Marilyn Sneiderman joins the 14% of Jewish Women Leaders

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October 11, 2010

This summer, Marilyn Sneiderman was hired as Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, one of the leading Jewish social justice organizations in the United States. That’s news because, despite comprising over 70% of the Jewish communal workforce, women occupy only 14% of the top positions (Forward, November 13, 2009).

I wanted to talk with Sneiderman about what it meant to her to break the glass ceiling, what she brought to Avodah, and what her plans were for the organization. First, though, I had to get in touch with Sneiderman—no easy task. After playing phone tag for several weeks, and changing dates twice, we finally began our conversation.

When I caught up with Sneiderman, she was deep into planning her multifaith, multiethnic Yom Kippur break-fast, an annual tradition she says was inspired by the social justice themes of the holiday. “We open with a service, focused on the theme of atoning and struggling for justice. We say prayers, and we have people speak out about what we need to work for,” Sneiderman tells me. The gathering also functions as the first after-summer social event for the social justice community in Washington, D.C. Profiled in this paper in 2009, the gathering brings together union leaders, clergy, social justice leaders, activists, and politicos to an event that is part potluck, part religious service, part rally.

Sneiderman’s ability to bring together Judaism and justice, community and family, secular unionism and spirituality, Ashkenazic tradition and multiracial connection has been critical throughout her career. As the Director of Field Operations at the AFL-CIO, Sneiderman is the person who went to Seattle before the World Trade Organization talks of 1999 to create an alliance between the Teamsters and local pro-environment groups. Sneiderman told me she had to hold numberless face-to-face meetings over several months before these groups joined together into the famous “Teamsters and Turtles” alliance.

In 2003, still with the AFL-CIO, Sneiderman organized The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, designed to draw attention to the union’s efforts to legalize undocumented workers already working in the United States, and to reform existing immigration law. The bus rides were modeled on the civil-rights-era Freedom Rides of the 1960s, bringing together African Americans who had lived that era and undocumented immigrants. Sneiderman told me the about the moment that had crystalized the value of these bus rides for her:

“We realized that there were a lot of people on the buses who didn’t understand the civil rights movement. So I asked an African American woman from Texas to tell her story about what it was like to be part of the civil rights movement. All these workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Somalia and the Philippines were listening. She ended up teaching them the words to We Shall Overcome. They practiced and practiced the song. Immigration ended up stopping the bus and check people’s papers. Everyone together linked arms and began singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and Immigration just stopped, just left.”

Those immigrant worker freedom rides continue today, most recently in Arizona to protest its new anti-immigrant laws. Sneiderman’s work with the “Teamsters and Turtles” also had an even more lasting impact, as this odd-couple alliance changed the style and tactics of international movements for peace and economic justice for the next decade [see, for example, Teamsters and Turtles?: U.S. Progressive Political Movements in the 21st Century by John C. Berg, and Perspectives on Politics Vol. 2, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 132-134]. Yet Sneiderman has not before been publicly associated with either of those two efforts.

Sneiderman is not alone in hiding her light under a bushel. Too often, as a writer and editor, I’ve noticed that men in prominent roles will jump at opportunities to write about or promote themselves and their organizations, while women are often difficult to reach. Often, the reasons such women leaders are unavailable are systemic: if a woman is not the leader of her organization, she may still have to submerge her identity in her organization’s, putting the its needs above her own. If she is executive director, she may lack a communications staff to help get her story out. Or, a female leader may find herself so overworked that she goes into triage mode, putting this kind of public relations work lower down on her to-do list than organizational activities. In other words, knowing how to wield power once you have it is another glass ceiling some women have yet to crack.

Now, as the head of Avodah, Sneiderman has the chance to take some credit for the work she has done, and can do. Founded in 1998 by David Rosenn, Avodah offers a one-year immersion in Jewish service learning to 60 college graduates each year. Living in group houses in one of four cities, Avodah fellows work full-time on social action projects while also engaging in Jewish learning and leadership-building seminars. The aim is to produce a cadre of leaders in the Jewish community who will sustain a long-term commitment to social change.

I asked Sneiderman why she got involved in Jewish community service after working so long for labor unions.“It’s fascinating,” Sneiderman replied, “but ever since I began working in the Jewish community, people keep asking me, what’s it like to make that big jump from the labor community. I’m shocked by the question. Years ago, people would not have asked that question. Walter Reuther founded the United Automobiles Workers. Jews were critical to the history of the labor movement, and I personally don’t think I would have gotten involved in the labor movement if it wasn’t in my upbringing.” Sneiderman continued, “I grew up in a very religious household. I believed everything I read in the prayer books and everything I was taught about our responsibility to the world. To me, being part of the labor movement was an extension of my Jewish values.”

I wondered whether Sneiderman was apprehensive about working with mostly privileged college graduates rather than with the grassroots labor unionists she had led in her union career. Would she treat the Avodah corps like college students, or like organizers?

Both, was her answer. “What I like about Avodah is that these emerging adults are in direct contact with the people who most need their help. At the same time, we focus on helping Avodah fellows to identify the root causes of poverty, the systemic problems that prevent people from having food to eat.

“I just met with the outgoing corps members, and asked them how they will frame what they do with their lives. One young woman told me, ‘I’ve been fighting all day long to make sure people get the medicaid they deserve, and I can keep doing that, but really the whole health care system is broken, and that’s what we need to fix.’ I’m hoping that is what they will learn, and that we have given them a community to sustain them to go to the root and fix the systemic problems.”

Sneiderman is well-equipped to teach Avodah members how to move from service to advocacy, from self to community, from Jewish identity to Jewish values. Her goal, she says, is to see “organizing, teaching, leading as all part of the same task: people’s lives are changed, and we make the world a better place.” Sneiderman’s most difficult challenge, however, may not be leading her own organization, but something more systemic: breaking down old gender barriers in order to learn how to be a leader outside of her organization—learning how to break that last glass ceiling of self-representation and tell her own story.

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