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After Protests, Think Tank Taps Women

A prestigious Israeli institute, responding to a flap that erupted last summer when it failed to include women at a high-powered parley on the future of the Jewish people, has appointed three women to its board of directors.

The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem-based policy consortium, added to its board Morlie Levin, executive director of Hadassah International; Ruth Gavison, human rights professor at the Hebrew University, and Suzanne Last Stone, professor at Cardozo School of Law, specializing in Jewish law. The move came as a result of intense pressure from Jewish communal leaders who raised hackles this past June after the institute neglected to include women participants in a two-day brainstorming session for the leadership of major Jewish organizations, held at the Wye Plantation.

Institute leaders say that the addition of the new women board members is meant to signal a dedication to eliminating the gender imbalance in its ranks. Critics say that the institute’s response also underscores the success of last summer’s efforts to shine a spotlight on the dearth of women participating in its programs and, more broadly, points up the fact that Jewish organizations can evolve when communal leaders press for change.

“What this incident demonstrates is that when people speak up, it actually has an effect,” said organizational consultant Shifra Bronznick, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. Bronznick led the charge to address the lack of female representation at the institute’s June meeting.

While Bronznick said that she welcomed the addition of the female board members, calling it “tremendous progress,” she nevertheless added that women become completely integrated into a group once they comprise a full third of its makeup. With the addition of Levin, Gavison and Stone, four of the 16 board members are women — short of the one-third threshold that Bronznick described.

As a result of Bronznick’s efforts last summer, more than 55 influential Jewish communal leaders, among them mega-philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, sent letters of protest to Ambassador Dennis Ross, the institute’s board chairman, and to Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the institute’s director general.

Ross told the Forward that in the wake of the fracas, the board convened and decided to take swift action in order to redress the concerns that had arisen. “Sometimes when you make a mistake, the most important thing is to learn from it,” he said. Ross also said that the broader issue of gender imbalance in Jewish organizations was one that the institute may take up in its policy work. “It’s a larger question for the Jewish world generally about the character and scope of what the position of women is, especially in the upper reaches of organizations,” he said.

Levin, Gavison and Stone are all highly respected professionals in Jewish policy circles. Before becoming executive director of Hadassah International in 2005, Levin was a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation and served as a strategic planning and marketing consultant for Fortune 500 companies. Gavison is a founding member of the Israeli Association for Civil Rights and has served as both its chairperson and president. She is a member of the Winograd Commission, the five-member commission of inquiry appointed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to probe last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Stone serves as director of Cardozo’s program in Jewish law and interdisciplinary studies and recently held the Caroline Zelaznik Gruss and Joseph S. Gruss visiting chair in talmudic civil law at Harvard Law School.

In addition to the new board appointments, the institute has hired Ruth Yaron, a former spokeswoman for the Israeli military, to serve as a senior member of the institute, focusing on strategies to improve the image of the Jewish people.

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