A Change is Gonna Come

It’s time to re-imagine the future of our sisterhood and synagogue communities

by Rabbi Deborah Silver

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In her uncompromisingly titled book The End of Men: The Rise of Women (Riverhead Books, NY 2012), the journalist Hanna Rosin explores a sea-change taking place in American society. She notes that in 2009, for the first time in history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, with the UK and several other countries reaching the same point a year later. Of the 15 job categories most projected to grow in the United States over the next decade, 12 are occupied primarily by women. In India, women overwhelmingly staff call centers. In China, 40 percent of private businesses are run by women. Rosin suggests that the world is becoming a matriarchy.

So where does Women’s League fit into this shift? And what does the shift have to say for the sisterhoods of today and those of the future?

Women’s League for Conservative Judaism was founded by Mathilde Schechter in 1918, after her husband, Solomon Schechter, had called for women to assume a role in the newly established United Synagogue of America. Her first projects included publishing educational materials in English and opening a students’ house in New York that offered room and kosher board in “a homelike atmosphere.”

Women’s League developed three priorities. The first was education, to make Judaism available and accessible over the course of a lifetime. The second was fundraising. Its Torah Fund campaign, with a suggested annual contribution of $6.11 in 1945, today meets its annual goal of around two and a half million dollars every year on behalf of JTS, Ziegler and the Schechter Institute. As for supporting synagogues, local sisterhoods are unfailingly generous and sustaining presences on balance sheets, some to such an extent that I’ve heard them called the “shul’s ATM.”

Women’s League’s third priority was social action, including aid to the war effort (1941- ’44), support of various civil liberty causes, women’s causes, and the State of Israel. Since 1952 it has been an accredited nongovernmental observer at the United Nations, and recently lent its voice to the debate over religious pluralism in Israel.

By all accounts, this is an impressive record of energy, passion and generosity. Yet had I not done some specific and targeted research, I would not have known these facts. And I am someone who should know them. I know, of course, that I owe Women’s League a debt of gratitude; I am a Conservative rabbi, and I benefited from Torah Fund along with my colleagues.

But I wonder how many of my synagogue members know it, or if I were to ask them about the role of sisterhood, whether they would talk about the Judaica shop and the ladies – it is a full team of ladies, great and small – who serve lunch at kiddush. They would tell me what they see, and what they see is very far from the whole story. Most of the iceberg is under water.

Is the reason that such an accomplished history goes largely unsung because sisterhoods still see themselves as the power behind the throne, the eshet hayil praised within the walls of her own home but whose labor goes unremarked? I wonder, also, about the silo effect, that within a larger institution there is a tendency for parts of the organization to split off and become self-governing. As synagogues have grown, sisterhoods have become almost autonomous, operating behind closed doors.

Or perhaps it’s the nature of the organizations themselves. Synagogues historically have been closed systems,  hierarchical (rabbi/board at the top, everyone else below), location-driven (most action takes place within the building), and trickle-down (with educators dispensing knowledge to those beneath them). Sisterhood has been required to occupy its place in the pattern and has done so with grace, modestly disclaiming its achievements while providing a good deal of the energy and resources that enable the top to stay in position.

But times are changing. The advent of personal computing, the wane of institutional membership and economic change are forcing our institutions to adjust. The days of lifetime membership in a synagogue are drawing to a close.

Autonomy, choice, challenge, independence, meaning. These are only some of what the new generation of Jews is demanding of their Judaism. And, rather than it being up to us to provide it, the new Jewish institution is becoming flatter, more democratic, less of an establishment, and more of a conversation. Do these changes mean the end of Women’s League as we know it?

If we are thinking of the Women’s League of history, then perhaps the answer is yes. But in the words of the writer David Gergen, “Women are knocking at the door of leadership at the very moment when their talents are especially well matched with the requirements of the day.”

In Jewish institutions, as elsewhere, skills traditionally regarded as feminine are now coming to the fore. Working collaboratively. Using emotional intelligence. Seeking feedback. Negotiating not the work-life balance, where each component is compartmentalized, but the work-life merge, in which we oscillate between work and life many times over the course of a day. It is precisely these skills that are going to be vital in transforming our synagogues for the new century.

