The Locked Cabinet

The United Jewish Appeal’s National Young Leadership Cabinet is in the throes of deciding whether to change its 14-year policy of keeping women out. Within the very near future, the elite and prestigious group will either stand by its recent vote to admit women or will reverse the decision and continue to keep itself restricted to “Jewish men between the ages of 25 and 40.” (Italics added.)

The National Young Leadership Cabinet has been an obvious and glaring illustration of the fact that the United Jewish Appeal looks only to men for its top leadership. The Cabinet was created by the UJA to groom the future national leaders of this powerful multimillion-dollar philanthropy. The UJA has explained the Cabinet’s for-men-only policy on the grounds that the women have the UJA National Women’s Division with its own national board, supposedly equal to the Young Leadership Cabinet.

But while most of the men in the Cabinet have moved onward and upward—into policy-making positions on the National UJA Executive Committee and Campaign Cabinet and the chairmanship of local fund-raising campaigns, and into other positions of leadership in the Jewish community—the women have, with few exceptions, remained in the Women’s Division.

Although there have been sporadic individual complaints about Cabinet policy, and the file on women in the Young Leadership Cabinet dates back to 1971, the real push for change has come from the New York region of the Cabinet. For the past two years, New York members have nominated women to the Cabinet despite the men-only restriction. While the women nominees were rejected as ineligible, the fact that some were daughters of UJA’s biggest givers may have helped pave the way for change.

In August, the Cabinet’s Executive Committee voted nine to eight to open membership to women. Although this decision was supposed to be final, it now appears that because of the many reservations over the closeness of the vote, the decision is being reconsidered.

The Cabinet and its decision cannot be considered apart from the nature of the UJA and of local Federations, and the way they raise and disburse funds. As one deeply concerned UJA professional put it, “The Young Leadership Cabinet is the product of people selected for special pampering by the local UJA-Federation executives. The way they’re pushed through the system is part of the bigger problem of whether these organizations are the organizations we want them to be.”

The UJA is America’s major fund-raising organization for overseas Jewish needs—raising $475 million during the 1975 campaign for the United Israel Appeal, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), United Hias Service (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA). Operating on the dynamics of “fear and guilt,” as one former Young Leadership Cabinet staff member put it, the UJA considers any and all criticism a knife at the heart of the Jewish people, and does not take kindly to inquiries into its corporate workings.

The UJA receives funds raised by 229 Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds and 665 independent and combined campaigns throughout the United States. Each community’s Jewish Federation decides how much of its annual campaign proceeds to allocate to the UJA. Usually, the amount is at least half, based on an agreement between each local Federation and the National UJA reached before the start of each campaign year. (The only communities conducting separate UJA campaigns are those too small to have local Federations.)

While the actual fund-raising is done by the local Federation, the UJA campaign materials often set the tone of the campaign. In addition to providing educational materials, the UJA takes Americans on “missions” to Israel and countries with JDC projects to stimulate interest, involvement—and contributions. The UJA national campaign goal, determined by the top volunteers working with UJA professionals, is an important part of every local Federation campaign. (Jewish Federations and the UJA are primarily volunteer organizations. There are two sets of hierarchies—volunteers and professional. Generally, the top volunteer has the title of chairman, and the top professional has the title of director.)

Within the local UJA-Federation campaign, there is also a Women’s Division campaign. A great many talented and energetic women have gone into the Women’s Division, both at the local (Federation) and at the national (UJA) level.

Since its inception in 1946, the purpose of the Women’s Division has been “plus giving”—that extra amount wives give from their own money after the man of the house has given to the general campaign. This “plus giving” is no mean amount. During the past six years, the money raised by the Women’s Division has increased from $28 million in 1970 to nearly $70 million in 1975—roughly 15% of the total UJA funds.

Both young men and women are welcomed into local Federation leadership development programs. Men who do outstanding volunteer work in their local campaigns may be asked to join the UJA National Young Leadership Cabinet. Women who distinguish themselves in local campaigns may be asked to join the UJA National Women’s Division Board.

