In Australia's Jewish Community, Drama Over Fight for Gender Equality

Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner
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A recent gathering of the newly formed local branch of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in Melbourne.
A recent gathering of the newly formed local branch of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in Melbourne. Credit: JOFA Melbourne
Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner

A scandal at a leading Jewish organization in Melbourne has once again thrust the issue of equal gender representation in the top levels of Australia’s Jewish community into the spotlight – an aspiration female community members have been working tirelessly to achieve for years.

Last December, Keren Zelwer was a leading candidate to join the executive of community organization Mizrachi Australia. In a secret ballot, however, she was unanimously rejected by the executive members, all of whom were male.

The decision created a strong public backlash. Local Jewish community organizations, including NCJWA (Vic), a separate arm of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia that operates independently in Victoria, slammed Mizrachi Australia (the umbrella body for religious-Zionist Jewry in Australia). 

“The challenges at Mizrachi have been a stark reminder that change is slow,” NCJWA (Vic) advocacy committee Chairwoman Romy Grace tells Haaretz.

Outgoing president of Mizrachi Australia, Danny Lamm, says in response that the media had misrepresented the issue and that Mizrachi has “never had a gender equality problem.”

Lamm resigned last month after the scandal, yet is keen to point out that Mizrachi’s newly appointed executive contains one female member and five female members serving on the committee one rung below – one more female committee member than last year. Seventeen men fill the remaining executive and committee positions.

The ‘manels’ problem

In June 2019, when the #MeToo movement was in full swing calling out sexual abuse and harassment, the Jewish women’s council launched a campaign called #makespaceforher. Community organizations were urged to sign a “gender equality pledge” aimed at bringing about gender equality at the highest levels of Jewish leadership. 

The pledge was based on preliminary research that had examined the composition of boards at Australian-Jewish organizations. The research found that men and women seemed to be nearly equal decision-makers in some organizations, but not others.

“The data was interesting,” Grace says. “Women were equally represented around the caregiving service-provision organizations, and not at the schools and synagogues that should represent their constituents,” she noted.

NCJWA (Vic) immediate past president Miriam Bass, second from left, overseeing the signing of the NCJWA Gender Equality Pledge by Jennifer Huppert, left, Jeremy Leibler and Sharene Hambur. Credit: Peter Haskin / AJN

Thirty-three organizations ultimately signed the pledge, yet Mizrachi Australia wasn’t the only pledge-signing group to become embroiled in a scandal regarding female representation.

Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, says that though many organizations embraced and signed onto the pledge, many didn’t enforce the cultural changes needed for their groups to wholeheartedly embrace the logic behind such a move.

“The response from organizations who don’t have diverse boards is usually to say, ‘We tried, but no one was interested,” or “We couldn’t find a woman suitably qualified to do the job,’” he says.

The true extent of the disparagement of Australia’s Jewish women was revealed in a groundbreaking study conducted by former Australian Jewish News journalists Sophie Deutsch and Rebecca Davis, published in June 2020. Deutsch and Davis began their research around the same time as the gender equality pledge was being adopted by community organizations.

The journalists interviewed more than 110 women who were in community leadership roles and “eager to be heard,” Deutsch and Davis told Haaretz via email.

Their findings were shocking: Almost 40 per cent of the women said they did not have the same access to opportunities enjoyed by men in communal leadership. “It was somewhat surprising to learn that among the many respected women in the community who do hold higher ranked positions or have a seat at the boardroom table, most generally did not have positive experiences to share,” Deutsch and Davis say.

“Many women perceived their appointment as a tokenistic platitude, believing that their voice and contribution was not genuinely valued,” they add. “Only half of the women surveyed agreed (37 per cent) or strongly agreed (13 per cent) that they have equal career progression opportunities and their development and aspirations are nurtured.”  

The respondents also noted that, despite having signed the gender equality pledge, male leaders in some organizations failed to tackle the root of the issue, and instead partook in performative efforts to promote equality. 

“Many women expressed concern that some male leaders publicly support the advancement of [signing the gender equality pledge], or appearing in a photo with a female guest speaker in the Australian Jewish News, for instance, but fail to take meaningful action that will work toward rectifying gender inequality in their own organization,” the two journalists stated.

“This sentiment was further underscored with 63 per cent of respondents feeling uncomfortable with language used about or toward women in a Jewish organization,” they added. 

Community event panels, or “manels,” as Grace describes them, have become increasingly scrutinized for only inviting male speakers. In recent weeks, one Jewish National Fund-sponsored event sparked debate on Facebook for failing to invite a single female speaker – the third time in a year the fund has sponsored an event featuring male-only panels.

