Challenges to Women Administrators in Jewish Education

Nov 12, 2007

Challenges to Women Administrators in Jewish Education:
A personal perspective

Francine E. Hirschman

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Sivan 5749, pp. 21-30. Appears here with premission.

The following was presented at the November 1988 Conference of the Educators Council of America.

The challenges facing women educators in the field of Jewish education are a complex combination of women’s issues, educational issues and Jewish issues. The first step in meeting these challenges is defining them and identifying where they originated: in the outside, non-Jewish world, in the limited personal environment around us, and finally, from within.
The first challenge, from the outside secular world, took the form of new promises and opportunities. Those of us who grew up in the sixties, married in the seventies and work in the eighties have seen amazing changes. Whereas we once “knew our place” and our limited options – teacher, nurse or secretary, but always first and foremost, wife and mother – the choices have multiplied. With the new possibilities came propaganda, telling us we could do it all and have it all. The first rude awakening for many of us was the realization that this was simply not true.
What do these changes and challenges mean for us in the second area – the Jewish educational and communal world around us? Where once we were all teachers, many of us have entered the ranks of administration, often suffering the same economic and career discrimination that our liberationist sisters warned about. Many who have begun to pursue careers on a full time basis have had to contend with difficult family issues, such as child care, maternity leaves and health benefits, as well as a Jewish community and Jewish educational system that are no better equipped to meet our needs than that of the general society. In short, the problems of the secular world are the problems of the religious world, and the issues of sexism, discrimination, and the changing role of women in the workplace and the home are now Jewish issues as well.
Although the Equal Rights Amendment has not passed, we assume that equal pay for equal work is an ironclad American principle. Yet only six years ago, while applying for a full time administrative position, I was told that if I took the job “the salary would be $30,000; of course it would be more if you were a man….” Although we acknowledge certain limitations or role differentiations within the parameters of halakha, in those instances when pay scales award the greatest rank to those with smicha, paying little attention to other educational or professional experiences, women teachers are given a very clear message: you will never be as valuable as a first year rebbe. We have all absorbed the credo of American society, “You are what you’re paid.” The most damaging result of this, however, is the dearth of professionals entering the field. The loss of status to the teaching profession, coupled with the emergence of other, more lucrative career pathways for women, has resulted in a student bias against choosing Jewish education as a career. In the spring of 1987 I was asked to be part of a Career Day program at a prestigious metropolitan yeshiva high school. Two students showed up at the session on career opportunities in education. Who is going to teach our students’ children?
Within our own institutions we fight a constant battle. Parents frequently do not accept a female teacher’s or administrator’s answer as conclusive, often asking “Where’s the boss?” A woman’s anger or tears can be ridiculed or misinterpreted in a stereotypical fashion by her male colleagues and supervisor. Most women in Jewish education are still in positions in which they are subservient to a male dean, principal, menahel or supervisor, and it is these men whose attitudes and actions often make our professional lives rewarding or unbearable.
Although not unique to women in Jewish education, it is important to note that some of our children’s schools refuse to acknowledge that women’s roles have changed. Except for the occasional woman teacher or administrator who is in the same position, we find ourselves dealing with people who think that we are home or available at all hours. School trips and mid-day class parties turn a child’s school experience into a working mother’s logistical nightmare. And then, there is the emergency call home. Yes, I do believe that a parent should be contacted immediately at work if a child is sick. But if the father is around the corner, and the mother three boroughs away, why does the nurse persist in calling me?
The third and most difficult challenge that all working women experience, is from within ourselves.
As members of a Jewish community we subject ourselves to unrealistic expectations and demands. Whereas women who were home raising families frequently served in volunteer capacities and headed fund raising efforts, enjoying the opportunity to get out of the house and socialize to benefit a specific tzedaka, today women who are working regard this as just one more demand that they either overtax themselves with and fulfill, or ignore and then feel guilty.
Within our families we feel the constant pressure of choices, shortcuts and guilt. Our children need us for homework, advice or a Purim costume. Our husbands need us as companions, confidantes, cooks, advisors and wives. And yet there are the papers, reports and phone calls which could not be completed during the day and follow us home. Obviously, we cannot do all of these simultaneously or with equal zeal, many of us end up harried over what we’ve done, and guilty over what we haven’t.
There is also the competitive balabustah syndrome: our Shabbat table must compete with others in the community; our home bakedmishloach manot sends our neighbors the message that we’re not ignoring our other roles just because we are working; take-out Shabbat food, purchased Purim delicacies and paper plates would be an admission of inadequacy that we are unwilling to accept.
If all this sounds bleak and depressing, why do we do it? Because as difficult as these roles are, they are also tremendously exciting and rewarding. In being part of a generation which is dealing with these challenges, we are helping to forge solutions, particularly within our own institutions and our own families.
We must teach our children and our students – and our colleagues – that a person can’t have it all without paying a price or asking for help. Although there are role models that we want to present – educated, modern, empowered women who flourish within the world of Orthodox Judaism, we are doing a disservice to them, and to ourselves, if the role model is either martyr or superwoman, alone, and totally independent of other human beings.
We must teach our husbands and the men we work with (and ultimately our sons) to become partners in the process. We need to synthesize our gains with their experience. Strong, confident men are unafraid of strong, confident women. The Dean of my school has pushed me when I’ve held back, refused to let parents or colleagues bypass me in our chain of command, and insisted on sharing thekovod involved in our successes.
Having a husband who is supportive and encouraging makes it all viable in the first place. If “behind every great man there is a great woman”, so too, behind every successful woman in our field is a man who said, “Teach, learn, speak, publish, do, go – and I’ll help.” There is no loss of standing – personal, professional, communal – for the man who shares in the joy and drudgery of maintaining a home and family. Just as generations of women have gloried in the accomplishments of their husbands, so a new generation of husbands and wives can share the glory of each other’s accomplishments.
But, at the same time, because Jewish education doesn’t provide many formal benefits, male administrators must understand the special needs of their working mother employees. This understanding is often rewarded by the tremendous commitment of female educators to their institution and a dedicated attitude about their attendance and involvement. The sensitivity toward women employees and colleagues is often extended to and felt by female students as well. And, rather than revealing weakness, it shows care, strength and compassion. Having such men as mentors, colleagues and friends enriches the lives of women in Jewish education, their students and the entire community.
One means of encouraging such sensitivity is through the sharing of experiences, frustrations, and needs. It is recommended that Jewish educational organizations place the issue of the Jewish female administrator at the top of their agendas. An educational conference dedicated to discussing the conflicts, concerns and challenges of female educators and administrators will greatly advance positive interaction, understanding and sensitivity of male and female colleagues.
The process of re-education and re-adjustment, however, is not always a smooth one. Perhaps, therefore, it is time for the emergence of support groups to share the frustrations, the obstacles, the emotions and the solutions. Such a group of female Jewish administrators would reduce the sense of isolation by advancing the dialogue and providing a network of peer support.
Finally, no one can do it all or have it all. We don’t need to or want to be superwomen. What we must do, is work together – as a family, an institution, a community – to allow half of our people, the descendants of those activists, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, to accomplish as much as possible with a minimum of pain and guilt, thereby fully realizing and maximizing our own unique tzelem Elokim.

FRANCINE E. HIRSCHMAN is the Principal of General Studies of Ezra Academy of Queens. She is a doctoral student in Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate Institute and co-author of the forthcoming book Teens and Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education.