The Forward Responds to “Compensation and the Jewish Question”

logo-forwardBy Jane Eisner

I’m afraid that Hal Lewis willfully distorts and misinterprets the Forward’s annual salary survey in his long critique about executive compensation. He insists that this journalistic endeavor obfuscates critically important issues in the Jewish community, including “such things as gender inequity and the abuse of power by those in positions of leadership.”

Those issues are exactly what our annual survey is designed to illuminate.

I started this project seven years ago, after becoming the first woman to edit the Forward and discovering that there were very few other women heading up major Jewish not-for-profits. Rather than complain – maybe my impressions would not be borne out by data – I decided to investigate gender leadership in our charitable landscape. We put together a list of the largest federations, national service and advocacy groups, and religious and educational institutions in the U.S., and sought to answer two simple questions: who is in charge (male or female) and how much does he or she earn?

Contrary to Dr. Lewis’s assertion that anyone can access the data, this work is painstaking and detailed. Many organizations don’t file their 990s properly, which is why we take the time to verify and update the information with everyone listed. And even if someone in Chicago knew how to access the 990s of the local federation and interpret the forms, that individual had no way of knowing how the salary data compared to, say, Cleveland. We provide that information for about 75 organizations, which accept for the large federations are all national groups.

Three years ago, thanks to the help of a statistics professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, we were able to deepen our analysis by comparing salaries according to the size of the organization based on employees and revenue. Of course it’s a simplistic approach – we are relying on skimpy public data and the work of a volunteer. But measuring the size of an organization that way is an accepted statistical foundation to judge overall compensation. It’s the first word, not the last.

And what have we found? The number of women leading these organizations has remained stubbornly low. Even taking into account the size of the not-for-profit, women only earn about 80 cents to the dollar that men do. Shall we talk about gender inequity? There still is only one woman running a major federation in the U.S. and she earns 15% less than her (male) predecessor. There are twice as many Jewish women on the U.S. Supreme Court, and I dare say that their salaries are on par with the men.

We have also documented ways in which certain men – and they are all men – earn large sums through handsome perks, unique contract provisions and by being paid from two different, but related charities. These are benefits not afforded the rank and file workers in Jewish charities, three-quarters of whom are women. Is there an abuse of power here? That is up to the public to decide, but at least our readers have the information.

Before I became a Jewish professional, I was just an ordinary working suburban mom, who tried to volunteer and contribute to Jewish communal life to the best of my abilities. I would have loved to have the Forward salary survey then, to guide my giving, and to shed light on one aspect of our communal infrastructure.

Our annual survey is not as comprehensive as it could be – we ourselves are a small not-for-profit, without the resources to include more organizations and more data. That is why our work is meant to spark a conversation, about gender equity in leadership and pay, about fairness within organizations, about transparency and respect for clients, volunteers and donors.

I am proud, but not surprised, that 350 rabbis and scholars have also taken up the call to question “excessive financial remuneration” among Jewish executives. Rather than deter young professionals from joining our ranks, such a conversation can assure them that Jewish not-for-profits aim to operate with integrity, accountability and fairness.

Jane Eisner is Editor-in-chief at Forward.