When Rabbi Joanna Samuels was six years old, she drew a typical child’s picture — with stick figures and awkward shapes — and then wrote, “When I get to be a mommy, I will get a job.” That picture, which has been hanging in a frame for 35 years, moving with her from home to home, encapsulates so much of what Joanna has done with her life. Even when she was a girl, she had a vision for transforming the working lives of Jewish women.
Joanna told this story, and showed this picture, at her goodbye party last week, which marked the end of her three-year tenure as Director of Strategic Initiatives at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish community (AWP). The event was a tremendous gathering of Jewish feminists. The fifty people in the room — almost all women — came from organizations representing many aspects of Jewish life: Reform rabbis, a dean at the Jewish Theological Seminar, Orthodox clergy and senior professionals from a range of Jewish women’s organizations. We were all there because Joanna and AWP had touched us in some way. Remember her commitment to pledging men as allies in promoting women’s leadership? Her guidance in teaching women how to “ask”? Her efforts at promoting women’s advancement in Jewish organizations? A tribute to Joanna as well as the diverse and wide reach of AWP, the good-bye party became a celebration of the minds and spirits of Jewish women, especially those who spend their lives making a difference in the Jewish community through not-for-profit work.
The program opened with a kind of “chevruta” learning over texts that were relevant, timely and thought-provoking about women’s working lives, including the now-famous article by Anne Marie Slaughter in “The Atlantic” about women’s continuing struggle for work-life balance. “This is what Joanna and I consider a fun thing to do at a party,” quipped AWP founding president Shifra Bronznick. Some of us understood — I know I did. I also consider having engaging, sophisticated discussions on topics of interest with a room full of active, independent-minded women to be a really great time.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, likened Joanna to an eagle, full of grace and beauty as she inspires others with the spread of her wings. The students at Yeshivat Maharat, like women in so many other institutions, have been deeply influenced by the AWP’s vision of advancing women’s leadership. Impressively, AWP has worked with a total of 62 institutions on creating gender equity. Also at the event was Deena Fuchs, author of the recent article “Making Motherhood Work — With Work” about how Avi Chai adjusted its policies in order to retain quality staff who are also parents. She credited AWP’s Better Work, Better Life campaign with helping Avi Chai’s North American Director, Yossi Prager, change both his attitude and his policies.
For me, one on the most inspiring aspects of the event was realizing that AWP really does live by its beliefs. The relationships among the AWP staff, the mutual respect reflected in their collaboration, and the dedication to enabling both women and men to live and work as whole people with complex lives, leave me optimistic. Indeed, Joanna is a firm believer that what we accomplish in our professional lives has much less to do with how many hours we sit at a desk and more to do with the strategies that we employ. If AWP can accomplish the goal of advancing gender change in so many organizations — all while living out such a beautiful, spiritual vision of work and life — there is hope for the rest of us.
I wish Joanna all the best in her new job, working with the Educational Alliance as the Executive Director of a new community center on the Lower East Side. I’m certain that wherever she goes, she will bring her spirit and vision, to the benefit of all those around her. Her transition represents an important goal for all of us. It’s not enough us to build feminist organizations; we also have to bring a feminist consciousness into other organizations, to speak out the way Joanna does, with passion and commitment, and work in whatever environments we find ourselves in order to advance gender equity.