Why and how—do people change their minds, and then their behaviors?
This season we’re celebrating 20 years of women as Conservative rabbis. The anniversary gives us an opportunity to look back on how the movement decided to change its position from negative to positive, with exhilaratingly good results both for women who want to be rabbis and for the Jewish community as a whole. So I have been thinking about how change happens. (Or, less passively, how we bring about change.)
I’ve had some failures in the change-making department. I was looking for a parking space recently in a crowded parking lot. I spotted another driver pulling out, drove up courteously behind her, waited until she pulled out, and began edging my car in. Whoa! To my shock, another driver, coming out of nowhere, swooped into the space and closed me out! I was dumbfounded. The move had been so rude, so unfair. So what did I do? I rolled down my window, of course, and asked calmly, ”’Why did you do that? That was a really hostile thing to do. You could see that I was pulling into this very spot.” The other driver’s response? He cursed me out, predictably, and stayed put right in the parking space, my efforts at reeducation utterly futile. And the friend sitting next to me, adding salt to the wound, pronounced her diagnosis: ”You are the crazy one. You should have rolled down your window and cursed him out first!”
Got me to thinking about how we change people’s thoughts and deeds—not mine, his.
I’ve lectured and taught that tilkkun olam is a retail business, and that, like good deeds, social change happens incrementally, one on one. Childcare would be offered at all Jewish events because women helped the universe see that it takes a village to raise Jewish kids. Competitive salaries and good benefits would arrive like manna from heaven for the [mostly] women in the fields of Jewish schools and social-service agencies because women workers lobbied for them. With Jewish women swelling the ranks of professional and business graduate schools, of course they’d be recruited to lead Jewish organizations. Flexible hours for workers with responsibilities for children or others needed only to be proposed thoughtfully and employers would offer them.
Call my naivete a character flaw. Enlightened self-interest obviously plays a big part in change.
In the rabbinate, women have shifted the valence of our liturgical and congregational lives, so that more and more women congregants are finding Judaism nourishing, both spiritually and intellectually. Perhaps it was a prescience about this benefit that spurred the leaders of the Conservative movement to decide to ordain women two decades ago; perhaps they realized that they had a magnet in women rabbis—not only would bright women want to become rabbis, but the presence of women on the bima would draw other women into services too. And this has, indeed, come to pass.
Now we’re also witnessing a sophisticated shift in the often recalcitrant Jewish communal field, in those agencies where toiled legions of women Blu Greenberg once called “Jewish nuns.” (She was referring not to celibacy but to selfless devotion to task, I believe.) Some agencies and organizations are now thinking along gender lines as never before—not by accident or because of some fortuitous alignment of the planets, but because they’ve had pointed out to them that it is to their advantage to have women on a leadership track and to create family-friendly workplaces.
Spurring much of this change. Advancing Women Professionals in the Jewish Community steps off in a different direction from the advocates who have for years been lobbying at the grassroots level for more women executives in the Jewish world. Here’s what’s different in change-making today: this new entity, led by Shifra Bronznick, has worked with the leadership of Jewish organizations in a model based on corporate human-resources practice, demonstrating to those in power that, ethics aside, it is in their own best interest to create policies encouraging a balance between work and non-work (dare we call it home life?). This new form of advocacy focuses not on the bad news—the suffering of the workers—but on the potential for these agencies to accomplish their missions better through more humane workplace policies which will attract and retain the best employees.
In the 21st Century, this means women as well as men. By offering flexible hours, for example, organizations like Hillel and agencies like New York’s Jewish Board of Family and Children Services get to position themselves as relatively progressive employers and, into the bargain, try to attract stellar professionals who care about quality of life as well as quality of work. It’s no surprise that Catalyst, the nonprofit working with corporations on gender issues, has found that people are happier and more productive on the job if they have some control over their time.
But how deep will this focus on flex-time, family leave and other changes penetrate? Professionals in the Jewish community have long been expected to put personal life in second place and be available almost around the clock, as is the case for pulpit rabbis, for example. This may explain why fewer women rabbis want congregational positions. And it also may explain why one capable woman recruited for an executive position in the Jewish community is reported to have replied “Who would want this job?” The 20-year mark for women in the rabbinate provides a useful moment for us to pause and evaluate not just how we want to change the workplace, but also, urgently, how we want to live.