After some 23 years in Jewish communal service, Judy Beck would still encourage young women to enter the field.
“I would tell them it’s a fantastic career,” said Beck, former director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. “But I’d also say it’s not really a field that will lead them to a top position in an agency.”
In fact, said Beck, while she hopes that the young women she’s mentored over the years would be the leaders of the future, “I don’t know if they’ll be able to.”
“There’s a concrete ceiling,” she said. “As you look across the country, maybe two or three women head federations [in large cities].”
“The topic is one of my major passions,” said Beck, who has generally been a department head throughout her career.
Speculating on the reasons women are seriously underrepresented in Jewish communal leadership positions, Beck said, “I think in the past, they felt that women didn’t write the checks and men would rather deal with another man in fund-raising.”
In addition, she suggested, “The life of a Jewish communal professional is really hard – late hours, evening meetings – and so, in terms of the progress of women, a lot of it may be the issue of managing work and family.”
But, she added, when she discussed this issue with colleagues several years ago, “some people brought up the fact that young men have these issues too but it doesn’t seem to impede their progress.”
It’s not fair in terms of “an excuse,” she said, but it may be that women simply don’t want to make the decision to spend so much time away from their children.
“It goes back to the fact that some of the precepts of the women’s movement were not necessarily realistic,” she said. “Somebody has to be home to take care of the kids.”
However, she added, “it also has to do with sequencing. A young mom might not be so interested, but at a certain point, she’s in a position to do it.”
Beck recalled that when she first entered the field, she went to an orientation where all of the executives at the dais were men and all the new people coming into the field were women.
“It hasn’t changed much,” she said, noting that many people working in the field are women while those in positions of power tend to be men.
Beck said she doesn’t think anyone is spearheading an effort to change this right now, adding that the move for change seem to have peaked several years ago. She pointed out that some women do head smaller constituent agencies, such as Jewish Family Service, while others serve as synagogue presidents (see Women’s work).
Nevertheless, “those of us who have really fought the battles see that nothing much has changed in certain areas,” she said.