Live from the Lilith Blog

May 10, 2011 by

Lilith’s Contemporary Salons for Smart, Savvy Jewish Women

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

How do women move from diagnosing what’s wrong with the world to taking action to improve it?

I had ample opportunity to mull this over when I attended the National Council of Jewish Women’s triennial convention in Dallas earlier this month. When I’d been honored by them three years ago as a Woman Who Dared, I was down with the flu, and wasn’t able to appear, so this time I wanted to catching up in person with the representatives of the only self-styled “progressive” Jewish women’s organization.

The gathering proved a useful primer on the political and legislative issues women face right now, with reproductive rights, pay equity and the task of bringing in more women as judges and elected local officials at the top of the agenda. Then there was the challenge of expanding the base and drawing in the dollars needed to move the agenda forward. In a session on women’s giving, the NCJW presenters set forth many of the tenets Lilith has written about, chief among them that women tend to get to know a cause before writing a check or clicking “Donate,” and that we like to give and to work in concert with other women. A new study from Princeton on women undergraduates puts it well: “Women seek, and benefit from, affiliation with other women.”

This is one reason I was at the NCJW convention – to tell the attendees about the success Lilith has had in bringing women together for smart talk under the rubric of Lilith salons – now 90 strong across the country and in Canada and other places too, many of them in conjunction with Women of Reform Judaism.

Hearteningly, my session on the value of salons fit well with the formal NCJW convention program, which also demonstrated how consciousness is raised through hearing women’s own narratives. Almost every plenary speaker, including former House leader Nancy Pelosi and outgoing NCJW president Nancy Ratzan, spoke personally. After telling of her own “broken pieces,” and her terror at the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy when she was an unmarried early-career lawyer at the dawn of the Roe v. Wade era, Ratzan announced “We are living our Judaism through our activism.”

In a workshop on how to reach each generation, NCJW set forth the frank question that all nonprofits are asking: Is there something that would enhance our current programs, something that we could add? How, in fact, to mobilize not just the NCJW faithful (about 90,000 strong), but also to bring into the discussion younger Jewish women? Unaffiliated Jewish women? And how to fund the work?

In Dallas, I suggested one useful way to draw these women into the discussion and into alignment with NCJW’s agenda: Lilith salons, which in local communities, and in Reform sisterhoods, and on college campuses, have proven themselves to be a powerful magnet for drawing women together to “talk about what we know about as women,” as NOW president Terry O’Neill, in another context, told the 300 NCJW convention-goers.

Why salons? Younger women, especially those in their 20s and 30s, want to feel instrumental, and have “ownership.” It’s a DIY world. The successes of Limmud and small-scale self-created learning opportunities prove this. The salons – more democratic than a book club, not centered on a religious holiday like Rosh Hodesh groups – are conversations pegged to the varied content in each quarterly issue of Lilith magazine, independent, Jewish & frankly feminist, as the magazine’s tagline puts it. Lilith sends out trigger questions and relevant articles from earlier issues, but the talk goes wherever the women in the room want to take it.

Women of every generation – millennials, gen Xers, boomers – show a preference for working in concert with others. There’s a strong tropism toward working in groups, collaborating, sharing the endeavor. One woman said, “in Lilith’s pages I meet women like and unlike myself.” Not only does the subject matter resonate for salon participants, but also the salon’s periodicity – approximately one every three months – fits women’s needs now, and the rich intellectual experience of unmediated conversation with other smart and savvy women is very compelling.

These Lilith salons have another plus for NCJW, as they have for Women of Reform Judaism and other groups too. And that’s that they tend to be intergenerational. One salon organizer reported, “We had participation from women we never see – all ages and stages – who reveled in the ideas circulated in the discussion. I would say we ranged from 35-84 years. No one wanted to go home, and they are anxious to do it again. What more could you want?”

The salons can move a women’s agenda forward across generations. For example, a long-running Lilith salon in Houston decided to focus on reproductive rights, so the salon hostess brought out a 1981 cover of Lilith showing coat hangers twisted into the shape of a Magen David. What’s that? asked the younger women present. They were not inquiring about the Jewish star. They were puzzled by the coat hangers. They had no idea, these women in their 40s and younger who had come of age in a post Roe world, that women before them had had NO access to safe and legal abortion. Before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1973, a stretched-out wire hanger was one of the few instruments accessible to a woman trying to end an unplanned pregnancy. NCJW is now bringing back in to circulation their once–popular gilded miniature coat-hanger charm. Like that Lilith cover, it’s a great consciousness raiser.

The question is: How do we move from talk to action?? Lilith salons have been incubators for action, with talk as the necessary intermediate stage between thought and action. One long-running Lilith salon began by discussing a Lilith article on “Jewish Moms, Chinese Daughters” and, armed with trigger questions from the Lilith office, moved on to talk about the changing face of congregations. They then speculated on what it would take to change some of the books and pictures in the local Jewish Center nursery school. Salon participants soon went into the Center, proposed books with a broader view of Jewish identity, and eventually arranged for the Center to hire a diversity consultant. Another salon, discussing women and disabilities, concluded that Jewish buildings in their area needed several improvements to engage people with different kinds of disabilities. The solutions ranged form the simple – lower the mezuzahs on doorposts so people in wheelchairs can reach them – to organizing programs recognizing the rights of individuals with psychological handicaps.

Salons, popular among intellectually curious and avant-garde Jewish women from the eighteenth century onward, are re-appearing in the 21st century as an opportunity for thoughtful women to get together to mull over some of the most exciting thinking of the day. Lilith magazine has created contemporary salons where ideas hatch and are nurtured, places where small groups of women meet for informal discussions. Salon conversations can pull in women of all ages to talk and act on many progressive fronts – reproductive freedoms, diversity in Jewish families, rights for Israeli women, and much more.