Haredi participation in the Jewish Funders Network
By excluding Haredim, demographically JFN would be pigeon-holing itself and limiting its future.
I had to reread several times the interview that appeared in Your Daily Phil on March 30, 2022. I know the speaker to be a kind and responsive leader who is knowledgeable about various parts of the world-wide Jewish community, so I was surprised to read comments that sounded dismissive and unfairly prejudiced. I concede it is totally possible that these brief statements could have been taken out of context in the interview, but because they appeared so publicly, a public response seems appropriate. The assertion that JFN simply does not know how to include Haredim and will not be creating gender-segregated spaces shows a lack of understanding and sensitivity. It also misses the critical point that by excluding Haredim, demographically JFN would be pigeon-holing itself and limiting its future.
I identify as Modern Orthodox, not Haredi, so I cannot claim to speak for this community or, more accurately, communities. Haredim are at least as — if not more — diverse than other Jewish denominations. While Yeshivish and Hasidic are the two broad Haredi identities, under the Hasidic umbrella alone, there are Belz, Bobov, Chabad, Gerer, Satmar, Skver and Vizhnitz, just to name a few. Between and within these groups exist significant variation in dress, belief, custom and adherence to practices like restricted internet use and strict gender segregation. Though, like all Orthodox groups, Haredim pray with a mechitza that separates men from women, not all Haredim practice complete gender separation in other areas of their lives — or even prefer to.
In our efforts to bring Jews into JFN, we cannot rely on stereotypes and sweeping generalizations: We know not to assume all Jews eat gefilte fish — or even keep kosher. While it is true some Haredim would not participate in mixed gender events, there are many more who would gladly attend a panel discussion with mixed seating. In many Haredi communities there are plenty of spheres in which men and women work together — particularly in chesed, kiruv and chinuch: giving, outreach and education. And let’s not forget that the wealthy among these groups — funders and prospective JFN members — are perhaps even more likely to participate in groups with men and women than the general population as they are used to attending business meetings and conducting real estate transactions in mixed-gender settings.
We must leave our prejudices aside when cultivating open and diverse spaces and conversations. I wonder if the first thing you would say about integrating another Jewish group would be a reason not to include them, and a flimsy one at that. When considering how to encourage participation by specific identity groups such as Jews of Color, Sephardic Jews, and Jews in the LGBTQ community for example, I believe we would discuss the value of their participation first, and we would be extra careful laying out the perceived obstacles. We owe our Haredi brothers and sisters the same consideration.
If there are obstacles to any member’s participation at JFN, I hope we can listen with an open ear and see if an accommodation is possible. If at that point the answer is no, whether because of ideology, respect for women, space, cost, etc., then of course it is a reasonable decision to make. Let’s get to the point where Haredi Jews are requesting gender-segregated spaces before suggesting that is the reason they are not participating and thereby foreclosing the possibility of future Haredi attendance.
I do not believe Haredi funders are declining to participate in JFN because men and women attend joint events. Rather, they are not participating yet because Haredim have highly developed business and chesed networks within their communities and haven’t found a niche within JFN. Like all other Jewish funders, Haredim will attend if a friend or colleague invites them. If it is a positive experience and useful to their philanthropy, they will come back, and they will bring their friends.
We should be finding ways to encourage and expand participation among all groups of Jews, especially among the Orthodox and Haredi populations. The last Pew study confirms higher birthrates and higher Jewish engagement among the Orthodox. As scholars like Adam Ferzinger point out, with the changing demographics Haredi Jews are increasingly willing and interested in participating in cross-denominational work. We should be too.
As a matter of demographics, within a short while, Haredim will make up an overwhelming majority of the Jewish population both in the US and Israel. If we do not find ways to include them in JFN and its funders’ initiatives whose target audience is “the Jewish people,” we are not only missing the mark; as I wrote last year, we are missing the future. Without more diverse representation, JFN risks not living up to its name as the Jewish Funders Network, and instead being the Funders Network of the Liberal Jewish Denominations.
Haredi philanthropists are involved and interested in education, fighting poverty, health, media, confronting antisemitism and other areas that animate many JFN members and participants. Haredi and non-Haredi funders have a lot to learn from each other in these areas of mutual interest. Let’s work together to bring diverse voices into the network rather than leaning on perceived obstacles and assumptions to maintain the status quo.
Lindsey Bodner is executive director at the Naomi Foundation.