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Lilith Feature

Power Plays: Breaking the Male Monopoly of Jewish Community Leadership

American Jewry is a community which concentrates power in the hands of a relatively few wealthy men and their hired male executives. While there has been a grudging but nonetheless growing willingness in recent years to allow a small number of women superstars to assume positions of responsibility, there has been no shifting of power away from those inter-locking male directorates. The system has accommodated and absorbed these women much the same way prerevolutionary China absorbed invaders.

Rela Geffen Monson, Professor of Sociology at Gratz College in Philadelphia—and the college’s first woman full professor—defines power in this context as control over allocations of money raised in the community, and control of its decision-making. Real power, incidentally, should not be confused with its trappings. Many people in the Jewish community, including female organizational leaders, are bought off with koved—”honors” such as plaques, participation in top-level briefings, and personal meetings with Israeli leaders—which imply power but are sometimes a substitute for it.

The main power centers in the community are the local Federations (200 in the U.S. and Canada), which raise (through their annual UJA/Federation campaigns) and distribute (via allocations committees) the lion’s share of funds contributed by Jews to Jewish causes. At the apex of this pyramid is the national UJA, recipient of about half the campaign funds raised locally.

The other forces in the community are the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), the Federations’ coordinating body; 113 local Community Relations Councils and their overall body, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC); the National Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), and the big three “defense” agencies—the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League. Most of the religious, Zionist, and defense organizations (minus the American Jewish Committee) also sit on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which coordinates political policy decisions.

In this community, there are two ladders to power—how much money you give, as a volunteer (“lay leader”); and your standing as a professional.

What has happened in the past 10-12 years in the Jewish community in terms of women’s power as volunteers? Said Jacqueline Levine of West Orange, New Jersey, the first woman chair of the NJCRAC: “The Jewish community treated women as second-rate citizens for years. By the late 1970’s, there was more movement, but there are still many places with no women in power positions.”

Monson sees sweeping changes in the Federation picture. “The Federations— the biggest game in town—are more open to women than other organizations, and most boards are integrated,” she said. But we are still getting the ‘wives of pattern—women chosen because of their husbands’ volunteer roles. A few superwomen are stars. The [male leadership] look around and find a few women and put them on every board.”

More women are on boards of the national Jewish organizations than 10,15 years ago, said Ann Wolfe, who served as the American Jewish Committee’s National Staff Director of the Committee on the Role of Women and the organization’s Social Welfare Consultant. But, she added: “Women are still seen as window-dressing. When it comes to something really important, women are not chosen.”

The situation for women professionals is even dimmer. Said Naomi Levine, former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress and currently Vice President of External Affairs of New York University: “I have not seen any real progress in the top category in the past ten years. In fact, we’re worse off today than ten years ago.”

In smaller cities when women are given top executive positions in Federations, said Jacqueline Levine, “this is often seen as scraping the bottom of the barrel.” The salary differentials between women and men in Federations and their agencies are, in the words of Elaine Winik, president of New York UJA, “awful.” Esther Leah Ritz, president of the JWB—a former Federation president in Milwaukee and also a vice president of the CJF—attributed the poor promotional situation in the Federations to their “small universe.”

Ritz acknowledged that in the Jewish community center world, there are sometimes salary “discrepancies” but she called them “functions of longevity” and of the fact that many of the women work in nurseries, where jobs tend to be “poorly paid.”

Not one woman “surfaced” or was given serious consideration when the American Jewish Committee searched for a new executive director several years ago. Similarly, not one woman was considered for the job Naomi Levine resigned from at the American Jewish Congress in 1977.

Wolfe summed up the situation for Jewish women professionals in these words: “Ten years ago, studies showed everything was ghastly. There were meetings, studies, commissions; personnel directors were informed they should look for women. But in the past year or two there’s been a retreat from all the advances made.”

Why has there been so little movement, both for volunteers and even less for professionals, in women’s achieving positions of power in the Jewish community? The reasons that emerged from extensive interviews fell into these categories: the structure of the community and its criteria for selecting leadership; men’s opposition; and women’s behavior.

