As institute tackles pressing matters, critics say it ignores women’s voices


NEW YORK — When Avinoam Bar-Yosef decided to bring together the leaders of 15 major Jewish organizations, he focused on what should be discussed.

Bar-Yosef is director-general of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an Israel-based think-tank that was created by the Jewish Agency for Israel and engages in long-term strategic planning. Among other items on the agenda, he included Jewish identity, technology and demographic trends.

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But now his attention has shifted from the agenda to the invite list — which is notable for its absence of women.

Arlene Kaufman, co-chair of the United Jewish Communities’ Operation Promise and a member of UJC’s executive committee, is a guest of honor, but wasn’t asked to take part in brainstorming activities. Carole Solomon, chairwoman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was invited but couldn’t attend.

Critics say the imbalance speaks to gender issues that plague the Jewish world: Though women have a healthy presence in Jewish organizations, they’re scarce in upper-echelon positions.

Shifra Bronznick, president of Advancing Women Professionals, a UJC offshoot organization, said the lack of women at the policy institute event has “generated enormous response” from philanthropists, volunteers and professional leaders.

Many of those activists have flooded Dennis Ross, the former Clinton administration official who has headed the institute since its inception in 2002, with a steady stream of e-mails. JTA phone calls to Ross seeking comment were not returned.

Deborah Lipstadt, who directs Emory University’s Rabbi Donald Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, was one of those who wrote to Ross. She told JTA that gender bias is “a problem endemic to this institution,” comparing the institute’s strategic planning to “a bunch of frat boys sitting around and deciding what the future of the university will be.”

Even some taking part in the event, such as David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, were troubled by the dearth of women.

“Given that the gathering is so important in terms of the high profile and renown of the participants, as well as the themes and purposes of such a gathering, the omission of women constitutes a glaring gap,” Ellenson wrote to Ross. “How can matters of Jewish identity, relations with Israel, the influence of Islam, etc., be discussed when half the Jewish community is not represented?”

In a memo to the institute, Bronznick asked: “Given the extraordinary number of women who have assumed significant positions in every sector, every field, and every country, why is it so difficult for the Jewish community to identify women when it convenes leadership groups?”

Some argue that qualified female candidates are few and far between.

According to a new report conducted by Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, women are underrepresented in top federation positions. The study was commissioned jointly by Bronznick’s organization and the UJC’s Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence.

No woman served as a federation executive in any of the 19 largest American cities in 2005, the study found. In fact, the number of women nationwide who occupied executive director positions in federations dropped 5 percent nationally from 2004 to 2005.

On the other hand, the report showed that women constituted 70 percent of the total federation workforce last year.

As Lipstadt put it, women often find themselves “doing the heavy lifting” in such organizations.

Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, chairwoman of UJC’s Gender Equity and Organizational Effectiveness team, said women who try to ascend the Jewish organizational ladder face numerous hurdles.

She said nominating committees often are reluctant to recommend women for top roles, as they are often composed of older men who see women as being unable to take a hard line on issues. She also cited a lack of role models, job demands that make it difficult to balance work and family and skewed perceptions of female capability.

Bar-Yosef said the leaders invited to this week’s two-day symposium merely reflect such trends.

“We try to bring the best, the most significant decision makers in the Jewish world to this meeting, and that’s what we got,” Bar-Yosef said, citing figures like David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Women are not CEOs in those organizations we invited.”

Bar-Yosef also said women have attended previous meetings held by the institute, and will be present in future discussions. But he noted that those events concerned Jewish thinkers, among whom there’s no scarcity of women.

Bar-Yosef said the institute has extended a number of last-minute invitations to Jewish female professionals to “try to deal with gender balance.”

“We had no intention to offend anybody or not to have gender equality,” he explained. “Women are so crucial and important to the future of the Jewish people. Their input is really very important.”

But feminist leaders said the olive branch was too little, too late.

Bronznick listed prominent women like Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service and Morlie Levin, national executive director at Hadassah, whom she said should have been included from the start.

She also suggested that the institute change its criteria for inclusion, saying it ignored younger representatives from groups like Reboot, a nonprofit that supports creative Jewish initiatives, and Avodah, a service corps for Jewish youth.

“The Jewish community is so limited in its criteria for inclusion, and in doing so they’re making their institutions irrelevant,” Bronznick said. “You can’t have creative initiatives designed by the usual suspects.”

Lipstadt agreed.

“How can you do policy planning for the Jewish community when half of the community is excluded?” she asked. “How can these people plan for the future when they’re so mired in the past?”