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Where is Esther? Jewish Women’s Leadership Today

Purim is amazing in terms of the importance it grants to women in leadership positions. So I guess it only normal for me to ask, so where are our Esther’s today? Sadly, in the Jewish community today there remains a terrible lack of women in major leadership positions. There are a number of organizations working on this issue (most notably, of course, is Shifra Bronznik’s important initiative AWP, which has been working on this issue since its founding in 1995).

I hope they can fix the problem, because if you try to think of the 10–make it even 20–most important voices in Jewish life today, you’d more often than not be hard-pressed to find more than one or two female names to put on the list. Put another way, if you had to headline a 1,000-person event with a woman Jewish speaker who was active in Jewish life you would have a tough time coming up with more than three names who could hold the room. No, I am not in the mood to get into a game of list-making, but truth be told, where are today’s Esthers? And if they are out there, where have we gone wrong in promoting them?


Much of the problem, it seems, is based on a vicious cycle where women are not given prominent leadership roles because they do not occupy prominent positions of authority. But they don’t occupy prominent positions of authority because they don’t occupy prominent positions of authority already. I know there is a circular logic here, but that’s the point.

In the Orthodox community the issue is very clear and obvious. Aside from cultural pressures to get married and have kids, women are not given the title rabbi (Orthodox rabbis would do well to grant more legitimacy to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and in particular Tova Hartman, who is fast emerging as a very significant voice in Orthodox circles), but even so, in the Conservative world only a handful of women are rabbis of prominent congregations. There has yet to be a woman in the head of any major American Jewish organization (Hadassah and AWP not included… by the way, all one needs to do is look at how great a job Hadassah has done over the years to realize the need for more women in leadership positions).

Some have said that the lack of women leadership is a matter of time and patience, getting beyond the glass ceiling. Perhaps they are correct, but I think it’s probably more than just that. What? I don’t know; any thoughts?

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Joanne Cornbleet

posted March 19, 2007 at 8:12 am

I recently retired as Associate Professor of Pathology at Stanford University Medical Center. During my 25 years at Stanford, I saw profound changes in the way women were treated and in women progressing to leadership positions in academic medicine. In my opinion, the keys to leadership development for professional women in academia included: 1) development of alternate career tracks, so that young women could have children, and take a few more years to develop credentials for tenure, 2) equal pay for women for equal work, 3) mentorship from both male and female colleagues, so that women could learn skills from experienced leaders rather than by trial and error, 4) inclusion of women in strategic planning for the organization, 5) equal representation of women on all working committees, 6) equal representation of women as presenters of key lectures and workshops at national meetings. With regards to women rabbis in Conservative Judaism, I was appalled to learn that the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards, which recently deliberation on five responsa that considered whether Jewish law may allow the ordination of gay men and lesbians and same-sex commitment ceremonies, includes only TWO women among its TWENTY-FIVE voting members. Steven Cohen s recent survey among Conservative Jews showed a marked gender gap on the issue of ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, favored by 60% of men, but 86% of women. Thus, the participation of more women on this committee could have significantly influenced the final votes on these responsa. If more women are to rise to leadership positions within the Conservative movement, they must be allowed to participate in such important decisions in proportion to their numbers as ordained Conservative Rabbis. Otherwise, Conservative women Rabbis will continue to be limited by the stained-glass ceiling! Joanne Cornbleet, MD Saratoga, CA

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