Gender Balance in the Jewish Spotlight

by Naomi Less

My fans and readers are familiar with inspiring pieces I share that are written by others about gender, sexuality and girl empowerment. But recently, I have been blogging with discouragement about women’s under-representation in Jewish communal endeavors and initiatives. (Click here for the original blog post). Based on four events in the last six months, and the unsatisfactory responses I have received, I am committed to working on this, even as my speaking out comes at some risk to my own musical career.

Here is a round-up of recent communal lapses of judgment on the gender front, the suggestions I offered, and the lack of follow-up from some of our communal leaders.

Episode 1: November’s Jewish Futures Conference (sponsored by The Jewish Education Project, JESNA’s Lipmann Kanfer Institute, The Covenant Foundation and Jewish Federations of North America) featured spotlight presentations by the Jewish Futures video competition winners – all of whom were men. I challenged professionals involved in the competition to explain this under-representation. Their responses:

  • Few women submitted videos;
  • The few women who made it into the finals were not up to par with the men’s ideas.

Note: some professionals involved expressed a desire to explore whether the competition medium – video creation – was gender-tilted, skewing the participation towards men. Organizers did discuss gender imbalance before and after the conference with Advancing Women Professionals, an organization devoted to advancing women into leadership positions in Jewish life. But it was too little too late. Upon learning of the gender-imbalanced applicant pool, they reached out to two women to apply but there wasn’t enough time for them to submit.

Episode 2: The National Ramah Commission, in honor of its 60th anniversary, published a compendium of essays about Ramah in which women were grossly underrepresented. Out of 34 essays, four are authored by women, and an additional three are co-written by women. When I challenged the leadership to explain the under-representation, this was the response:

  • The gender differential will work itself out by anniversary #70.
  • There just weren’t a lot of women involved back in Ramah’s history who could write about the past.
  • There aren’t a lot of women in current Ramah leadership positions from whom to draw essays.

This response is unsatisfactory and untrue. There are many young talented women in leadership positions during the SUMMER. There are few, though who ascend to top year-round leadership positions. As an alumnus and former staff member, I offered to connect National Ramah with Advancing Women Professionals in order to help the Ramah leadership work on retention and advancement of women. They thanked me for my suggestions – I have heard no follow up.

Episode 3: This year’s Jewlicious Festival has NO women in headliner spots at the festival’s concert night. Jewlicious co-founder David Abitbol wrote a detailed response, listing a number of women who have performed at the festival over the years. A committee (of primarily college students) selects and invites the musical line-up; festival director Rabbi Yonah Bookstein has ’very little say‘. I’m unconvinced. As head of the festival, if Rabbi Yonah felt strongly about gender balance he could set that as a priority.

Issue #4: The Jewish Heroes Competition, run by the JFNA, is a popularity contest. Finalists are chosen according to the number of votes they receive from the public. Both years of the competition, “we” selected males as our “Jewish Community Heroes”. This year, out of 10 finalists, 7 were men. The 17-person judging panel selecting the final 5 finalists comprised 11 men and 6 women. With some women involved in the final choice of hero and many female nominees in the nominee pool, one wonders why so few women made it to the finalist pool. It invokes questions around popularity contests, the requisite of self-promotion and how the Jewish community values the work that women are doing.

Planning a Jewish conference, festival, publication or panel event?
Ask your organizational team to review the following questions:

  1. An institution’s leader is responsible for developing, nurturing and conveying the organization’s values to their committees – volunteer or paid. Do those values include balanced gender representation? Has your leader imparted these values in the people who are representing you – like a selection committee?
  2. Look at your lineup. What’s the ratio of men to women in HEADLINER/mainstage slots? Are women relegated to a side-stage or less popular time? If your group doesn’t KNOW any of the many talented, capable women performers (or speakers, or presenters, etc.) out there, ask people in your network, crowdsource and correct the imbalance.
  3. Review your selection committee members. Demographers estimate that the Jewish community is 51% female. Is that gender balance represented in your selection committees? What is your committee’s nomination practice – in suggesting presenters? Is each committee member granted a full and equal voice?
  4. How are women performers treated, before, during and after the event? Watch out for mistreatment, misogyny, relegation to the sidelines, and condescension.

And Now, an Offer You Can’t Refuse:
If you have difficulty in finding women to feature at your event, I am happy to connect you with many organizations, artists, musicians, or other presenters for whom gender balance is a core value. Trust me, there’s a woman out there who is competent, talented, dynamic and ready to present for your group.

In the spirit of Purim, Mordechai’s words to Esther – calling her to advocacy and action, ring true for me right now. As we consider the subject of gender equality, the sentiment of the Megillah – that it was for precisely this time and reason that I arrived to this place – echo. We may fear the outcomes of outspokenness, but this is a time when we must speak out, sound an alarm and demand a change.

I add my voice to those of the many women AND men who have done much heavy lifting in breaking down gender disparity in the Jewish public sphere. Adding your own voices, opinions and direct actions will lead to change in our community. Let the conversations and actions begin.

Naomi Less is a Jewish rock singer and spiritual-ritual musician, experiential educator and educational trainer. Her project, Jewish Chicks Rock empowers and ignites young Jewish women and girls to pick up instruments and express themselves through music. Naomi tours year-round with her band, providing concerts and educational workshops to all ages and stages.