But while the National Women’s Division Board may exist at the same level in the UJA hierarchy as the Young Leadership Cabinet, few women move from the Women’s Division Board into leadership beyond the framework of “plus giving.” The women continue to have educational coffees and to approach the small givers, generally limiting themselves to married women, most of whom do not work outside the home. In contrast, the men on the Young Leadership Cabinet are considered part of a select cadre, able to solicit big givers and to help start local programs that attract future young leaders.

The Young Leadership Cabinet was first established, in October 1962, to develop a new generation of leaders from American Jews too young to have witnessed the Holocaust and the dramatic rescue and resettlement work of the UJA’s Joint Distribution Committee during and after World War II. The June 11, 1963, UJA fact sheet stated:

It is with deep gratification that the UJA, the largest philanthropic organization in the American Jewish community, can announce that with the formation of its Young Leadership Cabinet, avenues of approach have been opened to more than 6,500 young men and women with a potential for leadership throughout the country. (Italics added.)

The UJA director of public relations stated at the time that the “aim of the new program is to assure continuity of UJA’s top leadership….The UJA Leadership Cabinet’s main purpose is to serve as a stepping stone to the UJA’s senior National Campaign Cabinet.”

Somewhere between the initial statement of purpose and the selection of members, the Young Leadership Cabinet was limited to men.

These men, as planned, have gone onto UJA’s National Campaign Cabinet and Executive Committee, become chairmen of UJA-Federation campaigns, Federation presidents and synagogue presidents, along with being involved in organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington). According to the Young Leadership Cabinet’s top staff person, director David Adler, “95 percent stay very strong within the Jewish organizational framework as lay people.”

Cabinet membership offers the prestige of being among the select 224 young men chosen by local Federation and UJA leaders, usually for their commitment to the combined campaign in addition to leadership in local Jewish organizations, and, for most, their ability to make a sizable personal donation to UJA.

When it comes to high-ranking volunteer leadership in UJA, income is a major consideration. Although the Cabinet has included a sprinkling of academics and rabbis, how high “laymen” rise in the UJA hierarchy generally depends on their dedication to the cause plus the size of their contribution. In contrast to the national board of the Women’s Division, where donations range from $500 to $30,000, recent contributions form members of the Young Leadership Cabinet ranged from the lowest one, $2,500, up to several of $100,000 and one of $275,000.

Cabinet membership is considered a serious commitment. The men are expected to go on Cabinet “missions” to Israel, serve as leaders in their local campaigns, implement Cabinet programs in their communities, attend regional Cabinet meetings plus UJA national and regional conferences and the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (the Federations’ umbrella organization), all at their own expense.

Part of the mystique of the Cabinet is its all-male retreat before the start of each year’s campaign. Not only Cabinet members but their wives, too, have come to regard the retreat as a special experience resulting in the men’s returning home spiritually renewed.

The retreat features seminars on conditions affecting world Jewry, especially Israel, intense comradeship expressed in singing, dancing and praying together. The core of the retreat is the soliciting sessions where half a dozen men get together, give a total accounting of their income and financial responsibilities, then make pledges that are expected to be at the sacrificial level. They are then ready to go out and solicit corporate counterparts for equally generous contributions.

The emotionally-charged atmosphere of the retreats has long been cited by UJA people as the reason for excluding women from the Cabinet. Women’s attendance at these retreats, they said, would lead to extramarital affairs. While some Cabinet members are still worried, the general response now, as expressed by this past year’s regional Cabinet chairman from New York, Stephen Offerman, is: “You’re talking about guys who are on the road two to three days a week. If the guy’s going to mess around, he already has plenty of opportunity.”

The women concerned, either as wives of Cabinet members or as possible nominees to the Cabinet, are divided in their response to this issue. JoAnn Alter, who was nominated to the Young Leadership Cabinet from New York before women were eligible and whose husband has been active on the Cabinet, when asked about the possibility of affairs, said, “It’s really pathetic if the local constituencies can’t pick people serious enough.”

