Elanit Z Rothschild Jakabovics was recently elected as the first woman president of Kesher Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC. Elanit, a 33-year old management consultant with Grant Thornton and a mother of two originally from Staten Island, is not only the first woman but also the youngest president in the shul, whose rabbi is Rabbi Barry Freundel. JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman sat down with Elanit to hear about her new position, and to hear about ways that other women can be inspired to follow suit in their own shuls:
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME SHUL PRESIDENT?
The technical answer to this question is that a slate was proposed to the shulmembership in early June 2012 and was voted on at the annual membership meeting at the end of June. My term began on July 1, 2012. Coincidentally enough, I was placed on modified bed rest the last week in June and didn’t make it back to shul for Shabbat until my son’s brit on August 11. I was able to attend some meetings between July 1 and August 4 (when my son was born) during the week, since I drove and stayed off my feet for the most part, but I didn’t really go out on Shabbat, nervous my water would break during my walk. to/from.
I think the answer you’re looking for, however, is that I was on the Kesher Board since 2004 and shul president was never a role that many ran towards. So, just based on experience at the shul and a few other variables, it sort of fell in my lap.
In 2011, the Board revised its by-laws to explicitly allow for female presidents. See here for a copy of the by-laws and the psak halakha by Rabbi Freundel about it: http://kesher.org/governance/documents/CongregationKesherIsraelBy-Laws-FinalAmendedJune2011.pdf
WHY IS THIS SOMETHING YOU WANTED TO DO?
Yes and no. I was intrigued by the possibilities but was nervous about the implications and responsibilities that it entailed. Remember, Kesher Israel is a small synagogue, with only two paid employees, so almost everything that is done is by volunteer. The role of president at Kesher isn’t just a role where you get to sit and think about the long term vision of the shul. There are a lot of day-to-day operational/programmatic issues to take care of. Not one day goes by where I’m not taking care of something else that is shul-related.
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR JOB?
It’s better than anticipated. I enjoy the relationships and connections I am making with people I did not know previously and the little itty bit of change that I am affecting in the shul—we’re doing a lot of work to be more efficient by reviewing our budget, line by line, and making tough decisions on what’s cost effective, what is not, and how to improve. And the experience I am gaining is helping at work and vice versa—both are leadership and managerial positions focused on organizational improvement so there is a lot of shared best practices and lessons learned in my professional and personal life
HOW HAS THE COMMUNITY RECEIVED YOU?
For the most part, I’ve been very well received. There are always going to be those people who don’t embrace change very well, those who are happy with the status quo. And I’m confident that at some point, I’ll win them over. But no one has been adversarial. If there are people out there who are explicitly unhappy, they haven’t made themselves known to me yet.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES INHERENT IN BEING A WOMAN IN THIS ROLE?
One big challenge for me is not being involved in the many conversations that go on in the men’s section. A lot gets discussed at shul—both during morning/evening minyanand on Shabbat—that I’m not privy to, I think because I sit on the other side of the mechitzah and because I don’t have the obligation to attend minyan. Of course, I can go on my own if I wanted, and I do, in theory, want to go more often than I do. But as a full-time mom, wife, and with a full-time job, juggling it all makes it very difficult. Men get more leeway in that regard.
Another challenge for me—and this is coupled with the fact that not only am I the first female president of Kesher, I am also the youngest—is obtaining buy-in from the older, more established members. I am thankful that I have two very well-respected and a bit older vice presidents helping me out, providing advice and guidance when I need it. And I’m trying to utilize my Board in a way where I can maximize each of their strengths to help me. So those Board members who are more friendly or more in that crowd, help me get my foot in the door with that constituency group and help me obtain buy-in. Each group in our shul is important and but it’s easy to lose sight of that and give at least one of the groups short shrift.
Another challenge is self-confidence, believing that others see me as legitimate and as a positive force in the shul, not just as some young girl, who is unsure of herself, and uneasy standing on the bimah addressing the congregation.
