Susan Weidman Schneider on why women are so powerful in Jewish campus life now.
Young women are being pressed to “lean in.” Sheryl Sandberg — of the book Lean In, the Lean In Institute, and the Facebook leadership team, etc. — wants to cheer them on. But leaning in, in fact, is already happening on campus, in at least one surprising context—religious leadership.
I recently attended traditional-egalitarian (“trad-egal” in Jewspeak shorthand) Shabbat services at Brandeis University. It’s the style of many Conservative congregations, Jewish summer camps, schools and other prayer-training venues. Liturgy mostly in Hebrew, services led — and participated in — by women and men equally.
Friday afternoon and evening services were led almost entirely by women; about 35 women and five men attended. (Same ratio in other liberal services on campus, and in the leadership of Jewish campus organizations.) The traditional liturgy was sung soprano, and the leaders and daveners moved through the structure of the service with ease, including a brief and illuminating dvar Torah from a female student. A whole cohort of women is now completely comfortable both in their mastery of Jewish tradition and in their ability to perform it! (Judaism is a very performance-oriented religion: Hebrew and English, sitting and standing, bending and chanting, singing and responding, often without a lot of clues in the prayerbook.)
Sitting in Shabbat services, surrounded mostly by women, I flashed back to a conversation I had with a Catholic journalist who interviewed me when Lilith was launching, decades back. Then, women had just begun to be counted in a minyan in the Conservative movement, at the time the largest movement among American Jews. “Aren’t you worried,” he asked me, “that soon Judaism will face the same dilemma as the Catholic Church — where the women fill all the pews?” Never! I explained patiently, because of the longstanding patriarchal nature of Jewish law, prayer, and mitzvot. I told him, “What we’re looking for as women is equal access with men to Jewish practice and Jewish experiences. Plus equal value for women’s experiences—we want liturgies for childbirth, naming a baby daughter, ways of honoring women beyond the ‘Woman of Valor’ psalm.” But while the liturgy has stretched — undramatically — to incorporate the naming of foremothers along with forefathers, the major difference is that the leadership has changed, and indeed the makeup of the congregation, too.
The young women I see in action in Jewish settings on campus are comfortable taking leadership roles in ways that feel different from what was described by a Princeton University study a couple of years ago, when researchers noted that women shied away from running in campus elections, and discouraged one another from competing for leadership opportunities.
I asked students what they think drives the high ratio of females to males in Jewish campus leadership now. Among their thoughtful explanations:
Jewish campus life parallels nationwide campus demographics. College enrollment across the U.S. is about 60% female, so women are more visible in leadership roles simply because they outnumber men.
Females are more affiliative, more social. So attending services becomes a very reliable way to be with friends. “You go and everyone is so happy to reach out. Shabbat shalom, great to see you, can you help pass out the prayer books.” The guys either need this less or find other ways to bond.
Things self-perpetuate. Like follows like. “When a guy who’s a first-year student sees all the Hillel board members are female, he may not feel so comfortable, like this is not the environment for him.”
Orthodox women become campus organization leaders because they are closed out of many ritual roles in Orthodox services. “We take on those ‘enabler’ roles because this gives us a way to participate that doesn’t violate the gender norms we grew up with.”
The power of religious leadership is heady because it is new, heady because there’s support for it in the larger community, heady because it is largely not viewed as threatening — the guys aren’t seeking these roles Women step into this power vacuum.. And lean in.
So… how to hang onto the real power females wield on campus and channel it after college? They’ll hold onto their skills. But will their attitudes stay with them — that sense of their own “sleek competence,” as one man put it, mixed with humility and a big-tent approach, bringing their full selves into the enterprise — making challah and making Kiddush, all the while expressing their ideas and speculations fearlessly? The college women I sat with in services and at Shabbat dinner and in spirited debate did all this. Here’s hoping they can stay confident and brave, doing good work not only behind the scenes but also in the public eye after graduation, and that they’ll remember how good it felt to stand at the lectern leading others, whether in services, in Torah study, or in setting the agenda for their campus communities, role models for both their peers and their elders.
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief