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Jewish Career Women: Six Profiles

In search of the women behind the statistics, we spoke with six Jewish career women. They range from ultra-Orthodox to culturally Jewish, from entrepreneurs to professionals in the stock market and academia. They live in the Northeast, the South and the Midwest, born in the U.S., Europe and South America. They range in age from mid-30s to mid-50s. Almost all have been influenced by the women’s movement and are attempting to find a place that feels comfortable within Judaism, even if they have to create it themselves. The majority of the women responding to the survey were married with children; the women profiled here present a much broader cross-section.

While many of the women responding to the original questionnaire felt that being a woman was more of a professional disadvantage than being a Jew, one executive spoke for many of the women interviewed when she said, “You can’t separate ‘Jewish’ and ‘woman.’ There’s the gestalt ‘the Jewish woman!'”

If there was one common bond for the women who felt both the stresses and the energy of being identified as “Jewish women,” it was that their identity as Jews put them under additional scrutiny and pressure. At the same time it gave them the courage to expect more of themselves and the world.

Dr. Renee S. Lerche

Manager, Educational Relations

General Motors, Detroit

When Renee Lerche was 15, her father died of a heart attack. After that she went from religious to totally secular. She felt that God had broken His personal contract with her. Now, 25 years later, she’s an executive in the auto industry — a single, female, Jewish, Harvard PhD from New York. She feels that life at General Motors would be much easier if she wasn’t driven by Judaism’s ethical standards. Her mentors at GM think she’s got it made. She doesn’t think so.

Two years ago, Lerche was hired by General Motors to bring her adult education skills to the 865,000-employee international giant. She was hired to design, implement and evaluate GM educational systems. She was one of the best and the brightest in the field of adult literacy, having worked as a consultant to Secretary of Education William Bell as well as city and state governments from Massachusetts to Texas, author of the award-winning book Effective Adult Literacy Programs: A Practitioner’s Guide (Simon & Schuster).

When she was relocating to Detroit, she told GM she wanted to live in an ethnically mixed neighborhood with lots of Jews, close to a synagogue, near a kosher market. They didn’t know what she was talking about.

In fact, both Lerche and GM were unprepared for each other. Since the woman at GM who had recommended her was Black, the staff at corporate headquarters assumed Lerche was Black, even after she was on the job. When she mentioned she was Jewish, people wanted to know how this was possible since she was Black.

“This is a new world for me,” Lerche says.

The new world is a Midwest smokestack industry with few Jews and little interest in academic values. It’s a culture that Lerche has found quite open in its anti-Semitism and its assumption that any single female is fair game sexually for male executives.

At the same time, as an unmarried, observant Jew with a non-traditional approach to tradition, she has yet to find a place for herself in Detroit’s Jewish life. She feels uncomfortable in the city’s cathedral-like synagogues with their congregations with few single members.

As a first-generation American Jew, Lerche finds a gulf between herself and her third- and fourth-generation counterparts. She was born in Yonkers, N.Y Her mother was born in the Ukraine. Her father, a deeply Orthodox Labor Zionist from Galicia, brought her up believing in the dignity of labor.

She feels that, unlike her GM colleagues, she’s not motivated by money. Shaped by her parents’ experience in leaving Europe, she says, “Things go away. You can’t get too attached to anything. It means not being so security-driven because there is no security.”

What this translates to in GM values is not being a good corporate soldier. She’s ready to take the unpopular stands when they’re backed by hard evidence. She bucked management’s plans to launch an “Adopt a School Program” at all 95 American GM plants; although it looked like a good thing for GM’s image, Lerche felt the program itself did not work well.

Lerche feels that being a Jewish woman has given her the background to be courageous. She says, “I’m not wallpaper, which is both good and bad. There are always consequences.”

In her personal life, Lerche has been engaged three times, always to non Jews. In retrospect, she says she feels she picked non-Jewish men because she knew she’d never marry them. As for children, she feels at mid-career, she can “be generative without being a mother.”

Laura Cohen

Commercial Loan Officer

United Jersey Bank, Jersey City

It doesn’t take long to figure out why Laura Cohen is a successful bank executive — she’s extremely detail-oriented. Cohen and her husband Aaron appear to have managed the perfect balancing act: they both work (Aaron is a computer scientist and manager at AT&T); and they both spend time with their daughters, ages 4 and 7.

The daughter of two school teachers in White Plains, New York, Cohen remembers, “My parents said teaching is a good job for a woman.” But after a combined B.A. in management and Jewish education at Simmons College in Boston, Cohen applied to Rutgers University for a masters degree in finance.

