I was asked by the Rabbi to write a D’var Torah for this week focused on women in leadership. This is to celebrate the fact that it is the 50th year since the ordination of the first woman rabbi. This week’s Parsha is one that doesn’t appear gender specific and in today’s political environment I hesitate to highlight anything that is gender specific. People, men, and women bring different skill sets to a role. Part of what makes a great leader is compassion and empathy, but those are not exclusively female qualities.   

 

Parashat Shoftim this week opens with the command Judges and officers shall you make for yourself in all [the gates of] your cities…and they shall govern the people with righteous justice.” This is not a gender-specific command. When I reflect on the policies, practices, and interactions I had as Temple president, I am proud of my service and accomplishments. I could list best practices and programs instituted during my tenure that are still Temple practices today. But I do not believe they were developed or implemented due to the mere fact I am a woman. 

 

In general, I believe I may have focused on the “softer” side of Temple administration and not just the financials, which my prior male counterparts tended to focus on. In addition to bringing more standardization and efficiencies to the temple, I devoted most of my time to membership engagement, member connections, and engaging programming.  

 

Gender may have had an influence on how we implemented those activities. For example, I strongly believe that a high-functioning team is based on trust. You can’t have trust if the team members do not know each other. They must feel that during meetings, it is a safe environment to have healthy and respectful debate, that they won’t be judged, talked about, or ostracized. Prior to each board meeting, I invited members to come early to chat. During the first part of the meeting, I had members go around and talk about themselves to get to know one another. We also implemented a kvell and tell time at the end for people to be able to share good news and life cycle events. We implemented board events that included social time and sometimes their families. I know these practices are still done today. Were those instituted because I am a woman? I don’t think so. Being a woman is only one component of who I am as a leader, but I do think personal female experiences inform my actions and decisions both at work and as a temple president. 

 

One other memorable board effort I undertook was to teach and focus board members on their strengths. We did an exercise with Strength Finders®. The goal was instead of making all board members do all functions, we would cater and focus on their strengths. Why make someone who’s deathly afraid of public speaking do Shabbat announcements, or make an introvert part of the capital campaign committee, or put someone that is visionary on short-term tasks? Instead, we identified everyone’s strengths and as best we could, assigned them roles that fit within their comfort zones and skill sets. That way we were using the best people in the best areas. Did I do that because I am a woman? Maybe. Would or could a man also implement those strategies? Absolutely. 

 

In retrospect, my female president predecessors might feel quite different. They were brought up in generations where there were very few woman leaders. Being considered for that type of role required the mainstream to think about women differently than the cultural norm at that time. Could a woman handle the stress? Would a woman be too emotional? Could a woman handle the finances or tough conversations with staff? We all know that answer is yes, but back then it was hard to push past old misconceptions. Similar to what it must have been like for the first female rabbi. In my generation, I thankfully did not encounter much opposition, as excellent woman leaders came before me and paved the way. 

 

What helps make a great leader is compassion and empathy, but those are not gender specific. My view is that all of life’s experiences make up a person’s skill sets and aptitude for handling specific circumstances. Am I more caring and empathic than a man as a leader? Possibly, but I have known many wonderful male leaders who are empathic. Many are dear friends of mine and I’m married to one. Do I bring a different perspective to the role based on life experiences growing up as a female? Absolutely. Especially since my professional life is in an industry (Facility Management) that is very male dominant and a woman must work twice as hard to get recognized for accomplishments as my male counterparts. But I have watched how in every decade that has become easier and easier and those boundaries are washing away as society is evolving. 

 

I believe women approach situations differently than men. We are in general more caring and supportive in our methods and attitudes but that is a huge generalization. I would rather focus on what makes a great leader and hope that whether it is a man or woman, they possess wonderful skill sets to create high-performing teams and bring empathy and compassion to the role. In today’s environment, gender is a factor, but not a driver in what makes a great leader.