Jewish Feminism, Women in Leadership, and Why Women Are the World’s Agents for Change

By: Ruth Messinger Elizabeth Tenety

February 2, 2015

President of American Jewish World Service Ruth Messinger discusses women's leadership with Judaism. She emphasizes the importance of empowering women and girls globally, both at the grassroots level and in positions of power.

Can you tell me a little bit about your own religious upbringing, and particularly, if you could talk about the role of women and girls in your faith community.

I was raised in a Jewish home that was denominationally Conservative, and politically progressive. My mother ended up working in the Jewish community, but she was actually for many decades the director of public relations radio and television for the Jewish Theological Seminary, which is a Conservative rabbinic training institution. Her job was to make Judaism accessible and understandable, both to the Jewish community and to the non-Jewish community, in the things that she wrote, and the ads that they ran, and the radio programs that she designed. So that was a piece of the atmosphere in which I operated, that Judaism cares about the world, and has something to say to the world.

I am a social worker by professional training, and I've been an activist since I was in high school and that comes from my Judaism.  

I subsequently set up a Jewish home. I'm a member of a Reconstructionist synagogue. I've taken my religion seriously my whole very, very long life. And I'm happy to say that my children are serious about their Judaism as well.  

How have you seen Judaism change when it comes to the question about the role of women in religious leadership?

Well, in religious leadership, the change has been dramatic. I mean, there were no women rabbis when I first grew up. Then there was a woman who was ordained in the Reform movement. Then there were, gradually, women who were ordained in the Reconstructionist and the Conservative movements, and in the last 10 or 15 years significant proportions of the student rabbi population are women.

And the Orthodox community, which is not ordaining women, is struggling with that issue. They are training a few women to be something. Not quite clear what they'll be called yet. But they're grappling with that issue. So all of that has been radically changing during my lifetime. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the Jewish community is increasingly becoming notorious for a poor record in the promotion of women to full levels of leadership. So we'll see what happens with these synagogues and these rabbis over the next 10 or 15 years, because they're going to start as junior rabbis, and eventually they're going to be the attractive pool for any congregation that's looking for a rabbi.  

In the lay community—in the social welfare, federation, and other institutions in the Jewish community—opportunities for women to get the top jobs are very very limited.  

Talk to me about being a female leader of a Jewish institution. Is there anything unique you can share about the experience that you have had as a female leader in a religious institution?

Well, what it's taught me is that it's fun to be in there and make some trouble. But it's hard to convince people to move faster than they're ready to move.

So, for example, you say to people, "Is your search committee looking at women for this particular position?" And they say, "No, I don't think any have applied." I say, "Have you asked your search committee?" "No." But they say, "I'm sure if a good woman applied, the search committee would bring her to our attention." I said, "No. Because every message you probably send is that you don't want to look at a woman. So you have to tell your search committee, your head hunters, that you really want to see woman candidates." "Oh." People are surprised at that idea.  

I've had the sessions with lay people on search committees, with CEOs who are leaving their jobs, who are like, "I don't know, a woman? Are we ready for a woman?"  

My own synagogue got a woman rabbi about maybe 20 years ago. We had a woman cantor, and then we got a woman rabbi. And I live on the west side of Manhattan. There is no neighborhood more progressive. And there were people in my synagogue who were saying, "What do you think about having two women on the bimah?" I said, "There's been two men on the bimah for like 5,000 years." They were very nervous that their congregation might just fall into disfavor because now it had a woman rabbi and a woman cantor.  

It's an area in which people are moving too slowly. For me, in some ways it makes it kind of fun, because you can go in and make trouble, and if you're determined to lean in you can be heard. In some ways it's not so much fun, because I think women approach leadership differently.  

Do you think that as a woman you bring something unique to your work that men may not? 

Well, I'm nervous to make generalizations, but research has in fact shown that women's leadership styles, for good and for bad, are not quite so assertive. In general, men are more likely to be assertive, more likely to claim credit for themselves as opposed to being inclusionary.

Women are good at building teams, sharing credit. On the other hand women are sometimes terrible at claiming credit. Somebody made that observation at a meeting I was at last week—I think she got it from the Sheryl Sandberg book—she explained: When you ask men in positions of power to tell you about their careers, they tell you everything they did to get where they are. When you ask women that question they tell you how lucky they were:  

"And this happened, then that happened. Then I was very lucky, I had a good supervisor, who promoted me. I was very lucky, you know, then men who were supposed to get the job didn't show up. It was all luck." And the men say, "I did this, and I did this, and I did this, and now I'm CEO of the world." There are places for each of those styles. Each brings something to the table.

Many girls don't even see enough women in positions of power.  

Do you see a connection between the gender issues that you’ve seen, even in what you're describing as a very progressive community, and the grassroots development work that you've done around the issues of women's empowerment globally?

Absolutely, because we work at a quite grassroots level, where we're helping and supporting people. Where you're helping and supporting people who are making change in their communities, often with no funding and no background, you end up finding women. So logically, the leaders of our organizations that are involved in empowering women and girls are going to be women.

It's women who start organizations in situations of conflict who try to build peace. We work with these amazing groups of women in the southern part of Senegal who are committed to bringing peace after an endless, exhausting civil war between government representatives and guerrillas. Who's stepping forward to say ‘this is absurd, and we need to build peace’? Women.  

What do you see as your own top priorities when it comes to empowering girls and women globally? Are there issues that you feel are really ripe for huge opportunities, that this is the moment for a major global transformation when it comes to questions of violence or questions of education of girls?

On my good days that's what I think with. We need more role models. But people are beginning to recognize that if you want to move ahead, you need to assess the full array of talent. If you have a bias against women, or people of color or of a different background, then you’re blindfolding yourself to opportunity.

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Jewish Feminism, Women in Leadership, and Why Women Are the World’s Agents for Change