Broadening the Pool of Qualified Mekarvim
I write from both a shared and very different perspective than many of the authors in the Klal Perspectives symposium on Kiruv (Fall 2012). My life has been devoted to learning and growing in Torah, and helping others do the same, for the past 32 years. After studying for 2 years at Michlelet Bruria inJerusalem, and serving for 2 years in the Nachal division of the IDF setting up settlements in the early 80s, I moved toNew York City where I graduatedHunterCollege with a degree in Hebrew and Jewish Social Studies. While on campus, I was active in the Hillel, Jewish Student Union and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, creating shabbatons, leading trips toWashington and eventually visiting refusnicks in theSoviet Union with my new husband in 1985.
We moved to Long Beach, NYas newlyweds. Through a combination of connection to Tehilla Jaeger, spending six summers in the Shor Yoshuv Bungalow colony, and sending my kids to chareidi schools, I continued my path of evolution from Camp Solomon Schechter to Mizrachi to Friefeld-influenced Chareidi. As a young family we were active, lay mekarvim, and as a growing mother I began to teach one-on-one and then to give community shiurim. I began my professional kiruv career through Partners in Torah, eventually becoming the telephone mentor’s mentor. My husband, an attorney, has been my steady support all the way through.
When we moved toDenver,Colorado, just over a decade ago, I became the Program Director for The Jewish Experience. My husband jokes that while I continue to work in “retail,” teaching Torah to adults through The Jewish Experience and other Jewish organizations and by hosting guests in our home, my main job for the past six years has been in “wholesale,” as I travel internationally for Ner LeElef, supporting women in kiruv through personal visits, networking and over-the-phone coaching.
It is from the breath of multiple countries, three decades, and contact with hundreds of people in the field that I share the thoughts below.
I often consult with heads of kiruv organizations seeking qualified candidates to hire. It seems there are jobs out there for people with a strong work ethic, passion for the work to be done, the skills and intelligence to do the job and enough exposure and ahavas Yisroel (love of one’s fellow Jew) not to be thrown off track when difficult people and situations arise. But finding all that in one person when you are ready to hire is frequently a problem.
The challenge of finding highly motivated and competent kiruv workers can be solved in short order if we stop looking far and wide for the best and the brightest and simply turn our heads to the left and right. There is a valuable pool in our midst, untapped and overlooked. The pool is full of highly educated (often with 14 years of Jewish education as well as a master’s degree), hardworking, conscientious people who have great social skills, can skillfully multi-task and who care deeply about the future of Klal Yisroel (the Jewish people). These are people who would love to work for the Jewish future in their professional lives but since they must prioritize the financial support of their families, they train for careers in other fields. These people are role models of living a Torah life with both intensity and integrity, and yet they are rarely contemplated when looking for someone to fill a kiruv role. These people, of course, are women.
These days, most women work either full or part time while raising their children. Gone are the days of communities full of stay-at-home mothers and, along with their disappearance, gone are the days of women maintaining the shuls, cooking for and running the kiddushes as well as other shul activities, improving the schools, volunteering on field trips and in the classroom. Our communal infrastructure and our families have paid a heavy price as it has become necessary for women to work not only outside of the home but outside the community. As rolling the clock back does not seem to be an option, the smart girls of today begin to prepare in high school, getting college credits and job experience that will help them in their eventual career.
Because day school teachers are paid so little, and other commonly female jobs in the Torah observant world are limited and low paying, we have created a tremendous brain drain in our community. By neither fully respecting nor fairly compensating the contributions that women can make, we have created a situation in which our highly intelligent, motivated, capable women seek work in areas in which they are respected and get paid at a level commensurate with their capabilities. Many become speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurses, social workers and graphic designers. Some become doctors, lawyers, accountants or software engineers, among other professions. Almost none of these women even consider a career in klal work (servicing the Jewish community) as there is no framework for training, hiring and advancing women in these areas.
Sadly, this situation exists even in the world of kiruv. In most kiruv couples, the woman is seen as the support mechanism for her husband’s work. She is expected to create the environment for her husband to host a large and lovely Shabbos (20 hours a week of shopping, prep, cooking, serving, hosting, and clean up), attend the events he creates (sometimes providing food for those as well), allow her husband to work long hours including nights and weekends, and, of course, to be charming at all times. In some cases the woman may give a class or two a week and learn one-on-one with some students. In other cases, a woman may do all the PR and social media communications for herself and her husband as well as other support work.
In most cases, the woman does not receive a separate salary and does not have her own contract. Many times, women actually end up having to pay to work: she must hire babysitting help so she can teach or attend events, and the amount of hosting the couple does means she often must hire help to be able to manage Shabbos and the rest of the week’s work along with her other responsibilities. If the wife has made a connection with girls on a campus and would like to participate on anIsrael trip with them, she is often discouraged, and must sometimes pay for her airfare herself and/or make childcare arrangements at her own expense. There are even many JWRP (Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project) trip leaders who are expected to do much of the planning, fundraising, traveling and follow up at their own expense.
When women do have their own kiruv job and contract, they are generally paid at about 40-60% of what men get for similar work. Additionally, Shabbos and husband support is often taken for granted and not factored in to the hours she is expected to work, even if it is more than she would be doing if her husband worked in another profession.
In short, most women in kiruv are “kiruv wives.” I’d like to see more become “kiruv women” or mekarvot in their own right. Too few think of women when they think of the current or potential community of mekarvim.
