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The Volunteer Sphere

In December 1972, Jacqueline Levine, then president of the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress, called upon the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) to grant women access to the “highest levels of decision-and-policy-making” within the organized American Jewish community. In the nearly 15 years since her milestone address Levine, currently Chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), maintains that “there has certainly been improvement in the position of women in the lay community, although there is still a long way to go.” She pointed to the following data:

In 1972 only 14% of the people on the board of any Federation or Federation-funded agency were women; today it averages about 40%.

The latest survey showed that women constituted 25% of Federation Board members, an average 22.7 of Executive Committee members, and an average 19.8% of Campaign Cabinet members.

17% of Federation presidents are female—as contrasted with none in 1972. Women have been chosen Federation presidents in Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Omaha, Toledo and San Jose, among other places.

There are only four women on UJA’s national board. Only four of the 37 “vice-chairmen” are female.

Only three major national organizations have women presidents: NJCRAC with Jacqueline Levine; the National Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) with Esther Leah Ritz of Milwaukee; and (CJF), the umbrella structure for 200 Federations in the U.S. and Canada, with Shoshana Cardin of Baltimore.

Most observers attribute the advances made by women volunteers in recent years to a combination of new economic realities and changing attitudes of both men and women as a result of the feminist movement. Said Sue Stevens, Director of the Women’s Division of the CJF: “Ten years ago women were reluctant to admit that they wanted power. Now women have specific goals . . . they are demanding higher positions and they are getting them.”

Finally, the critique made by the feminist movement of the entire entire volunteer structure—which has been charged with relegating women to menial, unrewarding tasks while men perform the “real” work of society1978)—has led many women volunteers to demand meaningful work in American Jewish organizations. As Jacqueline Levine put it, “It’s harder now to get top-ranking volunteers, and equality of treatment is the only way to get them.”

Many communal observers predict that as women enter the paid work force in greater numbers, they will occupy more high-level Federation positions, for which the major qualification has long been ability to give and to solicit large-scale contributions. A 1983 report of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles pointed out, however, that women still earn “consistently less” than men, and that a family’s donation is still assumed to be the man’s.

Women’s participation has been found to be greatest in smaller communities. A 1980 survey sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Jewish Comittee and the National Council of Jewish Women found that while women constitute 28% of Board members of the city’s Jewish organizations, men constituted 100% of the executive directors, 96% of presidents, and an average 90% of executive committee members in local organizations with more than 500 members. The Pittsburgh survey also revealed that women often continue to be concentrated in traditionally “female” Federation committees such as education and programming rather than budget or finance. The post of Federation treasurer consistently goes to a man, added sociologist Dr. Rela Geffen Monson.

Reena Sigman Friedman is News Editor of LII.ITH and the author of articles in various other American Jewish publications. A doctoral candidate in American Jewish History at Columbia University and a Y1VO Fellow, she teaches Modern Jewish Thought at Gratz College in Philadelphia. Some of the research for the reports she authored and co-authored in these pages appeared in her article “Jewish Women: The Struggle for Liberation,” in the Aug-Sept. 1984 Issue of Jewish Frontier.