View from the Inside: Building Today’s URJ

by Barbara Saidel and Donna Stein

We read Rabbi Deborah Bravo’s recent opinion piece in eJewishPhilanthropy with interest, as did our colleagues at the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). Indeed, we in leadership at the URJ are aware of the gender divide in senior management and have been addressing this issue ever since Rabbi Rick Jacobs took over running the URJ on January 1. That was a little over six weeks ago. As Rabbi Jacobs said recently to the Forward, “This is not a commitment that someone has to point out to me.” But to address this issue with the concern that it deserves, we must take a holistic view that by no means dismisses or diminishes the importance of gender parity among our leadership.

This issue is no less important here than it is in our congregations, or than it has been in the corporate world for the last past 40 years. In fact, having graduated from the Wharton School with MBA’s in 1979 and 1975, respectively, we have been well aware of the absence of women role models in leadership positions as we progressed through the corporate ranks. We were often the only women in the rooms as we grew into senior management positions at Fortune 500 companies, major global law firms, international professional services firms and institutes of higher learning. Both of us are women who have fought to penetrate the glass ceiling in our corporate careers and then chose to bring our knowledge, experience, and perspective to the Jewish world, and more specifically to the Reform Movement.

Our professional knowledge in finance, operations, technology, social media, human resources, and general management is greatly respected and is critical to the success of the URJ. Rabbis Yoffie and Jacobs have both treated us as true partners on the senior leadership team. Our voices are heard and sought out. While not the public faces of the Movement, we are serious high-level professionals whose work at the URJ is necessary and important. We serve in roles traditionally held by men, are treated with respect and honor, and act as role models and mentors to younger women.

We also recognize the need for more women in rabbinic leadership roles at the URJ, but we should not diminish the importance of hiring women with the financial and operational expertise that we bring to the table. In addition to being committed Jews, we know a “different Torah,” one that is equally necessary to make Rabbi Jacobs’ vision a reality.

We are certain that Rabbi Bravo did not intend to minimize us, or to dismiss our contribution to the URJ. As senior executives who have spent a good part of our professional lives mentoring young women to take leadership positions, we deeply understand how important this issue is, but to insinuate that women are not in senior positions at the URJ is simply incorrect. There may be no female rabbis in leadership roles currently, but this is not an organization that denies or ignores the critical role women can, should, and do have as leaders in our beloved Movement.

In reading Rabbi Bravo’s piece and in talking to others about this critical issue, we are reminded of perhaps one of the most famous of Jewish female mentors in public life today, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. No one would accuse Sandberg of being second tier among leadership at the social media giant. In her commencement speech last year to Barnard College she said: “We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.” Indeed. We take our professional responsibilities as seriously as the stated values of our Movement. We look forward to continuing this discussion, and we know that as the new URJ leadership team evolves, we will meld the issues of staffing, leadership and values with a visible commitment to the principles that the Reform Movement holds dear.

Barbara Saidel is COO and Donna Stein is CFO of the URJ.