Activists Create a Stir with Hoot for Radical Change in Jewish World
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Activists Create a Stir with Hoot for Radical Change in Jewish World

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They dressed up like owls, but whether they’re wise is in the eye of the beholder.

Last Friday, several women dressed in purple-and-black owl costumes, members of the activist group known as Jewish Women Watching, handed out “anti-awards” to several major Jewish organizations outside the offices of the United Jewish Communities in New York.

The issue first heated up when the group accused two Jewish newspapers in New York, the Forward and the New York Jewish Week, of censorship after they refused to print advertisements submitted by the group that outlined the activists’ grievances.

The “Greasy Latke Awards” are just the latest in a series of digs handed out over the past several years by the group for what it perceives to be the “sins” of the organized Jewish world, including sexism and homophobia.

Among the groups cited were several of the Jewish community’s major players.

The North American Jewish federation system was blasted “because the l9 largest Jewish federations in the country are run by men.” The award went on to say, “Thanks guys, for shutting us out, proving that even in the 21st century, women still can’t climb to the top of the decision-making ladder.”

No one disputes the fact about the 19 federations, but many involved in the federation movement say it is making strides to address the problem.

“There’s a strong desire on the part of the UJC and top national leadership to see this system change,” said Jacob Solomon, the executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Shifra Bronznick of New York is trying to help make this change happen.

Her organization, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, will be releasing a report early next year on the systemic problems that keep the glass ceiling in place.

“I know that change takes a long time,” said Bronznick, whose group receives some of its funding from the UJC.

“I know that change takes longer than we want it to take. I know that change has to be collaborative. It’s not like here’s this recipe — this is how you do it.”

But, Bronznick said, people involved in the federation movement are beginning to realize that their culture has to change if gender equity is going to become more than a dream.

Jewish Women Watching also condemned the UJC, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations, for accepting a $1.5 million donation from evangelical Rev. John Hagee of San Antonio, who the group says is anti- gay, anti-abortion and anti-Muslim.

Responding to the attack, Glenn Rosenkrantz, a spokesman for the UJC, said in a statement, “Hagee’s congregants very generously support Jewish federation campaigns to preserve the vitality of Israel and aid Israelis facing significant challenges to their lives and livelihoods posed by Palestinian terrorists.”

Michael Steinhardt, the philanthropist, was blasted for spending “millions to send privileged students to Israel and uses his financial power at Hillel to prioritize kosher sushi rolling parties over a social justice agenda.”

During the past decade, Steinhardt has been a major funder of Jewish life, including birthright israel, the program that provides free trips to Israel for young adults; Hillel; and synagogue and education renaissance.

Steinhardt declined to comment on the group’s accusations.

While the group raises the issue of women’s representation in the Jewish world, there is disagreement over whether its tactics– and especially its anonymity — are effective.

Editors of both the Jewish Week and the Forward cited the group’s anonymity — the identities of its members are unknown, and the group’s only contact information is its Web site, — as reasons for declining the ad.

“Who are they? What’s their address? Who do you phone? Who do you talk to,” J.J. Goldberg, the Forward’s editor, asked rhetorically. “We want a name and an address when we take an ad.”

Goldberg said he also refused an Op-Ed submitted by the group because it made ad hominem accusations, again anonymously, and that discussing the issues this way “is one of the plagues of Jewish public discourse these days.”

On its Web site, the group says its anonymity is part of its strength.

“Jewish Women Watching aims to rouse the public to challenge and change the sexist and other discriminatory practices in the American Jewish community,” the group says on its Web site. “We use biting satire and real-life facts to criticize our community’s narrow-minded priorities. Jewish Women Watching remains anonymous to focus attention on the issues — not ourselves.”

Goldberg and Rosenblatt, the editor of the Jewish Week, also said their papers aren’t afraid to report on the issues the group raises.

“They say we’re afraid to run this, saying it’s too incendiary. There isn’t anything that we haven’t reported on,” Goldberg said.

By employing such accusatory sound bites, the group has the “effect of marginalizing and to some extent discrediting both themselves and, more importantly, these issues they are trying to promote,” Solomon of the Miami federation said.

A leading Jewish feminist, however, said the group’s actions serve a useful purpose.

“They boldly say aloud, and in some of their press releases and statements what others are ruminating on privately,” said Susan Weidman Schneider, the editor in chief of Lilith magazine. “It’s not that these issues may not be addressed at a board meeting or behind closed doors, but what I think they are saying here is that they believe these things are totally outrageous.”

Weidman Schneider said she used to have a problem with the group’s anonymity, but has come to accept this as well.

In part, the anonymity might protect the women from any reprisal.

“If they work in the Jewish community, they run the risk that their funding may be denied by the Jewish bigwigs of whom they’re critical,” she said.

Also, Weidman Schneider said, the anonymity serves a political purpose as well.

“It has kind of an everywoman quality, much like a class-action suit. They’re protesting on behalf of Jewish women everywhere.”

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