Op-ed Gender Imbalance at Institute Calls Its Planning into Question

The Jewish Agency for Israel founded the Jewish People’s Policy Planning Institute in 2002, and mandated it, as the name suggests, to conduct policy planning for the Jewish people. Though its task was worthy, there was a certain imbalance in the institute’s composition: There was only one woman on the board. Out of a staff of 15 people, there were just two women, and they were pretty low on the totem pole.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that of the many research projects the institute has conducted, none, according to its Web site, was directed by a woman. The institute held conferences at which, according to its Web site, not one woman gave a speech or presentation.

Perhaps some women spoke, but the leaders of the institute did not think their contributions significant enough to post on the site.

Last year the institute held a conference on the future of the Jewish people. One American woman was in attendance. She is smart and brave, but hardly representative of the totality of American Jewish women.

There were two other women at the meeting, but the picture on the institute’s Web site, which lists many of the participants, doesn’t bother to identify them. As the sage Hillel said, “The rest is commentary.”

Another meeting of the institute is scheduled for this week. Again the gender imbalance is staggering.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the institute’s director general, responded to a barrage of critics by protesting that he believes in “gender equality” and that “two women were invited but one could not attend.” This is something of which he’s proud?

Ambassador Dennis Ross, lay chairman of the organization and someone who devoted countless hours to trying to bring peace to the Middle East, says the institute “is governed by a principle of inclusiveness and that women should take part in all its events.” He regrets that more women were not included in the meeting.

But this is not a new problem. The institute is four years old and, according to its own Web site, the number of women involved in any of its activities can be counted on one hand — without using all of the fingers.

The organizers are now trying to offer rationalizations as to why this happened. They claim that they only invited CEOs and people with policy-planning experience, hence the imbalance. They also are scrambling to invite some women.

How can those planning for the Jewish future be unaware of Ruth Messinger, CEO of the American Jewish World Service, who was one of those most responsible for bringing 100,000 people to Washington recently to protest genocide in Darfur?

Did they not know of Morlie Levin, CEO of Hadassah, whose organization has 300,000 members?

They were aware, it should be noted, of the male CEO of the American Jewish Congress, an organization whose membership is, I would venture to guess, far less than Hadassah’s.

What about Lynn Schusterman, one of our most “out-of-the-box” creative philanthropists; Edith Everett, a famed philanthropist and former CEO of Grunthal & Co.; and Phyllis Cook, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish endowment fund?

They did not include Judge Ellen Heller, president of the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that does crucial policy planning. They ignored or did not know of Susie Gelman, chairwoman of birthright israel; Elisa Bildner, former chairwoman of the Jewish Funders Network; and Susie Stern, campaign vice chairwoman for the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group and campaign chairwoman for N.Y.-UJA Federation.

There’s no dearth of women who would have brought much to the table. Some of them, it’s true, are not CEOs of major Jewish organizations, but that’s not by chance. As Drs. Steven M. Cohen, Sherry Israel, Shaul Kelner and Didi Goldenhar have documented in their research, women are systematically under-represented in communal positions, lay and professional, with the highest levels of prestige and influence.

In addition, Jewish women communal professionals consistently earn less than their male colleagues in similar positions, despite having similar qualifications.

Shifra Bronznick, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, the organization which sponsored the aforementioned research, has astutely recommended that when categories produce only men, the categories should be changed.

If these men did not know about these talented women, then they’re so out of touch that their deliberations are worthless. If they knew about them but chose not to invite them, then their judgment is bankrupt and their deliberations equally so.

In either case, the policies they propose for the future will be — at best — irrelevant.

The meeting is at the Wye Conference Center. Until recently it was called Wye Plantation. Holding such a meeting on a plantation may be the only appropriate thing about it.

Deborah Lipstadt is professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University and author of History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving.

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