Though not so unusual, seven synagogues currently are led by women.
Barbara Lewis Contributing Writer
Seven congregations in the Detroit Jewish community are led by female presidents. What’s so remarkable about that is that it’s so unremarkable.
None of the current female congregation presidents feels like a trailblazer, though several noted it is unusual to have so many congregations headed by women at the same time.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Liz Modell, president of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, says whenever she tells people there are seven female congregation presidents in Detroit “they are thrilled.”
Modell said the most unusual thing about her presidency is that she didn’t have the business background most of her predecessors had. “But I’m a very good organizer,” said Modell of Bloomfield Hills, who has four children, aged 13 to 20, and a degree in organizational management from the University of Michigan. “I’m getting a lot more respect than I expected.”
Jeri Fishman, president of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, wondered why it’s taken until now for half the area’s non-Orthodox congregations to be led by women. On the other hand, she noted, at some local Conservative synagogues, it’s been less than 20 years since women have been counted in a minyan.
Female congregation presidents are no longer a novelty. The Detroit pioneer was Lillian Maltzer, who became president of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park in 1969; she was only the second female congregation president in the country.
It took another 10 years for Mary Saidman to be elected president at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield in 1979. Other trailblazers include Barbara Goodman at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park in 1981, the first Conservative woman president in the area; Shirley Fink at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield in 1982; Flora Millter Winton at Temple Beth El in 1983; and Barbara Cook at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills in 1988.
Since Goodman’s tenure at Beth Shalom, nearly half the succeeding presidents have been women. Beth Nadis of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield is the fifth woman among the past seven presidents.
While none of the women has experienced any outright hostility, Jodee Fishman Raines, president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit admitted she sometimes feels her comments aren’t taken seriously until a man says the same thing. But that happens everywhere, she said, not just in synagogues.
Some of the female presidents say women are better communicators than men.
“Men tend to focus on concrete, tangible stuff,” said Weiner, acknowledging that she was generalizing. “Women try to see the bigger picture. Yes, finances are important, but so are relationships. If the relationships aren’t working, the finances won’t work either.”
Some of the women have made changes in the way their boards do business.
Hillary King of Bloomfield Hills, president of Temple Israel, moved the biweekly board meetings from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. “I realized that a 6 p.m. meeting was based on an old-fashioned notion that that’s when the workday ended; moving it to 8 a.m. respected everyone’s personal and family time,” she said.
Modell said she changed the way Temple Beth El’s board meetings are structured, starting with rearranging the conference table from a U-shape to a square.
“In the past, we listened to lots of reports,” she said. “Now there’s more discussion. And everything is timed, so our meetings last no longer than 90 minutes.” After each meeting, she invites board members to stay and chat over a glass of wine. “When you get to know the people in the group, you want to come to the meetings.”
Fishman said she’s working to be more approachable and to ensure that everyone at Shaarey Zedek has a voice. A year ago, she started an inclusion committee that developed a campaign of outreach to the LGBTQ+ community. Now the committee is working on better inclusion of people with disabilities.
Raines and Mary Ellen Gurewitz, president of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park, both lead small congregations that only recently hired rabbis: Ariana Silverman at the Downtown Synagogue and Alana Alpert at T’chiyah. Previously both were lay-led.
Gurewitz said leading a small congregation is not necessarily easier. “In a larger institution, much of the work is done by the professional staff while in a smaller one more of the work is done by volunteers.” Her position became more challenging four years ago when T’chiyah established Detroit Jews for Justice, which added to her responsibilities.
Raines, 54, hadn’t served as an officer before she accepted the presidency of the Downtown Synagogue. But she had the business experience that many of the younger board members lacked.
Her presidency puts to good use the skills she developed as vice president of programs for the Erb Family Foundation, she said.
Most of the other female presidents rose through the ranks of their congregations’ boards and executive committees. King, for example, served 12 years in various executive committee positions before becoming president.
The number of women now on congregation executive committees will undoubtedly lead to more female presidents. Several congregations, including Adat Shalom and Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, have female vice presidents who will likely become the next president. At Shaarey Zedek, where there were no female officers for many years, four of the six current executive board members are women.
Detroit’s experience echoes national trends. Alissa Pinck, senior director of marketing and communication for the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement, said more than a third of Conservative congregations in their database are led by women. The actual percentage may be higher because she didn’t count presidents with unisex names.
Amy Asin, vice president of strengthening congregations for the Union for Reform Judaism, said while the URJ doesn’t record the gender of congregation presidents, they estimate that just under half are women.
Female clergy and professionals help make the women presidents comfortable in their positions. Both the rabbi and the executive director at the Downtown Synagogue are women. At Temple Israel, three of the six rabbis and the education director (also a rabbi) are women. That helps foster a sense within the congregation that women can be anything and do anything, King said.
“The fact that so many Reform and Conservative congregations have female rabbis makes being a female president not an issue,” said Gurewitz, an attorney who lives in Detroit. “Gender-based distinctions seem to be something we’ve moved past.”
Weiner said a congregation president’s employment status may be more important than sex. She stepped back from her full-time position as librarian at Lawrence Technological University before agreeing to serve as president and works only 12 to 15 hours a week. Even so, her presidential duties are taking much more time and energy than she had expected. “I can’t imagine how anyone could do it while still working full time,” she said.
Raines admits it’s a challenge. “They say that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person,” she said. In addition to her full-time job, which requires attendance at many evening events, she is vice president of the Palmer Woods Association.
Nadis, a physician who works part time, said she chose to make time in her busy life to serve her congregation. “The shul is one of my high priorities, and I’m happy to make it work,” she said. “I have found that my training and experience as a pediatrician is coming in handy in many ways.”
Nadis remembers her husband Ronn’s tenure as Beth Ahm’s president when their children — twin daughters now 30 and a son now 26 — were young. “Now that was tough,” she said.
Several of the female presidents said they are happy to serve as role models.
“My kids have been really proud of me for stepping out of my comfort level and growing,” Modell said.
King agreed. “I love the fact that our future young Jewish leaders can see that it’s routine for women to be in leadership positions.”