Forward Thinking

The RA and the Missing Women

By Jane Eisner

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UPDATED BELOW

It’s International Women’s Day, a good excuse to return to my “Where Are the Women?” campaign. You might recall an editorial documenting and lamenting the absence of women in American Jewish public life, published in January.

The Jewish Channel

Since then, I’ve heard from a number of women with examples of their own — times when a public program or panel discussion featured no women, or maybe only one. As I noted in another editorial, a rabbi in the Reform movement was particularly upset about the lineup of leadership in the Union for Reform Judaism.

Now, it’s the Conservative’s turn.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship Conservative seminary, pointed out that the tentative schedule for the Rabbinical Assembly’s four-day annual conference in May includes not a single woman in the line-up. “Why am I no longer even surprised,” she asked on her Facebook page.

The thread on that post includes a response from the RA, reminding readers that the schedule is tentative, and that the conference planners are waiting to hear back from other participants, presumably some women. That’s hardly good enough, since the key spots in this conference are already filled.

But I’m not here to complain about the RA. I’m here to support the women speaking out about this. The Forward is committed to its role as prod and public forum for a discussion about women in American Jewish life, but this imbalance and inequality will not disappear without the dedicated activism of women and men. As you’ll hear in this clip from a recent edition of The Salon, a program I host on The Jewish Channel, we can’t just point the finger at others. We have to speak out, write more, forge alliances, and work hard to make public conversations about our community reflect us all.

UPDATE from the RA, sent to me by Arik Puder, a PR consultant.

Here are facts regarding the schedule at the 2012 RA Convention:

  1. You mention in your piece that “the key spots in this conference are already filled.” This is entirely incorrect. In fact, much of the program is still very much in formation as evidenced by the language on the page as well as the language we used when the RA sent out the E-mail. The RA made clear that the program is developing, that it was tentative, and asked people to check back for more information. It is clearly incorrect to say that key sessions have been filled.
  2. Neither Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the RA, or Rabbi Gilah Dror, RA President, our two most senior leaders, is mentioned in the tentative conference schedule. This is clear evidence that the program is extremely tentative.
  3. Also, the opening program, which has not been finalized, will include many women from the RA body.
  4. Women have been announced as presenters in the JTS: Making Torah Relevant session. The presenters are Rabbi Dr. Judith Hauptman and Jane Shapiro:
  5. Women have also been announced to be among the confirmed Limmud speakers, including Professor Ofra Yeglin of Emory University and Rabbi Gail Labovitz of AJU.
  6. None of the professional development sessions in the works have been published at all. That is because the RA is still working on the timing and issuing invitations. However, we already know these sessions will reflect an appropriate gender balance.
  7. Lastly, for a sense of comparison, the 2011 RA conference, in addition to the women teaching in our Limmud and professional development sessions, plenary sessions featured several talented and prominent women, including: MK Tzipi Livni, Sarah Durham, Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum, Rabbi Francine Roston and Rabbi Analia Bortz.
  8. When the program is finalized, the RA will have put together a convention that is clearly representative of the diversity of the rabbinate, including the voices and talents of our female colleagues.

Please also consider the following facts:

The RA’s two most senior leaders are Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the RA, acknowledged for her leadership in this field, and Rabbi Gilah Dror, RA President, the first women to serve in a pulpit in a Masorti congregation. Julie was awarded the Women to Watch award from Jewish Women International. Three of the RA’s five full-time rabbinic professionals, including the staff person assigned to the convention, are women. All RA staff and leadership are entirely committed to ensuring that women’s voices are well represented. Among the RA staff is Rabbi Jan Kaufman, the first woman rabbi hired to serve as staff for a national rabbinic organization. Since women were admitted to the RA, those first women were immediately invited to serve on committees and now, women are well represented on major committees. In 2009, the RA held the ‘Leadership Presence: Women’s Ways in the Rabbinate Conference’ as a follow up to the initial JWFNY grant. It was attended by nearly 100 women colleagues as a result of the RA thinking creatively on how to enable women to attend despite defraying a range of costs and expenses. In September 2011, the RA initiated the creation of a Diversity Statement regarding hiring in the Conservative movement. It was endorsed by the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism: The RA continues to seek opportunities to advance the role of women in the rabbinate and is unquestionably committed to this goal.


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