It’s nice to see influential men increasingly protest the absence of women presenting at major Jewish events.
In the publication eJewishPhilanthropy.com, Shaul Kelner writes a powerful essay about his pledge to refrain from participating in any all-male panel discussions, and to make his involvement conditional on the inclusion of women.
Kelner, an assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, was asked to take that pledge a couple of years ago by Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the director of strategic initiatives at the organization Advancing Women Professionals.
Since then, he writes, whenever asked to speak as part of a panel discussion and told that the other participants are all male, he tells the organizer about his pledge. They generally exclaim that they didn’t even realize that they had been excluding women, and invite at least one to participate.
Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, articulated his dismay about the same issue in this Jerusalem Post article after Shimon Peres convened his annual gathering of thought leaders in Israel in June, and failed to include any women in almost any major talk. He did, however, invite non-Jewish singer Shakira and Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman to perform.
He described it as a “woeful – sinful! – representation and lack of representation of women in some of the gathering’s most public forums. In only one of the plenary sessions is there an equal representation of women; in most, there are no women to be found.”
Given the lineup, Kurtzer wrote, “it is hard to shake the obvious impression: Men speak thoughtfully, women shake their booty and sing about “ ‘F-ing Matt Damon.’ ”
Advancing Women Professionals’ Samuels told The Sisterhood that 40 men have signed on to the group’s pledge. They range from Rabbi Steven Exler, assistant rabbi at the (Modern Orthodox) Hebrew Institute of Riverdale to Steven M. Cohen, a professor at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, to Kelner and Kurtzer.
It all represents positive change from the situation five years ago, when the Israel-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute convened a gathering to “chart the Jewish future” at the Wye Plantation conference center in Maryland, and failed to include even a single woman on the program.
AWP’s creator, Shifra Bronznick, then emailed 1,000 people asking them to complain to the JPPI organizers, and 60 did so. At the time, JPPI founding director Avinoam Bar-Yosef defended the lack of female participation by saying that it only reflected the paucity of women at the top of Jewish organizations.
As Kelner notes in his article:
When event planners are faced with criticism over lack of female representation in their speaker line-ups, a common dodge is to claim that they are under pressure to bring in “big names” and that these are just more likely to be men. But there is a circular logic here. Someone becomes a “draw” when they have appeared in many public settings, when they are invited to be on important committees, and when they are invited to address large convenings. The absence of women from these settings is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Perhaps things have changed some even for Bar-Yosef. Five of the 20 research fellows listed on JPPI’s website today are women.
As Kelner writes:
People want to do the right thing. When I mention the pledge, it is a values-clarifying moment that typically leads people to realize that they care about gender equity and need to act on these values. Significantly, when the same conveners have invited me back a second time, the problem of all-male panels has not repeated. Many men, particularly of my generation, have already committed themselves not to speak on panels and in programs that exclude women’s voices. Hopefully, more and more will use their influence in this way.
Samuels said that as a result of Kelner’s article she got email from a number of other men wanting to take the “I won’t exclude women” pledge.
It’s all a good start. But it still is just a start.