Women and Philanthropy

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

By Barbara B. Dobkin
and Nancy Schwartz Sternoff

There is always an inherent danger in addressing the issue of gender. Clearly, the behavior of neither males nor females is monolithic, and the retorts are always quick, “not all (fill in the blank) are like that.” Nevertheless, we live in a gendered society, and we are members of a highly gendered religious-cultural-political-service community. And the norm is definitively male. Leadership has been defined by the ways men lead. Philanthropic practice has been valued by the ways men give.

Despite the disparate and inequitable distribution of opportunity and leadership, during the past four decades women have made tremendous strides toward equality in this country. Feminism, the only American social movement that has brought women back to Judaism, is enriching our religious leadership and practice. The face of our communal and philanthropic world is also changing, albeit slowly. Following the lead of the women’s funding movement, which has seen an explosion in individual and collective activist philanthropy over the past twenty years, Jewish women’s pooled funds have burst onto the fundraising and grant-making scene across North America. Women who have not been connected to the mainstream Jewish community, along with longtime donors to federation campaigns, are creating new donor-advised structures to address issues vitally important to them as women – through a Jewish and a feminist prism. More than a dozen federated communities, from Springfield, Massachusetts to Detroit, Michigan, have initiated or are about to initiate vehicles for proactive pooled women’s philanthropy. In addition, Hadassah, the largest women’s organization in America, has demonstrated its commitment to progressive funding through its new $10 million foundation. The federations and Hadassah join longstanding and highly respected organizations such as The Jewish Fund for Justice, New Israel Fund, The Shefa Fund, and US / Israel Women to Women in articulating a commitment to directed funding for women and girls – funding for programs that bring us closer to a more egalitarian and inclusive Jewish community.

Lay and professional leaders of these new funds share two common goals: first, to increase the dollars flowing to programs for women and girls and, second, to empower Jewish women as advocates and activists for a more inclusive community that addresses the needs of this population. The first goal is easier to attain. New dollars are now available – primarily from women’s foundations – to address issues like domestic violence, incest, eating disorders, lack of leadership opportunities for women and girls, and the ostracism of gay and lesbian Jews.

The second goal – women empowering themselves to become leaders and advocates for equality of opportunity and outcome – is more complicated and will require monumental work. This necessitates a sea change for a community that has traditionally been risk-averse. It requires us to shift the paradigm of leadership and to redefine, in Judith Plaskow’s words, ”normative Judaism.” The facilitation and implementation of these fundamental, systemic changes are fraught with challenges for men and women alike.

As philanthropists, we must welcome the diversity and the holistic approach that women bring – our child bearing and rearing experiences, our roles as consumers of services and volunteers, even our longtime status as outsiders – to our community. Our leaders must also face the realities of today’s Jewish women: their need for quality day care and their need for legitimate compensation and work schedules within Jewish communal service.

Challenges for women, and for the women’s foundations in which they participate, are equally enormous. We must address how to shape and drastically grow our individual as well as collective giving so that we maximize our potential for power through philanthropy. We must understand advocacy as a role a woman can play – whether she serves on her federation or local school board.

A third, far-reaching but not yet addressed goal of the pooled women’s funds is the need to think and to act strategically together, across Jewish North America, and to leverage these new dollars by continent-wide collaborative funding. Only through such collaboration will we have then numbers and financial clout to create the change we believe is imperative. Only by doing so can we make a significant impact on our communal institutions and the culture they have promulgated.

Despite the challenges and the resistance to change, there is a renewed sense of anticipation among women across the spectrum of our institutions. If we believe that through philanthropy we can create a more equitable society, then pooled Jewish women’s funds can be powerful agents for change. But if we are to actualize potent human and financial resources, it is incumbent upon both women and men to unlearn that which no longer serves us well. This is not for the sake of equality – this is for the sake of our future. If we do so, both collectively and individually we will indeed build a vibrant, inclusive, committed Jewish community.

Barbara B. Dobkin is Founder of Ma’yan, the Jewish Women ’s Project, a program of the JCC on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and currently serves as Chair of the Board of the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her past and present board service includes the New Israel Fund, the Jewish Funders Network, Lilith magazine, the Sister Fund, Emily’s List, Friends of the Israel Women‘s Network, and Why Not a Woman (The White House Project). She is Chair of the Board of the new $10 million philanthropic foundation established by Hadassah.

A long time activist on behalf of women and girls, Nancy Schwartz Sternoff is Director of the Dobkin Family Foundation. She served as Executive Director of the National Republican Coalition for Choice and as a senior policy advisor to Congressman John Miller.