Laura Schwartz, 30, one of the single women previously nominated to the Cabinet, and who sells insurance for Mutual of New York, said, “The idea that somebody would think I was going on a retreat to make out with her husband is insulting.” Schwartz feels that, “The main concern about affairs came from the wives of Cabinet members. It would be self-defeating if that happened. We’d be proving them right.”

Other concerns voiced by UJA people as reasons for excluding women from the Cabinet were:

• It would destroy the Cabinet’s esprit de corps and turn it into a social club.

• The men in the Cabinet would oppose this because American men “like to see their wives on the tennis court,” not at Cabinet meetings (this from Cabinet director Adler, an Israeli).

• The Cabinet’s work is “too important” to endanger it by involving it in the issue of women’s rights (this fear voiced by Linda Abromson, wife of the Cabinet’s new chairman).

Doris Howard, a psychologist familiar with the issues, considered the men’s concern about extramarital affairs at the retreats “a red herring for their real fears.” She felt that “to some extent, the men on the Cabinet fear that if women are allowed in the Cabinet, they will control it. In their arguments against women at Cabinet retreats, they are trying to maintain control, keep the upper hand.

“They are afraid of cooperating with women as peers and they are diverting attention away from the real issue,” she continued. “What they should all be thinking about is that this is a radical change—how will women really feel when they get into the Cabinet and what will they want to do. These men are not used to working with assertive, independent women. They’re used to women as wives, mothers and secretaries.”

The fear lingers that including women will “pull down” the level of Cabinet giving and that women won’t be able to solicit corporate executives as effectively as is done in man-to-man soliciting. As Cabinet director Adler put it, “The raison d’etre is fund-raising and it’s a man’s corporate world.”

One of the major concerns of Cabinet members is that if women without their own income join, it may be awkward to solicit them for their husbands’ income. Elizabeth Varet, one of the women previously nominated from New York, is the daughter of investment banker and UJA honorary chairman William Rosenwald, and niece of Adele Rosenwald Levy, founder and patron of the UJA Women’s Division. Varet pointed out: “Some people are solicited for their father’s income or their wife’s income. We’re not interested in where the money’s coming from but where it’s going.”

Barbara Faske, assistant director of the Young Leadership Cabinet— a woman executive working for the men-only Cabinet she is ineligible to join—was the staff person in the diplomatically most difficult spot. After the vote to admit women, Faske felt free to speak honestly: “As a woman, “she said,’ ‘I used to choke at their reasons for not having women on the Cabinet.”

Of course, there is the argument against tokenism in opening the Cabinet to women, a possibility mentioned by the directors of both the Cabinet and the Women’s Division. Cabinet chairman I. Joel Abromson thinks the Cabinet will “pretty much stay only men because the UJA is split into two divisions— the Women’s Division and the men’s division. That’s not what it’s called, but that’s what it is.”

One of the main reasons given by UJA people for keeping the Cabinet locked to women interested in the high-level, intensive, personalized fund-raising it emphasizes, has been that the UJA National Women’s Division with its own national board was the “female counterpart” of the Young Leadership Cabinet. Young women considering the Women’s Division unsuitable for them were told by its professionals that they did not understand the structure of the UJA and that what was important was raising money.

The fact that a growing number of young, often financially independent women want to join the Cabinet rather than the Women’s Division raises questions about the future direction of the National Women’s Division with its regional and state structures. Many younger women tend to see the Women’s Division as a place for their mothers and grandmothers. And much of the programming, with fund-raising luncheons, bridge and tennis tournaments and educational teas and coffees, takes place during the day, which rules out women who work outside the home.

Laura Schwartz shies away from “the gray ladies having luncheon.” She said, “I can’t see myself having lunch in a hotel with 300 women devoted to charity during the day and to their husbands at night. I see the purpose of the Women’s Division but not for me.” Schwartz has the intense dedication that any division of UJA or the Jewish Federation would be glad to get. She’s accustomed to putting in four or five evenings a week for the New York UJA-Federation joint campaign and was chairman of its Young Leadership Division.

