In Tractate Megillah, Reish Lakish teaches that God doesn’t afflict the Jewish people without first creating a remedy. That idea doesn’t justify bad things happening. But when we face complex challenges, we might already have helpful insights within and around us.
Like the entire Jewish nonprofit field, Jewish day schools have a gender equity problem. But they also have a vital piece of the solution.
This problem manifests most measurably in salary data, where men are generally paid more than women for similar roles. When it comes to school leaders’ genders, we don’t have precise data, but we know that women and people who are transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming are significantly underrepresented.
This isn’t unique to day schools. As Leading Edge reported, out of 376 Jewish nonprofits surveyed between 2016 and 2021, 55% were led by men, 45% by women, and none by anyone openly trans or nonbinary. Among organizations with the highest budgets, 92% were led by men.
This issue matters for schools - for students now, and for our future later. It matters if the people making key decisions don’t adequately represent the entire Jewish community. It matters if students who aren’t male, and/or aren’t white, and/or aren’t cisgender, don’t see themselves reflected in the identities of their principal, head of school, or rosh yeshiva. That impacts how hard students try and, more importantly, who they feel they can become.
But day schools also uniquely have the opportunity to widen the leadership pipeline.
As an alum, I credit Jewish day school for deepening my Jewish literacy and helping me cultivate a clear and confident leadership voice. I was chosen to sing and lead holiday celebrations, pushed academically in Jewish and secular subjects, and recognized for my leadership in classrooms and in sports. I know what it feels like to be seen and noticed for my talents, challenged to reach my fullest potential, and encouraged to speak up about my and others’ needs. I benefited tremendously from role models of all genders who nurtured my growth and magnified my view of my power, while modeling the centrality of humility and constant learning in effective leadership.
And yet, not all of me was seen or noticed. As a Jewish Woman of Color, I only saw part of myself represented in leadership (though rarely at the highest ranks), and I missed an opportunity to develop an integrated and holistic sense of self that values all parts of my identity rather than solely prioritizing one. I know day schools, like many Jewish institutions, have more work to do.
Today, day schools might be missing an opportunity to help students develop character in ways that advance gender equity and equity more broadly - but that’s within our capacity to change. Day schools already know how to weave values and middot (character traits) into everything from curriculum to lunch menus, from classrooms to tetherball courts. We have an opportunity to make gender equity, along with other kinds of equity and inclusion, part of, and central to, visions of character development.
Leading Edge identified “keystones” for gender equity progress, including developing DEI talent strategies, shifting perceptions around leadership and caregiving, and the importance of men speaking up around gender inequity. These factors can absolutely inform how we educate tomorrow’s heads of school while they’re children today.
Some questions day schools can consider:
Are our curricula representative?
Whose stories are we telling? What images depict our ancestors? Surely the Israelites in the desert looked more like me than we typically see illustrated. In my day school, there were many Persian Jews in the student body. Yet we rarely learned anything about Persian Jewish culture or history. What might it look like for all students to see themselves represented in what they are learning about who we are as a people? What might it look like for all students to see what our community really looks like regardless of whether or not that diversity is present in their immediate class?
Are our exemplars representative?
Who do we hold up as heroes - present or past? Is it always men? There are many women, People of Color, and people of various gender identities—both historical and contemporary—whose stories belong in our canon of exemplary Jews.
How do we model male allyship?
When we do showcase men, what behavior do we elevate? Are we exemplifying male allyship, showing men leading in ways that name injustice and courageously and humbly make space for others to shine? Is being an advocate for equity part of our vision for what it means to be a “mensch”? A strong leader? A proud Jew?
Is our mentorship and leadershop development inclusive?
School is often students’ first exploration of leadership, whether in student council, a club or a project. Are teachers and administrators aware of who is—and isn’t—being encouraged, mentored and developed for leadership? I am incredibly grateful that my potential was seen and cultivated, that my voice was amplified, and that my leadership was prioritized. All students deserve to feel empowered and invested in - to know that their skills and talents are a gift, and that the community is incomplete without their perspective. This point also extends to teachers: Is the teacher pool diverse? Are there inclusive development pathways and mentorship opportunities for teachers of every identity to advance toward becoming school leaders?
Do we model leadership coinciding with caregiving?
Countless educators balance caregiving with their careers, but are they talking about it? Do heads of school in particular, who are major examples of leadership for students, showing the time and energy they put into family and caregiving roles alongside their careers? Do we talk to students of all genders about caregiving being part of their future, or only some of them?
These questions are just starting points for longer processes of reflection and change. Progress isn’t solely possible on the timescale of generations. There are things day schools can do today to advance gender equity. And as a proud day school alum myself, I hope this movement will take the opportunity to see generational change as something they are uniquely positioned to lead. If they succeed, the whole Jewish community will reap the benefits.