Let’s Make 5779 The Year of the Jewish Woman
#5779 #YOTJW

By Rachel Gildiner

The secular year of 2018 was deemed the Year of the Woman by CNN and other national news outlets. Originally coined for the 1992 elections, when American voters elected more new women to Congress than in any previous decade, the moniker was reclaimed to give power to the Women’s March and #MeToo movement, emboldening and empowering female voices across America.

But as much as I’ve felt moved, lifted, and driven during the secular Year of the Woman, I’ve noticed a very different experience in the Jewish professional world. In fact, I have only slowly and incrementally, if at all, felt this movement substantively have an impact on the Jewish nonprofit sphere.

Here’s what I’ve noticed still to be true about the reality on the ground as a Jewish professional woman:

  • Women’s work and contributions are consistently undervalued, underestimated and often rendered invisible.
  • Men are too often the public faces of work that a majority of women are implementing on the ground. Or as bell hooks, the renowned feminist writer, agitator and thinker, describes, men are often the respected theorists and women the less-respected practitioners.
  • Women’s voices are less likely to be invited, championed, supported or invested in in Jewish professional settings then those of men: The majority of articles and books hailed in the Jewish community are authored by men. Jewish panels are consistently majority if not exclusively male.
  • There is a dearth of female thought leadership and visibility that leaves other women seeking the inspiration and role models they need to imagine themselves as a voice of the Jewish community.
  • Women continue to be underrepresented at the very top of professional leadership in of the majority of Jewish organizations. There is still immense social capital and currency in a traditionally male ways of interacting and doing business in the Jewish communal workplace. The Jewish boys club is real.

Fortunately, while there is much work to be done, there are many organizations that have been laying a strong foundation for women to claim a bigger and more influential space in Jewish communal life. Jewish women’s organizations like Jewish Women International, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, Leading Edge, and Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, to name a few, have been working to advance women’s issues in the workplace and supporting and nurturing women’s success for years. Recently, in response to “#metoo,” the Schusterman Foundation launched its innovative communal partnership: “Safe, Respectful, Equitable.” In the synagogue space, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is headlining four female keynote speakers at their annual conference this year, and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt was recently named the first female senior co-rabbi at Adas Israel, the largest Conservative synagogue in the metro DC region.

This is all hopeful and certainly progress.

But it is not enough.

While I swell with excitement at every article I read issued by a woman who is now sharing her voice about her experience as a female in the Jewish professional world, I know there are still silent voices waiting for their turn to speak out.

I am so grateful for the work of these brave and forward thinking organizations and individuals whose voices and perspectives have emboldened me this past year. And for the allies and fellow female leaders in my life who are committed to advancing women’s causes.

And, now what?

What we need, in 5779 and beyond, is a systemic, enduring shift in the way that we think about and support women in Jewish professional life. We need to elevate more voices, create more seats at the decision-making table, and fund initiatives that empower more women to become successful leaders in this field. We also need more allies. Many of these ingrained challenges and barriers to women’s success are so pervasive and so often go unnoticed by those with the power to make change from the top.

And so, I am still yearning for the groundswell that will make this change possible. I am waiting to see the collective uplifting of female voices that brings us all together into ongoing conversations, dialogue and shared experience around being a woman in the Jewish professional world, from the grassroots to the grasstops. How can we take the brilliant thought pieces, brave anecdotes, and thoughtful practical suggestions offered by many women over the past year, and create a larger-than-life presence in the Jewish community that removes the pressure off of any single woman in the room or any single organization in the movement to carry the banner of advancing women in Jewish nonprofits?

I don’t have the answer. But I know we’re not talking about it enough. We, women and our allies, must speak these truths into existence – out loud, at Jewish conferences, board tables and staff retreats. And we must not be afraid to do so. There is immense wisdom in groups of women if we can only find our voices and embolden one another to share them more loudly.

And so let’s make the year 5779 the Year of the Jewish Woman. Let’s commit to honestly exploring and balancing, if not eradicating, the power dynamic that has dominated our Jewish nonprofit culture for decades. Let’s commit to understanding ways that everyone can contribute to healthier and safer work environments for women at every level. Let’s commit to strategizing how we can fill the talent pipeline with female senior leadership and invest in their continued success.

Let us look back on 5779 as a year that launched a period of unparalleled advances for women in the Jewish community – in terms of policy, office behaviors, allyship, advancement, equity, and leadership.

And mostly, let’s commit to using 5779 to create ongoing forums, exchanges, and opportunities for the thousands of Jewish women across our organizations and communities to share our voices, ideas, thoughts, experiences and suggestions. And may they go viral and be taken as seriously as when any man pens idea to paper.

If you have experiences with, thoughts on, ideas about, or questions concerning the role of women’s leadership and women’s voices in the Jewish professional world and would like to be in community with women across the country thinking about this, please join the conversation here. We will talk, share and listen to each other’s stories, and bring more and more strong female voices into the conversation.
We need each other and the Jewish world needs us – now is the time.

Rachel Gildiner is the establishing Executive Director of a Jewish nonprofit in DC that connects Jewish 20s & 30s to meaningful adult Jewish life. She has worked in the Jewish nonprofit sector for over a decade as a relational engagement expert. She and is committed to women’s equity and advancement in the Jewish landscape and beyond.

See also related in eJP: Jordan Namerow and Lilach Shafir, Clare Hedwat, Maxyne Finkelstein