Jewish Gathering Examines Inequities Faced by Women

Two hundred women, most of them professionals and lay leaders in the Jewish communal world, gathered here this week to study the economic disadvantages faced by American women and to begin to determine how the Jewish community should respond to the problem.

Speakers at the Women’s Economic Summit, convened jointly by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the American Jewish Congress Commission on Women’s Equality, made it clear that the economic problems with which American women grapple are many.

Some 35 other Jewish organizations also sponsored or endorsed the event, which was held Oct. 11 and 12.

Jewish women and the Jewish community have a role to play in addressing inequities that women face in the workplace, said speakers.

“We want to work through the Jewish community to address these issues in a Jewish way, and these issues also affect Jewish women,” said Diana Aviv.

Aviv is outgoing associate executive director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and will soon be working as Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations.

The economic status of American women is a concern to the Jewish community, as are myriad other domestic issues, she said.

“Conditions in society affect Jews who are directly victims in a society which is economically unstable. A society which is economically unstable is much more likely to be responsive to demagogic influences blaming Jews and blacks,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“Jewish women as a constituency have a major concern” about economic inequities, said Aviv.

In 1991, women earned just 70 percent of the wages earned by men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

And according to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, up to half of that wage gap cannot be explained by legitimate factors like differences in education or experience.

JEWISH WOMEN ASKED FOR POLITICAL INPUT

Women earn less even working in the same occupations as men, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity.

Further, the benefits most often used by female, rather than male, workers, like maternity and family leave, often are not available and when they are, are usually unpaid, said speakers at the conference.

The way Jewish women can impact economic conditions for women is to get involved politically, said speakers.

“Economics and political power are two sides of the same coin,” said Ann Lewis, chair of the AJCongress Commission for Women’s Equality and former political director of the Democratic National Committee.

“It is the political process which distributes money. If women are not at that table, our issues slide to the bottom” of the list of priorities, she said.

Lobbying elected officials is a key way in which to effect change, said Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Follow this through, she urged.

“Track legislation and voting patterns. Thank them if they vote the way they want, and reprimand them if they don’t,” she said.

Landsberg advised using “the power of religious coalitions. As religious people we have a responsibility to be a goad to the conscience of our legislators.”

“Let them know that Big Sister is watching them,” Landsberg said.

The key to changing the status quo will be in turning the activism at which Jewish women have historically been successful on behalf of Jewish issues, to advocating on behalf of issues important to women, said speakers.

“If we use the muscles we have, we can achieve everything on our agenda,” said Lewis. “We are, after all, the majority.”

“Just as the prophets did not restrain from demanding that God respond to man, we as women must not be silent or acquiescent,” said Shoshana Cardin, chairman of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

A number of speakers suggested that Jewish communal agencies should begin addressing women’s economic inequity by evaluating their own hiring, promotion, pay and benefits patterns and policies.

Speakers at the conference included two members of the House of Representatives: Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.).

Other speakers included Sylvia Barack Fishman, assistant director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University; Joyce Miller, executive director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Commission on the Glass Ceiling; and Muriel Siebert, president of Muriel Siebert and Co. Inc. and the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

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