Fortunately, we have a trained workforce ready and waiting to begin. Never before in history has there been such a large class of women with the education, confidence, power, and opportunity to break new ground in the Jewish world. But our goals, our actions and our targets need to be different from those which Mathilde Schechter first conceived back in 1918. Some re-setting of expectations, proper recognition and, in due course, organizational change are required.

Let me suggest two relevant models from our tradition.

I call the first Bnot Tzlophehad. In Numbers 27, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah approach Moses to tell him that they are the only daughters of their deceased father Tzlophehad. They do not wish to lose his allocated share of the land simply because he never had any sons; they demand to be his direct heirs. Moses, baffled by this request, consults God. The response: the claim is justified and as a matter of law, in the future if there are no male heirs property can go to female descendants.

Those five sisters’ spiritual descendants are already perceptible among the younger women in our movement. Like  Tzelophehad’s daughters, they approach what they perceive to be the main source of power and influence within our institutions – the board. With limited time at their disposal, they prioritize board membership over sisterhood membership. Sisterhood’s officers might feel insulted or bypassed, but such a reaction, while understandable, is counterproductive. In fact, a move by women into the Jewish centers of power is critical and overdue. This is not only because of the need for the feminine skill set; it’s also because there is a severe misalignment between women’s talents and their representation in Jewish institutional life. Only nine of the 76 leading Jewish nonprofit organizations are headed by women. Women make 62 cents to a man’s dollar. We may be living in the ‘10s, or even the new ‘20s, but it’s still Mad Men in the Jewish boardroom.

In the new synagogue, might there be no sisterhood silo where the women do the work but don’t take the credit? Might we look forward to a future where the substantial talents women bring can flow freely through their institutions and be praised and recognized? Might we be looking at boards on which it is the norm for the sisterhood president to be the next synagogue president? It is time for the iceberg to rise from the water and let people know just how big it is. As Moses declared, the daughters of Tzlophehad have a valid point.

This raises another question. Does equality of opportunity – assuming we can get there – mean we don’t need women’s spaces anymore? This brings us to the second model from our tradition, Bat Yiftah and her maidens. In the book of Judges, we meet a woman whose name we are not told. We know her father’s name, Yiftah. In a master story which shares more than a couple of details with Beauty and the Beast, Yiftah strikes a deal with God: in return for a military victory, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him on his return home. Of course, that is his daughter. Recognizing the strength of his vow, she tells her father that he cannot recall it. She asks for two months to go into the mountains with her companions to mourn for her virginity, and then returns, whereupon her brokenhearted father sacrifices her.

In a postscript, we are told that it is a custom for the young women of Israel to retreat into the mountains four days to remember her. There are things that women have to do outside the company of men. (Vice versa is equally true. Indeed, men have been meeting in groups that exclude women for, lo, these many centuries.) It would be an interesting exercise for every sisterhood to draw up an agenda of where in their institutions it would be beneficial for groups of girls and women to work on their own. There is a special energy to such gatherings, and I believe we need more of them.

There are also relationships that need to be nurtured. The collective wisdom of our older generation is a precious resource. We need more opportunities for cross-generational contact, where the grandmother and granddaughter generations can be matched. The biggest gift any woman can offer another these days is time. Our wise elders tend to have more of it than their hard-pressed daughters.

We also need some plain mentoring of young female leadership. Contemporary research shows that the most successful women are those with supportive mentors. We hope that as time goes by, new female role models will emerge and pass on their skills.

It’s not so much that a change is going to come. It’s already here. The question is how we are going to navigate it. Women’s League has a history studded with achievements and a proven record in adapting to changing social conditions. It possesses an indefatigable energy and goodwill. It is made up of women who embody those vital skills of feminine leadership. It has just formulated a new strategic plan. And last, but very much not least, it is rooted in our tradition, and I hope that the models of Bnot Tzlophehad and Bat Yiftah and her maidens will prove inspiring and provocative as the decision makers of the next generation move into place.

I charge every woman to make it clear that you are not only the descendants of Mathilde Schechter, but that you are at the heart of this movement‘s continued ideological and financial well-being. You possess precisely the skills that the next generation of leadership needs to stay healthy. You deserve some praise in the gates. You have my permission to demand it.

Oh – and get some men to serve at kiddush.

Deborah Silver is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Adat Ari El, Valley Village, California. An attorney, she was an associate professor of law. This article is adapted from her keynote address at the Women’s League 2012 Convention.