NEW YORK, Oct. 3 (JTA) – When word got out last week that Janet Engelhart had been named executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island – making her the only woman professional at the helm of one of the 40 largest federations – she received a flood of phone calls.
Most were colleagues and friends offering congratulations. But more than five – and the ones that Engelhart found most touching – were from young women professionals at Jewish organizations asking her to be their mentor.
As Engelhart’s sudden popularity illustrates, female role models are in short supply, both in the Jewish federation world and at the highest tiers of other Jewish organizations.
But a new initiative – the first effort launched by a new federation system offshoot, the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy – is seeking to change that.
With a $1 million seed grant from Barbara and Eric Dobkin, New York philanthropists known for their support of Jewish feminist causes, the project aims to help the organized Jewish community “identify, attract, recruit, advance and retain women in management and executive positions.”
The initiative – called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community – capitalizes on another concern that has seized the attention of leaders throughout the Jewish world: the growing shortage of qualified Jewish communal professionals.
By more aggressively recruiting women, the reasoning goes, the pool of candidates will effectively double.
Jewish organizations, say the initiative’s proponents, have trailed the business world and other nonprofits in advancing women and have created a climate in which mid-level women professionals believe they must leave the field in order to advance.
“Virtually every profession and industry has moved more quickly and more effectively on opening opportunities to women at top levels than the Jewish communal world,” said Louise Stoll, chief operating officer of the federation system’s national umbrella, the United Jewish Communities.
Hired in 1999, Stoll is the first woman to hold so high a position in the federation world.
Shifra Bronznick, a consultant who helps facilitate change at not-for-profit organizations and is widely credited with designing the new initiative, points out that women hold 51 percent of all CEO posts at foundations and are growing more visible in the corporate world.
In contrast, only two of 40 major national Jewish organizations, excluding women’s organizations, are run by women, according to Bronznick.
Before Engelhart’s hire in Rhode Island, only one other woman had held a top position at a federation of that size, and it is believed that a woman has never been the top executive at any of the 19 largest federations in North America.
The new initiative seeks to persuade leaders of national, regional and local Jewish organizations to make hiring women a greater priority.
Specifically, it will create a talent bank to identify potential women candidates from within and outside the Jewish community, assist organizations seeking to recruit women, track which organizations are more successful than others at hiring and retaining women, and establish a training program for both male and female senior management candidates.
It is not clear why women are so poorly represented in top Jewish professional circles.
While there is much talk of glass ceilings and some talk of old boys’ networks, few blame the inequity on overt sexism. Indeed, many Jewish organizations say they would like to hire more women but have difficulty finding enough qualified female candidates.
However, the UJC’s Stoll said, “Resistance has been very strong” to accommodating women at top levels and that it is common to hear comments such as: “I can’t send a woman to deal with that solicitation. He’ll do better with a man.”
Stoll added: “If an ambitious woman with good skills wants to be sure she can go as far as her talents can take her, the Jewish communal world does not have role models for her, and many other worlds do. We can’t afford to block 50 percent of the working force.”
But some women in the field – while supportive of the new initiative – - suggest that it is not necessarily discrimination that dissuades women from seeking top positions.
Shula Bahat, acting executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which she said has made recent strides in recruiting women for top lay and professional roles, said she knows of several situations where women were considered for executive jobs but took their hats out of the ring to leave more time for family.
“The nurturing role of the mother is still very demanding and often is not completely compatible with higher-level professional or lay demands,” she said.
Jordana Weiss, a young federation professional with two small children, fits this profile.
Although she believes her federation is generally a supportive environment for women, she says neither she – nor her husband – wants a job that makes it so hard to fit in family time.
“Usually advancement means a lot more demands on time and evening and morning hours, which are traditionally family times,” said Weiss, who is assistant director of planning and agency relations for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
Cindy Chazan, who was the first woman to head one of the country’s large-intermediate size federations – in Hartford – said she experienced little sexism in her post.
However, Chazan, who left in 1999 for a job at the Wexner Foundation, a Jewish philanthropy, said she often felt she “had to give it 125 percent so that nobody every questioned whether hiring a woman was appropriate.”
Ultimately, she found the job’s hours and its blurring of public-private boundaries difficult to balance with her family needs.
“Often after a 12- to 14-hour workday, my second shift began,” she said, adding that “no matter how well meaning husbands or male partners might be, the bulk of the burden still falls to women.”
Chazan, who calls the new initiative “one of the best things that have come to the Jewish world in a long time,” said she hopes it encourages Jewish organizations to rethink the executive posts and make them more family-friendly.
Ironically, the concern about the dearth of women in top posts comes at a time when other Jewish spheres are reporting a shortage of men.
A recent study found that with the exception of the Orthodox world, women participate more in adult Jewish learning than men. Another study – on Jewish teens – found that boys are less likely than girls to join youth groups or attend high school religious schools.
Some have speculated about a “feminization” of Jewish life, saying that as Judaism has become more open to women, it is being devalued by – and abandoned by – men.
The new initiative’s backers say they are not worried this will happen in the upper echelons of Jewish organizations.
“I think that when wonderful leaders head up institutions everyone
wants to be a part of them,” Bronznick said.