It was never easy to be a woman. With narrowly defined roles and few opportunities for a career path, the average woman of the mid-20th century could be content with driving the carpool, being the “hostess with the mostest” and worrying about the waxy yellow buildup on the kitchen floor. Most women wanted more.
As choices in women’s lives have proliferated, women have had to sort out their options. What are our priorities? Can we really have it all? If we do have it all, what do we do to make things better for our sisters AND our brothers – and, of course, our children?
For many years, women have believed that they can achieve success by trying harder. Laurie Ann Goldman, CEO of Spanx in Atlanta and the speaker at the Women’s Voices luncheon presented by Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS) on March 18 (see sidebar), thinks women have to learn to “try softer.” She advocates “trusting that things will work out, sharing the responsibility and knowing that there is not always one right answer and I won’t always be the one to find it, instead of holding tight to the steering wheel.”
Goldman, who serves on the Committee of 200 (C200), the Jewish Federation of Atlanta and Pace Academy and was named one of Jewish Women International’s Top Ten Women to Watch, grew up thinking that “serving the community is almost as natural as breathing,” because her parents set that kind of example. She also knew that she wanted more time with her family and her community efforts. As if to emphasize the point, she called me from the car when she was taking her son to get a team T-shirt and related that her children can get her on the phone whenever they call. “The blending of responsibility creates a full life, and you can take the lessons learned from one sector of your life and apply them to the others,” she said.
After building Coca-Cola’s licensing operation to a 54-country, billion dollar business, Goldman traded the path to a senior position in one of the world’s largest companies for the job of running Spanx, a start-up firm, with one product and a handful of people working out of a three-room bungalow near Atlanta. Under her leadership, Spanx has become the number one shape wear brand in major department stores – a $350 million business that has grown with innovative new products and an aggressive expansion into new categories, new channels and, now, new countries.
Goldman’s vision for her company – “believing we could do the impossible against the strong, well-capitalized competitors and overcoming the objections of people telling us ‘no’” – sounds a lot like the issue of women breaking through the glass ceiling. For Goldman, it can be summed up thusly: “You empower yourself to think positively about what outcome you want, and you break through the barriers.”
Undoubtedly, women have come a long way. Many female leaders in Orange County agree that women’s voices in Judaism have paralleled changes in overall society. In fact, according to Cindy Furst, who has been selected as the Anne Entin 2013 Woman of the Year and will be honored at the Women’s Voices luncheon, some of the older women in Orange County were on the forefront of feminism.
Furst, a Cleveland native who moved to Orange County with her husband, Michael, 26 years ago, remembers when Women’s Division, the precursor to Women’s Philanthropy, was more of a place to connect than a powerful fundraising and social action arm of JFFS. Voices, which she chaired during the 1990s, might have been called “Choices,” but people thought it sounded too political. Currently a member of the board of directors of Women’s Philanthropy of JFFS, Furst has served on the boards of Congregation B’nai Israel, Jewish Federation & Family Services, the Merage JCC and AIPAC and was active at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School for fifteen years.
“When thinking about my own personal special moments in our Jewish community, the biggest one is having a ‘box seat,’ once our new campus opened, for the growth and development of said community,” Furst said. “Living nearby and getting involved with some of the other aspects of Jewish community life was critical.”
For Debbie Margolis, who was recently installed as president of JFFS, being a woman has been significant in two ways. She and her husband, Jeff, currently co-chair of the Rose Project, were both getting active on the board at Temple Bat Yahm. Deciding that only one of them should continue on that route, she got involved on the Women’s Philanthropy board. Eventually becoming president of that group, she sat on the JFFS board, and the rest is history.
The other significant thing about being a woman, according to Margolis, is creating a sense of balance. “Men and women bring something different to the table,” she explained. “When we look at the makeup of the board, we need a balance of men and women, synagogues and age groups. We’re trying to do outreach to make the most of the diversity in the community.”
Margolis described JFFS’s key challenges as helping people understand that JFFS is a gateway to the Jewish community, implementing the strategic plan, strengthening the JFFS relationships with community partners and expanding relationships with the synagogues and strengthening the board to provide meaningful work for leaders who want to step up. She looks forward to “meeting the people JFFS is helping and touching the good we do.”
