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The Sheltered Workshop

Many women who find their lives oppressive, their options limited and their horizons bleak join the major Jewish women’s volunteer organizations in a legitimate—but ultimately futile—search for help. They seek a feeling of self-worth, of self-validation, an opportunity to be effective, to gain recognition, to do meaningful and useful work, to be “someone” —all the things that patriarchal society has denied women—and to ward off depression, anxiety, loneliness and alienation—all the ills that patriarchal society has engendered in women.

They join a Jewish women’s organization because they seek the warmth and extended family feeling of their own people and an acceptable way to define and express their Jewishness, a function the synagogues and major fund-raising organizations fulfill only for Jewish men.

What Jewish women volunteers find in these organizations, however, is a distorted form of occupational therapy—more occupation than therapy—designed to keep them busy with trivia and involved with a lot of time-consuming social activities. In this set-up, it is not the work (the end product which is the goal) but the working (the process) that is the organization’s real agenda, although all pretend otherwise. It is for this reason that the organizations’ issue content is thin and marginal (unlike that of volunteer organizations dedicated to changing society, where members’ commitments are to the issues). The Jewish content is also minor and pareve.

The work process itself is reminiscent of housework, with its endless repetition of boring scut work, plus interminable meetings. Instead of preparing women for work in the “real world,” in which people even get fired from jobs, the volunteer organizations are an alternative unreal world, and they mold their members to fit into this Procrustean bed. The volunteers, in short, are programmed for permanent servitude in a kind of sheltered workshop.

A sheltered workshop, by definition, is a place where the rules of the “real world” are set aside because the participants are physically or mentally handicapped and unable to function by these rules. The sheltered workshop provides a kind of haven from the harsh marketplace. For some persons who cannot be retrained to work “on the outside,” it becomes a permanent place of employment.

The vast majority of Jewish women, however, are neither physically nor mentally handicapped; nor are they, for the most part, even educationally deprived. And if they are temperamentally unsuited to “the outside,” it is largely because of their lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, a lack reinforced by these organizations’ work habits that foster dependency and inefficiency.

Many of the men on the staffs of the Jewish Establishment organizations are also temperamentally unsuited for work “on the outside” and these organizations also serve them as a kind of sheltered workshop. However, the wealthy male lay leaders who dominate these organizations—and the community itself—find it necessary and right to pay the men in their sheltered workshops. Nobody finds it necessary and right to pay the women in the sheltered workshops that are the volunteer organizations.

Women’s volunteerism is thus a form of warehousing, of keeping women safely busy at harmless tasks that do not threaten their husbands or challenge the other power relationships in the Jewish community. Women are quarantined and isolated, cut off from the money, power and status that are the male monopoly, and from the mainstream of Jewish communal/organizational life, which is the Jewish male preserve. The organizations’ female leaders collude with the Jewish Establishment’s male leaders for a common end: keeping women segregated, with a few trusted rich women running the volunteer ghetto in a way that does not threaten male power— and insures their own.

The upper-class leaders of the women’s organizations know that, given the patriarchal structure of American Jewish society, they could not hold down the same positions or be rewarded with the same status in a coed organization. But without their mass base, the leaders would not have the power and prestige they hold: like the nobles at Versailles, they derive their power from the corvee of the laborers. It is therefore in their interest to keep the women members from defecting.

They hold their members in two ways: an elitist and undemocratic system that engenders work behavior that retards rather than enhances personal growth (growing may mean growing away), and by propagandizing organizational chauvinism.

With the prime responsibility for the organization in the hands of a few women at the top, and the main administrative work done by paid professionals, the majority of the members become infantalized (not to speak of disenfranchised). These organizations are no more democratic than the male-dominated ones. As currently practiced, volunteer work reinforces rather than heals the damage society has already done to women—accentuating women’s fear of making decisions (“Selma, tuna salad or salmon salad for the luncheon, I can’t decide”), a lack of discipline (“Honey, I don’t think I’ll come in today, I’m a bit tired from that big dinner party we had last night, you do understand, don’t you?”), and terror of making a mistake, God forbid (“Girls, let’s go over this again just one more time, it can’t hurt to make sure we’ve covered every angle”).

Many women feel ashamed of joining an organization mainly to seek the sense of self-worth missing in their lives, believing that their problems are personal rather than political. The leaders know that if they can offset this feeling, the members are theirs forever. And offset it they do, with massive doses of organizational chauvinism.

The trick is to make the members believe that they are needed rather than needy, that what they are doing is necessary, invaluable and, of course (the standard, hallowed unchallengeable argument), Good For The Jews, and that only their organization can Do The Job. But—and it’s a big but— this sense of self-worth is made contingent upon their remaining in the organization. Only through identifying with the organization can the women feel OK; outside it, they are “nothing.” Sometimes this identification becomes so complete that a minor criticism of the organization is perceived as a personal attack on the member herself, on her own worth.

The inducement of guilt in those who are thinking of leaving or slacking off is also employed: members are made to feel that the work is so important that the Jewish people would go under if a member “deserted” her post. (Meanwhile no studies have ever been done in either the Jewish women’s volunteer organizations or the male-dominated Jewish Establishment to determine if any of the goals or work of any of the organizations are useful or important for Jewish survival. Nor have any cost-effectiveness studies been conducted in the volunteer organizations to determine how to accomplish some goals that may be probably necessary for Jewish continuity without the present exploitation of woman-power.)

Organizational chauvinism serves the leaders well because it distorts the fact that all the organizations are basically interchangeable and often duplicate each other’s work (and even membership lists). Members most often join not out of commitment to the organization’s vague goals but by chance — because the organization is nearby, the one a friend belongs to, or one perceived as the most prestigious group around.

Organizational chauvinism also keeps the women active in the different organizations apart from each other. Women are thus triply isolated: first, by men into the women’s volunteer ghetto; second, by the leaders into organizational mini-ghettos; and third, into loneliness fostered by competitiveness—over donations, home furnishings, clothing worn to organization functions—within the status-oriented mini-ghettos.

The fraud in volunteerism is its mystification—the creation of the myth that the members are primarily interested in the organization’s goals and work of helping others far away and not in trying to help themselves develop some sense of worth and effectiveness (and maybe find a few friends as well).

The honest pursuit of these legitimate and real goals is denied to women. They can be realized, if at all, only as minor side effects of self-sacrificing work and under the camouflage of altruism. This mystification prevents women from recognizing their own needs and those of all women, and declaring such self-help and mutual help to be the organization’s legitimate and official agenda. This, however, is feminism.

Feminism means women—and men-working together to transform society so that women will no longer be held down or held back, so that women will no longer be dominated by men, their values and their rules, and no longer programmed to self-sacrifice, to self-abnegation.

The women’s volunteer organizations arose to give women some way to cope with their crushing lack of self-worth engendered by patriarchy, but they ultimately reinforce that lack of self-esteem.

When women unite to challenge and overcome their conditioning and confront and overcome patriarchy in all its perniciousness, they begin to develop a sense of self-worth, of effectiveness, of their own power, that is real. Once this happens, women no longer seek the placebo of occupational therapy. And they stop doing time in the sheltered workshops of volunteerism.