Moving the Jewish Community Forward Post #MeToo

A panel discussion on Jewish women’s leadership at the launch of JWI’s Young Women’s Leadership Network of Chicago.

By Meredith Jacobs

I remember it so clearly, gathering around the small, round table with the senior staff of Jewish Women International (JWI). The #MeToo Movement was rising, issues we had been working on for decades – violence against women and girls, financial inequality, lack of parity in leadership – finally getting attention.

It was a moment eerily reminiscent: Thirty years ago, one of our members was killed by her estranged husband, launching our unrelenting commitment to end violence against women. We created programs and training for women and girls of all ages. Later we enlarged our programming, working directly with men – from college fraternity students to ultra-Orthodox men – creating programs and community conversations around what it means to be a mensch, building space for men to walk with us.

Simultaneously we were developing and celebrating women leaders, shining a bright spotlight on highly accomplished Jewish women (“Women to Watch”), engaging them as mentors for our Young Women’s Networks.

These two foci – engaging men as allies and lifting women’s leadership – work in tandem to do more than prevention. “Prevention” acknowledges that the problem still exists. We are seeking dramatic culture change.

Currently, only two women lead the 16 major Jewish federations. Less than 17% of top execs of Jewish nonprofits are women. Jewish women execs make 60% of what their male counterparts earn, with men receiving 15 times the pay increases women receive. 

Men dominate Jewish lay leadership with women comprising less than one-third of board membership. Men set communal agendas and opinions – far more likely to serve on panels, author op-eds or lead Jewish newspapers. As Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote in AJS Perspectives, “Writing under a man’s name makes you more than 8 times more likely to get published.” When it comes to harassment and violence, Sztokman continued, “men in power often protect other men” and “the sexual objectification of women is often normalized.”

We are at a juncture in Jewish communal life that provides a unique opportunity. Considering the ages of current Jewish organizational CEOs and executive directors, it is believed that within the next five years, the overwhelming majority of organizations will be searching for new leadership. If we can get more women hired into these top posts, we can change the culture in the Jewish organizational world. To do so, JWI is embarking on a two-pronged approach.

Funded by The Hadassah Foundation, JWI’s Jewish Communal Women’s Leadership Project will launch on September 17th. Women at senior staff positions interested in rising to CEO or exec levels will have master classes in women’s leadership led by JWI’s Women to Watch honorees. Wall Street Journal bestselling authors, television network C-Suite executives, professional sports agents will discuss designing workplace culture, navigating male-dominated hierarchies, and negotiating. Through a partnership with DRG Search, participants will garner insight into hiring processes and with Moment magazine, they will write op-eds and position themselves as experts for journalists. This project will lift their public profiles, position participants to succeed, and empower them to lead as women – for the way women lead is what is best suited for the workplace of the future.

At the same time, we are piloting one of our most ambitious projects to date. Funded by the Safety Respect and Equity Coalition (SRE), JWI is launching “Men as Allies: Leading Equitable Workplaces.” Beginning September, we will gather male staffers and male lay leaders/donors for facilitated conversations on leadership, Jewish masculinity, and the post #MeToo workplace. Engaging men in positions of power and leadership to take an honest look at what is needed to move our community forward is unlike anything that has been done. Too often, we hear from good men, unsure of next steps in the post #MeToo world, wondering what is needed to be true allies. This project is about change – creating a workplace culture of safety, respect, and true equity at all levels and for everyone who works, leads, or walks through the doors of our community organizations. We are proud to be partnering with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Bender JCC on these projects.

Ultimately, this isn’t about only hiring women to lead our organizations, but it is about moving closer to 50%. It is about gaining pay parity, which we will make strides in achieving when there is more female representation in top positions at our major Federations and those national organizations with the largest budgets. It is about building and mentoring a pipeline of Jewish women leaders. It is about recruiting and retaining talented women at all levels of our organizations as staff and lay leaders, which will only happen if there is an unobstructed path to top leadership. And, ultimately, it is about honestly addressing patriarchy in Jewish communal life and driving the change to allow all voices and perspectives to be heard and considered equally. In this way, and in this way only, we will move forward together with strength. 

Meredith Jacobs serves as chief operating officer for Jewish Women International. JWI is the leading Jewish organization working to empower women and girls by ensuring and protecting their physical safety and economic security, promoting and celebrating inter-generational leadership, and inspiring civic participation and community engagement.