Who makes the Jewish future?
We may be known for our long and rich past, but I think it’s fair to say that the Jewish community is obsessed with its future – think about the role of a term like “Jewish continuity” in American Jewish life. And we also like to talk. So it’s not a big surprise that so many conferences and programs – especially now, in the early years of a new millennium – have taken the Jewish future as their subject.
What IS surprising is how un-21st century these conferences are in their consideration of who is going to create that future and who, therefore, should be included in conversation about it. In the past month, two programs – the Jewish People’s Policy Institute and the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis – have been taken to task for planning conferences on the Jewish future at which the only speakers are men (and men over middle-age, at that). (The Hornstein program responded by adding Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld – the new Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College and one of the smartest, most thoughtful, and coolest Jewish leaders around – to its line-up.)
Many female Jewish leaders, such as Shifra Bronznick, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, and Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University, have voiced concern at this blatant and persistent blind spot in Jewish communal life. They point out that the problem is cyclical – Jewish women are under-represented in top communal positions, and then are excluded from the program when speakers are drawn from those very same positions.
Ultimately, when such unrepresentative conferences take place, all they accomplish is proving their own irrelevance to the Jewish future. But I still wonder: how long will it take for the Jewish community to acknowledge that the future is made by a) women and men, and b) people young and old? And when will Jewish institutions move beyond tokenism and realize that inviting one woman to participate does not effectively represent all of American Jewish womanhood?