Improve the Odds: Leadership Moment for the Jewish Federations

by Karen Klieger Sponder

Last week, the Federation CJA, of Montreal, announced the selection of Deborah Corber as Chief Executive Officer. This is a moment both to celebrate the progress of women within Jewish communal leadership and to build upon it.

Currently only 1 of the 20 large city Federations has a woman as the top professional (Jennifer Gorovitz, San Francisco). When Ms. Corber begins work on September 6, this ratio will improve to 2 of 20. Those of us interested in women’s leadership within Jewish communal service should take a moment to appreciate the sound of an additional crack being made in this glass ceiling. It is truly exciting.

The 2 in 20 is progress, and very recent. When I was in graduate school in nonprofit management and Judaic studies several years ago I was dismayed to learn that no woman had ever served as CEO of a large city federation. The new 2:20 ratio still offers opportunities for improvement, especially when one considers that women make up two-thirds of Jewish communal professionals (see, Profiling Our Professionals: Who’s Serving Our Communities? A report of the Jewish Communal Service Association)

We can get involved and take action to improve these odds. There are currently four other large city Federation searches taking place: St. Louis, Palm Beach County, South Palm Beach County and Atlanta. This is an historic moment for the leadership landscape of the Jewish community.

There is now a big opportunity. If all four of these openings were filled by women, that would shift the percentage of women in these positions from 10% to 30%! Now I confess to not being optimistic that all four of these openings will go to women, but if any of these positions goes to a woman it would be an additional indicator of progress. And there is no reason we should not aim for all four, as that would have the added benefit of providing a cohort of women at the helm of large city Federations who could provide each other with support.

This is not solely about equity for women. Our Jewish community needs the best possible leadership, and, for whatever reasons, we are not currently tapping a representative amount of women. We are doing the community a disservice by not adequately recruiting, promoting and/or hiring women as Federation Executive Directors.

To make change, we must start by recognizing the challenge posed by the gap between women being 10% of top leadership, compared with 66%+ of the workforce. Next, we must seek explanations for this gap. I cannot aspire to address here all the factors that may be contributing in some way to this. However, an understanding of the reasons is necessary in order to address the situation. I wonder, is there explicit discrimination by search committees? Does the “old boys network” favor men? Do these positions not offer a work-life balance that women (and increasingly men also) desire? All of these possibilities are not issues that can be assessed or addressed imminently. Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community continues to work diligently on a variety of change initiatives.

There is one action we can take right now. One factor may be that as a community we are not trying hard enough to identify women who would make excellent CEOs and encourage them to step up to lead. I ask you now to look through your LinkedIn rolodex, email lists, physical rolodex, Facebook friends, etc, and email, pick up the phone, text, and in other ways encourage some excellent women professionals to apply for these opportunities. Perhaps look in the mirror and give yourself a pep talk.

Let’s get so many stellar women to apply that we all do our part to improve the odds.

Karen Klieger Sponder, currently Program Director at JOFA, is a graduate of the NYU program in Nonprofit Management and Judaic Studies.