Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Gender Equity… Continued

My first article for the Jewish Standard was about equity, showing different pathways to it in education and focusing specifically on gender inequity in Orthodox Jewish education.

Since then, the field has taken some encouraging steps to address the issue, and the larger Jewish communal world also has made inroads to ensure that women and men have equal opportunities for advancement.

Starting informally two years ago at the Prizmah Jewish Day School conference, a group of Orthodox women gathered to discuss the array of issues we face in the field. (Prizmah is the network that oversees the national Jewish day school system.) We identified a number of challenges that prevented our advancement and that maintained a status quo that favored men. Some of these were obvious: pay gaps still exist between male and female educators and administrators, and when men in the field have the title “rabbi,” they are not only granted a pathway to promotion, but automatically are supplied with role models who show the younger generation what the road to achievement looks like.

Our ad hoc group started to discuss multiple pathways to achieving our goals of gender equity. One included gathering hard data: all of us in the room shared our stories, but we understood that the 40 or more of us in attendance still only constituted “anecdata” about the issues plaguing us. Since the conference, we’re fortunate that Meryl Feldblum of the Frisch School in Paramus has undertaken a doctoral dissertation that explores the very problems we seek to solve. Sharing some of her initial findings, Ms. Feldblum recently published an article on that subject in HaYidion, Prizmah’s journal.

Citing a study that the Avi Chai Foundation conducted about the discrepancy between men’s and women’s salaries in Orthodox Jewish education, Ms. Feldblum also included information she had gathered from interviewees, who shared their “feelings of frustration, resentment, and discouragement” when they saw their “work and commitment to Jewish education being unappreciated and undervalued.”

Ms. Feldblum also was able to strengthen our initial group’s findings with her interviews of a range of women in Orthodox education, confirming that the culture we are in favors promotion and support of male staff and leaders. While salary discrepancy is easy to recognize, the factors that go into creating a male-oriented culture sometimes are not as obvious to the casual observer. Still, the women in our original Prizmah group and in Ms. Feldblum’s study were able to articulate those factors. They include informal get-togethers among male staff, which include rebbeim, who create a kind of old boys’ club that is difficult for women to join. Naturally drawn to each other and often friends, these rebbeim may not be aware of the way they’re excluding women, especially because, as Ms. Feldblum points out, in the Orthodox world “there is a certain expectation of gender separation.”

The ways we can address these obstacles to female success are manifold, and this sample represents ideas both large and small:

  • Ensuring that women and men have equal opportunities to be speakers and scholars-in-residence in our schools and communities.

• Offering mentors — male or female — to women as they begin their careers in Jewish education.

• Creating leadership programs that grant both men and women a path to promotion and that ensure that women can have titles that are commensurate with “rabbi.”

  • Making hiring practices and promotions a fair and transparent process.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with my colleagues at the upcoming Prizmah day school conference in Atlanta on March 10 to 12. Two sessions there will be devoted to the issues Orthodox women face in Jewish education. In one, Ms. Feldblum will share her research findings in more detail and lead a panel discussion with educators and administrators in the field. In the other, Sharon Freundel, the managing director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, and I will continue to work with our colleagues on ways to eliminate gender discrimination.

Not only women stand to gain from our work. Our schools will become more ethical and fair places when we ensure that everyone in them has a clear pathway to success. That means, for example, that when we debate family leave policies and familial obligations in general, we also take into account the fact that men as well as women should be able to have a healthy work/life balance and time off when they have children. Governor Phil Murphy recently acknowledged that truth when he expanded paid family leave for all workers in New Jersey. The new law allows both men and women to take more time off not only when they have children, but also when they have to care for sick loved ones.

Another important step the Jewish communal world has taken to ensure that workplaces are fairer is the creation of a program that trains non-profit organizations in how to create equitable and respectful workplace environments. I was fortunate enough to be part of the training program, with a cohort that included Melanie Eisen from Prizmah. The program addresses the ways that a disrespectful workplace can turn into a hostile, abusive, and even unlawful one, if we’re not careful to actively build and maintain a positive culture. (Please email me at Tikvah.Wiener@theideaschool.org if you’d like to know more about the program.)

Fostering an environment where our male and female educators have equal and clear pathways to success, a voice in determining the balance between devotion to work and making time for family, and protocols that allow people to express when they’re not being treated properly is as important in Jewish education as it is in every other field. 

In our Jewish schools and institutions, though, when we create equitable and respectful workplace environments, we have the added benefit of being able to say, Here is the way we honor the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image, by treating each person with equal dignity and fairness.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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