The major factor, of course, is the lack of democracy in the community. In contrast with Jewish communities in Latin America, Canada, and Western Europe, there are no elections in the U.S. Jewish community for leaders who would execute rather than ignore the will of the majority. “With all the talk by Jewish ‘leaders’ that people should get jobs on the basis of merit, this criterion does not apply in Jewish organizational life,” said one observer.

People become Jewish “leaders” not because of brains, good deeds, vision, or commitment but on the basis of the amount of their contributions and their power and status in the general society. Men have wealth and power, and women lack these in sufficient quantity and quality to matter. Men therefore become the community’s “leaders.”

The size of the contribution matters. Until just a few short years ago, the Major Gifts dinners in one large eastern city did not even admit women, and the dinner menus actually read “Restricted to Men.”

But it’s not only the money people give that nets them power in the Jewish community. Betsy Ribakoff Gordon of Philadelphia, immediate past chair of .the UJA Young Women’s Leadership Cabinet, told participants in a recent YWLC retreat that positions of responsibility are “often determined. . . by access to money. The person chosen to be campaign chair or Federation president may ‘control’ major gifts in the community, usually through business. . . .”

Another factor in women’s lack of advancement is that the entire promotional system is male, said Rela Geffen Monson. “It’s a network of men suggesting other men.”

The way the “old-boy network” operates in Jewish organizations derives from how volunteers and professionals inter-relate. Professionals control a lot of the agenda in Jewish life and shape its priorities; the lay people don’t have the time and don’t stay on for long in specific positions, while the professionals do.

Therefore, while the lay leaders make the ultimate decisions—for example, the Federation president appoints the chairpersons of the campaign (outside New York) and of the allocations committee— the professionals often recommend who gets selected for nominating committees and other lay leadership positions, and who gets trained for leadership. The executive director may even have great influence in who gets chosen as Federation president, and is sometimes more powerful than the president. The executive director is also in charge of administration—hiring and firing.

In the volunteer sphere, said Monson, “there is no broad-based grooming of women for leadership like there is of men.” Male Federation leaders in local communities pick other men from Young Leadership groups, recommend them for further training and for the National Young Leadership Cabinet, which is all-male.

Gordon claims that leadership is not being drawn from the Women’s Cabinet. “Not one Cabinet graduate—not even a chair—has been invited to become a national officer of the UJA. . . . [Nor has the Women’s Cabinet] successfully provided a conduit for our members into the area of decision-making and power at UJA.”

The very existence of the Women’s Cabinet of the UJA, the Women’s Divisions of the UJA/Federation campaigns, and women’s auxiliaries generally points up another factor in women’s lack of power. Women are “invisible”—they are mostly doing their thing in what sociologist Daniel Elazar called “a segregated environment” which “serves to exclude women from what many regard as the circle of real power and decision-making within the community.”

In the professional sphere, it is, again, men who do the hiring, and they prefer to hire men.

With men being the leading volunteers and executive directors, and each recommending to and influencing the other as to who gets trained, groomed, hired and promoted, the system, said Ann Wolfe, “is locked in concrete—nothing can move it.”

The second factor preventing women from having access to positions of power is the opposition of the men in power, which ranges from passive resistance to outright hostility. Said Wolfe: “The point of view of the men in the organized Jewish community hasn’t moved one bit. Most men are comfortable being in power and haven’t budged. The most telling sign that Jewish men haven’t moved is that in public meetings on issues relating to women, men simply don’t show up.”

The double standard for choosing female and male leaders also goes beyond the amount of money contributed. Mimi Alperin, who wears two hats at the American Jewish Committee—(volunteer) chairperson of its Inter-religious Affairs Committee and member of its Board of Governors, and (professional) Project Coordinator of its Oral History Library—believes “men are asked to participate in terms of the potential amount they will give, but women have to prove themselves first.” Men’s resistance also appears in the double standard they have toward assertive people. “Women who are very assertive will be criticized, men admired,” said Alperin.