Schwartz was recently named a trustee of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Greater New York but thinks the monthly meetings won’t give her enough day-to-day involvement. “I’m hooked for the rest of my life,” she said. “I was worried there’d be no place for me since I didn’t want to go into the Women’s Division.”

She also does not see a place for herself in the trade divisions of campaign fund-raising, the groups organized by business and profession which range from Jewish doctors, lawyers, teachers, and social service workers to music publishers, travel agents, and Jews in the construction, scrap metal and the shoulder-pad industries. Schwartz feels that since “the trade divisions are mainly run by the well-established community leaders, it’s hard for young people to have influence.”

In contrast, Rigmor Offerman, who hopes women will be serving on the Young Leadership Cabinet along with her husband, Stephen, felt the Women’s Division fills a real need. Swedish-born, Offerman has made her own adjustments to American suburban life with her husband and their five children. She said, “In the suburbs, men commuting an hour each way have very little time to be involved in terms of Jewish identity. We have an entrance through the back door, getting husbands involved through their wives.”

Within the framework of the Women’s Division, Offerman would like to see changes, such as a more intellectual approach to Jewish identity and more training in campaign solicitation. She wants to “borrow the blueprint” of Young Leadership Cabinet for her local UJA-Federation Women’s Division.

“I don’t think there’s been a great degree of response on the upper levels of the Women’s Division,” she said, “but I feel that anything proving to be a success has to be responded to positively.” She would like to see a vehicle comparable to the Young Leadership Cabinet in the Women’s Division but thinks “it will take time for the Women’s Division to shift.”

Adler Suggested that the Young Leadership Cabinet is not “an adequate framework” for women: “They should have their own peer group. They need to start from a young women’s leadership cabinet to a young women’s division with programs in conjunction with the men’s Young Leadership Cabinet.”

It was, in fact, the Women’s Division’s apparent unwillingess to start a young women’s cabinet that convinced the Young Leadership Cabinet’s Executive Committee that they would have to open the Cabinet to women. In the words of R. Alan Rudy, chairman of the Young Leadership Cabinet during the past year: “I would still, rather than take a chance tinkering with something that works, prefer that women have their own program, but that doesn’t appear to be happening.”

Enough Cabinet members seem to share Rudy’s outlook that the vote to include women in the Cabinet may have been, in part, the right decision for the wrong reason: an attack on the Women’s Division rather than a realization that the Young Leadership Cabinet had no business considering itself the source of future leaders if it excluded women.

Elaine Siris Winik is currently chairman of the Greater New York Special Gifts Division of the UJA-Federation Joint Campaign, vice chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, and a past chairman and current president of the National Women’s Division. Winik considers the current criticism of the Women’s Division coming from Cabinet members to be based on “men’s pride: it’s easier not to like the Women’s Division.” She suggested the men would like to “save the money” spent on the Women’s Division budget. She still believes in a “separate Women’s Division because it produces more money.”

As to women’s complaints that the Women’s Division doesn’t offer them as much as the Young Leadership Cabinet, Winik said, “When we see young talent, we tend to salivate copiously. A lot of young women want in on their own terms. But 60 million bucks from the Women’s Division is a lot of money. You have to prove yourself a little bit before you destroy the structure. While UJA has its male chauvinist aspects, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath. The baby is too goddamn important.”

One of three women on UJA’s National Executive Committee, Winik takes a broad view of the current rumblings for change in the Young Leadership Cabinet. Rather than seeing women in the Cabinet as a threat to the Women’s Division, she said,

“The more human beings we get involved, the better. Not allowing women in the Cabinet was a glaring omission, and I’m glad it’s changed. I just hope a woman won’t be accepted because she’s somebody’s wife but because of herself. I hope the Cabinet will be feeding women into the Women’s Division.”

