women
(William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History)

While reading the historic pages of the JN and Detroit Jewish Chronicle and in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, one can see the stark differences in the roles of women and men in the public sphere.

The history of the Jews in Detroit and Michigan over the past century is a story of communal growth and progress. The community has grown in numbers and organizational strength, as well as political and business power. As my friend and Detroit Jewish News Foundation founder Arthur Horwitz always says, using a boxing metaphor, the Detroit Jewish community “punches above its weight” when it comes to its place in American Jewish affairs.

Looking Back
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

However, not all in the community have advanced at the same pace. I was reminded of this fact when I found an excellent feature article by Jill Davidson Sklar in the Feb. 18, 2000, issue of the JN. Titled “The Leadership Dance,” its contemporary focus is, “Nationally and locally, women are beginning to break through to top Jewish communal positions.”

Looking Back
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

While reading the historic pages of the JN and Detroit Jewish Chronicle and in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, one can see the stark differences in the roles of women and men in the public sphere. In the early years of the Chronicle, articles and columns devoted to women usually focused on “society” events, betrothments and marriages, with a few reports of women involved in communal organizations. As the decades rolled by, however, the pages provide evidence that women were increasingly involved in communal organizations, as well as in politics and business.

Looking Back
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

The Sklar article reports that, in 2000, the numbers of women in leadership positions were still well below the levels of male participation. A 1997 study by Ma’yan, a Jewish women’s project from New York City, noted that 50% of Jews in America were women, but in communal organizations, women held only 25% of board membership. Only 12% of these groups had a woman in the top position. The article cites the Golden Rule as one reason: “He who holds the gold, rules.” In short, men were still considered to be the primary contributors to good causes rather than couples or individual women who had made their own mark in the business world.

Give credit to Jewish Detroit in 2000. It was an exception. The involvement of women in communal organizations was at a higher rate than the national average: 25% participation on boards (40% on JCC Board that year), and there were more women in leadership positions.

Looking Back
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

The article also provides good history on some pathfinders. In 2000, Penny Blumenstein was serving as the first female president of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, and women constituted 29% of its board membership. This was progress, but not enough. Blumenstein spelled out what was needed, and still desired today: “I don’t want them [women] to be segregated. I want them to be integrated.” In short, no token female officials, but full parity with men.

Since that time, two other women have been Federation president: Nancy Grosfeld and Beverly Liss. And, Dorothy Benyas has been its longtime chief financial officer. However, the last (and only) woman to be the executive director of Federation was Blanche Hart, 1903-1923.

Looking Back
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

There has been significant progress for women in communal organizations since Sklar’s article from 2000. I’ve only cited a very few examples from one organization among the many where women now serve in leadership roles. The glass ceiling has huge cracks. Maybe it will soon shatter.  

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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