In 1979, she was hired by the European American Bank in Manhattan; she and Aaron lived then — and still do — in New Jersey where they belong to a Conservative synagogue which they attend weekly.

Laura Cohen grew up in a religious household. Her own father had taught her to do the cantillation for her Bat Mitzvah, and she and her sister can both function as Torah readers. In this tradition, the Cohen’s elder daughter Sarah is in first grade at a Solomon Schechter (Conservative) Hebrew Day School, and Aviva, 4, goes to day care at the local YM-YWHA, where she is served kosher meals and taught Jewish rituals. After school, Sarah attends the Y too.

But, Cohen says, her decision to send Aviva there is unusual among her contemporaries. “Very few Jewish professionals send their children to daycare,” she says. “Most of them have an au pair at home.” I’ve talked to some of the other mothers there and we agree that the people who do it, do it for philosophical reasons,” wanting their children to be taught and cared for in a Jewish environment.

Such choices cost the Cohens more than money; they have to plan their lives carefully so they can get everyone to their respective places on time every day. “My husband takes the children to school in the morning,” Cohen says, “so I can get to my office by 8:30. A van comes for Sarah after school and takes her to the Y, where she stays until 5:45. Aviva is there all day. I have to leave my office precisely at 5:00 to get to the Y by 5:45.” Her bosses understand the situation but, says Cohen, sometimes she senses a little resentment from coworkers who stay late. “But too bad,” she says. “I do my job well.”

The Cohens have no official game plan for sick kids, however. “If ever one of the kids is sick — and thank God they’ve been very healthy — we look at each other and ask ‘What’s your schedule like?'”

Still, Cohen says she doesn’t mind the routine. “I don’t consider it terribly stressful.” She does wish that the Jewish community in her area did more to help with later pick-up times at the Y or more transportation facilities.

Despite the fact that many parents are pushing for more facilities, it’s a bit déclassé, Cohen asserts, for Jewish couples to send their children to daycare. “A lot of kids just take the bus home and the household help takes care of them until their parents get there.”

“The parents who send their kids to the Y are a close-knit group,” Cohen says. “We rely on each other a lot,” with a sense of community that she obviously hopes the children will share.

— Sara Nelson

Barbara E. Cohen

President, Miller-Druck

Specialty Contracting, Inc.

New York City

It makes Barbara Cohen furious that the Jewish country club that she and her father belong to won’t let them play golf together. The club doesn’t allow women on the green at the same time as the men. It also makes her mad that religious prohibitions keep the Orthodox men who are her clients from shaking hands with her.

Still, she would not describe herself as a feminist. She is a woman in a predominantly male profession, an assimilated Jew who might work on Rosh Hashannah. She is, in many ways, the archetypal career woman: 35, single, working 80 hours a week, her cellular phone with her at all times.

She is very much the woman executive, standing at her Turkish-red marble desk, tapping all ten red fingernails as her female assistant phones out for two cups of black coffee for her.

Her contracting company, Miller- Druck Specialty Contracting, handles marble, stone and tile interiors and exteriors for commercial buildings. She considers her claim to fame the close to one million square feet of hand-set interior and exterior granite and marble her company put in place at Battery Park City, Manhattan’s largest new office complex.

The company shares offices with Domestic Marble and Stone Corp., the company headed by Cohen’s father. With its female president, Miller-Druck Specialty Contracting is considered a woman’s business enterprise under New York State law, with tax breaks and special consideration as a minority contractor. Cohen considers this “terribly unfair that I can get somewhere faster, easier by what I am, not what I do.”

Petite, blonde, with gray-blue eyes and a masters degree in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Cohen categorizes construction as a tough game but plays her advantages as a woman in a man’s trade. She describes a financial meeting where her father was about to sign a contract that she thought was unfair: “I grabbed the contract and said, ‘There’s no way I’ll let my daddy do that.’ I saved him one hundred grand.”

Cohen adores her father and always knew she wanted to work for him, though following graduation she worked for RCA for three and a half years, building computer equipment for satellites.

She and her older sister grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the apartment where her parents still live. She was confirmed at Rodeph Sholom, the marble-columned Reform synagogue off Central Park West.

Cohen considers her Jewish heritage strongest in her belief in the importance of education. The family firm gives generously to Jewish causes, and her father has been honored by Israel Bonds, but when it comes to her own charitable giving, “every nickel goes to the American Cancer Society.”