An example of a "manel" taking place in Australia's Jewish community last month. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook

“When people think of a speaker, they automatically think of men,” National Council of Jewish Women of Australia President Melinda Jones tells Haaretz.

“If there’s a talk by the United Israel Appeal, are there 50 percent women and 50 percent men? So, on this hypothetical occasion, the best people are men. Does that mean that on another occasion, there’s only women? You’ll find the answer is no, there’s not even nearly 50 percent representation of women” on panels, she says.

Ready for change

Jews have been living in Australia since 1788, after 16 Jewish people arrived on the first convict shipment from Britain to what is today’s Sydney. Pogroms in Eastern Europe increased Jewish migration to Australia from the late 1880s, but it was post-World War II and Holocaust migration that drove tens of thousands of Jews Down Under. In recent decades, Jewish migrants have come from South Africa, the former Soviet Union and Israel.

After World War II, traditional and social norms at the time restricted females to homemaking duties while men continued to “serve in positions of Jewish communal leadership,” Jewish historian Paula Hyman wrote about global female Jewry in a 2002 article titled “Gender and the Shaping of Modern Jewish Identities.”

For Australia’s Jews, Judaism’s traditional Orthodox gender roles played an important role in many homes, Australian-Jewish historian Suzanne Rutland tells Haaretz.

“The lower participation of women in lay communal leadership is due to two factors: the more patriarchal structures and traditional practices of Orthodox Judaism,” she explains.

Israeli Prime Minister speaking at the Central Synagogue in Sydney four years ago. Unlike Diaspora Jews in America, most of Australia's Jews are in the Orthodox stream.Credit: Mark Metcalfe / Getty Pool / AP

Unlike in the United States, where nonreligious Jews typically identify with Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism, the vast majority of Australian Jews are nonpracticing Orthodox. “Orthodox Judaism still represents the majority of Jews in Australia in terms of synagogue affiliation and day-school enrolments,” Rutland says. 

She documented this phenomenon in 2002 in her article “Perspectives from the Australian Jewish Community,” writing that “women still bear the major responsibility for home and family, their traditional areas in Judaism.” She added: “Since most take these domestic responsibilities seriously, full equality remains elusive.” 

Rutland is keen to point out to Haaretz that females have held the highest positions of power in the Jewish community, with three women historically serving as the chair of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the community’s umbrella body, with Jillian Segal currently serving in the role. Typically, though, Rutland says, Australian-Jewish women have historically taken on lower-paying community positions. 

Australia’s Jewish women reported being increasingly satisfied with female participation in Jewish community leadership when Rutland conducted a focus group study in 2005, yet times have changed since then, she notes.

“I think there has been a generational change, and perhaps expectations [of female participation] are different today to what they were 15 years ago,” she observes.

New and empowered

As an older generation of female community leadership is stepping down, a younger, more empowered group of women is determined to be heard. Indeed, there is already evidence that the change Australian-Jewish women are hoping for in leadership opportunities already exists among the younger generation.

A male worshipper attending evening service at the Great Synagogue in Sydney a few years ago.Credit: Rick Rycroft / AP

The Australian Union of Jewish Students, for instance, is headed by women at both presidential and vice-presidential levels, exhibiting gender equality in its leadership in recent years, while four of the Australian Zionist Youth Council’s six youth movements are currently headed by women, according to Leibler.

“This younger generation of leaders is there already – and providing organizations are genuinely open and welcome diversity, it’s clear that the positive change will continue to evolve,” he says.

After losing momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, NCJWA (Vic) is working on the second phase of its #makespaceforher campaign, which it hopes will address the “manels” issue: It’s making a database available for organizations seeking to attract and engage female leaders.

The database would “showcase talented women in the community who are interested in taking on public-speaking roles, leadership and advisory positions in the community,” Grace explains.

Meanwhile, a new women’s Jewish organization launched recently in Melbourne: The local branch of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance aims to promote female engagement in all aspects of Orthodox life, including women’s Torah learning, public speaking, teaching and engagement.

“There’s an overwhelming sense that the time is ripe for change – not just among Orthodox women but for all Australian women,” the president of the organization’s Australian branch, Nomi Kaltmann, tells Haaretz.

“It’s an exciting time to be launching a new organization dedicated to the promotion of women, as it feels that progress is being made and things are shifting for the better,” she says.

“It almost feels that more has changed in the past few years than the past few decades,” Kaltmann adds. “Women are becoming more organized and better at advocating for their right to be heard, and calling out behavior that results in the effective exclusion of 50 percent of the population from the highest levels of decision-making that affects all Australian Jews.”

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