By Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson
The call for action as a response to an article, one about men assuming leadership written by men who interviewed men was important and necessary, as disappointing as it is that such articles by and about men named to top positions are still published as fantastic news for the Jewish world. We can do better and actually, we did.
Something else happened at the same time as this set of articles was being discussed, signatures gathered and a purposeful list of next steps articulated. Let us not allow wonderful accomplishments to be smothered by missteps.
On Monday, August 12 – Wednesday, August 14, 2019, 600 Jewish professionals convened in downtown Detroit for the JPRO19 Convention. It was the first convention the organization held under its new leadership and reconsidered mission and name. JPRO, formerly the Jewish Communal Service Association, connects, educates, inspires and empowers professionals working for our community. The conference appeared to fulfill its objectives under the masterful direction of its Executive Director, Ilana Aisen. Ilana assumed the position nearly three years ago and, in that time, has revitalized a legacy organization together with her colleague Erica Goldman, Director of Program and Operations and a determined board. For the record, the two other staff who assisted in the execution of the conference are also outstanding young women professionals.
The incoming president of JPRO is Audra Berg. JPRO engaged four scholars who facilitated Jewish learning at the conference and of the four, three of them, Rabba Yaffa Epstein, Dr. Elana Stein Hain and Rabbi Ariana Silverman, are women. Erika Rudin-Luria, President of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, was a featured speaker and Naomi Adler, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia co-chaired the conference.
The presenters and plenary speakers were carefully gender balanced. Ilana Kaufman facilitated a standing-room only workshop on Jews of Color. Guila Benchimol’s session on #Metoo and #Wetoo was similarly full. JPRO honors professionals each year and two of the four awardees (you know what’s coming) were women. Arya Marvazy, a recipient of the Young Professional Award is part of the JQ team where he is the Managing Director and Director of Persian Pride Programming. His co-recipient, Kate Belza O’Bannon from Repair the World, spoke about her Filipino heritage. Of the 600 participants in attendance, about 70% were women and the community skewed young. We have a good deal to be excited about and (you know what’s coming) a good deal of intentional training and focus to do if we want to grow diversity in the field. Erika Rudin-Luria appropriately urged all in the room to imagine themselves in increasingly senior positions and then, she exhorted, apply for them! We must focus on the development and mentorship especially of all of our younger colleagues and especially women, LGBTQ+ and Jews of Color, if we want to move them into positions parallel to those assumed by the those named in the much-discussed article. That is precisely what happened in Detroit last week.
Ilana has been working closely and collaboratively with Gali Cooks, President and CEO of Leading Edge, a newer organization focused on developing talent and shaping healthy cultures for Jewish organizations. Gali, in her short few years stewarding Leading Edge, has created an important and growing organization in the Jewish communal space.
We have considerable equity work to do in the Jewish communal space, as the article “The Week that All Jewish Women Turned Invisible” articulates clearly. It was, however, also a week when women of all ages, all career stages and in voices that were clear and honest, intelligent and visionary, stepped up to exercise leadership in the most meaningful ways in the Motor City. Women, particularly women in senior roles, were visible and vocal. It was a powerful demonstration of potential and possibility. It was a gathering of hope for those who take the gender and the Jewish diversity conversation seriously and with a measure of urgency. It happened in the same week that women also turned invisible. I saw it with my own eyes.
Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson is the President of The Wexner Foundation.