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Hot Buttons: Conversations Without Women are Not Cool

A little over 15 years ago, I found my calling. While attending a Jewish Funder’s Network conference, I received a monograph on Jewish social justice circulated to all conference participants. The powerful essay, written by Leonard Fein, lifelong champion of many social justice issues, had a major flaw. It did not refer to a single woman activist. When I challenged Fein on this, he responded with a question: “Where would I go to find out about such women?” I knew at that moment that I needed to create the Jewish Women’s Archive to make certain that in the future no one could ask that question or use it as an excuse. Everyone would know where to go to find out about Jewish women—past and present. Since 1996, they have been going to JWA.org.

Yet once again, it seems Fein did not know where to go. Late yesterday afternoon I received an email announcing a new JCC lecture series titled “Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations” at Boston’s Leventhal Sidman JCC. Initially the description that appeared on my screen drew my interest: “discuss hot issues, ask questions, and add to the conversation with notable experts in their fields as we tackle politics, faith, economics, Israel, and culture through a Jewish lens.” But as I scrolled down I felt an increasing sense of discomfort with what I was reading. The discomfort quickly turned to disbelief and profound disappointment. All nine speakers in this series conceived by Leonard Fein are male.

But it is not just Fein who disappoints. He did not shape this series alone. He had partners. JCC professionals as well as the series’ funders had to approve it. When the panelists were contacted, they must have been told who would be on the panel with them. And then the information went to the publicity department where one or more JCC staff members designed the e-announcement and any other publicity on the event that is being circulated. Didn’t anyone notice that something was wrong? Didn’t anyone think to say that it is just not acceptable for there not to be any women involved—unless, one considers copywriting or underwriting involvement enough for women.

When asked how this happened, Mark Sokol responded that several people “worked hard. . . to find great folks within our resources. It was not intentional.” Is it really that hard to find great women who can speak about politics and truth? About the state of Jewish belief? About young American Jews?

Intentional or not, it is shameful.

Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community has been working aggressively to save our community and its institutions from such shame. Their strategy is simple and straightforward—asking men to make a pledge not to participate on all-male panels and in programs that exclude women’s voices. Explaining why he took the pledge, Shaul Kelner wrote “The pledge is a mitzvah of egalitarianism. And as the sages teach, mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, one mitzvah leads to another. Together, we can help build a community that values men and women equally as leaders and as teachers of the Jewish people.”

Errors can be occasions for learning. I write this post today not to shame those involved—I believe they have shamed themselves—but to emphasize again the work still to be done in making the Jewish community a place that values and honors the voices of all of its members. That is the work we do everyday at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and we are grateful to the many partners and allies who join us in our efforts. To learn more about Advancing Women Professionals’ pledge, please contact info@advancingwomen.org.

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7 Comments

"Thus Torah -- 'Jewish' sources, 'Jewish' teaching -- puts itself forward as Jewish teaching but speaks in the voice of only half the Jewish people. This scandal is compounded by another: The omission is neither mourned nor regretted; it is not even noticed." -- Judith Plaskow

I recently read an inspiring post on Facebook by a Jewish man who, when asked to speak on an all-male panel in Jewish settings, declines, requesting that the organizers find some female panelists. This would be a very transformative practice if more male Jewish educators and leaders were to follow suit.

Thank you for writing this, for noticing it to begin with, and for being on the forefront of this fight.... Elana

There is a simple first step to addressing this phenomenon. Men must ask who will be on their panels and who will be presenting at the program. If there are no women (or even few women) on the list, respectfully decline the invitation to participate. Explain that you cannot do it because there is no gender equity here. If they say they can't find women, help them find them.

This blog and this weekÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Torah portion inspire us to learn from your feedback and respond to your call to action. "Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it is said From all my teachers I have gained understanding." Ben Zoma We appreciate your concerns and weÌ¢‰â‰ã¢ve heard and discussed them. The point of Hot Buttons is to present diverse views on important topics; we are committed to ensuring that women are at the podium. We look forward to your thoughts and ideas on potential subjects and participants, and will contact JWA directly. Chayye Sarah opens by announcing our Matriarch Sarah's death. Up through "one hundred years, twenty years and seven years," Sarah lived fully and with equanimity. Her life was full of novelty, of change, of surprises both joyous and terrifying, of adventure, of faith, and of loyalty and love. Sarah was a most righteous woman, a woman the JCC would have proudly "cast" as an inspirational speaker in Hot Buttons. Cool Conversations. Fiona Epstein, JCC Vice President for Adult Engagement

It's beyond sad that programs like this still make it to fruition. How embarrassing.

PS: when you add women to those panels, please don't ask them to talk about dating or motherhood. Thanks.

Needless to say, I was quite surprised that someone as forward thinking and visionary as my friends Mark Sokoll and Leibel Fein would sign off on a lecture series sponsored the Boston's JCC with mot one woman on any of the panels! I have offered my help in identifying very capable and savvy women speakers. I hope the JCC will set an example for what not to do when sponsoring such an important series of conversations.

Intentional or not, shameful or not, it should not stand. The first event is not for almost a month; what can't this be fixed before then?

Is each of the nine panelists each aware that he is participating in an all-male exercise?

I imagine that at least some of them would be very uncomfortable to learn as much.

Gail Reimer
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JWA contributor Gail Reimer.

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How to cite this page

Reimer, Gail. "Hot Buttons: Conversations Without Women are Not Cool." 17 November 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/hot-buttons-conversations-without-women-are-not-cool>.

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