By Abbie Gottesman and Esther D. Kustanowitz
At a time in history when women lead multi-billion dollar companies, adjudicate on the Supreme Court, and have held the highest political office in many countries, it is perhaps surprising that more Orthodox women are not taking leadership roles in Jewish organizations. Could this be a function of the psychological mindset of Orthodox women or are halakhic principles of modesty at stake? Whatever the reason, the fact remains; the worldwide community leadership of Orthodox Judaism does not proportionately represent its women. Women comprise 51% of the general population; yet, Orthodox women who are involved on a high community leadership level are surprisingly invisible. We have spoken to some of the few who are involved in Orthodox community leadership to gain a better insight into the challenges and rewards of breaking into this traditional male domain.
Adaire J. Klein has been the Director of Library and Archival Services for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles for the past 21 years. She founded the 40,000 volume library and is responsible for creating a children’s book award (Best Book in Diversity and Child Justice) and having it endowed in perpetuity. She is a past officer and board member of Beth Jacob Congregation, where she is co-chair of the education committee. Among her numerous other community involvements, she is an adjunct faculty member at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, is actively involved in Shirat Chanah” (the local women’s tefilla group), and is a member of her community’s chevra kadisha (burial society).
At Beth Jacob, she recalls a board meeting where the issue of a woman holding the presidency came under discussion. Someone said, “A woman can’t be president of the shul because the president has to sit on the bima on Shabbat morning.” Although Klein challenged this, maintaining that the ability to sit on the bima should not be a pre-requisite to becoming president, the shul has not yet had a female president. “For change to happen, rabbis and educators have to be very open about what halakha allows women to do and see ways to involve women in Jewish communal life. It’s easier to just say ‘no, it is not allowed’ than it is to seek out the real answers.” Klein noted that Jewish institutional life seems to have accepted that men should be the leaders. Younger women have to be encouraged to become involved.
Lisa Micley, the first female president of Congregation Shaarei Tefilla in Newton, MA, has felt the support of her community and her family since she assumed her leadership position. Before her presidency began, she was a shul vice president for two years, and was the chair of the Shabbaton committee, the chair of the Youth Committee, and the chair of the Chesed Committee. Having recently attended a meeting of the Parents’ Council of the local synagogues, she noted that while she was not the only woman president, she was the only woman president of an Orthodox shul. “I hope the community just views me as president, that I am appreciated and put under the microscope just like any other president would be.” Micley said. “I think that other women have not assumed the presidency because of the huge time and energy commitment. Many men have stopped short of the presidency for the same reason.
The time factor was also very important for Debbie Schultz, one of six vice presidents at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles. On the board of directors for eight years, and a member of the executive board for four years, she notes that her shul “goes out of its way” to include women on the board. In 1999, Schultz noted, it is not as hard for women to find opportunities to be involved on a leadership level if they want to be. “I think that it is easier for a man president to interact with the rabbi or the male school principal, but there isn’t any stigma about women in these positions anymore.” After Schultz’s oldest child was born, she stopped working, which afforded her more time to dedicate to the community. “It’s still harder for women to say ‘I have a meeting at 6:00 and expect the family to accommodate her,” Schultz said. “Women, more than men, still have to ask their families for permission to attend night meetings.” Time is still tight, and her husband has been very supportive and flexible with his schedule to enable her to be active in the leadership of the shul.
As head of the only Orthodox elementary school in Cherry Hill, NJ, Alice Green knows that she is in a unusual position. Not many Orthodox day schools have female principals. More often women run the English department or the girls’ school while overall leadership of the school is reserved for a male rabbi. “Bais Yaakov was the beginning of the vision that women need to be educated, and much of my experience is an outgrowth of that,” Green commented. “Women have always had tremendous roles in Jewish education and we should embrace that tradition. Women have always been educators in the home, and now we are moving into more formal roles.” Green urges that more women become involved “even on the PTA. Get an education to strengthen your involvement. Learn as much as you can and the rest will follow,” she assures.
Tova Avihai-Kremer is the chairperson of Kehilat Yedidyah in Jerusalem. When Yeidiyah was founded 20 years ago, one of its main goals was to create an environment where women could better express themselves. The commitment to this purpose yielded a women’s Torah service, women making announcements and speeches in shul, and a mehitza that runs down the center of the sanctuary. “Yedidyah is very involved in gmilut hasadim (charitable deeds) both internally and externally. We are focusing on improving the quality of our tefilla. We have a unique group of people who are very dedicated to finding new ways of spiritual self-expression,” Avihai-Kremer said. Her community has been very supportive of her leadership, and her family is dedicated to the kehila. “It is a huge commitment and emotional responsibility,” AvihaiKremer noted. “There is also psychological weight to being involved in a communal undertaking. Men need to relax their image of what a woman’s traditional place is within the community and view women as their equals. Women need to dare— to see the doors that are open to them and to live up to the challenges that these new doors present. By accepting the position of chairperson, I felt I was sending a message: Women Can! We are in the middle of a process: It is a revolution and I am grateful to be a part of it.”
Emily Zitter of Beit Shemesh, Israel consulted with her rav before standing in for the rosh vaad (chairperson of the board) position in her new kehila. The rabbi’s p’sak (decision) was that it would be okay for her to be president if she didn’t make any announcements in shul. “Many Orthodox institutions are run by and for women. They may have a rabbi as halakhic descisor, but the institutions are freely run by women.” Zitter recalled an old poster from her college days that read: “Sometimes the right man for the job is a woman."
Rachel Landsberg, a Drisha scholar who is the past co-president of Kehilat Orach Eliezer in Manhattan, found her role to be a welcome challenge. Her co-president was a man who was “very good about making sure we were equal. But, he could be involved in ritual matters in a way that I could not be. I was visible in front of the shul in terms of announcements and speaking, but during services the boundaries were less clear and less equal. Traditionally and historically men have assumed the leadership roles”. She went on to say, “Things are changing. Today’s women are more learned and more scholarly. But we must feel that our presence in shul matters. We need to make our voices heard and value the voices we have to contribute. We have to be willing to take risks in order to become visible.” Current KOE president Pam Scheininger agrees. “Women have to cross many barriers to be involved in any type of Orthodox Judaism, but at KOE we try to remove the social barriers and challenge them.”
In his book Jewish Women In Time and Torah, Eliezer Berkovits writes: “Public officials function on the basis of their acceptance by the people….Such acceptance has validity with the support of the halakhic system of Judaism. There is surprising precedent for a woman being active in public affairs. The prophet Elisha wished to express his gratitude to the Shunnamite for the generous hospitality she had extended to him. In her presence, he had his young servant say to her: ‘Behold, you have so anxiously taken care of us. What can we do for you? Is there anything you would have us talk to the king about, or the head of the army?’ Her answer was: ‘I dwell in the midst of my people,’ which the Targum Yonatan renders: ‘ I am engaged in the affairs of my people [i.e., and carry the burden of the community].’ This indeed should be the essence of women’s status today in Judaism: I live in the midst of my people and take my share in caring for the communal needs in accordance with my ability.”
Abbie Gottesman has studied at Pardes and at Nish’mat in Israel, and is currently a member of the Board of Pardes and of JOFA.
Esther D. Kustanowitz is the editor of the JOFA Journal and a published book author.