An Odd Absence Of Women
03/15/2012 - 14:09

I know I’m supposed to focus on intermarriage here, but sometimes I just need to vent on another topic.

And today that topic is, why are so many speakers’ panels at Jewish conferences composed almost entirely of men? I’m not talking about the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, although I did go to one of its dinners many years ago and there was not one woman on the dais. Which was striking, but not surprising. (If I remember correctly, the table assignments for the meal were also gender-segregated.)

And I know I’m hardly the first person to point out this problem. In fact, when the topic arises, I’m often, like many feminists, somewhat ambivalent, because I hardly want to demand quotas or tokenism or to insist that a woman speaker be included even what she has to say is not relevant to the topic at hand.

Nonetheless, earlier this week, as I sat at the opening plenary of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly (where, interestingly, I heard barely a peep about intermarriage) I found myself subsumed with a righteous feminist indignation the likes of which I have not felt since I was an Oberlin College freshperson, as we called ourselves when we weren’t calling ourselves “wimmin,” and watching a documentary about sexism in American advertising.

OK, it wasn’t exactly up there with Rush Limbaugh calling the Georgetown student a slut. But it was a bit disheartening in 2012 to watch one man (FJC CEO Jeremy Fingerman) after another (Jim Joseph Foundation Exec Chip Edelsberg, JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen, HUC President Rabbi David Ellenson and YU President Richard Joel) get up to speak, with nary a woman on the podium. I couldn’t help but notice that these men also happen to be some of the American Jewish community’s highest compensated professionals, and, as we all know, the gender gap in wages is even greater than the gender gap in speakers.

Making matters worse, one of the men began quoting extensively from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s writing about “the masorah [tradition] of the father” versus the “masorah of the mother” (the father teaches the intellectual aspects of Judaism, whereas the mother teaches the experiential and emotional aspects of Judaism). The allusion was not meant to offend women, but rather to be a metaphor for the importance of both formal education (day schools etc.) and experiential education (camps). And one could argue that Rabbi Soloveitchik was showing respect for women.

But, it also felt a little patronizing and reductionist (men are the head, women are the heart) in the same way that the text of the “Eshes Chayil” poem revering a “woman of valor” strikes some that way. 

In any event, I’m not trying to slam the Foundation for Jewish Camp or any of the speakers, and I should note that after the plenary a woman (Rae Ringel, an executive coach and trainer) gave a speech introducing the next session. I have no reason to believe Jewish overnight camps are themselves sexist in any way, and, as I’ve written here before, my own daughter is a happy camper at one. (In fact, she’s even “One Happy Camper” this year, as a recipient of the FJC/Jim Joseph $1,000 incentive scholarship by that name.)

Just saying, let’s all acknowledge that women are far from fully equal in Jewish organizational life — and that in 2012 this is more than a little ridiculous.

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Don't be so naive to think Jewish camps are not sexist themselves. What messages get sent in camp communities when the Jewish obligations of Tallis, Tfillin, and Kippot are only required for boys and not girls? Why do all-boys activities look strikingly different from all-girls activities? Why is homosexuality completely ignored at camp? This panel does not surprise me in the slightest. Jewish summer camp is definitely more for the boys than the girls.

I recently realized that mailings from the USCJ are addresses to either my husband (say Mr. Adam Cohen) or to the Cohen Household (thus ignoring the fact that I do not go by "Cohen", but have - as they say - kept my name). This despite the fact that we pay dues together with both our names, and indeed, our synagogue (which addresses all mailings to both of us) insists that they provide the USCJ with both our names. Seriously? The Conservative movement - which I chose to join precisely because of it's much-touted egalitarianism - can't manage to address mailings in a way that does not make me a nonentity?