Several years ago, before I worked for Ner LeElef, a community kollel advertised a “da mah shetashiv” (know what to answer) evening for mekarvim, featuring a prominent out-of-town speaker, in the local shul newsletter. As the newsletter did not specify that the evening was for men only, I attended with a friend. It turns out it was for men only, just no one thought to specify that since they never thought that a woman might be included in the definition of “mekarvim.”
While women do have a little more access to professional kiruv today than in the past, they are still not viewed as serious practitioners. Just look at the roster of authors on the Klal Perspectives issue on kiruv: only one of 17 is female. The TorahKiruv listserv is closed to women. At AJOP, women can only address “women only” audiences, which means that a) men do not get to hear and learn from women in the field, and b) since the majority of those attending the conference are men, the pool of those available to attend a woman’s talk is so limited that there really is little point in planning such sessions.
When I began my work at Ner LeElef, I wanted to create a network that would transcend organizations and politics and help women grow in their roles as facilitators of Klal Yisroel. I named my network “WICK” for “Women in Chinuch and Kiruv,” wrote a mission statement and an inaugural newsletter, and set my sites on a quarterly publication, a website, a network of mentors, and a conference.
After a few years visiting and supporting women in the field, I realized that women in chinuch (educating Jewish children) didn’t need my time nearly as much as Women in Kiruv, so I dropped the “C” and narrowed my focus. The candle logo got lost in the effort, but the mission statement remained unchanged:
WIK is a network for women whose lives are dedicated to sharing Torah. It affirms the significance of the contribution of women to the education, ingathering and guidance of Jews as they take their place in the framework of a Torah life. It recognizes that when one educates and inspires a woman to live a life permeated by Torah values, one educates her family and its future generations as well. To that end, WIK seeks to encourage and support women engaged in Torah education by offering them connections, information and inspiration that nurture the Torah teacher and support her growth, both personally and as a guide for others.
With my primary professional focus being direct support of women in the field, growing WIK as an organization is a daunting task. The initial newsletter languishes alone and the website is still under construction. But, by partnering with some other organizations, including Sarah’s Place in Cincinnati, Partners in Torah in Detroit and AJOP, there have now been three WIK conferences. No one has yet taken ownership of the conferences, so each year is a new search to find a primary partner, but nevertheless, the seeds planted are already bearing fruit: there is an active WIK listserv, a WIK mentors network, and budding WIK telephone classes. WIK now has some name recognition, and is being seen as an address for support for women. There is a lot more that can and should be done, but until strengthening the network becomes a priority, more broadly appreciated (expressed though funding and an assistant), it will have to continue to grow very slowly in between trips, classes and phone calls.
Unless more of us realize that women can make a significant and valuable contribution to kiruv beyond providing catering and secretarial support, we will continue to squander the resources in our midst.
Both community and campus kiruv organizations must realize that half the people they wish to influence and teach are female. Women often become interested more quickly than men and wish to learn and grow more intensely than many men are prepared to facilitate. Just listen in at the shailah and teshuva (Q and A) session with Rov Dovid Cohen at the end of the AJOP conference, and you will hear many men asking about the parameters of learning with women. It’s only a shailah (question of Jewish law) because there are not enough women to learn with women.
Why not, then, hire more women? “Our donors won’t cover the salaries.” Why don’t we see more women at AJOP? “We can’t afford to send them.” Why is their pay so low? “If they’re really idealistic, they’ll do it anyway, and we can’t afford to give them more.” “Why not at least pay for cleaning help and child care to free up the women we already have in place?” There really is no good answer to that.
Donors too have to realize that women are valuable assets to a kiruv organization and to the global kiruv effort in general. If they will desire to include more high quality women in the field, and back up that desire with a check, organizations will be able to hire and empower the women they are beginning to realize they need.
There is another hurdle, however, and that is the women themselves. Since many are focused on contributing to the family income, in addition to raising a family, they don’t consider kiruv as a job option. And, since kiruv, as it is now, does not require, or reward, any specialized training, many do not respect as “real” a job that one can get without a degree and without specific skills. And since there is no clear advancement track for women (and not too much clarity for men, either), they don’t see it as something they can grow into (and thereby increase their income) as they gain more skill and experience. Additionally, since the observant community at large undervalues women, their Torah and their capabilities (see Rav Hirsch on the word nashe Gen. 32:33), even many women don’t realize how valuable their own contribution can be. Finally, since few women are in the field, there is little support for what they do or professional development for how they can do it better.
To that end, I suggest a sea change. I suggest we begin to value, train and hire women for kiruv jobs. At first, women will have to train on the job. We need to begin hiring, and paying fairly, now. But, over time, I’d like to see a clear and extensive educational program created. I’d like to see an Associate’s level certificate, a bachelor’s level major, and a special master’s degree developed that could be attained by either men or women interested in furthering their education and competence.
Additionally, I’d like to see more support and professional development for women in the field. I’d like to help WIK grow. I have lots of ideas, and others do, too. All we need now is time, money and trust.
Through the work of several strong women in the field, and through the budding community of WIK, I hope that women are beginning to see the possibilities. I hope that the broader observant community, kiruv organizations, and donors will soon see them as well.
Aliza Bulow is the Director of Ner LeElef’s North American Women’s Program and the founder of WIK. Many of her lectures and articles can be found on her website: ABiteOfTorah.com.