Hadassah Finds Jewish Women in U.S. Isolated from Community
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Hadassah Finds Jewish Women in U.S. Isolated from Community

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American Jewish women feel “completely removed from today’s Jewish world,” according to a new study underwritten by Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization, and researched by sociologists at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

“Disincentives to getting involved and the everyday demands of family and work prevent many Jewish women from taking advantage of opportunities to enhance and enrich their lives through Jewish affiliation,” the study said.

The results of the study, “Voices for Change: Future Directions for American Jewish Women,” show that “American Jewish women yearn for a connection to Judaism,” said Marlene Post, Hadassah’s national president. They “delight in being with other Jewish women, yet believe that Jewish organizations and institutions – for a variety of reasons – do not fulfill their interests and needs,” she said.

Some women believe that Jewish organizations are not welcoming to newcomers or outsiders, the study found, while others perceive that Jewish organizations are overly preoccupied with fund raising and insufficiently concerned with community building.

Neither Hadassah nor the Cohen Center would release the cost of the work, which combined three types of research: a survey of extant data and research literature about Jewish women; interviews with focus groups of Jewish women; and consideration of the relevant issues by a hand-picked group of famous Jewish women in the arts, literature, politics, rabbinate and business.

These women, together with Hadassah lay leaders, formed the National Commission on American Jewish Women.

The 23 women on the commission ranged from Zoe Baird, former U.S. attorney general nominee, to Marcy Syms, president of the Syms clothing store chain, from Andrea King, Hollywood screenwriter/producer, to Devra Lee Davis, a senior adviser to the U.S. assistant secretary of health.

They met three times, beginning in October 1994, to consider the date gathered by Cohen Center researchers.

“It’s an embarrassment how little solid information there is about the American Jewish woman,” said Shulamith Reinharz, chairwoman of the Hadassah-convened commission, as well as director of the women’s studies program at Brandeis.

Each of the 14 focus groups was comprised of 15 women who shared a single common trait, such as being single, foreign-born, a convert to Judaism or mothers who stay at home.

They were selected by local Jewish organizations in a dozen cities. Some participants were Hadassah members.

One-third of the focus group members were Reform Jews, 28 percent were Orthodox and 24 percent were Conservative. Some 15 percent defined themselves as “just Jewish.”

Two-thirds were married with children at home, one-fifth were unmarried and childless, 8 percent were married with no children at home, and 5 percent were single parents.

Participants ranged in age from their 20s through their 40s.

The goal of the study, which was not designed to be statistically valid, was to put faces on the numbers, according to its authors.

“We wanted to hear what women had to say in their own words about their Jewish identity and spirituality, their involvement in Jewish and non-Jewish communities, family and work, philanthropy, feminism and Israel,” said Sylvia Barack Fishman, the Cohen Center’s senior research associate, who worked on the project.

The results revealed “these women’s pleas for welcome into the Jewish community,” said Orthodox feminist and author Blu Greenberg, a member of the commission.

Women participating in the study spoke about feeling neglected by the Jewish community and wanting to be asked to participate in communal activities, said Greenberg at the study’s unveiling here Nov. 16, at the Council of Jewish Federations’ General Assembly.

The study outlined specific action proposals in several areas, including community-building and developing professional and lay leadership in Jewish organizations.

The commission suggested establishing a mentoring program for Jewish women on college campuses throughout the country, increasing funding of formal Jewish studies programs and creating a national network of Jewish women’s student groups.

It also suggested creating a clearinghouse of information on women’s employment in Jewish organizations and agencies, comparing positions, pay, tenure, rates of hire and rates of promotion for men and for women, and using the results to advocate for gender equity in Jewish groups.

According to novelist and essayist Anne Roiphe, another member of the commission, a central lesson of the study is that “we’ve got to make more children” if there is to be such a thing as Jewish continuity. “It isn’t fine to wait unit you’re 39” to start thinking about children, she said. “Women have to have their families earlier.”

The Jewish community must “provide day care and the men who will be in there doing the fathering,” she said.

“This is not a Jewish women’s problem, but a Jewish people’s problem,” said Roiphe.

A pronounced element of the discussions in the focus groups and at the national commission meetings was the search for spirituality, which “pervaded discussions,” said Greenberg. “Women are searching for greater definition as Jews. Women want to take themselves more seriously as religious beings, which grows out of feminism,” she said.

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