The elephant in the room

I was not surprised by the recent headline in the Forward stating “Jewish women lag behind men in promotion and pay.” Nu? What else is new?  The article reports that women make up about 75% of Jewish organizations, but only hold 14.3% of the top positions, and they only earn 61 cents for every dollar earned by a man. It is unfortunate but reasonable to expect a gendered pay gap to exist in the Jewish, non-profit community since one exists consistently throughout the nation.  However, I was shocked to learn that women working in Jewish non-profits experience a pay gap wider than the national average! According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women in full-time positions earn an average of 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man, nationwide -- 16 cents more than the average for women in Jewish organizations.

This jarring observation must naturally be followed by the question, “Why?”  I fear that the answer to that question takes the form of a giant elephant around which Jewish groups dance the hora in the name of togetherness.  Not all Jews believe women should have leadership roles outside of the domestic sphere.  

This division within the Jewish community is spelled out loud and clear in the comments responding to the Forward’s article.  One commenter wrote: “Women should get a husband, have children, look after the home,” while another made the argument for biological determinism – women are biologically programmed to be “nurturing, kind, and risk-adverse” (i.e. homemakers), therefore they must overcome their biological weaknesses in order to compete with men in the working world.  

Feminist articles often attract a few sexist comments, but these strike me as symbolic of the nature of the "elephant" no one wants to acknowledge.  No one except, “old.frt,” that is, who wrote: “’Jewish Women Lag Behind Men in Promotion and Pay’ should *not* shock anyone.  After all, we have a religion, a segment of which wakes up every day and gives thanks that they were not born female.”  Oh, that elephant.

The elephant represents the division between Jewish groups that believe women have different, and biologically (or even divinely) determined, roles in society, and those that do not; those that consider “separate but equal” to be Feminist, and those that do not.  Many of these assumptions come from gender divisions in the Jewish faith, which are meant to exist specifically within the religious sphere. Until recently, women were restricted from religious leadership (Orthodox women still are) and though many Jewish women (in Europe and America, at least) worked outside the home so that their husbands could focus on religious study, it was still very rare to see women in secular leadership roles.  Clearly, the religious gender division informs assumptions about secular gender roles as well. When you add in the general paternalism of western culture, it's no wonder the Jewish community has an established "old boys' club." 

Without making assumptions or generalizations about which groups believe what, it is important to recognize that the Jewish community is not in agreement about the role of women in Jewish life or the working world. This does not account for why Jewish organizations pay women 16 cents on the dollar less than the national average, but it is part of the equation.

The Forward mentions the assumption that male leaders are more successful at raising money from Jewish male donors.  It’s not that Jewish women cannot be successful fundraisers (clearly Jewish women like Martha Minnow, Dean of Harvard Law, and Ruth Messinger, head of American Jewish World Service, prove they can), but that some Jewish men are likely to reject a woman leader.  

The article quotes some leaders, like Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, who argue that organizations need to do more to “groom,” “train,” and “mentor” women to compete.  This is not the issue.  Women have already proven that they are competitive, and they can continue to be as competitive as they want, but when they come up against that section of the Jewish community that does not believe women should be leaders, they will hit a wall.  Women do not need more coaching; the wall needs to be broken down.

It is hard to know what breaking down this wall should look like, especially when it is one of the walls supporting the roof above many of our heads.  This is clearly a big issue for the Jewish community and now that the elephant has been revealed, it’s time to begin a real discussion.  I will be thinking more about this, and I would love to hear your thoughts.  Is there a way to break down the Jewish patriarchy and retain our diversity of belief within the Jewish community?

1 Comment
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Should we be surprised that Jewish communal organizations have a "glass ceiling" that is even harder to crack than the one women hit all over corporate America? An American-born Jewish woman led the State of Israel. Women fight in the Israeli Army and now in the U.S. Armed Services. In the U.S., women are rabbis in Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist synagogues. They lead Ivy League universities. They chair powerful Senate committees. But, as the "Forward" article makes clear, there are obviously still many men in positions of power in "the Jewish world" who resist women running the show, even when the show provides typically "female" services. Why? Since I work in an organization founded and run by Jewish women, the question is academic, but I would love to know how people "on the inside" answer it.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "The elephant in the room." 10 November 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 24, 2019) <>.

Subscribe to Jewish Women, Amplified and get blog updates in your inbox.