Cohen credits Jewish values as a big factor in the way the business is run: “We’re good with our employees. We pay for their schooling. We’ll lend people money we never expect to get back.”

Working an 80-hour week, there’s not much time in her life for men. “How often can you cancel out?” she says. “I make time for them when I want to make time for them!’

In terms of choosing between a career and family, at 35 she feels she’s made her choice. The idea of having it all does not present itself as an option. Cohen says, “Either I fell into it or made the decision, but it happened a long time ago.”

Dr Evelyn T Beck

Director, Women’s Studies

Program

University of Maryland-

College Park

Evelyn Torton Beck embodies many of the changes that have affected Jewish life in our century. She was born in Vienna in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. When she was five, her father was taken to Dachau and Buchenwald for one year. The family managed to get him out of the camps in the early years of the war, when such rescue was still possible. In 1939, Beck, her parents and younger brother made it to Italy. In 1940, the family sailed to New York on the last boat out of Italy.

She grew up in Brooklyn, where her mother was at home while her father worked in the fur business. When Beck was 10 or 11, she was deeply involved in Hashomair, Hatzair’s vision of building a socialist Zionist homeland. She traces her feminism to those years.

At 21, Beck married and, with her university professor husband, settled in Madison, Wisconsin. She was married for 20 years. Beck speaks of her “typical” ’50s marriage — “If you had children you stayed home. I didn’t plan my kids or my career, though I always knew I wanted to be more than a wife and mother. My career evolved from my passionate interests in literature, art and social change.” But her “need to maintain sanity” was the major factor influencing her return to graduate studies.

When her son was one and her daughter three, she went back to school. Ten years later she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin, with a dissertation on “Kafka and the Yiddish Theater: Its Impact on His Work”, later published as a book. She worked with Isaac Bashevis Singer when he was a guest professor at Madison, later writing an essay exposing the misogyny in his work. [LILITH #6]

Beck describes the difficulty she had, as a woman and a Jew, finding a teaching job in rural Wisconsin, even with a PhD and a book to her credit. In retrospect, she believes that as a woman, she had to excel to make it.

Beck is now Director of the Women’s Studies Program and Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park. In 1982, she broke new ground by editing Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (Persephone Press).

She now lives in Washington, D.C., in a deeply committed relationship with a woman who is also in academia and also Jewish.

Beck says, “While I owe my feminist activism to my Jewish roots, I owe the second wave of my Jewish activism to feminist impulses.” As a feminist and a lesbian, she was hit hard by the discovery that the radical feminist movement was not immune to anti-Semitism. She says, “My feminism, which includes lesbian activism, really re-activated my Jewish roots. I had put myself so far out, I needed to have all of me with me.” She feels, “There’s no such thing as being ‘out’ as a lesbian once and for all. Every single day there’s the choice, which makes the parallels to being Jewish really compelling.”

Beck’s own acceptance of Jewish diversity took a leap when her daughter came out as a lesbian many years ago. Beck, who was still married and heterosexual says, “I freaked out.” She now reflects, “My daughter helped me come to myself as a lesbian, even as a feminist.”

Until we spoke. Beck had not considered that her constant push to do more might be particularly Jewish, although she believes her sense of urgency, the “If not now, when?” syndrome might well have Jewish roots. “I always feel that if something is really important, I can add it to what I’m already doing.”

Rachel Berko

President, Berko Sportswear, Inc.

Brooklyn

Take the issues for career women in the ‘BO’s and overlay them on Rachel Berko, an entrepreneur who is, above all, an ultra-Orthodox woman. What emerges is that work for a traditional woman is seen primarily as what must be done to provide for the family. It has little to do with a woman’s self-fulfillment, identity or struggle for equality in a man’s world. Fulfillment comes from her family — her husband, five children and her parents — and Jewish life, marked by the Sabbath and the circle of the holidays.

But the contemporary elements are also there. Last October, Rachel Berko and her husband, Bernard, were named National Minority Manufacturer of the Year by the Minority Business Development Agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce in a White House Rose Garden presentation by President Reagan. Rachel Berko qualified as a triple minority — a woman who is also Hasidic and Hispanic, although with her fair skin and turned-up nose she might be mistaken for a Midwest cheerleader.

She was born in Montevideo Uruguay, where her parents had gone into the dress manufacturing business. Both her parents were Holocaust survivors, her father from Romania and her mother from Yugoslavia.

Although her mother had worked in her father’s business all the time she was growing up, Berko never thought of a career until the age of 27, when she was pregnant with her fourth child. At that point she decided her husband was never going to make enough money as an administrator in a Williamsburg Brooklyn yeshiva to support their growing family.

