Haredi Women School Leaders
Tell us about the origins of this book.
BSD: The book was an elaboration and expansion of Zippy’s doctoral dissertation. Zippy and I had met through our service as school representatives on the RAVSAK board of directors and despite being very different in some respects, we were totally in sync in others. When I read her dissertation, I knew she was onto something fascinating and little known, and encouraged her to write more. She asked me to work with her, and that’s how it began.
ZS: My doctoral dissertation focused on educational leadership styles of women in Jewish schools. This has been a passionate interest of mine ever since I watched my own sisters lead Jewish schools, and ever since I have been in Jewish education, which is for the past 50 years!
Why did you decide to focus on haredi women educational leaders?
ZS: I decided to focus specifically on haredi women educational leaders because, in my research, I discovered that that study had never been done before. There have been studies of leadership in education, of women in leadership, of Jewish women in leadership roles, but haredi women had never been studied because theirs is, essentially, a closed world. Their reluctance to speak to researchers beyond their community arises out of several things: a sense of modesty and unwillingness to be in the public eye; a concern that the restrictions or religious limitations described would be seen in a negative light, as repressive rather than prescriptive; and a protectiveness about the environment that these women were charged to care for. The fact is that this world had not been studied because “strangers,” i.e., people not in the community, were just not entirely trusted to present it in a truthful (read: favorable) way.
BD: It was amazing to me that there were such strong women in the haredi community whose work and contributions were unknown in the larger world. The fact that Zippy had entry into this community and that she could have access to these woman leaders made researching and writing the book together an exciting process.
You found yourselves in a bind: forced to write about women whose communities would not approve of them being featured in your book. Explain how you handled this predicament. Were you and your subjects satisfied with the result?
ZS: The subjects were all people who knew me or knew about me, and felt that, since I was a “member of the club,” I would portray them positively. We explained to each subject who agreed to be interviewed that we were interviewing them for research purposes (explaining the subject of the study) and that we would be objective and accurate in our reporting. There were quite a few women who objected to being a part of the study, which was a major obstacle. Those women who did agree were most concerned with “identifiability,” and we assured them that we would do our best to anonymize them as well as we could. That was a commitment that was very important to us and to our subjects, and we honored that commitment.
BD: Only Zippy could have gotten these subjects to agree to be subjects of our research. They knew her and trusted her; her connections to their community were solid and strong. They didn’t know me at all, so establishing trust was one of the first things I had to do in my interviews. It didn’t take long. We all share a passion for Jewish education and children, and inevitably we were able to establish rapport within a very short space of time. I found these women to be remarkable in so many ways.
You spend a great portion of the book putting your subject in context. Why did you feel that your portraits required so much context? In your view, what are the obstacles that hinder people outside of the haredi world from understanding and appreciating these women?
BD: So much of what is written about haredi women and their lives is negative and critical. Much of what I knew prior to working on this study derived from books written by those who had rejected ultra-Orthodox Judaism, who had gone “off the derech.” The reason people outside the haredi world don’t understand and appreciate these women is that so little is known about them. Their world is very insular; they feel no need to seek validation or approbation in the larger community. But that does not mean that they don’t have something to teach the larger community, particularly the Jewish educational world. It is important to place their contributions in the unique context in which they work.
What surprised you the most during your research? Were there things you discovered that you did not anticipate?
ZS: Contrary to public belief, not all women feel repressed and unfairly treated if they do not have a public persona. Each of these women were authorities in their own schools, felt enormous professional and personal satisfaction in their roles, were proud of what they had accomplished and did not feel diminished in any way by having a male authority as the titular head. In fact, during the defense of my dissertation, it was difficult for my committee to accept or even to understand that conclusion, in light of the very different society in which we live.
BS: Honestly, I was completely floored by the interviews I conducted. I assumed, based on my previous readings, that I would be dealing with timorous, self-abasing women, who cowered before male authority. Was I ever wrong! These were some of the strongest, most self-possessed and passionate women I had ever encountered. They were so dedicated to their schools and their students and their educational missions. They were just like Zippy and me! They worked endless hours, had crazy schedules, families—and loved every aspect of their jobs. They shared the commitment to Jewish education, to Israel, to tikkun olam and to doing deeds of lovingkindness that we all share. And they were every bit as strong in their school leadership as Zippy or I, in our community day schools.
What was the process of co-writing like? Did it help to have one person who was closer to the haredi community and one who was more distanced?
BD: It was a lot of fun. Luckily I was retired, so I had more time in which to write. Zippy’s schedule, like that of our subjects, is ridiculous, so a lot of work was accomplished between 11 pm and 5 am. Although we are very different—Zippy is Orthodox, and I am Conservative—we mesh pretty well and the process was smooth and quite enjoyable. The fact is, of course, that this book could never have been written without Zippy’s ability to get the subjects to agree to participate. She was able to bridge a giant gap.
ZS: I learned a great deal during the co-writing process. Aside from the fact that Barbara is a fluent writer and an editor with a keen eye, it was also helpful that she was coming to the subject with a very different perspective. It helped me to frame the questions and commentary because it forced me to think more objectively, seeing my subjects through a lens that was not familiar with the world I was describing, sharpening my view and clarifying my observations. Additionally, I looked to Barbara to bring a more dispassionate attitude to the study; neither of us wanted a biased, idealized view of the subjects, and co-writing made us keep each other more objective.
As long-time heads of Jewish day schools yourselves, what similarities did you note between the work of these women and leaders of schools outside the haredi world?
BD: There is a model of leadership exemplified by these women which I think successful Jewish educational leaders of all stripes share: They provide a clear vision for their schools, they are caring and attentive to teachers’ needs, they make decisions based on the needs of the students, they have well-defined expectations for staff and follow up to assure they are met, and they value teamwork and collegiality far above personal aggrandizement.
ZS: Agreed. Good leadership can be replicated in any setting, and it was evident that these women were utilizing best practices—in some cases quite intuitively—that are promoted in the secular world.
In conclusion, what lessons do you think other Jewish educational leaders can derive from your study?
ZS: The most important finding I felt came out of the study was the incredible joy and pride each of the women felt in their roles. These women are all countercultural, and truly do live in a “parallel universe” in a totally unapologetic way.
BD: A Parallel Universe shows how women can be successful, powerful and influential even in a social structure that most of us would consider restrictive. The book begins with the words of Eshet chayil, but perhaps a better description of each of the extraordinary women portrayed in it is ishah gedolah—a great woman, one who has not only fulfilled her wifely and motherly duties but has touched the Jewish future through her school. Wise men appreciate these women, as the Torah tells us: “God told Abraham, ‘All that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.’” Though theirs is truly an impenetrable glass ceiling, our subjects do not see it as a barrier but as a surface which reflects the good work that they do, the happiness that characterizes their schools, and the belief that they are truly doing holy work in a unique and special way. I think all Jewish educational leaders, whatever the type of school they head, share this conviction.