Women’s Empowerment Is An Opportunity; Not a Crisis

By Karyn G. Gershon and Shira Pruce

Jewish women are not new to leadership; think of Deborah the Judge, Queen Esther, Prime Minister Golda Meir, and WIZO 1949 Member of Knesset Rachel Cohen-Kagan, who sponsored the first legislation promoting equal rights for women in Israel. Throughout history and today, there has never been a lack of qualified Jewish women to fill leadership roles in Israel or global Jewish organizations. In organizations where women haven’t been barred from access, they own their power, thrive and rise up.

Anytime an organization creates a strategy and devotes resources to address gender inequity in the Jewish community, we applaud it. It is critical, however, that the strategy does not merely call upon women to continue to evolve in mostly male-led organizations that have not successfully addressed gender inequality. Liran Avisar Ben-Horin’s essay, “Empowering Jewish Women As Leaders” refers to a “looming crisis in the Jewish world: women are less likely than men to see themselves as Jewish leaders. We need to be clear, this crisis is not looming. Since the 1970’s, Shifra Bronznick and then her organization Advancing Jewish Women Professionals and the Jewish Community have been identifying and addressing these issues and have laid out a roadmap to address them. If women do not self identify as leaders, the culprits include the gender pay gap, glass ceilings, daily discrimination, harassment, hostile work environments, ageism, and lack of support for working mothers, all of which actively keep us out of these leadership roles.

The culture and methodology of women’s empowerment in leadership is not the mysterious abyss it is made out to be. In the past thirty years, Project Kesher’s feminist leadership model and supportive network of women have ensured a pipeline of talented women leaders for Jewish and secular organizations, as well as government entities in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and Israel. Project Kesher requires that all women in our programs make a multi-year commitment to use their new skills to advance Jewish life and civil society and a parallel commitment by their communal institutions to welcome them into positions of paid or lay leadership and change their practices to help ensure their success. Those institutions willing to make the commitment have female communal leaders at all levels. And, we need more.

In Volgograd, Russia, Project Kesher’s Inna Motornaya accepts a leadership award for her community-wide initiatives and pushes for institutional change so that more women have access to leadership positions.

In 2018, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hebrew Union College, The Jewish Education Project and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago have all appointed yet another round of top male leadership. The great news is that the Jewish Agency has just announced that Amira Aharonovich has been appointed CEO and Director General, breaking a long-held glass ceiling in the Jewish world. We must, once again, regroup and look at organizational biases and barriers. This is a crucial first step in visible, senior female leadership, but we must still look at the vision, missions, and messages of Jewish community organizations, including what our institutions are advocating and prioritizing and how these discourage our best and brightest from choosing a career in the Jewish communal world. The problem is not a lack of grit or management skills, or a dearth of Jewish women leaders, but rather a system that has identified a problem and remains unwilling to make the difficult changes to correct it.

Karyn G. Gershon is Executive Director, Project Kesher and Shira Pruce is Director of Development and Communications, Project Kesher.