Jewish women isolated from community despite advances, new study finds

Though American Jewish women long for a connection to their religion, a new study reveals many feel "completely removed" from organized Judaism today.

The report affirms that Jewish women want to create spiritual bonds and find pleasure in associating with other Jewish women, Hadassah national president Marlene Post said.

"Yet [they] believe that Jewish organizations and institutions, for a variety of reasons, do not fulfill their interests and needs," she said.

The report, "Voices for Change: Future Directions for American Jewish Women," says obstacles built into the community and everyday demands of family and work prevent many women from getting involved.

Underwritten by Hadassah and researched by Brandeis University's Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies/Institute for Community and Religion, in San Francisco and Waltham, Mass., the 135-page report was unveiled last week in Boston at the Council of Jewish Federations' annual General Assembly.

Some women, particularly those who are single and divorced, don't feel mainstream Jewish organizations try hard enough to welcome and include them, the study found. Others perceive that those Jewish groups are overly preoccupied with fund-raising and insufficiently concerned with community building.

Marriam Cramer Ring, co-chair of this month's 1995 San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Women's Conference, said the study's results affirm what she's learned from organizing an event that sold out weeks ahead of time and attracted more than 1,000 women — many of whom are otherwise unaffiliated with organized Judaism.

"Obviously, we hit a nerve in the community," she said. "The organizations know it. They know they're missing out."

Cramer Ring hopes that momentum will continue through interest groups that conference-goers signed up for and through a proposed Jewish women's resource center.

She believes women's lack of affiliation stems from several factors that include handling hectic work schedules without men taking over half of the household chores, and feelings of exclusion or secondary status based on long-time male domination of Jewish leadership.

"Women feel there are glass ceilings in the organizations," Cramer Ring said.

To reach its conclusions, the new report combined three types of research: a survey of existing data and research literature about Jewish women; interviews with focus groups across the country; and discussion of issues by a hand-picked group of nationally known Jewish women in the arts, literature, politics, the rabbinate and business.

Those women, together with Hadassah lay leaders, formed the 23-member National Commission on American Jewish Women.

Women involved in the study spoke often about feeling neglected by the Jewish community and wanting to be invited to participate, said Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox feminist, author and commission member.

Another pronounced element within the focus groups and at the commission meetings was the quest for spirituality, added Greenberg.

"Women are searching for greater definition as Jews. Women want to take themselves more seriously as religious beings, which grows out of feminism," she said.

The study recommended nearly 80 ways for the Jewish community to better involve women within four areas: building community, achieving equality, nurturing spirituality and connecting with Israel.

Among the suggestions:

*Reach college women by establishing mentor programs on college campuses; increase funding of formal Jewish women's studies programs; and build a national network of Jewish women's student groups.

*Create grassroots women's tzedekah (charity) groups that raise money for social causes. Establish new avenues for young career women's philanthropy to directly benefit women.

*Open a clearinghouse of information on women's employment in Jewish organizations and agencies to compare positions, pay, tenure and rates of promotion for men and women. Document the male-to-female ratio of board members, committee chairs, and officers of local and national groups. Use results to plan for gender equity in employment and leadership.

*Develop detailed curriculum for ongoing Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) groups that study and pray together. Start a national program of weekend retreats for women that include Shabbat celebrations. Sponsor creation of gender-neutral prayerbooks and women-oriented haggadot and Torah commentary.

*Build relationships between Israeli and American Jewish women. Educate and help American women become more involved in Israeli feminism.

*Support working mothers by organizing transportation to Hebrew schools and providing child care for events, meetings and classes. Incorporate women's health education and screenings in evening programs at synagogues and organizations.

Mary Anne Winig, president of Hadassah's Central Pacific Coast Region and a national board member, hopes the report will become a mandate for change.

"I don't think women are looking for something so different than before. Those desires for connections for ourselves and our families are the same," she said.

But Winig said she believes women's lives and expectations have changed enough so they won't put energy into organizations that don't reflect their concerns and won't change to accommodate them.

"If there's any nonsense they have to put up with…they won't do it," she said.

Hadassah itself is feeling the crunch. In the San Francisco chapter, for example, at least two-thirds of the 1,500 members are over age 60. But Winig hopes new initiatives in women's health, such as Hadassah's drive to educate Bay Area teenage girls about breast care, will help attract a new generation of members.

The 23 women on the commission ranged from former U.S. attorney general nominee Zoë Baird to president of the Syms clothing store chain Marcy Syms; from author Anne Roiphe to the U.S. assistant secretary of health's senior adviser, Devra Lee Davis.

The commission met three times, beginning in October 1994, to discuss the data gathered by Cohen Center sociologists.

"It's an embarrassment how little solid information there is about the American Jewish woman," said Shulamit Reinharz, chairwoman of the commission and director of the women's studies program at Brandeis.

The 150 women in the focus groups were selected by local Jewish organizations in a dozen cities, ranging from Los Angeles and Portland to Atlanta and New York City. Each of the 14 focus groups shared a single trait, including being single, foreign-born, secular, Orthodox, Jews-by-choice or mothers who work at home.

Thirty-three percent of the focus group members were Reform, 28 percent were Orthodox, and 24 percent were Conservative. Fifteen percent defined themselves as "just Jewish."

Sixty-seven percent were married with children at home, 20 percent were single with no children, 8 percent were married with no children at home, and 5 percent were single parents. Participants ranged in age from their 20s through 40s.

The goal of the focus group study, which was not designed to be statistically valid, was to put faces on the numbers.

"We wanted to hear what women had to say in their own words about their Jewish identity and spirituality, their involvement in Jewish and non-Jewish communities, family and work, philanthropy, feminism and Israel," said Sylvia Barack Fishman, senior research associate at the Cohen Center.

Concurring with the study's findings on women's disenchantment, one Bay Area lay leader added that these feelings aren't exclusive to her gender.

"I think it's valid not just for women," said Amy Friedkin, a national vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and former president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. "I imagine some of those feelings of alienation are true for men also."