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Southern California Task Force Wants Room at the Top For Women in Jewish Organizations

Mara Kochkba

If a man presents something, it is taken seriously. I am not listened to with anything other than politeness. Outside the Jewish community, I am respected and heard in my field. Within the Jewish community, I am not even listened to.

The provocative theme “Jewish and Female: Moving Up in Communal Life” attracted over 100 men and women to a special seminar of the Southern California Conference of Jewish Communal Workers, held in the board room of the Jewish Federation-Council of Greater Los Angeles in January.

Susan Marks, conference co-chairperson and assistant director of the Federation’s Southern Area Council, said that “the seminar was spurred on by the fact that women hold a negligible number of the many executive-level positions in the Jewish community.” Los Angeles, the second largest Jewish community in the United States, is the only one of the major Federations that has a female president, Barbi Weinberg. However, aside from the director of the Women’s Conference and the director of the Youth Department— traditionally women’s positions—there are no female department directors in the Jewish Federation-Council of Greater Los Angeles.

The most dramatic event of the program was the opening—a 15-minute tape featuring the comments of various anonymous women involved in Jewish communal work on how being female has affected their careers. It proved to be a gripping experience and served as the catalyst for the entire session.

A woman has to be twice as good to get the same job as a man—the fundraising positions which are the steppingstones to the executive level. The administration would not actively seek out a woman to fill positions now open. Those who have the responsibility for hiring don’t think in terms of women, period. They are not thinking of hiring an individual, but rather— “we need a man for that job.”

Tova Feder, the creative spirit behind the seminar, is a public relations associate on the staff of the Jewish Federation-Council. She spent some three weeks interviewing a dozen women. The tape segment was culled from over 30 hours of interviews.

I applied for a job in another community that had a fundraising component and after months of waiting, I was told that they wanted someone with more fundraising experience. I then found out that the man who got the position had even less fundraising than I did and no community organization experience. It was a very trying time and had some really sexist components…. Given a choice between a fairly competent male and a highly competent female, the male gets the job.

The tape was followed by a question-and-answer session which showed not only the excitement of the women, but the anxieties of the men. “What I am hearing,” said one man, “is that if we move women up into positions in the community, they are going to be taking the jobs away from men.”

The interest in the subject exhibited by the professional communal workers who attended resulted in the establishment of a Task Force on Women’s Issues in the Jewish Community, chaired by Esther Shapiro, director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council Extension. It will include top executives in the Federations and other Jewish agencies as well as other professional personnel on all levels.

The Task Force will explore the expanding role of women in the Jewish community and will formulate concrete means to establish definite action programs which will enhance the position of the professional women in Jewish communal service.

Susan Marks believes that the issue of women in Jewish communal life is a “crucial issue confronting leadership hierarchies in Jewish organizations across the country.” After the seminar, she said, “I don’t know where we are headed—but it will be up!”