Beyond the Valley of The Shmattes

It’s a truism that Jewish women believe in “organizations.” For those over 35, it’s a way of life, particularly outside the large urban centers. Over a million and a half of us belong to something (aside from our multi-memberships in general American organizations), at a rate of 45% compared with 30% for all American women.

Yet no more than a passing glance is given Jewish women and their organizations in any work about American Jews. No course on Jewish women’s organizations or their history is offered at any of our institutions of learning. We are so other-oriented that we seldom dare to take a look at how we are working and where we are heading in the 1980’s, but such a look is necessary.

Is it “bad” to belong to such a high degree? While “belonging” reveals our dislike of individuation, if we can approve of it our organizations function to increase our personal growth, our communal efficiency, our Jewish vitality as a shrinking minority. But ought we not to begin to take a look at what we do in our organizations — their structure and functions, to see if they are suitable for our needs today?

Some questions: Have we exchanged the traditional women-behind-the-synagog* curtain for a communal curtain, keeping our separate-but-equal organization status-quo?

Are we obsessed with raising money instead of giving or making money?

Do we look to “the men” to organize (exploit) us? Do our husbands exercise undue social control over us in their insistence on pedestalizing us — to make up, perhaps, for the historic “burdening” of the Jewish woman, once confined to the domestic and economic realities of home and family while men held synagog discourse? Have we basked in that psychic satisfaction of queenly dominance in family life while submitting to the codes of Establishment balabatim (male big givers/leaders) that we stay in the background — where we are “needed”?

Are we — the great reconcilers, the great peacemakers — suffering from traditional Jewish “modesty” — afraid that it’s “not nice” to criticize the men or demand full partnership in decision-making?

Arc we using the rationale of “belonging” to prop up duplicating Jewish Establishment structures that were founded to “take care of our own,” when we are in an era of federal funding of minority social services?

Are we really a sisterhood with other American women?

As with most voluntary behavior, joining a Jewish women’s organization has less to do with the activities offered than with other reasons: affirmation of Jewish social status and wealth, especially since we are relatively new to suburbia where most of us now live; the consequent need for instant Jewish identity without religiosity (often our organizations are a substitute for religious identification in the older mode e.g., as the “auxiliary” in the synagog); visibility of our life-style; and especially, the strong need we seem to have for group-think and taste-exchange: we obviously feel safer that way.

Additionally, the well-known guilt feeling of Jewish women resulting from admonitions to be “Jewish” by worried (male) rabbis and leaders, may be causing a virtual obsession with identity. At the least, the Jewish woman reasons, when she joins a Jewish women’s organization, she has “stood up to be counted.”

Louis Berman, in his insightful book Jews and Intermarriage, speculated that “the Jewish ethos” (our dominant characteristic as expressed in our customs) encourages traits which advantage the Jewish male in our society over the Jewish female, resulting in the woman’s “unequal aptitude for participation in gentile society.”

This “unequal aptitude” may be sending us back to our surrogate parents, the Jewish women’s organization. There the paternalism of the men under whose guidance we function (with the exception of the “independents”; see chart) is familiar. The women’s division is our mothering presence.

The Jewish “leadership,” of course, has traditionally encouraged our togetherness in an enclave because it leads to maintaining the role differentiation we have always had in the family, particularly the division of labor we have agreed to. Most women’s divisions were initiated by the men as a way of having their wives replicate in the community the family power structure.

Unadulterated recognition by Jewish leaders of the massive contribution by women’s organizations, reaching beyond the Jewish home to “housekeep” the Jewish community, is hard to come by, however. In its stead is the suspicion that our efficacy and longevity outstrips that of more “powerful” men’s groups.

Aside from the obvious primary attention given Israel, its institutions, problems of diplomacy, Soviet Jewry, the UN, there is hardly a domestic issue that Jewish women’s organizations haven’t confronted. The smorgasbord is huge, from domestic issues like child care and juvenile justice to school integration and the Jewish single parent — all “up to date” sensors from membership are considered.