If Margolis believes herself to have any disadvantage, it would be lack of business experience, rather than gender. Fortunately, the executive vice presidents, Frank Ellis and Dan Koblin, do have business experience, and other members of the board have strengths in other areas. “It’s important that I know what I don’t know,” Margolis said.
Local female rabbis stress the importance of balance as well. For Rabbi Rachel Kort, director of synagogue engagement at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo, who was ordained in 2010 in a class that was 75-percent female, “it’s better to have a balance of men and women serving congregations.” She added that there are certain issues, such as infertility, parent-career challenges, spousal issues and health needs, where women feel more comfortable talking to women.
Women rabbis can deal with specific women’s issues, agreed Rabbi Leah Lewis, who has served as assistant rabbi at Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine for 1½ years. “Being a woman and being a rabbi was never an issue,” she said, but she likes to create special women’s activities such as women’s seders and women’s Torah study groups. She appreciates the different ways of thinking of the roles of Jewish women – the Blu Greenberg approach that says the role of the woman is different and the Rachel Adler/Judith Plaskow approach that stresses equality.
Both male and female voices need to be heard in congregations, according to Rabbi Heidi Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, who was the first woman rabbi in Orange County 15 years ago. Just as her role evolved from assistant to senior rabbi, the role of women evolved in Judaism here and elsewhere. As she explained, “My family has grown into the position too. The rabbinate is a family affair. When I’m away for shivah or another event, the family’s way is to be part of it as well.”
Rabbi Cohen believes that women have found roles that are fulfilling and exciting, which inspires boys and girls that everybody can pursue their dreams. “In all professions, women can take on new roles because family life is shared between the husband and wife,” she said. “Men are discovering the nurturing role of staying at home.”
Rabbi Osnat Margalit, who got into the rabbinate later in life, also emphasizes balance between a woman’s personal and professional life. “As a woman, mother and wife, I always felt it was important to create Shabbat and holiday meals, but a woman’s responsibilities as a rabbi can get it the way.” Now she brings family-centered, meal-centered celebrations into her role as rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom of Whittier.
Rabbi Nancy Myers of Temple Beth David, whose ordination class of 1997 was half women, added, “Women are transforming the image of rabbis from an older man with a beard to a more diverse image that encompasses different ages, genders and appearance. In 2004, I was the first female rabbi in Orange County to head her congregation. Today in 2013, my gender is no longer newsworthy. As more and more people see women in leadership positions and perceive their competence and strength, it has become acceptable and in some cases, even desirable to have a female president, rabbi, cantor or educator.”
Rabbis are finding non-traditional roles off of the bimah as well. Donning her uniform and bullet-proof vest, Rabbi Linda Seidman, who is certified as a deputy chaplain, works with the county jails, offering counseling and other services to 80 or 90 people per month. “If anybody had told me 10 years ago, when I was an aerospace engineer, that I would be doing this, I would have said ‘in your dreams,’ but life takes funny turns.”
Rabbi Seidman, who admittedly failed at retirement, heard that the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR), a non-denominational rabbinical school, offered a part-time program. She enrolled a year after her husband. Today, in addition to the jail chaplaincy, Rabbi Seidman serves as the chaplain at a hospice facility, performs an occasional funeral and does services and Bible study at a senior living facility.
What about respect for liturgical equality for women? On the one hand, the AJR has announced that Rabbi Tamar Frankiel will become the first Orthodox woman to lead a rabbinical school. On the other hand, Rabbi Anat Hoffman was arrested, strip searched and thrown into a cell without a mattress for leading the Women of the Wall in prayer, singing and wearing tallitot, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, according to Rabbi Cohen, who finds it “appalling.” Rabbi Margalit was there, reading Torah at the Kotel and then singing outside of the police station, because “I’m very supportive of people who want to pray, and the Kotel belongs to all of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Seidman believes that there is “a tremendous amount of security in knowing what to do and when to do it,” and traditional Judaism meets the needs of some people who are happy and comfortable with their roles. Still, she feels that women bring another approach to Judaism. “We see things differently than men,” she said. “Maybe it’s biology, but we study Talmud from a different perspective.”
Now there are more options for women, even in traditional Judaism, according to Rabbi Kort. She is “interested to see where my Orthodox women peers will go and what options they will have.”
