A recent front-page story in The New York Times that discussed gender issues in Israel opened with a telling anecdote: The winner of a major honor was not permitted onstage at a government-sponsored awards ceremony because she was a woman. The disappearance of women from too many stages of public life in Israel has become a roiling controversy in a society that holds fast to egalitarian values while trying to accommodate the increasing demands of religious fundamentalists.
The absence of women in American Jewish public life may be less dramatic than in Israel, but it is no less troubling. As the Forward has documented, women lead only a sliver of the major Jewish nonprofits, and their overall earnings are dwarfed by their male counterparts. But the problem goes deeper: Too many public discussions, events and programs hosted by the Jewish community have few or no women participating. A couple of recent examples include the annual human rights dinner of the Jewish Labor Committee (no women honored or speaking) and a multi-part lecture series sponsored by the JCC Boston which had no women speakers until an outcry added one.
In both of these instances, the organizers of the events expressed sincere regret, argued that this snapshot does not represent their fuller inclusion of women, and promised that it won’t happen again. We believe them. Unlike in Israel, where some rabbis and political leaders lean on their own interpretation of Jewish law to formally exclude women, the problem in America is more a sin of omission. We didn’t realize how skewed the program had become! We couldn’t find the right women to participate!
These explanations would carry more weight, however, if the problem was brand new or never before noticed. It is not. Back in 2006 — after a major conference on the future of the Jewish people failed to include a single woman — Shifra Bronznick, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, began asking men to pledge not to participate on all-male panels and to make the inclusion of at least one woman a condition of involvement. Despite the indefatigable efforts of Bronznick and her colleague Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the absence of women in public conversations continues.
And that is not only because women are not included. Too often, women absent themselves from the discussion. At a recent breakfast hosted by the Israel Policy Forum (with a woman moderator and an all-male panel of experts) not a single woman in the audience asked a question. A brief survey conducted at the Forward in the fall of 2010 found that men sent in unsolicited opinion pieces at a rate seven times higher than women.
Clearly, the Jewish community is not having the discussion it needs and deserves. It can’t, when half the population is silenced or silencing itself. To more fully address this issue, the Forward is reaching out to you, our readers, to send examples of the absence of women in your own communities to firstname.lastname@example.org, which we will publish for further debate. And we will hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable, too. That New York Times story mentioned above quoted many men — but only one woman — about gender issues in Israel, a subject that women surely know something about.
Shaul Kelner, a professor at Vanderbilt University, has written about his own commitment to AWP’s pledge, calling it a “mitzvah of egalitarianism.” Surely, including more women in the American Jewish conversation can be viewed as both an obligation and a blessing.