At the Center, Is Gender Still Peripheral?

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January 1, 2008
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Deborah Skolnick Einhorn

At the first meeting of Brookline’s egalitarian Washington Square Minyan, a clear davening pattern emerged. Service leaders, those called to the Torah and those reading Torah, alternated male, female, male, female. When I asked one of the founders whether this would be standard operating procedure, he simply responded “when we’re truly egalitarian, we won’t have to count anymore.”

Have American Jewish institutions reached the point of “no counting necessary”? Or, do we still actively and consciously create gender balance on boards, on panels, and in hiring? Though counting might be considered archaic, true balance seems to remain a mirage.

Many gender-focused organizations and initiatives have blossomed over the past decade in the hopes of bringing gender equity to the center of the communal agenda. The Jewish Women’s Archive, Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, Hadassah Brandeis Institute, and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance have each recently entered their second decade. Moving Traditions, the creators of “Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing,” and Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community have entered the scene since 2000. Each organization pursues equity in its unique sphere: history, academia, Jewish communal professional life, adolescent development, and religious life. While the work of these groups has helped move Jews closer to “no counting necessary” in each of these arenas, these feminist organizations seem to remain on the periphery of Jewish organizational life.

Their creations were initially either precipitated by or greeted with a flurry of communal activity on gender. Conferences, Jewish media, and meeting agendas addressed gender as the “hot” issue of the day. But today, while the community continues to work on its diversity portfolio, other “hot” marginal groups occupy the spotlight: Jews of color, gay and lesbian Jews, and Jews by choice, all of whom have done their time on the periphery of Jewish life. Does this mean that women’s and girls’ issues have been successfully and systemically addressed by central, mainstream organizations? Or does gender remain an add-on, part of the larger “diversity” pool and the communal periphery?

In analyzing this issue of center and periphery, I am defining the center vis-à-vis funding and leadership. Do feminist and women’s organizations receive substantial federation funding? Are their donor rolls populated by men and women alike? Are they part of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations? For coed organizations, are they staffed and lay led equitably?

The Bronfman Philanthropies’ Slingshot Guide highlights “the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations and projects.” Created as a resource, especially for young philanthropists looking to fund outside the mainstream, the guide ultimately also serves as a list of exciting yet under-recognized initiatives. In 2006, fourteen of the highlighted organizations focused on gender and would fall into the category of feminist organizations. In 2007, twelve are indexed under gender programming. Are organizations focused on gender intrinsically peripheral — underfunded and likely undervalued — in the Jewish communal world?

What about the well-funded, long-standing women’s organizations that do occupy the center? Hadassah’s immediate past president, June Walker, chairs the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Seven of the Conference’s other 50 “major Jewish organizations,” including ORT and Women of Reform Judaism, are women’s organizations. Notably, each of these groups — while populated, led, and heavily funded by Jewish women — is dedicated to universal Jewish missions. Is their hard-won residence in the center predicated on this universality? Their participation in the center of the Jewish community clearly means that women leaders and donors have begun to enter the boardroom. But it also begs the question of whether they are being asked (or choosing) to leave any gender agendas at the door.

The National Council of Jewish Women and Jewish Women International, both part of the Conference, seem to be exceptions to this rule. Much of their current work, particularly on the national level, focuses on women’s and girls’ advocacy. In terms of the centrality of these large, feminist organizations, the question advances to the next level: Have their issues and activism penetrated the mainstream Jewish agenda? The same issue looms for the growing crop of Jewish women’s foundations, most embedded in and supported by federations. Many hope to leverage their “insider” positions to influence mainstream allocations, but few feel that they have accomplished this lofty goal.

Who and what will create the permanent bridge dedicated to gender-focused traffic, from periphery to center? This bridge must support the transport of women’s organizations into the center, as well as the movement of a fully integrated gender sensibility into currently central organizations. Until such changes are systemic and not simply programmatic or sporadic, true equity will still elude us. Women’s issues must follow women from the periphery into an integrated and automatic position in the center of Jewish life in America. Then we won’t have to count anymore.

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Deborah Skolnick Einhorn is a doctoral candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department at Brandeis, focusing on American Jewish women's philanthropy.

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