“Women in Orthodoxy are truly cherished but not obligated by certain time-related mitzvot, such as davening at a a certain time,” Rabbi Cohen said.
Rabbi Lewis added, “It’s a fundamental question of commandedness – who is obligated and who’s not. We obligate ourselves – not just because I’m a woman, but in the Reform world we can make our own choices. There are two stages in Jewish feminism, which has paralleled American feminism: women who fought to have equal access and women who are glad for access but want to create their own voices that have been missing.”
On non-mitzvah-related issues, such as women’s health and children’s issues, “our concerns are rooted in same values, and there is plenty to unite us,” Rabbi Seidman said. “Ritual issues are harder, but there is so much that we can come together on. If your gut tells you that the women’s domain is the home or that you need to help women sit at the front of the bus and you act on it, it’s so much more powerful.”
She added, “This is an exciting time to be a woman. “The world is changing, and Judaism is changing with it. That’s what keeps it alive.”
“We all have amazing voices and can be creating things on a global level,” Rabbi Cohen concluded.
About Jewish Federation
& Family Services of Orange County (JFFS)
JFFS brings together the people, the partners and the resources to care for people in need, to build a vibrant community and to sustain and enhance Jewish life. JFFS grants and programs ensure lifesaving humanitarian services, care and connection for seniors, educational opportunities for youth, leadership on campuses and a strong relationship with Israel and global Jewry.
Women’s Philanthropy, a group under the umbrella of JFFS, gives every woman the opportunity to respond to humanitarian needs and affirm her Jewish identity. Inspired by the Jewish traditions of tzedakah and tikkun olam (social justice and repairing the world), Women’s Philanthropy is dedicated to strengthening the Jewish people here at home, in Israel and around the world.
Since 2007, Women’s Philanthropy has continuously raised more than $1 million per year for the JFFS Generations Fund, which supports such community organizations as Tarbut V’Torah, Hebrew Academy, the Bureau of Jewish Education, Hillel and the Jewish Community Center. Various levels of giving offer engaging social events while raising money for the Generations Fund.
Mitzvah Mavens has been a successful outreach program connecting women with those in need in the community. Orange County Jewish women have been involved in Mary’s Soup Kitchen, Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, Ronald McDonald House, Heritage Pointe, Jeremiah Society, Women 4 Women, Working Wardrobes, Reading Partners, Knitting Circle, Binky Patrol and more.
About Women’s Voices
Women’s Philanthropy’s Women’s Voices luncheon is the largest, annual gathering of Jewish women in Orange County. More than 700 women are expected to attend the luncheon on March 18 at the Hyatt Regency, 17900 Jamboree Road, Irvine. The keynote speaker is Laurie Ann Goldman, CEO of Spanx, and the Anne Entin Woman of the Year is Cindy Furst.
The day begins with a coffee reception at 10 a.m., the luncheon begins with the business portion of the meeting at 10:30 a.m. and the luncheon ends promptly at 1:30 p.m. to accommodate people who have to get back to work or pick up their children. Lunch is a delicious kosher meal catered by Blueberry Hill.
As co-chairperson Barbara Shapiro explained, “This is an exciting social event and one that makes you feel good for a lot of reasons. It is our main fundraising event of the year, and being there is a mitzvah. Women’s Philanthropy takes you out of that ‘me’ place and makes you feel lucky to be able to give.”
Co-chair Susan Tuchler added, “Women involved with JFFS see where the money goes and the difference it makes and give more. Our ranking has been confirmed by Charity Navigator. JFFS received a 4-Star rating for the third year in a row. Only 9 percent of the charities rated by Charity Navigator have done that.”
The cost of the luncheon is $75 with a minimum donation of $136 (paid over the course of a year) to the Generations Fund. Attendees will have the opportunity to make a donation to the 2013 campaign and to receive a $50 gift certificate
Women’s Voices can accommodate as many as 12 women at a table and welcomes people to volunteer as table captains. The event is for the entire community from Orthodox to secular women, from young to young at heart and in between. For more information on that, on the luncheon or on Women’s Philanthropy, contact the group at (949) 435-3484, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.JewishOrangeCounty.org/women. Α