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Female leadership: strong history, bright future

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February 20, 2013 at 4:19 PM

This column was written by Deborah Corber, the CEO of Federation CJA in Montreal, and originally appeared in that Federation's Tikun Olam publication.

My mother is fond of reminding me (with a twinkle in her eye) that when I was a little girl, my father lamented the fact that I hadn’t been born a boy. “With her brain”, he said, “she might really have gone somewhere”.

Deborah & her daughter Jory Corber-Tovel

My dad, you see, was looking at the world around him – Montreal in the early 60s – and had concluded that it simply wouldn’t hold the promise for his daughter that it would for his son.  Nobody was more delighted than he, of course, to find that as his daughter grew up, there were virtually no doors closed to her because of her gender.  If she had the right stuff, she would be able to do just about anything she wanted to do.

A changing world

There is a famous line from the movie, The Paper Chase (1973), in which the Dean of Harvard Law School addresses the first year class saying: “Look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won’t be here at the end of the year.”  Well on my first day at Osgoode Hall Law School, in 1981, the Dean said: “Look to your left; look to your right, and please take note: 1.5 of you are women.”  The world was indeed changing, and those who came before had paved the way for my generation of women to follow its dreams.

That said, there remains much more to be done to achieve true gender equality, both here at home and throughout the world.  And the message that I have tried to convey to my own daughter, now 20 years old, is that while she may be able to “have it all”, she shouldn’t expect to “have it all at the same time”.  To take an obvious example, my appointment as CEO of Federation CJA was noted throughout the federated world (and even at a Knesset committee studying women’s rights in the Diaspora!) as representing only the second time that a woman had been tapped to head a large federation.  And yet, federations and Jewish communal organizations across North America are full of immensely talented women (some of them, right here in our Federation and agencies), so why the dearth of women at the top?  The answer, I believe, is at least partly to be found in the reality that the balance between nurturing our families and meeting the demands of a senior management position remains an elusive one.

I have often thought that the world will be a more equitable place when fathers expect to be able to leave work early to attend a ballet recital or hockey game, or to stay home for a day or two with a sick child.  Then we will begin to see greater numbers of women appointed to head all sorts of institutions.

A strong history of female leadership

!!  3 Female Past Presidents of Federation CJA !!

The good news is that there are signs of real progress in our own Jewish community.  The President of Federation CJA, David Cape, talks regularly about investing in our human capital, both professional and volunteer, to ensure that we master the soft skills – relationship building skills – that are the life blood of community work.  Not that long ago, one would not have expected a man to even recognize such things, much less strive to advance them.  When our younger male volunteers excuse themselves early from a community function so that they can rush home to share parenting duties I am no longer surprised; I just smile to myself and think we’re getting closer.

And next September, our First Vice-President, Susan Laxer, will follow David Cape to assume the presidency of Federation CJA while pursuing a full-time career and continuing to find time to attend her son’s hockey games and visit her grandchildren in Israel.  Susan will follow in a proud tradition of women presidents of the Montreal federation that began with the appointment of Dodo Heppner (1983-1985), and continued with the tenures of Dr. Maxine Sigman (1989-1991) and Marilyn Blumer (1999-2001).

Mother, Daughter and Esther

When my husband, Maurice, and I were searching for a theme for our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah – something substantive that she could do within the constraints of a modern orthodox tradition – Rabbi Emanuel Forman and then Rabbi Adam Scheier at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim helped us to craft a ceremony around Purim, so that she might read from Megilat Esther.  While the tradition in our shul did not extend to allowing Jordana to daven in front of the entire congregation on a Shabbat morning, we were nonetheless empowered, with our rabbis’ encouragement, to create a rite of passage for our daughter that was profoundly meaningful for her and for our entire family.  For a mother who had not had her own Bat Mitzvah, this moment represented enormous progress.

As we approach the Festival of Purim I will think of the beautiful heroine, Esther, who overcame her fears to save her people – our people – from the evil Haman.  I will reflect on the challenges overcome by Esther and countless other women throughout history.  I will rejoice in the extraordinary opportunities that have been afforded to me, and those that are already being seized by my daughter.  And I will be sure to thank my parents for never having wavered in their conviction that a daughter’s reach should always exceed her grasp.

- Deborah Corber



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