A Woman's Place…Is in the Workplace

A Woman’s Place…Is in the Workplace

An article in last week’s Contra Costa Times discusses what some consider to be the “stained-glass ceiling” for female clergy in many religious denominations: “More women are graduating from seminaries, but in most faiths few are senior or solo clergy.”

This phenomenon is particularly true in Reform Judaism, which, though it has been ordaining women as rabbis since 1972, still has the vast majority of its top pulpit positions in the hands of male rabbis. The Union of Hebrew Congregations has even organized a task force to “look into why more women rabbis aren’t taking their place on Reform bimahs.”

But this gendered inequity in Jewish leadership is not only a clerical one – it’s a lay issue as well. Though about 70% of the Jewish organizational workforce is comprised of women, NONE of the twenty largest Jewish federations has a woman at its helm, and, of the major national Jewish organizations that are not specifically women’s organizations, only two — the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the American Jewish World Service — have women in their top leadership positions.

Because of this disparity, Shifra Bronznick, a change management consultant (who happened to take part in a panel at the Hadassah convention) started Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community in 2001. The non-profit organization’s mission is “to advance women into leadership positions in Jewish life; stimulate Jewish organizations to become more equitable, productive and vibrant environments; and promote policies that support work-life integration and flexibility for professionals and volunteers.”

This latter part of the goal is key: The idea is that women are losing out on — or opting out of — leadership positions because of the perception that they cannot handle a demanding career and the demands of family life. But, the argument goes, as articulated on AWP’s site, “When women are judged on their performance, results and potential – and not on their capacity to work ‘24/7’ – they will be perceived and promoted as valuable assets for our Jewish organizations.” So it is important not just to advance women’s leadership but to effect systemic change that would benefit everyone in the workplace. Men, too, might want to spend time with family and friends, and still be able to move up in their profession.

AWP started with three successful pilot programs — with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Hillel, and the Jewish Board of Family Services in New York — and they’re getting ready to expand. Just this past Wednesday, July 25th, the AWP convened its first “town meeting” phone conference, including 54 women (and one man!) from every type of Jewish agency from across the country, from heads of organizations to mid level managers, with the stated goal of taking “the first steps to creating a campaign in the Jewish community to improve workplace policies around flexibility and parental leave,” both policies which many Jewish organizations have resisted implementing.

Though a full transcript of the meeting was not yet available at posting time, Bronznick said via email that it went “great” and that “people contributed very intelligent ideas.”

But this meeting was just the beginning. AWP plans to hold another conference in the fall to continue discussing ways to change the pervasive gender bias in Jewish communal life. To learn more, visit AWP’s website, and to find out how you can get involved, email Shifra Bronznick, shifra-at-advancingwomen.org.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

Need More Lilith?

Sign up now for a weekly batch of Jewish feminist essays, news, events--and incredible stories and poems from 40 years of Lilith.