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How Jewish Workplaces Can Right Gender Disparities

A recent article by Dan Brown at eJewish Philanthropy argues that Jewish communal leaders have a dismal track record of recognizing and rewarding the talented women in their midst. Brown makes an excellent case for taking action to right such disparities — disparities that have been covered extensively in the Forward. But how?

How can communal leaders enable their employees — male and female — to serve and grow to best effect? Our own personal experience informs how we see the answer. We both hold meaningful positions in the Jewish communal world with flexible, part-time work arrangements. These situations afford us opportunities for professional growth, while enabling us to fulfill our responsibilities as caregivers and communal volunteers. We hope and expect that these positions will lead us to positions of top leadership in the Jewish communal workforce. Our central piece of advice to communal employers is this: Make work arrangements flexible, formal and meaningful. Here’s why:

When Rachel was offered the job as Director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, located two hours from New York City, she accepted on the condition that she would work a flexible, part-time week from her home office. Rachel is also the mother of two children in elementary school. Recognizing that working from home would pose both opportunities and challenges, she shaped a flexible, 80% work schedule. She set broad performance goals, for example, designing and implementing the program’s training curriculum and overseeing the work of Greening Fellows at 19 Jewish organizations. She met those goals within the hours that she worked.

As the Director of Institutional Advancement at Hazon, Renanit also works an 80% time schedule, which includes three longer days in the office, supplemented by work at home on a flexible schedule. Renanit balances family time with two young children alongside the demands of her work, including supervision of two Hazon staff members.

Why flexible?

We have often heard the claim that only a “special kind of person” can handle flexibility and still get the job done. Our experience suggests otherwise. Flexibility and part-time work does pose challenges but also opportunities for professional growth. We have both become experts in setting priorities, managing our time and juggling expectations and boundaries, at work and at home. When flexible arrangements are attached to clear performance goals, employers can use these common goals to measure success. These measures rightly privilege the quality of performance over the quantity of work hours.

Why formal?

Currently we both serve in positions that afford us tremendous flexibility. Colleagues in other Jewish organizations tell us that we are “so lucky” to have negotiated these arrangements, and that they cannot imagine having similar arrangements. For these colleagues and their organizations, we hope this will change. Studies show that formalized flexible policies improve both employee performance and retention. Formal written policies take the “special” status out of such arrangements, normalizing them as viable and desirable work options.

Why meaningful?

A flexible schedule should not preclude the desire and opportunity to engage in work that is purposeful, creative and intellectually challenging. Our positions require us to set strategic goals, collaborate effectively, reflect regularly on our performance, as well as seek and provide rigorous supervision. The success of our flexible experiences speaks for itself:

The Jewish Greening Fellowship recently graduated its first cohort of 19 agency professionals, who have raised a total of more than $850,000 and seeded nearly 100 new energy efficiency and green programs. The Fellowship program has been funded again, with a substantial increase, by UJA-Federation of New York.

In 2009–2010, two years that witnessed the shrinking or demise of many nonprofit organizations, Hazon opened new offices in the Bay Area, Denver and Boulder, hosted 640 people at our Jewish Food Conference, and launched our first annual California Jewish Environmental Bike Ride.

The result of this success is that our positions are now growing to full- or almost- full time, since we first negotiated our terms of employment. Performance goals have been the key measure of achievement. We look forward to the day when, as senior Jewish communal leaders, we will not only provide opportunities for meaningful, part-time flexible work to our staff, but model such best practices in our own leadership.

Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield is Director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

Renanit Levy is Director of Institutional Advancement at Hazon.

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