Rona M. Novick PhD is the dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. She is extremely grateful to the many women who contributed to this article and feels honored to be in their company.

Leading Lessons: Voices and Visions of Women in Jewish Educational Leadership

When I sent an email to over three dozen female colleagues asking if they would share their challenges, successes and guidance for other aspiring women leaders, I did not imagine the overwhelming reaction. Within minutes the responses came, diverse and eloquent, but unified in one sense. Every woman who responded thanked me for reaching out, expressing deep gratitude that women in leadership would be discussed and a feeling of honor that their voice would be included.

The ideas represented here are certainly from a skewed sample. I relied on my personal contacts - colleagues largely from the Orthodox day school community, alumni and students from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University where I serve as dean. Their experiences suggest important themes and compelling opportunities for change for our field at large.

Leadership is Leadership

Several of the respondents asked whether I was interested only in experiences unique to women, or leadership challenges in general. This prompted me to question whether we ask male leaders about gender-specific leadership challenges. Lisa Stroll, head of school at Denver Academy of Torah, commented, “In our current climate with issues centering around gender differences (and all the polarization that this has created), it’s critically important to keep the focus on our leadership, being a professional, and simply doing a great job.” By not limiting responses to gender-related issues, many of the challenges cited are universal. This should not minimize the challenges that gender presents for women in day school leadership, especially in the Orthodox world.

Issues of Kavod 

At Azrieli, I routinely hear women describe the roadblocks they encounter in advancing professionally. More times than I can count, their rationale for obtaining a doctorate in Jewish education includes the need for a recognizable title, doctor. One school leader noted, “There is just such a tremendous advantage men have because of their halakhic status, and that spills over into parts of life that have nothing to do with Halakhah.” Men’s rabbinic title carries not just status and stature but authority. By no means do women pursue advanced degrees only for the title, and I certainly endorse the knowledge and skills developed through doctoral study as an important contributor to leadership success, even while I can hope for leaders to be respected for their skill regardless of title or gender. 

Among the amazing women leaders who responded to my query, there was a range of gender-specific roadblocks experienced, from those who felt largely positive, including the sense that only a “handful of men had difficulty answering to a woman, or preferred that ‘these things’ be handled by a man,” to those who felt so extremely stifled or limited by leadership opportunities for women in existing settings that to create space for their leadership they felt new programs, schools and certainly leadership models need to be developed.

Balance, Boundaries and Satisfaction

Some challenges were more personal. A common theme was the difficulty with boundaries and balance: creating space for oneself, for socialization and even for private time. One school leader explained that since she is “introverted... and interacting with people all day is exhausting,” she schedules meeting-free days where she can be in her “own head a little more.” Another commented on women’s inclination to nurture and invest emotionally, “to the point where... we may overextend ourselves and lean towards burnout and compassion fatigue, and guilt ourselves when we need to take a step back.” 

Family-work boundaries and balance entered into virtually every response, whether it involved the challenge of having one’s own children in the school, or the guilt engendered in feeling you are not serving either family or school as fully as you would like. Raizi Chechik, head of school at Manhattan Day School, wonders if the limited number of women seeking leadership roles may be partially a result of “the enhanced sensitivity women often have toward family/work balance.”

Leaders offered direct evidence of success in specific programs. Dr. Tamara Beliak described how she and two women colleagues at Oakland Hebrew Day School engaged middle school students to design the school’s Beit Midrash program, which has excited boys and girls about Torah learning. Others spoke of the joy in seeing smiling faces back in school and continued connection with students. A repeated theme was the crucial role of bi-directional respect and support. Not only was it seen as a critical component of success to surround oneself with colleagues and people who share your values and those of the school, but ensuring the continued growth and satisfaction of those around you animated much of the leaders’ efforts.

Advice for Young Leaders 

I asked those responding what message or advice they would have for other women leaders and aspiring leaders, and among the gems of wisdom, Esther Tokayer, associate principal at Magen David Yeshiva, balanced a focus on the future with self-care: “Look ahead. Seek opportunities or create them where they don’t exist. Create opportunities for others to rise to the occasion and accept responsibility. If you need the day, take it. If you’re not enjoying it, it’s time to move on.” One woman echoed the spirit of many, stating, “Don’t be afraid to reach out of your comfort zone. At least that’s what I tell myself!” 

Many responses spoke to leaders’ role in supporting the growth of others, both men and women. Another response suggests that even as we may become overly concerned about how we are seen by others, we “need to remind ourselves that we get to write and own our own narrative.” And the advice of Danielle Bloom, Tanakh department chair at Naaleh High School for Girls, “Don’t feel like you have to figure everything out on your own,“echoed others’ endorsement of coaching and mentorship.

Setting Women, and Men, up for Success

It is clear to me, from this limited sample and from my broader experience, that Jewish education is populated with amazing professionals, many of whom are women. We need to support the growth of more leaders, women and men, if we want a vibrant, healthy field of Jewish education. As one respondent urged, “we need to make leadership more inviting to those seeking to serve,” addressing issues of job security, high work demands and boundary blurring.

Nevertheless, we need to attend to the unique hurdles Jewish women in or aspiring to leadership may face. As one woman painfully related, “The title of rabbi confers a legitimacy that women have to try to earn in ways that twist us into pretzels and leave us frustrated because we simply don’t know how to prove ourselves and end up feeling that we never really will.” 

We need to support women’s growth in leadership for the women who have untapped, unrecognized or underutilized talents that our field desperately needs. Even more so, we need to grow women’s leadership in our schools to benefit our students and our future. Becky Troodler, principal at Kohelet Lab and Middle Schools, shares the poignant hopes that “female leadership will look and feel different when I retire 20 years from now than how it felt when I began 20 years ago, that all leaders, men and women, continue to work to find support and success in creating and living a healthy work-life balance, and that women will be considered and seen as obvious candidates and options for HOS positions in the Orthodox community and not as a risk, or outside the norm.”

Pathbreaking 

Consider the powerful messages two heads of school send through their words and actions: 

Just being a woman doing the things that a man usually does creates an implicit message: Yes, women belong in this role. Yes, any student can have a woman as a principal, and women can be principals - even of coed, or dare I say it? boys’ schools. Those possibilities shouldn’t be outrageous. Tikvah Wiener, head of school, The Idea School

As Modern Orthodox Jews who strive to inhabit the tensile space between tradition and modernity, I think students seeing a female leader address them about world issues or giving a dvar Torah before Tefillah, and then stepping to the other side of the mechitzah when prayer starts, is silent but eloquent testimony to that balance. Raizi Chechik, head of school, Manhattan Day School

The responses I received were both realistic and optimistic. Esther Salomon, previously a day school administrator and now the director of the Hidden Sparks Parent Education Center, wrote, “Successful women in traditional yeshiva environments are unicorns. Expect to work harder than anyone else in the building. Know your value and don’t be afraid to advocate for fair compensation. Your voice should give you a seat at the decision-making table. Lead with love, not fear.” 

At the same time, many leaders at all levels found a “welcoming and embracing experience” greeting them in their leadership. They have reported that many schools seeking leaders feel positive about hiring women, and that sentiments such as “this is a man’s role” have not been encountered. This welcoming environment is important to note, especially as we hope to encourage more women to consider and expand their leadership. 

There is reason for hope - and there is also work to be done. In our very challenged, very divided world, can we afford not to support and cultivate the wisdom and leadership capacity of any group? How can we move our schools and our students forward with messages of limits and closed doors? Considering the generous, experienced, intelligent, caring voices of women leaders in the field, I am confident of what we gain when they are given room to lead, and how much we all grow when we create space and opportunity for all.