Many men go out of their way to treat women, particularly up-and-coming women, in a sexist manner. A professional woman in Los Angeles told a meeting of women volunteers and professionals: “As I walked into this meeting with a female colleague, one of the male department heads in the campaign department chucked me under the chin and said, ‘hello, girls’. If you were a man in the leadership and you met me would you trust me with your money, or would you look upon me as a person with the credentials to help in the development of a campaign?”

Men’s resistance to women’s advancement also takes the form of excuses, particularly in the case of professional women, such as these: “It’s tough for newcomers to break in” (when there were many competent women already in that field, waiting to move up); “women don’t want to work at night” (an oldie but goodie); and, professional women, unlike men, lack “mobility”— they are less likely than men to leave town if a better job beckons. This mobility argument was also advanced by CJF president Shoshana Cardin and JWB president Esther Leah Ritz (“to move up you need to move away”).

A very specific case of men’s resistance concerns Orthodox men. Said Ritz, who was president of her Jewish community center and her Federation in Milwaukee: “If you’re a Jewish woman in leadership, sooner or later you run into problems with the Orthodox. They are not accustomed to dealing with women in decision-making relating to their activities.”

Several leaders feel that some behavior of women, both volunteer and professional, is an impediment to their advancement. Said Alperin: “Men campaign for positions, women don’t. Men say, ‘I want to be on—Commission: how much will it cost?’ Women expect something only in return for services rendered.”

Ritz talked about some of the problems women have had once they’re in powerful positions. In Milwaukee, she said, “we put more and more women on committees, but women treated them as study groups. We finally told them, ‘you’re there to get information to make decisions, not for your own fulfillment.’ This had been a carry-over from activity in women’s organizations—what decisions do you make in Hadassah: who will run the bake sale?—but this behavior is tending to disappear.”

One of the great problems, said Ritz, is women who “limit their own sights because they don’t want to compete with men.” In the same interview, however, she said she had advised women executives, at a CJF meeting, not to “look too eager” to move up.

Shoshana Cardin believes that a woman who wants a top executive position must be “committed to lead that kind of life.” She pointed to three women in Baltimore who left top executive positions in the past three years to start families. “Their vertical career mobility will be hampered” by this decision, she said.

Jacqueline Levine, asked to comment on these reasons put forth for women’s lack of professional advancement had but one thing to say: “I don’t believe in blaming the victim.”

Much has been made in recent years of “networking”—women helping other women to get ahead. In the Jewish community, however, women volunteers don’t always help other women volunteers; women professionals don’t always help other women professionals; and most significant, women volunteers certainly don’t go out of their way to help women professionals.

Monson feels it is necessary to get a “critical mass—15 to 20% of women—on nominating committiees to nominate other women to insure continuity.” But, as several women pointed out, unless these women are “sensitized,” they might not be helpful to other women. Some women volunteers resent others— especially younger women—moving up fast behind them.

Women professionals don’t seem to be reaching out to each other either. Some are apprehensive about getting together, comparing salaries and work histories, and afraid to raise issues of discrimination, even among themselves, because, in the words of one professional, “each is afraid she is not being promoted because it’s her own lack of ability—just like with sexual harassment on the job, when each woman felt it was her own fault.”

In some organizations, such as the UJA, people have such fear of losing their jobs that they don’t even meet with each other. Nor are there, as a rule, organizational vehicles for city-wide meetings of women professionals in the Jewish field. One such meeting was organized a short while ago in Washington, D.C. “After the meeting, the women were so afraid that they all reported about it to their superiors. They were ordered never to go to any such meeting again and they never did,” said a woman professional in that city.

Both Naomi Levine and Jacqueline Levine (no relation) favor affirmative action, which Jacqueline Levine stressed does not mean quotas as some people in the Jewish community believe or prefer to believe. It means, she said, ensuring that the best-qualified women will be in the running, scouting around in a wide field, and doing as much as possible to see that women are better trained.

Naomi Levine believes that professional women within an agency should get together, study and compare male and female salaries, jobs and promotions and then discuss affirmative action plans with the agency’s head. If no action has been taken within a certain agreed-on period, she continued, the women should be prepared to resort to the legal process.

