Where are the women?

United Synagogue Youth (USY) is the official youth movement of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a denomination of the North American Jewish community that prides itself on maintaining strong egalitarian values. Throughout my four years of high school, my participation in USY was one of the most formative parts of not only my Jewish identity, but also my identity as a Jewish feminist, committed to working toward both religious and secular egalitarianism. USY, an organization that speaks often of its commitment to gender equality, on Dec. 28, 2016, elected an all-male International Executive Board (IEB) for the first time in over a decade. Qualified young women ran for four of the six roles on the board. That’s not to say the young men who beat them for these positions weren’t fully deserving of their wins and won’t do a wonderful job leading USY, however, this stunning lack of female presence represents a broad and self-destructive theme across the organization.

This past year, only seven of the 17 USY regions spanning across North America were led by female presidents. Over the past 15 years, more than half of all Regional and International Executive Board members have been male, as presented in research conducted by IEB alumna Charlene Thrope. Out of the six most common executive board positions — President, Israel Affairs, Religion/Education, Social Action/Tikun Olam, Membership/Kadima (pre-high school programming), and Communications — only Social Action/Tikun Olam and Membership/Kadima have been held by more women than men at the international and regional levels. But, even with this trend, to have an exclusively male IEB is a uniquely glaring example of leadership inequality, and necessitates USY taking a hard look at the progress it’s made and what it will do to prevent this outcome in the future. USY only elected its third female president in its nearly 70-year history two years ago, and this was only after more than 15 consecutive years of male presidential leadership. For an organization that claims such a commitment to fostering an egalitarian community, this degree of male-dominated leadership is disturbing. This election perpetuates for current and future members a masculinized ideal of leadership that will only make it harder for qualified women to be elected in the future, simply because they do not fit the traditional picture of an effective USY leader.

Building an electable resume for an international leadership position follows no prescribed path, and many leaders come from diverse backgrounds of experience. Prior qualifications can include holding positions on a Regional Executive Board, synagogue Chapter Board, or attending various conventions and summer programs. Valued leadership traits for electability include having strong public speaking, organizational, and problem-solving skills. If this year’s elected officers won despite lesser qualifications, the organization’s membership must reevaluate its standards for those it elects, and actively commit itself to reforming its perspective on female leadership. If, however, these young men won because they were truly more qualified than their fellow female candidates, USY needs to develop programs to foster strong female leadership in the organization. Only through more equally-gendered leadership can USY reverse its years-long decline and reach new heights in its mission to empower its youth and provide for them a life-long Jewish community. Without strong female role models and the diversity of perspective that individuals of all genders can bring, USY will continue to fail to reach the broadest audience possible and expand its impact on the young Conservative Jewish community.

Beyond simply the longevity of the organization, however, young women in the highest leadership roles are absolutely necessary for the future of Conservative Judaism as a whole. The movement speaks often of its strong commitment to religious egalitarianism, but throughout my time as an active member I’ve often struggled to see that commitment practiced in reality. As a participant on one of USY’s summer programs in 2014, I was the only female member of my group to wrap tefillin, a Jewish ritual prayer object historically worn by men, but completely religiously legal for women to wear in the eyes of Conservative Judaism, every day. When I would lead shacharit, the morning prayer service, for my group, I would insist on pausing for the inclusion of the emahot, the matriarchs, at each mention of the patriarchs. These pauses were rarely, if ever, observed when the group was led by boys. I committed myself to teaching my fellow female group-members how to wrap tefillin, something many had tried only once, if ever, and giving them the opportunity to honor the powerful women in our religious history.

Throughout the remainder of my time in USY, I worked to bring these egalitarian efforts to as many regional and international events as possible. I was not alone in this — I had a number of empowered female friends who actively worked to bring more legitimate egalitarianism to an organization that speaks so highly of its commitment to gender equality, but often falls short in practice. I never, however, saw any male peers lead the same kind of egalitarian efforts. They, at best, went along happily; most often, agreed passively or begrudgingly; and at worst, resisted. Without women in leadership roles, I see little possibility that these same types of efforts will be sustained or started, furthering Conservative Judaism from truly achieving its mission of egalitarianism.

If the young men of 2017 IEB, in their esteemed roles as USY’s highest elected officers, follow the same path as their peers and predecessors, I fear no progress will be made from that platform to further egalitarian efforts. However, if they commit themselves to bringing into the fold of USY international leadership the strong and capable young women I know without a doubt exist in the organization, and, only with those female leaders’ extensive input and collaboration, work to expand leadership opportunities and training for women, all is not lost. Programs could range from chapter- and regional-level leadership trainings tailored toward young women, to leadership mentorships between current female leaders and younger female members, to an international ritual practice inclusion program that actively advocates for female participation in historically all-male religious traditions, like wrapping tefillin and wearing tallit, a ritual prayer shawl.

This year’s failure to elect a gender-diverse board can be an insurmountable obstacle in the movement’s path to cultural and religious egalitarianism, but it absolutely does not have to be. With the proper commitment to establishing mentorship, training, and encouragement of female leaders in the youth group, this year’s outcome does not have to become the norm. Gender-based glass ceilings in leadership exist everywhere, not just in USY. However, this organization and its parent movement have pioneered a more inclusive, accessible Jewish practice throughout their existence, and there is no reason they should not also aim to be at the forefront of providing individuals of all genders the opportunity to lead. Though I am no longer a USYer myself, the future of this organization and movement are too important to me to passively sit by while they stray from their stated egalitarian values and exclude women from positions of leadership. I sincerely hope action will be taken to minimize the potential consequences of this election, leading to a more equal and vibrant Conservative Jewish community in the future.

About the Author
Jamie Halper was the 2015 United Synagogue Youth (USY) International Vice President of Social Action and Tikun Olam, the 2014-2015 President of the EMTZA (Midwestern) Region of USY, and is currently a freshman at Harvard University. She is strongly committed to Jewish egalitarianism, working extensively to further its presence in the Conservative Movement.
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