Listening to Women

Published February 13, 2012, issue of February 17, 2012.

Too many of the images of women in Israel these days are disturbing — a girl spat on because of her dress, an esteemed scientist denied the stage, a commuter forced to the back of the bus. But that’s an incomplete narrative in a nation where women hold leading roles in politics, business, the judiciary, the civil sector and, increasingly, the military. Add to that an unusual public hearing about women’s leadership in the Knesset, and you have to wonder why the American Jewish establishment can’t treat this issue as seriously.

“Why are there no women among the leadership of world Jewish organizations?” was the provocative title of the February 7 hearing of the Subcommittee for Relations of Israel With World Jewish Communities, chaired by Einat Wilf, an ambitious, Harvard-trained member of the Knesset who recently left the Labor Party to follow Ehud Barak into his new Independence faction and who seems intent on carving out an activist role for herself.

Wilf opened the hearing citing the Forward’s reporting and other research pointing to a lack of women leaders in traditional Jewish nonprofits and to a serious gap between the pay of men and women in those communal organizations. Further testimony showed that while women are leading many newer, smaller, innovative Jewish groups, the number falls off dramatically in the larger ones that are arguably more influential. “Among organizations with budgets under $250,000, 65% are led by women. Among organizations with budgets over $50 million, the number drops to 16%,” reported Nadia Ellis, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.

“It was important that in the Knesset, a clear voice was sounded that there is no inherent Jewish hindrance to the promotion of women to positions of leadership,” Wilf wrote in an email afterward. “Any claim that Jewish tradition mandates that women be treated as inferior is an abuse of Jewish law to regressive political and ideological ends.”

Beyond the consciousness-raising that these types of legislative hearings can generate, Wilf said that there is one specific idea she intends to promote within the Knesset: a pledge by men not to participate in a conference or other public event unless there is at least one woman also participating. (No surprise that Shifra Bronznick, who created the pledge, discussed this in her testimony before the Knesset.)

It’s a cause that the Forward is promoting, too. Our call to readers to send in their examples of the absence of women in Jewish public life brought an impassioned response by Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform congregation in Edison, N.J. After attending the recent biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, she wrote that she was appalled that the new leadership team for her movement consisted mostly of men, with the only women holding less public roles.

“The faces of Reform Judaism are all men,” Bravo said in a later conversation. “What a disappointment! You would think that in 2012, the most liberal Jewish movement would think more of the face we’re putting out there.”

Indeed, men are in charge at the URJ, the Religious Action Center, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The URJ’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer are women, but they don’t represent the movement in public.

Rick Jacobs only officially became the new URJ president in December, a fact he brought up when called for a response to Bravo’s complaint. “I ask not to judge me by the first six minutes of my presidency,” he said. “Over time we will do the right thing because it’s the right thing. This is not a commitment that someone has to point out to me.” But someone has. All the way from the Knesset building in Jerusalem.

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