Like most small entrepreneurs with no previous business experience, the Berkos used their own savings and borrowed from friends and relatives to start their sportswear business.

In the beginning, up against stiff American competition along with imports, shunned by buyers who did not want to do business with a Hasid, Berko Sportswear almost went bankrupt. Five years later, the business is on a sound footing, grossing $700,000 the past year and employing 27 union workers.

Unlike most couples where both partners work, there is no friction over division of labor within the home. Both the Berkos get up early — he to pray, she to do the housework. At night, she does housework, he prays and studies. “It’s his vitamin,” is the way she puts it. She feels guilty about not being with her children 100 percent of the time, but feels they’re in good hands during the day with a woman from Honduras, who gives them warm-hearted South American care.

Berko considers her own mother her role model, although when she told her parents she and her husband were planning to buy a business, they were against it. Nevertheless, once the Berkos bought the business, her parents left Montevideo to be with them. In fact, both the Berkos’ parents help out at the company.

Although both her parents and her husband would like her to be able to be at home, Rachel Berko says, “I tell my children, ‘Mommy’s helping Daddy. I want you to be able to go to yeshiva, give charity and buy nice things.’ I’m sure I’m under stress because it’s not easy being at work, going home, being a wife, mother, cook. At the same time, I do believe in women going to work, bringing money home.”

Berko may, indeed, be the model for many ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. She expects to have as many children as God sends her, says that her husband is the one who wears the pants in the family, and, at the same time, she’s taken the initiative in seeing that they’re well provided for.

Pam B. Reznick

Stockbroker and Certified

Financial Planner

Thomson McKinnon Securities Inc.,

Austin

When Pam Reznick moved from St. Louis to Austin, Texas 10 years ago, there was only one other woman broker in town. “Now,” she says, “there are too many to count.”

She’s been able to build her clientele by capitalizing on her male colleagues’ chauvinism and by getting the kind of press coverage that professionals would gladly pay big bucks for. Reznick says, “I appeal to a certain market where my being Jewish and a woman is a positive factor.”

Media coverage has come both from her Jewish concerns — as one of the organizers of the first Soviet Jewry demonstration in Austin in 1981 and an organizer of the Jewish Business and Professional Women’s Network sponsored by B’nai B’rith Women — and from her special appeal as a woman stockbroker who’s targeted women professionals and as the female half of a husband-wife stockbroker team.

Reznick, who was born in Shreveport La., always knew she wanted a career but didn’t know it would be in the stock market until her then future husband, Bruce, got her interested in the market. Until then, like her father, her work had been in retailing.

Reznick, who’s been married 15 years, was actually the first one in the family to become a full-time stockbroker. Her husband was practicing law, then moved from St. Louis to Austin, where he opened a health food restaurant. By then, Pam Reznick was a broker with a St. Louis firm. When she joined Bruce in Austin in 1977, she was hired by the local firm Rauscher Pierce Refsnes Inc. Five years later, her husband joined the same firm, and they became an informal husband-wife broker team. Recently they both made the move to the Austin office of Thomson McKinnon.

When Reznick first moved to Austin, she built her clientele through the yellow pages. She correctly assumed that the men in her firm hadn’t gone to Austin’s women professionals for referrals. She started by calling women lawyers, who were happy to have a woman broker for financial advice. One of her opening moves was giving seminars at the Austin Women’s Center on “Bulls, Bears, Pigs: A Trip to the Wall Street Zoo” (her copyrighted title). Seven years later, Reznick and a friend organized the Jewish Business and Professional Women’s Network; for many of its members, the group has turned into the one Jewish connection in their lives.

Reznick sees her husband as a major factor in her professional success, along with being in the right place at the right time. In a highly competitive business where one’s colleagues are not one’s friends, the Reznicks are able to refer clients to each other. They insist on working in the same firm so they don’t compete with each other.

Product of a time in the women’s movement that emphasized that women should not feel enslaved to a biological clock, Reznick, at 39, is experiencing the frustration of problems in becoming pregnant. During the past year, she twice attempted in vitro fertilization and will try once more this spring.

Her own experience may be emblematic for the next generation of women combining career, marriage and family. Reznick says, “We read articles about women postponing having children, that it’s not a medical problem. In reality it’s not as easy to get pregnant when you’re 35 or 40, and it is easy to get misled. You don’t see statistics about women not being able to have children later in life. There’s false hope there.”

Amy Stone is a founder and former Senior Editor of LILITH.