Some of this activity is unnecessary. A few years back, under Nixon, the National Council of Jewish Women financed a year-long study of the need for child care in the U.S., at the same time that the Administration did likewise. Recently, the NCJW sponsored its “Justice for Children” project during a period of judicial and legal ferment concerning this issue. It is well to study and learn, but it seems clear that Jewish women’s organizations often duplicate the efforts of public agencies. Later they ritualize and structuralize these efforts, when they should instead become activists or, at a minimum, create coalitions with other Jewish women and non-Jewish pressure groups to effect change.

The rampant “me-too-ism” of competing women’s groups involved in similar activities is a strategy for getting and keeping membership dollars and widening an organization’s influence — all justified with hair-splitting “differences.” Considering the “division of labor” within Jewish life — tasks assigned men and women, and also the supposed variables of the many women’s organizations — such an oversupply is possible where the goal is only “membership” and self-perpetuation, not effective actions.

Overriding all programs for most organizations and, in fact, their raison d’etre is the need for getting and giving money to U.J. A., Federations, specific Israel projects and so on. It’s a troubling realization, this emphasis on money-getting schemes — different from earning it or giving of one’s own wealth. The elevation of the big giver to a position of leadership since World War II, the creation of a Jewish “aristocracy” in our scattered communities, is responsible for this fixation.

Too much fund-raising, almost a Jewish female reflex, time-killing and trivializing, strengthens our historical image — to be bustling but unlearned Jewish women — getting and begetting things, while we wish to be known as “educated” and “affluent” as a “Jewish people.”

Techniques ranging from local rummage and pre-Christmas bazaars of synagog groups, and antique and arts auctions, to forums and tennis events, hotel and country-club catering — donor credit and quotes — the money mill grinds.

\Consider the vulgarities of our seasonal bazaars featuring shmates and “new merchandise” being sold to maintain the synagog — conveniently attracting non-Jews at their holiday times. The materialism in American life is thus symbolized and hardly upholds “Jewish values.” It also confuses our youth seeking new pride in the humanistic and spiritual goals of Judaism. Isn’t it time we women refused to run merchandise circuses using our hard unpaid labor?

Too much of the work of women’s groups involves manipulation by our brother and father figures, the rabbis and male Jewish “professionals” who need to control us — especially to increase income for the Jewish Establishment. Their clever sophistry in blending the techniques of fund-raising with no less than “total Jewish education,” which they call “leadership development,” is something to behold. “So this is tzedekah?” we cry. . . . “And welcome to it!” is their smiling response . . .

So often Jewish women’s organizations look to Jewish men for advice, leadership, comfort: the concept of the father, exemplified by the rabbi, who vests authority in the husband as the head, the “idea” man, has done its work, again reinforcing Jewish women’s self-concept as doers, not thinkers. (Does this account for our lack of passion as a factor in our sexual relationships with our husbands and the friendly companion role we play — responsive, kindly, a shallow antagonist?)

We seem to need male approval even for the right to dissent. In 1972-1973, I counted five occasions on Long Island alone when Jewish women’s organizations held programs on what they called “women’s lib,” each one addressed by a male professor of sociology or history, or by a rabbi.

How can we explain the commitment to “separate but equal” by Jewish women’s organizations? Time was when spurious points like the need for daytime vs. nighttime meetings (with women at home and men at work) were offered to explain the separate divisions. The reasoning is more sophisticated now and the issue has been effectively buried. One male fund-raising leader told me: “You can’t apply the separate/unequal tag so glibly in Jewish life. We are really different. In many ways, men think of the women’s divisions as a privileged sanctuary (sic) and you won’t find many women who consider it discriminatory.”

Of course, one need only note that Jewish men fear their wives will stray into sexual adventures if too much opportunity is afforded them to mingle freely “in partnership” with other men. Unstated is the sense that the women’s division is a convenient corner for Jewish women.

In organizations which have considered combining men’s and women’s chapters, many women opted for the retention of the separate women’s chapters because they felt inhibited at meetings with male members. Their feeling of being intellectually inferior was often privately expressed. Many women in combined chapters urge their husbands to speak for them.

Furthermore, women leaders know that if they forfeit the “separate” status, they will lose the opportunity to climb to the top leadership, for men rise first when organizations have both male and female members. The fund-raisers, of course, know that women’s partnership with men means smaller giving.

