What Feminism Can Teach Jewish Organizations

By Rona Shapiro

Published April 15, 2005, issue of April 15, 2005.
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In a world in which Lawrence Summers can impugn the genetic capacity of women to excel in math and science and otherwise reasonable people suggest that he might be right, it should come as no surprise that women working in Jewish communal agencies continue to run up against a glass ceiling. But what may come as a surprise is that despite the obstacles women face in the Jewish community, the women’s movement has been an overwhelmingly positive force for change within the religious realm.

A nationwide study released recently by Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project, “Listen to Her Voice,” reveals that feminism has had a transformative effect on the Jewish community over the last 30 years. Respondents to the survey were not only thrilled with the many changes that have occurred — the ordination of women as cantors and rabbis, unprecedented access to learning and sacred texts, women’s leadership on the bimah and in the boardroom — but they also believe that there would have been little to hold their interest in the Jewish community without these changes.

Many of the women reported leading their families to synagogues in which they could be counted as full participants. Others note the sweeping effects that feminism has had on Jewish theology, liturgy and ritual over the last three decades. One would hardly know it from the rhetoric of most of the organized Jewish community, but without feminism, Jewish continuity today would be much more seriously jeopardized than it is. Feminism has given many women and men a reason to again be involved Jewishly.

So, if women have transformed the Jewish religious realm, shouldn’t we be able to make comparable change in the communal realm? We can take cold comfort in knowing that the situation is not significantly better in the rest of the working world. Only a handful of women run Fortune 500 companies, Harvard University managed to tenure three women out of 36 tenure appointments last year, and men do an average of 20 minutes more housework a year than their fathers.

Is that good enough? Can a community that purports to value families and the rearing of children above all else offer no paid parental leave to most of its employees? Is it feasible that Jewish women — who are the most highly educated women in America and who, according to numerous studies, are also singularly dedicated to the Jewish community — are unqualified for positions of leadership in the Jewish community? If feminism has transformed Jewish religious life in just 30 years, might it not have an equally powerful contribution to make to the communal world?

How might we transform this reality? We can begin by simply listening to what Jewish women are saying. Nearly half the women surveyed by Ma’yan reported being discriminated against in the Jewish community on the basis of gender. Forty-two percent have experienced pay inequity. Roughly two-thirds believe that women are underrepresented as communal leaders. Only three in 10 feel that they “often” have a way to make their voices heard about issues of local concern to them.

Stop and think about those figures, and then ask yourself: How is the organization at which you work, or that you support, doing?

Beyond listening, we also need to hold Jewish organizations accountable by monitoring their policies and programs. More than four-fifths of the women surveyed by Ma’yan believe women are underrepresented as speakers and scholars in the community. Forty-two percent are dissatisfied with the level of education their children receive regarding women and girls. The vast majority, 88%, say that the organizations with which they are associated offer no paid parental leave. If flextime is offered, it is usually on an ad hoc basis.

Those Jewish organizations that do make strides toward equality — those that highlight the accomplishments of women, those that promote women through their ranks, those that cultivate a balance between work and life for their employees — should be publicly honored for their efforts. Likewise, a public spotlight should be shone on those organizations that come up short, to cajole them into transforming their work environment.

Lastly, we need to recognize that if women’s voices are finally to be heard, we must ensure that those who can speak with authority are always available. We need to build a cadre of capable women scholars and experts who can be called upon to speak on a wide variety of topics. In short, we must see to it that no organization ever again says that no woman was available or qualified to speak on a given topic.

By getting more women out into the public arena, we will unequivocally make clear that the days when the Jewish community could ignore the voices and ideas of half our people are long past.

We should take heart in the fact that many women believe feminism has transformed their Jewish lives. At the same time, we should be concerned with the fact that women are warning they will not continue to give their time, energy and dedication to organizations that do not value them.

Feminism has resonated in the Jewish community because Judaism ultimately promulgates a revolutionary message of justice and equality. It is time to finish the revolution.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro is a senior associate at Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project, a program of the JCC in Manhattan.

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