Cracking The Glass Ceiling


Citing a "glass ceiling" in Jewish communal life that has prevented women from advancing to leadership positions in national Jewish organizations and large city federations, the newly created Trust for Jewish Philanthropy has announced that its first initiative will be to tackle the gender gap.

To help the project get off the ground, the philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, who founded and chairs Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC of the Upper West Side, said she and her husband, Eric, are donating $1 million in seed money.

David Altshuler, president of the trust, says the issue of the glass ceiling kept coming up during his travels across the country and in Israel in search of issues that philanthropic dollars might best address.

"Jews didn’t invent the term ‘glass ceiling,’" he said, "but we saw some significant concerns. We are going to try to address them to make sure that women in Jewish communal service can be promoted, benefited and advanced so that we can ensure that the highest quality people come into the field."

Shifra Bronznick, a change management consultant, said the trust’s efforts would be an outgrowth of work she has been doing for Ma’yan.

"We have been focused on educating the community to begin to recognize the advancement of women as a priority on the communal agenda," she said. "It is important to have a project that would bring women’s talents into the Jewish world."

Dobkin, who is donating $1 million toward the initiative, said the project will be a "continuation of our work. We are trying to create change in the Jewish community so that it is more inclusive of women. And the opportunity to work with an organization that has the kind of national reach of the trust was too exciting to pass up."

Bronznick said the trust’s project, called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, is designed to "build a more vital Jewish community by enabling our institutions to offer an equitable, productive and fulfilling work environment for communal professionals. … Right now the Jewish community has one hand tied behind its back in seeking to fill its top posts."

In a report for the trust, which was created this year by the United Jewish Communities, Bronznick pointed out that women don’t head any of the 19 large city Jewish federations. She said also that women are at the helm of only two of the top 47 federations in the United States. One of them, Janet Englehart, was only appointed last month to head the federation in Providence, R.I.. Another woman serves as an interim replacement in Boca Raton, Fla.

Of the 40 national Jewish organizations examined in a 1997 study commissioned by Ma’yan to study the role of women in the Jewish community, Bronznick said that only two now have women CEOs. They are the Debra DeLee at Americans for Peace Now, and Hannah Rosenthal of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

"It is important to note that there are other women who head national Jewish organizations and were not in that original group of 40 organizations," said Bronznick. "They include Ruth Messinger at the American Jewish World Service; Joan Rosenbaum at the Jewish Museum; Marlene Provizer of the Jewish Fund for Justice, and Evan Mendelson of the Jewish Funders Network."

The study also found that more than half of the 30 national organizations answering a survey question on compensation "did not have even one woman in the five highest salaried positions," Bronznick said. "Part of the trust’s project will ask organizations to submit data on the status of women professionals in their organization and it will publish the results. … The [trust’s] Advancing Women project will seek to eliminate the barriers that have brought about this dramatic imbalance," she said.Louise F. Stoll, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the United Jewish Communities, said there is "hardly a woman in professional life" over the age of 40 who has not encountered the glass ceiling.

"Women under 40 are probably having it easier because attitudes are changing and progress has been made because of the pioneering work of some of us who had thick boots and kicked through the glass ceiling," said Stoll, 61. "The glass ceiling is a very colorful expression for what is a set of both institutional and personal elements that prevent women from getting to the top management levels of organizations, whether private, public or non-profit. … Having all the merit in the world didnít seem to be enough to get you there."

Stoll said the women’s liberation movement 30 years ago helped to tear down those barriers. Today, for instance, women make up half the entering class in law schools. And in 1993, women comprised 42 percent of the top political appointees of the Clinton White House. Stoll was one of them, being appointed assistant secretary for budget and chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"But you still don’t see so many women at the top of the Jewish communal world," said Stoll, despite the fact that women fill the ranks of middle level and entry level slots.

"Women tend not to stay beyond seven to 10 years and don’t get pushed close to the top where they could be considered for the top spot. I don’t have the answer why."

She said this is one of the issues the trust would explore when it begins its work in February. In addition, Stoll said the project would "establish principles to guide communal leaders in how to achieve gender equality in hiring and advancement." And it also plans to create a talent bank to identify promising Jewish women professionals who are capable of assuming top executive positions.

Alisa Rubin Kurshan, vice president of UJA-Federation of New York and the senior woman in the organization, said that although she did not experience a glass ceiling because of "supportive mentors and supervisors," she is "keenly aware of how few [women] peers and role models I have."

"I applaud all the efforts to cultivate and nurture professional Jewish women to assume leadership positions in the Jewish communal world," she added.