The cold-blooded executive-suite style acquired by otherwise caring Jewish women when they fixate their roles as “organization women” is unpleasant to experience. Jewish women who work as volunteers for organizations often have no employment experience. However, more than non-Jewish women, the unanimous, no-dissent style of their organizations demands “togetherness” from employees. The volunteers become a middle-management cadre, unschooled in human relations techniques. Women’s organization leaders must also begin to care about the position of Jewish working women in their midst, and to explore the conflicts between professional staff and volunteers.

Jewish women must also become more individually aggressive and force Jewish women’s organizations to champion the right of Jewishly-educated women to work on every level and in every sphere of the large Jewish Establishment. It is appalling not to find statements by Jewish women’s groups on or investigations into the subtle and overt exclusion of able Jewish women from paid positrons of importance. Except for the women’s organizations, there are only two female executive directors of national Jewish organizations (Naomi Levine of the American Jewish Congress and Rachel Jacobs of Americans for Progressive Israel).

The necessity of providing Jewish Establishment jobs for our Jewishly-educated men, including rabbis, has resulted in organizational ineptness and inefficiency and in their dread of competition from intelligent Jewish women. The profusion of politically conservative neo-Orthodox males in Jewish life, makes them unlikely contemporaries for a liberal view of the Jewish workplace and the needs of Jewish women. These Jewish male executives frequently opt for non-Jewish employees and blacks to make their “liberalism” apparent while excluding Jewish women from employment in top positions and from advancement.

There is a surprising lack of creative input into the Jewish scene by Jewish women’s organizations. We who can produce Nobel prize-winners cannot project a comprehensive Jewish bookstore in New York or combine the half-dozen Jewish libraries in the same city in an accessible location; nor have we entered the no-woman’s land of Judaica publishing. Our involvement in the neglected Jewish arts, music, theatre is at an all-time low.

It is obvious that the male agenda, with its emphasis on gevaldige “rescue” efforts to save Soviet Jewry and Israel, is still ours.

If we are to focus totally and obsessively on the need for money, then we ought to be creating a Jewish community chest of our own — Jewish women’s organizations together, to set Jewish women’s priorities on how our money should be spent. In addition to the Jewish arts, we should also address our expertise to Jewish child-care, Jewish education, care for poor elderly Jewish women and men (the Jewish agencies’ denial and self-deception on this issue caused an absence of leadership in Government anti-poverty programs).

The wasteland that is Jewish TV and radio ought to be quickly reclaimed. To watch the Sunday morning TV ghetto is to see rabbis and Jewish male leaders hold forth with rarely a Jewish female appearing. This is related to the minimal visibility of Jewish women’s organizations, stifled as they are by “modesty” as a Jewish virtue women have been conditioned to maintain. They have not provided images in the news, radio or television of sophisticated Jewish women’s activity, in tune with today’s world, aside from advertisements and award-giving luncheons filled with gimmickry and dedicated to service.

We need Jewish women heretical enough to suggest that the money they could save from too many membership organizations could be better applied to the provision of projects to consolidate our forces. It’s time for tightening-up, for simplifying, as an antidote to the extreme territoriality of Jewish women’s organizations. It’s time, too, that Jewish women’s organizations had their own Assembly.

One can find little or no stock-taking by Jewish women’s organizations. One exception was the late ’75 survey of Jewish women leadership in local USA Federations initiated by women at the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. Even the Leadership Conference of Jewish Women’s Organizations, an informal group of women leaders, issues no reports and keeps its traditional “modesty.” A summing-up of women’s organizations’ “works and days” and an examination of our image and practices suggested here would be useful, necessary and is past due.

In this year of the Bicentennial, Jewish women’s organizations are in some ways better than those of American women. One reads the history of suffragism—the first feminist wave— and wishes we could read more of ourselves in it. We were then in the first blush of post-immigrant mobility and could not “risk” what we can today. We have a chance at participating in the second wave. Let’s not stand on the shore. Let’s swim out and meet it.

Doris B. Gold was the NOW (National Organization for Women) Eastern Regional Coordinator for its Volunteerism Task Force (1974-76) and author of an essay on “Women and Voluntarism” published in Woman in Sexist Society, a feminist anthology edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran (Basic Books, 1971). She has worked as a Jewish professional and writer both in New York and in the Midwest, occasionally with Jewish women’s groups; she is the former editor of the Young Judaean Magazine (1964-1972).