Both the volunteers and staff of the Young Leadership Cabinet and the UJA National Women’s Division tend to see Cabinet wives as the women most likely to join the Cabinet. Said Barbara Faske, “We’re at the beginning. I’m hopeful that the men are sophisticated enough to accept a woman on her own merits, not just as the wife of a Cabinet member. If a man sees that his wife isn’t accepted, I hope he’ll be able to say, ‘My wife isn’t right for the Cabinet. His wife is.’

“Eventually women will be in the forefront of the Cabinet, simply because they have the time. If you look at the leadership development programs, the men may hold the title ‘founder of,’ but the women are running it.”

Stephen Offerman, one of the Cabinet members credited with being most concerned about including women, considers it obvious that “the driving, motivating forces, the people really carrying the ball for leadership development in New York, were for the most part women.

“It would be absurd to feel we were really representing our constituency when that constituency was at least equally women,” he said. And, moral considerations aside, “There’s so much work to do, it’s asinine to think we could go ahead and not utilize half the Jewish population.”

While decisions of the Young Leadership Cabinet’s Executive Committee are final, the vote to admit women is turning out to be open to reversal. Cabinet chairman Abromson says that many of the men who favored admitting women would pefer that women have their own young leadership cabinet.

Abromson feels it was a “tremendous oversight” that Cabinet members met only with Eve Weiss, the professional head of the UJA Women’s Division, who, he said, was not interested in adding a young women’s cabinet to the Women’s Division. Abromson said he plans to meet with the lay leader of the UJA National Women’s Division, Sylvia Hassenfeld, who, according to Abromson, “has offered any help she can give—either to accept women onto the Cabinet or set up a young women’s cabinet.” Abromson, who chaired the Executive Committee meeting where the vote was taken, added, “If I had to break a tie, I’m honestly not sure how I would vote.”

Commented psycholgist Howard: “The men on the Young Leadership Cabinet are pitting women against each other, heightening splits between women in the Women’s Division and women not attracted to that division, in order to protect their own interests.”

UJA’s top professional, executive vice chairman Irving Bernstein, considers the issue “not a matter of allowing women into the Cabinet but whether or not these programs can continue if you change the nature of the groups. Maybe if the Young Leadership Cabinet should allow women, the Women’s Division should allow men. The groups are not based on sex but on fund-raising. There’s lots of young leadership in the Women’s Division. The future of the community is in the Women’s Division since the future is in the home.”

Bernstein, who was not directly involved in the Cabinet’s decision, does not consider it a moral issue but “simply a matter of whether they want a young men’s division or a couples’ division.” Apparently, single women or married women with their own identity do not exist for the UJA when the subject is leadership.

Younger women and men are increasingly interested in combined fundraising efforts, moving away from the old male-female divisions of fundraising labor. Change is taking place as more women broaden their definitions of what makes a meaningful contribution to the cause. Rather than being an issue of whether or not to volunteer, the concern is finding a more high powered framework for women who have outgrown local UJA-Federation leadership development programs and want the satisfaction of going for the big money, working alongside men who have the aura of success both in business and Jewish organizational leadership, and being part of the group selected for future leadership.

Since raising money for overseas Jewish needs is UJA’s reason for being, women eager for top-level leadership and high-powered fund-raising as part of the elite Young Leadership Cabinet can only be good for the cause.

At the same time, the major Jewish philanthropy, the organization whose slogan is “We Are One,” still has a long way to go when one of the more enlightened members of its Young Leadership Cabinet can joke, “I think women should have equal opportunity, equal rights at every level—as long as they know their place.”  

Suggested for further reading:

  • The Changing (?) Role of Women in Jewish Communal Affairs: A Look into the UJA” by Steven M. Cohen, Susan Dessel, Michael Pelavin in The Jewish Women – New Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth Koltun (Schocken Books).
  • “No Room at the Top” by Ann G. Wolfe in National Council of Jewish Women, January, 1976
  • “Today’s Jewish Woman: The Challenge of Change” by Vera S. Margolis in Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Winter, 1975

 Amy Stone is Senior Editor of Lilith.