Jewish Community: Zero?

by Shannon Sarna and Ruthie Warshenbrot

More than half of the 2010 Slingshot organizations are headed by women.

More than half of the 2009 Avi Chai Fellows (“the Jewish genius grant”) award winners are women. More than half of the current Joshua Venture Fellows are women.

And over 70% of Jewish professionals are women.

The number of women finalists in the Jewish Federations of North America’s recent Jewish Community Heroes campaign: Zero.

The Jewish Heroes project fails to accurately reflect the landscape of the Jewish community’s best and brightest. When the vast majority of professionals working to enrich the Jewish community are women, how should it come to pass that not a single women is counted among our top five heroes?

According to JFNA’s website, this is the community’s opportunity to “shine a national spotlight on the unsung, whether their work impacts five people or 5,000.” We believe such an initiative is honorable, and that the finalists deserve to be recognized. However, the selection by a panel of judges (11 out of 17 of whom were men) of all-male finalists excludes the work of hundreds of Jewish women throughout our communities who are organizational heads, educators, teachers, thinkers, spiritual leaders, and, well, heroes.

One of JFNA’s goals for initiating this campaign was to demonstrate the new face of the organization and the relevance of their brand. But without representation of women, JFNA is missing a serious part of the Jewish landscape.

The judges were asked to select candidates that show “exceptional qualities and commitment in line with the mission of Jewish Federations of North America, strengthening Jewish community, and the ideals of tikkun olam.” Nothing in that description should inherently marginalize women.

On the other hand, this campaign raises a number of difficult questions: What does it mean in an open voting process that the Jewish community did not vote for women in the same numbers as they voted for men? Only six out of the twenty semifinalists, selected by popular demand, were women. In our Jewish tradition, women are revered, respected and valued in so many ways. What is different about contemporary Jewish life that regards female leadership as less heroic?

Dan Brown, of and one of the judges said, “It was particularly noticeable when I received the final packet of nominees for review. Were women not nominated, or were women not as successful at deploying their social networks?”

While JFNA cannot control who the Jewish community votes for (or which nominees have the broadest social networks), it is their responsibility as a major Jewish institution to ensure that a campaign of this scale is one that shines a spotlight on all our unsung heroes, including women. In today’s world of limited resources and unlimited opportunity, JFNA is often put on the defensive to justify their good work as a “legacy organization.” By selecting an entirely male cohort of Jewish Community Heroes finalists, JFNA presents itself as horribly behind the times in the very campaign it launched in an attempt to demonstrate the organization’s renewed relevance. We need to stop letting ourselves and our institutions off the hook if we are committed to a vibrant Jewish future.

Shannon Sarna is the External Relations Coordinator at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Ruthie Warshenbrot is the Lisa Goldberg Fellow of Jewish Professional Leadership at NYU Wagner/Skirball Dual Degree program and a Wexner Graduate Fellow.

For a related article on the gender gap in our Jewish world, read The Jewish Communities Gender Deficit.