And the last challenge: time commitments. Being a full time mom, full time wife, with a full time job, and a at least part time volunteer leadership position, it’s hard sometimes to find time to get everything done and devote time to my kids. I usually schedule my shul-related meetings for the evening time. While I try to schedule them after bedtime, many times I can’t. The saying around the house is that “mommy has another silly meeting.”
My husband has been terrific at being the counter-balance. So far, the big reason why this has worked for us is that we allow each other to do what is close to our hearts: for him, it’s his job; for me, it’s the shul. Right now, during these few years, my commitment to the shul takes the bulk of our “free” time and he is there to cover the slack. At some point, the tables will be turned, and he’ll have a job which will take up more of his time and I will need to cover the slack for him. We allow each other to follow our passions. That’s not to say that our commitments don’t clash now, sometimes they do. But we are committed to making it work.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME OF THE REASONS THAT MORE SHULS DON'T HAVE WOMEN AS PRESIDENTS?
Assuming this question is referring to shuls that implicitly or explicitly allow for women presidents, I think the answer is complex. First, it would be worth our while to examine the leadership structures at these shuls and see who is even in the pipeline. If women are indeed serving in leadership positions on a board, for instance, then what is holding them back? Have they committed themselves to what could be seen as “more traditional” volunteer roles for women—schools? Other non-profit organizations? So maybe the first step is to tear down the myth that synagogue leadership is only for men. Why does this myth persist? Probably because the synagogue has historically been a place for men and only men. You know this well:Shul = place for communal prayer. Communal prayer = requirement for men. Therefore, sanctuary = physically built around this concept. (You mentioned architecture of gender, which got me thinking about that.) So the barrier to more female leadership in synagogues is not the glass ceiling nor is it really rabbis who don’t allow women to ascend to those positions. It comes before that. Before any of that can happen, the synagogue needs to be a place where women feel comfortable going, feel comfortable speaking up, and feel comfortable volunteering their time. Women need to know that these positions are theirs for the taking. But why would they want it if they don’t feel like shul is a place for them to spend a lot of their time?
Also, the position of president is very daunting-- fundraising is a huge part of it, as is having a business-like relationship with the Rabbi. I can very much understand how many women might feel intimidated by that or just not want to have to deal with those things. My response to that: yes, they are daunting responsibilities, but doable. Especially if you surround yourself with good, strong, and smart individuals-- both on the Board and off-- to provide you with support and guidance and who can take some responsibilities off your plate.
The traditional model of shul president needs to be broken down. Women presidents just don't fit that mold and we shouldn't be afraid to change that framework.
WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU SEND TO LEADERSHIP OF SHULS THAT HAVE NOT YET HAD WOMEN PRESIDENTS?
If you want to expand your circle of volunteers and those who would be willing to lend hours, sweat, and most of all, BRAIN POWER, to your shul, encourage more women to get involved! There is no downside.
WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU SEND TO WOMEN WHO WANT TO FIND MORE WAYS TO BE INVOLVED IN THEIR COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP?
Don’t wait to be invited or asked. Stand up for yourself and express your thoughts and ideas. Volunteer. Be proactive. You can’t make change anything or make any differences to the way things work without that. Whether it’s as large as a gender imbalance or as small as a program you’d like to see, speak up.
WHAT DO YOU THINK JOFA CAN DO IN ORDER TO HELP ADVANCE WOMEN'S LAY LEADERSHIP IN ORTHODOX SHULS?
Help remove the stigma from the word “feminist.” Not sure how to do this, but it needs to be done. Encourage male lay leaders and rabbis to cultivate an environment of inclusion within the realm of halakha. Shine the spotlight on Orthodox communities who are already doing this so that other communities can see how realistic and possible it is, without sliding down that “slippery slope.”
ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE?
If I can do it, so many others can do it too. I’m not special or unique.
Well, at JOFA we don’t agree! We think you’re a terrific role model and a strong, courageous woman helping transform gender issues in the Orthodox community. Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work!
Does your shul have a woman president or women on the board? Tell us about it. Contact us here to share your story, and put your woman shul president on our Wall of Honor.