Jewish organizations wish to retain women and invest in their leadership potential, they must make flexible work arrangements and family-friendly policies an indelible value articulated from the get-go, not a “favor” to grant.

These are only five of many feminist principles Jewish organizations should put into practice. We’re grateful for colleagues and friends already taking steps to create work environments that foster women’s achievements. But we all must do much more. Let’s not wait for the next wave of sexual assault allegations to address the inequities within our own organizations. Let’s take action right now.

Integrating feminist principles into Jewish institutional life benefits everyone, not just women. It encourages creativity, nurtures wisdom, and optimizes problem-solving to effect positive change. That helps not only professionals working in Jewish institutions, but the people their programs serve.

In a time of brokenness and discord, Jewish organizations must seize the opportunity to model the values of dignity, inclusion, and respect from the inside out. When we build workplace environments that elevate, rather than eclipse, women as leaders, we can make a more enduring difference in the Jewish community and the broader world.

Jordan Namerow is the Director of Digital Communications at American Jewish World Service and a Schusterman Fellow.

Lilach Shafir is the Director of International Education and Jewish Engagement at American Jewish World Service.