Shifra Bronznick – LIVES OF COMMITMENT 2019

Learn more about the 2019 Auburn Lives of Commitment Benefit Breakfast and Awards at auburnloc.org

By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

Shifra Bronznick grew up in a strict Orthodox household. Her father was a rabbi and gender roles were clearly defined. “I never wore shorts, pants, or sleeveless shirts,” Bronznick explained. “Girls weren’t allowed to be part of the minyan, and we sat in the balcony of the synagogue.”

Soon Bronznick started asking her own community some uncomfortable questions: “When I was a young girl I asked a rabbi why I wasn’t allowed to speak in the synagogue; and, in fourth grade in my Orthodox day school, I announced that I wanted to be the first woman president. People laughed at me, so I punched the ringleader in the nose.”

Her life transformed when she discovered an old-school World Book Encyclopedia at a neighbor’s home and read the entry on the suffragettes. “I realized I wanted to be a suffragette. I didn’t have the words, but what I meant was that I wanted to be a feminist.” Since then, Bronznick has simultaneously lived out her commitment to the Jewish community and to feminism — certain that the advancement of women is key to increased flourishing and wellbeing within the entire Jewish community.

Supporting herself completely from the age of 18, Bronznick struck out on her own, using the wisdom and creativity of Judaism as a resource for her approach to feminism. “Feminism was wide while Judaism was narrow, yet deep,” Bronznick remembers. “Together, they were transformative.” In 1973, she became a leader in the North American Jewish Students Network and helped organized the first national conference of Jewish women that she attended with her mother at her side — the only night her mother ever spent away from her husband.

Her feminist perspective and commitment to the Jewish community led to a bombshell survey of major Jewish organizations, revealing that only two out of 40 organizations had women CEOs, though women made up 80 percent of the staff. Bronznick knew that had to change. Over the next years, she founded Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish community, which fearlessly named the gender inequality within Jewish institutions, provided research to diagnose the problem and identify its root causes, and offered key recommendations for advancing gender equity in the field. Based on this research, Bronznick co-wrote a guidebook on creating gender equity called Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life. Thanks to her work, there are now many more women in leadership roles in major Jewish institutions, more support for paid leave, and increased diversity in thought leadership.

Shifra’s organizing skills and depth of experience have made her a beloved figure in Jewish social justice circles, helping to establish the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. She has also taken stands that required drawing from a deep well of moral courage, including calling out sexual harassment and sexism in her own Jewish community, writing a powerful op-ed called We Too:

This is a system enabled by men and women who have made a devil’s bargain with a status quo that holds back our communities and our society, and tells women that the price of leadership and even participation is to be dehumanized, silenced, and underpaid.”

Bronznick’s longtime activism has put her at the center of a wider ecosystem, and she has been an invaluable partner across faith lines to mobilize constituents, facilitate understanding, and maintain alliances at risk of fraying in our tumultuous times. Bronznick has been the lead strategist to the White House Project and designed its National Women’s Leadership Summits. More recently, Bronznick helped to organize a Jewish presence at the Poor People’s Campaign in alliance with the Rev. Dr. William Barber II and has been an important figure cultivating commitment, hope, and resilience within the Women’s March movement.

Ever open to new knowledge, Bronznick looks to the myriad young leaders she has championed to keep her focused on the future feminism can create. Her children also keep her on her toes. Her son Coby is a junior at Princeton focusing on East Asian Studies, whom she admiringly describes as “very comfortable with difference and ambiguity.” Bronznick’s daughter, Emma Goldberg, a journalist and the Chief of Staff at Longpath, was a Lives of Commitment honoree in 2010 and will be moderating the Auburn Conversation directly following the Lives of Commitment Breakfast on May 1. Recently, Emma helped Bronznick to recognize a new angle on feminist organizing. “Her feminism is less purely about what is right or true, but rather what is effective or needed to get to the next stage of inclusiveness,” Bronznick explained. “When I was having a sharp argument with some of her friends, Emma reminded me that the first rule of social justice is to be nice. You don’t win the argument, you build the relationship.”

When reflecting on her own accomplishments, Bronznick is most proud of the many Jewish women leaders she has helped support and nurture.

There are front-stage leaders who chair big movements and organizations, and I have done that. More often, I have been a backstage leader changing the world by elevating women’s leadership and valuing the difference it can make. It is certainly a powerful influence on social justice movements. I can’t sew and I can’t knit, but I can and have created networks of relationships and weaved together organizations, ideas, and people — and that, perhaps, is my biggest contribution.”

 

Learn more about the 2019 Auburn Lives of Commitment Benefit Breakfast and Awards at auburnloc.org

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