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The Women of Israel Advocacy: Challenges and Benefits of Female Leadership

Successful women

Visit http://israelcampusbeat.org for the latest Israel trends and events on campus.

Less than 10% of the speakers at the Israel Presidential Conference last month were female. At a forum that purported to represent “Tomorrow,” the under-representation of women drew criticism. Today however, this is the reality of female leadership in Jewish organizations.

Women have played important roles throughout Jewish and Israel’s history, but a recent study found that very few women currently lead Jewish and Israel advocacy or education related organizations across North America. On college campuses, there is a greater balance of female and male leadership, leading some observers to believe that this generation of college Israel activists may be a force for change in the broader community.

The Jewish Daily Forward’s recent survey found that only 9 of the country’s top 76 Jewish organizations were led by women in 2011, reflecting on a general national trend. There is also a wage gap in the Jewish world: Female CEOs earn 62.5 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. This figure worsened from 2010, when the number was 67 cents.

In the field of Israel advocacy, the heads of the David Project, Hasbara Fellowships, AIPAC, Israel on Campus Coalition and JStreet are all headed by men. The top figures at many of the media outlets, as well as leading commentators followed by Israel activists, also are men.

Women in Pro-Israel Campus Organizations

So where are the prominent women? Jane Eisner, the editor in chief of the Forward, has written that men who occupy the top positions have been there for an extensive period of time, preventing women from having the opportunity even to compete for senior posts. At the same time, she points out, the majority of new organizations are often started and run by males.

Though still a minority, many women are changing the landscape and breaking new ground for future female leaders. Pro-Israel organizations StandWithUs and The Israel Project both were established by females.

Many females have taken top leadership roles in pro-Israel groups on campus; Hasbara Fellowships, StandWithUs and Israel on Campus Coalition all report having balanced numbers of female and male fellows/interns. Yet many note that there still is work to be done. At this year’s AIPAC Campus Awards dinner, the three “advocates of the year” and three “ally of the year” awards went to males. The event’s top honor, the Duke Rudman Leadership Award, went to the students at Brigham Young University (BYU) whose cadre comprised five males and one female.

The Impact of Female Students

Junior Aliza Ben-Arie is the president of New York University’s pro-Israel group, Gesher, and has found that, contrary to national trends, leadership in campus Israel advocacy groups has a greater balance. Junior Beth Drucker, the president of Harvard University’s, Harvard Students for Israel, echoes this assessment. Drucker said that rising to the presidency was a natural process based on her passion and active role in the group. She believes that, regardless of gender, the key to success is “seeing what people are doing right and then copying their technique,” perfecting past strategies.

Senior Avital Chizhik is the outgoing president of Yeshiva University’s Israel Club. YU has separate male and female pro-Israel groups that sometimes coordinate events together. This ensures continuous female leadership and allows for an interesting comparison of leadership style.

Chizhik is not just a leader at Stern College, YU’s campus for women; she takes a front seat role at Yeshiva University in general.

“In the beginning,” she said, “I had to establish myself and secure the respect of others. I believe in being open, approachable. Everyone thinks they’re the next Bibi Netanyahu but it is important to show humility while still taking yourself seriously.”

Disturbed by the inequality that exists both within the United States and in Israel, Chizhik said that women ought to be more confident and pro-active in getting to the top positions.

“Women have exactly what men have to offer. Women are just as charged with the Zionist cause. There are so many role models who have cleared the path for the next generation of female leaders. For the sake of the future of Israel advocacy, I hope the numbers will change.”

Natalie Menaged, the director of education for Hasbara Fellowships, has also found a balance between female and male leadership on college campuses. While noting that making a true assessment of leadership would require a more careful study she said, “In my experience, there are many young women seriously involved in Israel advocacy. Probably at least 60% of Hasbara Fellows, participants on our elite training program, are female. I see a lot of serious and talented young women taking campus leadership roles.”

Leading the Way

Roz Rothstein is the co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs. As Rothstein began to name all of the male-led organizations, she was shocked to realize the reality behind the Forward’s study.

For the last 10 years, Rothstein has been working diligently to change the landscape of Israel advocacy. “I have sacrificed a lot. This has become a race and I have not stopped in 10 years,” she said. “I have missed time but also done very important work. You buy the life as a CEO. I have an active, busy organization to run and I have to be there to support everyone and be on call when an issue arises.”

Lisa Eisen is the national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the founding chair of the Israel on Campus Coalition. In 20 years of work in the Jewish world, Eisen often has found herself the only female in the board room, but she believes that the future will bring change.

“Women have just as much to contribute as men. Younger women don’t see this gender gap,” she said, “I am starting to see women rise to the top and I am always optimistic. I’d like to encourage women to take senior roles. The culture must change. Women must demand greater flexibility and work solutions. I do see progress. Especially in philanthropy, the numbers are more balanced.”

Over time, Eisen, who started as an activist on her campus, has developed her leadership style. “I work harder than a lot of people,” she said. “I am confident and strong in a nice way. You don’t have to be like Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir to be an effective leader.”

She advises women, “Do your homework. Do not be afraid to speak of and say what is on your mind. Be confident in your own power. Balancing is not easy, I have three kids. I went on maternity leave and then went straight back. I come home and work at night. I don’t get much sleep but I am extremely fulfilled.”

Menaged believes that being a female is an advantage in Israel advocacy. “Putting aside the most fundamental point, which is that each individual brings a unique set of skills and talents to their job regardless of their gender, I think being a woman has certain advantages for Israel advocacy,” she said. “One of the most powerful advocacy tools is being able to share a personal, powerful story that humanizes the situation. A woman can oftentimes connect better emotionally with an audience in this regard.”

Some Advice

There is still work to be done to ensure that the balance of leadership on college campuses carries into the future. The following lessons helped these women rise to their top positions.

Ask for what you want. It was up to Menaged to work with her organization to find a solution that would allow her to continue to work and grow professionally. Menaged explains, “My organization, Hasbara Fellowships, and our parent organization, Aish HaTorah, have always showed considerable sensitivity. I am about to have my third child, and HF/Aish have been very flexible in allowing me to have unique circumstances that balance work and family.I have also been able to have my family travel with me on many occasions.”

Menaged said that while she felt comfortable asking for accommodations that enabled her to balance work and family, many women do not. She encourages women to ask for what they want and find organizations that are committed to helping them find balanced solutions.

Become an expert. Rothstein advises women to become excellent public speakers and writers. These are two key qualities she believes every leader and head of an organization must have. Most importantly she said, “Make yourself an expert in your field. Understand the Middle East, its history and be able to speak and write about it like a true expert.”

Find a mentor. Eisen encourages young women to find “a woman of senior ranking and regularly seek their advice and meet with each other. There is someone who came before you who can guide you through your career and you harness your own strength and power,” she said.

Realize your worth. “The current difference in salaries is completely unacceptable and inequitable and it has to change,” Eisen said. She advises, “As you graduate from college, do your homework on market salaries. Your first job sets the [benchmark] for the rest of your career. When you start with too low of a salary, that gap accumulates throughout your career. Find the appropriate market salary, present yourself well, network and always try to improve your skills. Professional development, obtaining an advanced degree and volunteering for new assignments are ways to build your skills set. Don’t undersell yourself.”

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Successful women

Though still a minority, many women are changing the landscape and breaking new ground for future female leaders. Pro-Israel organizations StandWithUs and The Israel Project both were established by females.

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