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I'll post rants here, and musings; articles and thoughts about articles. I'll keep it quite complex and yet astoundingly simple: whatever it is I am interested in at any given moment.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Gender Dynamics in the Jewish Community: Have We Made Any Progress? (Part 2 of [at least] 2)

A few days ago I introduced this topic with a focus on the efforts and ideas of Leveling the Playing Field. As promised, I now return to some issues on the ground.

Sometimes in early March, as reported (to my knowledge) in the Forward, a coalition of Conservative Rabbis, Cantors, and lay leaders calling themselves "HaYom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism" wrote a(n appropriate but) threatening letter to the leadership of United Synagogue requesting a significant role in the selection of USCJ's next Executive Vice-President (to replace Rabbi Jerome Epstein, universally considered to be pretty terrible and particularly despised by me). The letter was signed by a practical all-star team of Conservative Rabbis (no such team exists for Cantors or lay leaders, of course), representing some of the movement's (deservedly) flagship shuls, including Rabbis Elliot Cosgrove, Ed Feinstein, Michael Siegel, Alan Silverstein, Gordon Tucker, and David Wolpe (and many others whom I know personally but whose reputations, as it were, do not precede them). The rest of that particular narrative was relatively boring - USCJ punting; USCJ appointing relatively-outside-of-the-box Rabbi Steven Wernick; blah blah blah.

A few weeks ago, things got interesting on the Wexner Graduate Fellows' listserve, which is a confidential setting. For that reason, I will not attach any distinguishing characteristics to people's statements. I do not believe, however, that the confidentiality of the setting prevents me from sharing some of the topics discussed on the listserve itself.

A woman raised the question: Why were there so few women among the signatories of the letter? (How few, you ask? Well, of, at my count, the 27 Rabbis, 27 lay leaders, and 3 Cantors, I count a total of 5 women - all lay leaders.) The conversation that ensued on the listserve was female-dominated and included all sorts of valid frustrations and reasonable logic. Chief among them (to my recollection) was that the synagogues represented by this letter were consciously chosen because of their large size (and explanation of that in a moment) and as is relatively well known among Conservative circles (and should be better known outside of that world) there are (at last count - please correct me if this has changed) zero female Rabbis who serve as the Senior Rabbi of the large ("D" class) synagogues. Additionally, the relatively small number of large synagogue presidents who are female (though I don't have any kind of statistic on that) is also reflected. A number of people suggested that, perhaps, if no women were represented by the criteria that made up the selection process, perhaps different criteria should have been chosen. (You think?)

The conversation ended, as far as I can tell, when someone on the listserve forwarded an e-mail from a different confidential listserve, called "Ravnet," which is open only to members of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly, from the leadership of HaYom that outlined the selection process for the signatories on the first letter and opened up an invitation to all Rabbis to join the collection if they so wanted. The stated logic for selecting the largest shuls was, not surprisingly, an attempt to muster significant dues-paying leverage against United Synagogue so as to better guarantee a timely response. (United Synagogue, as far as I can tell, exists only on the dues that its member synagogues pay it - dues which are, obviously, a percentage of the dues the synagogues' members pay their synagogue.)

Lots of questions to ask here - lots of fishiness. Some questions:
  • Why no women at those big shuls?
  • Why didn't the men assembling the names think a lack of women was problematic?
  • Why does any shul - large or small - pay dues to United Synagogue? (If your answer is: for a USY chapter, please try again.)
  • Why do women hold approximately 20% of the presidencies of the largest Conservative shuls?
  • Why were Cantors included at all?
  • Why wouldn't United Synagogue heed HaYom's demands? Why would they
I won't allow myself to get carried away here.

Let's just add to this fire (and I will note that I'm leaving my emotion-laden concerns about the role of gender dynamics in so-called informal educational settings in general and at Ramah in Wisconsin specifically wholly out of the conversation, for the time being) the following observation of a current female rabbinical student at JTS. This student (whose observation I hear only second hand) notes that the "classic" Conservative couples that emerge from relationships in USY, JTS, and at Ramah camps, have the man ending up at JTS's Rabbinical School and the woman moving into, usually, Jewish education (often through JTS's Davidson School of Education), a "traditional" Jewish woman field (education; social work; occupational therapy; speech pathology), or a career (medicine, law, psychology, et c.). As I myself noted - this is the exact model that dominates the Orthodox world. Which brings us to the question:

Has twenty-five years of ordaining women and over thirty years of an egalitarian revolution achieved nothing? (Cue the Chorus Line song.)

I doubt the authors of Leveling the Playing Field would do anything but lambaste an attempt to attack a problem this unwieldy, for this question truly transcends "adaptive challenges" and speaks to a nexus of issues involving American culture and much, much more.

My own answer, for the time being, is silence. I simply have no ideas for how to fix this, or why it exists, or whether we have, indeed, achieved anything (worthwhile) at all.

I will say only this, to my great frustration:
1. New Rabbinical Assembly Executive Vice-President (filling the impressive seat once held by Wolfe Kellman זצ"ל) Rabbi Julie Schonfeld has not been quoted anywhere as saying anything about anything.
2. Nor have Arnie Eisen or Steven Wernick.
3. Conservative "leaders" I look up to on the Wexner listserve were silent as can be.

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