Celebrating the Work of Jewish Women on International Women's Day

Thu, 04/03/2014 - 4:05pm -- JOFA

By Elana Sztokman

This year on International Women’s Day on March 8, Jewish women have quite a lot to be proud of – but we also have a lot of work left to do. 

Jewish women are leaders in politics, law, business, social activism, sports, and science and technology. We are innovators, engineers, writers, thinkers, activists, speakers and fighters.  We are at the forefront of important movements in every major area of life, and we are helping to mold and shape culture and society not only in America but around the world.

Chief JusticesA few examples that stand out in politics: Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg have given Jewish women a disproportionate representation on the Supreme Court. Senator Dianne Feinstein is the Chair of the Intelligence Committee and Senator Barbara Boxer chairs both the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Ethics Committee. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. And Gabrielle Giffords has proven to be one of the most formidable personalities in American politics, recovering with incredible strength from her shooting last year and emerging as a vibrant spokeswoman for gun control and other important issues.

Sheryl SandbergJewish women are also making waves in business. Sheryl Sandberg, the 43-year-old COO of Facebook, is emerging as a thought-leader, and is arguably the first woman in the hi-tech elite to be a vocal and unabashed advocate for gender equality. Jewish Women International has compiled an impressive list of Jewish women in business leadership whom they honored last year.

Jewish women are also disproportionately represented among women in arts and sciences. Of the 43 women who have ever won Nobel Prizes (yes, the lack of gender parity is obvious), seven have been Jewish – that’s 16.3 per cent, despite the fact that Jews make up less than 0.2 percent of the world population. The most recent winner of course is Professor Ada Yonath who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009. For a more comprehensive list of leading Israeli women scientists whose names we should know, see the Jewish Virtual Library 

In sports, let’s not forget the incredible Aly Raisman, who brought record numbers of gold medals  to the United States in the London Olympics while dancing to Hava Nagila.

Jewish women also lead social change. Women like Ruth Messinger, the CEO of the American Jewish World Service, who travels around the world providing invaluable aid in the developing world, is a model of Jewish women’s courage and resolve in the face of some of the most trying human conditions. The Jewish Women’s Archive has fascinating biographies of other Jewish women activists. They write, “Survey the lives of American Jewish women, and chances are you will hear countless stories of their activism in social justice movements.” This includes Jewish women who are no longer with us, who helped form the entire feminist movement, like Betty Friedan, Andrea Dworkin, Shulamith Firestone, and more.

Indeed, Jewish women have been movers and shakers throughout American history, changing the way people think, act, and experience society, culture and the human condition. I submit that America would not be what it is today without the pioneering and courageous spirit of Jewish women.

In Israel, this spirit of Jewish women’s activism, has taken on a particular energy and strength. Israeli feminism is a powerful force not only in the Jewish world, and not even just in Israel, but in a global context. Israeli feminists are leading activists for human rights on the global scale. A new cadre of feminist Knesset members displays advocates for social equality, pluralism, and peace. Indeed, the Israeli representative to the United Nations, Noa Furman, is working tirelessly to, in her words. “get Israel away from the Arab/Israeli corner” and become active at the UN in other areas.  According to a talk she gave last week for the NCJW at the World Jewish Congress, Israel’s position at the UN has improved because Israel was accepted, in 2000, as a member of the Commission on the Status of Women (through 2017). The members of the Israeli mission work with Jewish and other western NGOs on issues like reproductive rights, gender and sustainable development. These are tremendous achievements that we should make us all very proud.

Women are also leading change within the Jewish community. Women in all the denominations continue to charge forward to promote women’s inclusion in religious life and work towards that ever-elusive gender equality. This year, Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Yeshivat Maharat will graduate its first class, marking the first cohort of institutionally recognized Orthodox women clergy.   Women are fighting not only on the religious front but also on the communal front. Although a severe gender gap still exists in Jewish communal leadership both economically and structurally – women make up only 13% of all Jewish communal leaders, despite being the overwhelming majority of workers, and earn about 66 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to research by Jane Eisner at the Forward – women are starting to make interesting inroads in Jewish organizational life. According to research by Advancing Women Professionals in the Jewish Community and the Berman Policy Institute, among small, entrepreneurial, Jewish activist and communal start-ups, women are dominating in leadership positions. Women may be sidelines in the board rooms of large corporations, but in the grass roots, we are pushing real change.

JOFA, I believe, is part of this. We, too, are a women-led small entrepreneurial organization working to instill positive change in the Jewish community. The strength of the organization is a testament to the tireless work of pioneers like Blu Greenberg who never give up the struggle. The underlying belief is that the work of JOFA – advancing women in the Orthodox community – is not only important for women, and not only important for Orthodoxy, but is actually a vital process for the health and vitality of the entire Jewish community. By insisting on gender inclusion and creating real avenues for women’s leadership, we are advancing the vital ingredients for the betterment of all.

Of course, with all these incredible accomplishments, there is still a lot of work to be done. Jewish women as a group do not rest on our laurels, and we still have to keep moving and continue the much-needed activism.

113th Women in CongressIndeed, in addition to the gender wage gaps and gender parity in women’s leadership, there are also tremendous gaps in women’s representation in politics. Certainly women are better off than we ever were, with historic numbers of women in both American and Israeli governments, but there is still a long way to go. The US Senate has 19% female representation and the House of Representatives has 18% female representation, with a grand total of 98 women in Congress. Israel is faring better on this point, with 27 women in this 19th Knesset, a record number and a nearly 30% increase over the 21 women in the previous Knesset. Still, 27 out of 120 members, or 22.5% female representation, still leaves much room for improvement.  According to the Interparliamentary Union, Israel is 61st in the world on this score of women in politics, and the United States is a paltry 77th.  As a measure of comparison, Rwanda leads the world in female representation, and is the only country in the world that has more women in parliament than men. (For a complete listing click here.

Reproductive rights are also suddenly in question. The 2012 presidential election witnessed a whole slew of anti-women legislation being proposed by members of the Republican Party, including the shocking notion of “personhood” which would threaten to make contraception illegal – a move that would send women back by generations. Moreover, according to Ms. Furman, this is an international trend. She claims that around the world, nations “gone backwards on many matters of concern to women.  For example, in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, everyone accepted the notion of reproductive rights but now, 20 years later, no one will discuss putting this language in a document.”

Meanwhile, violence against women continues at alarming rates. There is a new and growing awareness of the “rape culture” in American society, but this has not yet helped reduce incidents of sexual violence against women. An estimated one in six women has been the victim of an attempted rape, and a rape occurs every two minutes in the United States, according to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Meanwhile, one in seven women is in an abusive relationship – and Jewish women stay in abusive relationships three times as long as non-Jewish women. More than three women are murdered every day by their intimate partners.

In the Jewish community, the most severely abused women are the many agunotamong us, women who remain chained to men who are bent on hurting them for years and sometimes decades. In Judaism, a man who wants to control and own his wife forever does not need a gun: he can use the gett and Jewish law as his weapon. This should be the most troubling reality of all.

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the incredible work of Jewish women, whose vision and courage lead and inspire us all. And let us gather the strength to continue this vital work on tikkun olam until we have fulfilled this mission, and all people are equally able to live fully and thrive.



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