Over the years, there have been many rumors of women professionals in Jewish organizations gathering material on their organization’s discriminatory practices, preparatory to a lawsuit before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). None of these putative lawsuits have ever gotten behind the gestation period. “Women are unsure, frightened, hopeful things will happen in time—and not prepared to fight,” said Naomi Levine.

“The Jewish woman grows up with the values of helper rather than leader. Many women feel they are working for their commitment, and are conflicted over fighting for what they deserve,” said Evan Bayer, director of field operations, American Jewish Congress. Others, hired in mid-life at lower salaries than men after working as volunteers (a current practice in many social service agencies), are not sure they do deserve more.

The key importance of the volunteer leaders’ involvement in helping advance women professionals was stressed by both volunteers and professionals. Said one volunteer: “More and more women volunteers have to put themselves on search committees; of course, this does not necessarily mean they will be positive to the hiring of women.” Volunteer women, said one professional, “are usually not accepting of women executives—they are threatened by them.”

In fact, the relationship between women volunteers and professionals often assumes the dimensions of a class struggle—inchoate and undeclared as it may be—fought in the psychological arena. The volunteer women, all upper and upper-middle class, both look down upon and envy the women who work for a living. The (middle class) professionals both look down upon and resent the volunteers. Sometimes, to avoid the entire inevitable struggle, women volunteers hire male executives.

Naomi Levine feels that “most volunteers are not concerned about advancing professional women—they don’t feel that secure in their own positions to rock the boat.” One professional cited the response of women volunteer leaders to a case of Jewish men’s social club discrimination in a large coastal city. The Jewish women lawyers went to the local Community Relations Council, which referred them to the Federation. “The women at the Federation said the issue was trivial. Some women said, ‘If you go after these clubs, we’ll lose financial support from the men.”

By far the greatest complaint is the lack of interest on the part of women volunteer leaders in what is happening with professionals on the staffs of their own organizations. One leader in a local UJA/Federation campaign pointed to the “good working relationship between volunteers and professionals” in her organization. A woman professional, formerly with that same organization, said bitterly of that volunteer and another top woman leader: “—and—were both heads of [that organization]. When they came in, the women were underpaid; and when their terms were up, the women were still underpaid. They didn’t change anything for women.”

Naomi Levine feels it is important to reach out to and mobilize support of women on the boards and ask for assistance. But—and this is a big but—the thrust must come from professionals, she said, and the prerequisite is their becoming “more aggressive, and fighting for what they want.”

What is going to “budge” men to equalize power, both for professionals and for volunteers, is a “much more revolutionary push by the women,” said Ann Wolfe. “What happened with anti-Semitism? Jews started to fight. What happened with the Blacks? A revolution went on. The same thing will have to happen in the Jewish community for these issues to get solved,” she concluded. “You are not going to do it by holding nice conferences.”

In the final analysis, the issue comes down to the old question of what is the goal of the outsiders’ group—a bigger slice of the pie or a different pie.

If the community continues the way it is, more and more wealthy and bright women will be allowed to rise to positions of limited power—if they play according to the rules of the game. This will not only exclude the capable women who refuse to play by these rules. It will also select in favor of women who will have to act to reinforce the system that enabled them to rise, in order to remain in their positions. With their goals—and methods—the same as those of the male power structure, they will not be willing or able to change the system from within.

The time has come to acknowledge that not only can the system not be changed from within, .but that it is not worth salvaging and changing; and that only a completely different system— egalitarian, democratic, open to people and ideas—can meet the needs of a community that wants to survive, flourish, and fulfill its potential.

Aviva Cantor is Managing Editor of LILITH, and author of Bibliography on the Jewish Woman, a new edition of which is in preparation by Biblio Press. She was a founding member of the Jewish Liberation Project, part of whose program was community democracy. A shorter version of this article was published by Present Tense magazine in Spring, 1984.

Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

Aviva Cantor, a journalist, originated Lilith and served as the magazine’s Founding Co-Editor during its first decade. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture and psychology (Harper, 1995), and of the self-published The Egalitarian Hagada.

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