NEW YORK (JTA) – Can we talk about gender? Again? Or maybe not.
We have been having a conversation in the Jewish community about gender for more than three decades. During that time there have been some remarkable changes: the ordination of women rabbis, the proliferation of egalitarian prayer services and bat mitzvah as a rite of passage.
In addition, at least six major organizations and institutions have elected women as board presidents for the first time, including AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Women philanthropists and entrepreneurs are launching new organizations. More women are featured on panels and publications as intellectuals, academics and writers.
So why do we still need to talk about gender?
Because in a critical aspect, the gender gap still persists in the Jewish community.
Jewish women professionals have done better outside of Jewish organizational life than inside. Jewish women are making laws in the U.S. Senate, deciding great issues on the U.S. Supreme Court, presiding over Ivy League universities and directing some of the nation’s largest philanthropies.
Yet major Jewish organizations, though staffed predominantly by women, are still led professionally by men – from the 20 largest Jewish federations to the national institutions focused on Jewish education, community relations, social service, public policy and Israel advocacy.
With the exception of some local agencies, Jewish women’s groups and a sprinkling of general organizations, including the American Jewish World Service, the Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Israel Project, every national Jewish organization and every religious institution is directed by a man.
Jewish community organizations have resisted tackling gender-related issues that are on the agenda in the corporate world, academia and other professions: equitable salary and compensation, parental leave, policies that promote flexible work arrangements and professional development that supports women’s advancement throughout their careers.
For many years, the strategy for closing the gender gap was to keep talking. Talk to the CEOs. Talk to board members to convince them to champion change. The message was the same one that applied to every other field and profession: Organizations need to become true meritocracies and take full advantage of the talent pool. Diversity in leadership contributes to an organization’s effectiveness – externally by connecting to more segments of the community, and internally by generating a broader set of perspectives and ideas.
While a few exceptional, forward-thinking CEOs and board chairs have engaged these issues, most of them prefer to provide stability and order rather than manage the disruption that would be generated by throwing over the deeply held tradition of male dominance in Jewish organizational life.
Systemic change will not come with talk. It requires action, individual steps by committed people in and outside of those organizations and at different levels to close the gap between the espoused values of gender equity and the current reality. But taking those steps, catalyzing deep change, requires skill and courage.
Changing traditions and values that have been in place for generations will take a long time. That’s why it is so important to start now.
The time for talk is past. If everyone who espouses a commitment to gender equity in Jewish life continues to do what they have been doing, nothing will change.
Let’s move to action now, make more progress than we have in the past toward a future Jewish community in which people from every generation and corner of the organization will join the conversation about the Jewish future – a Jewish community where women truly share leadership with men.
(The writers are the authors of a new book, “Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life,” a resource guide aimed at Jewish organizations that are ready to launch gender equity initiatives.)