By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

Change takes place in many ways: from the top down; from the bottom up; by design; by default; in large systemic overhauls; and in discrete, targeted interventions.

A recently concluded pilot project of Jewish Women International (JWI), “Men As Allies: Leading Equitable Workplaces,” funded by a grant from the Safety, Respect and Equality Coalition, was designed to effect change through a closely focused program. The premise was that consequential cumulative change could be accomplished by cultivating the allyship skills needed for active individual interventions.

“Men As Allies” was intended to be a program for men and facilitated by a man, similar to other projects centered on Jewish masculinity that JWI has successfully developed.

With the cooperation and support of the CEOs of the Jewish Federation and the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, two cohorts of Jewish men – agency professionals and agency lay-leaders – participated in “Men As Allies.” Much appreciation goes to the participants, who volunteered their time, and shared their expertise and experiences in honest and insightful conversations.

The pilot program sought to test whether, in four sessions of two hours each, men who hold positions of influence could become active allies with women in ensuring equity and safety in Jewish workplaces, and leverage their influence to accelerate change. (Because of time limitations, the pilot program was limited to allyship issues as experienced between people who identify as female and people who identify as male.)

The results, as measured by a before-and-after survey analysis, and reflected in insights and experiences shared by the participants, demonstrated that significant change could be accomplished, making the ways Jewish workplaces operate and the values they seek to embody more closely aligned. JWI is exploring ways in which the now fully developed “Men As Allies” program could be brought to other Jewish communities.

The key goals of the pilot program were:

(1) Raising awareness about gaps between the best intentions and assumptions about equity and safety in Jewish workplaces, and the actual experiences of Jewish women (staff and lay-leaders). The participants learned that the perceptions of men and the experiences of women diverge, with men frequently assuming that values and actions already correlate, and women frequently reporting that they did not.

(2) Cultivating understandings of what it means for Jewish men to become active allies for equity and safety, by developing skills, practices and interventions that interrupt embedded patterns of inequity. In response to “micro-aggressions,” the participants developed ways to promote “micro-interventions”- day-to-day changes in language, behavior, roles and perception that can yield a collective change in the way an agency operates.

Understanding how to be an ally involved learning to see often unconscious patterns of communication that privilege men’s participation. Those patterns often include: interrupting women; a disparity between the number of comments and questions from women and from men during a meeting; talking over, ignoring, or holding side-conversations when women are speaking; and gendered-perceptions of similar behavior (men who speak assertively are “authoritative,” women who speak assertively are “aggressive”).

Once introduced, and in the second session of “Men As Allies,” helpfully analyzed by two women professionals from the Greater Washington Jewish community, these often-unconscious patterns became more obvious as examples were shared and discussed. The program participants were unanimous in their affirmation of equity and safety, but sometimes surprised to learn that agencies might fall short of the values they advocate.

The men were able to cultivate ways they could become active allies in order to help shift organizational cultures. One participant summarized his experience this way: “If I were leading the change in my organization, I would recommend we interview equal number of female candidates for any executive level position; agree to have equal gender representation on board and executive committee; seek out female speakers for events and panels; and provide ‘Ally’ training for all employees and board members within the organization.”

These and other insights gleaned from “Men As Allies” can equally be applied to the online platforms on which we are currently forced to rely. Raising awareness of divergent patterns of communication, crucial for in-person conversations, committees, and meetings, is essential in the world of remote screen-based conferencing. As a consequence of the Corona virus, for the foreseeable future Jewish organizational life will continue to be transacted online, where embedded patterns of male-female communication and conversation persist – and in some ways are exacerbated by the challenges of digital discussion.

Online meetings make non-verbal cues, body-language, facial-mirroring, verbal inflection and eye-contact elusive. The “mute” function negates the informal weave of conversation; “un-muted” conversations yield cacophony – in which, as embedded patterns persist, the voices of men often overpower those of women. The “raise hand” function invites meeting leaders to be aware of balancing comments from women and men. And, as was often noted in the “Men As Allies” pilot project, the tendency to cut off women by noting “we’re almost out of time, so let’s move on” remains a problem.

What the participants in the “Men As Allies” pilot project gained were insights into where persistent patterns of communication perpetuate patterns of inequity, and skills to shift those patterns through awareness and active interventions. One participant commented that “honest talk around the subject is a great place to start.” Another noted the importance of having “more open conversation with staff of both genders.”

As the Jewish community continues its online journey, those insights and those skills will be even more important in achieving workplace equity. We have an opportunity to use this challenging time to reset old patterns and create new paradigms.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh served as the curriculum consultant and facilitator for the 2019-2020 “Men As Allies” pilot project in the Greater Washington area. He is a past co-chair and current member of the JWI Clergy Task Force To End Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community.

More information about “Men As Allies” and related JWI programs can be found at jewishmasculinity.org a hub of resources, programming, and information about allyship, healthy masculinity, Jewish masculinity, and gender equity.