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InterviewWomen don't get the chance to imagine themselves as leaders

After cracking JDC glass ceiling, first woman CEO in Israel renovates operations

JDC Israel head Dr. Sigal Shelach leads 105-year-old Joint into an increasingly relevant and necessary role as the de facto startup nation of welfare and social innovation

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Dr. Sigal Shelach, CEO of JDC Israel, on November 19, 2019 at the soon to be renovated Jerusalem offices. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
Dr. Sigal Shelach, CEO of JDC Israel, on November 19, 2019 at the soon to be renovated Jerusalem offices. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

The Joint Distribution Committee’s Jerusalem mothership has been abandoned. Its offices stand empty and graffiti is plastered throughout the historic building. Dedicated in 1959 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth of Belgium as the Hebrew University’s archeology department, it has been home to the Joint, a stalwart 105-year-old, global Jewish nonprofit, since 1974.

But far from a somber signal of decline, the desertion of the building was a joyous occasion for the staff,  which marked its temporary exodus by spray painting humorous images and slogans. The organization is taking a year to refurbish its Israel operation’s headquarters — even as it takes on an ever more active role in helping solve the country’s growing social welfare needs.

Steering the refitted ship into the future is new JDC Israel CEO, Dr. Sigal Shelach, a 50-something labor market firebrand who rose through the organization’s ranks to become the first female head of the nonprofit’s Israel wing.

Shelach has a trifecta of experience and has worked in academia, the government and non-profit realms. She earned a PhD from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Labor Studies, where she specialized in employment and migration. After six years as a Senior Research Fellow at the Ministry of Economy and Industry, Shelach joined the JDC in 2007, where she was swiftly upwardly promoted.

Today, as head of JDC Israel, Shelach commands $116.9 million of the global organization’s overall $366 million global budget for 2019.

Dr. Sigal Shelach, CEO of JDC Israel (courtesy)

In an organization-wide letter congratulating Shelach for her newest promotion last year, outgoing American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee CEO David M. Schizer wrote that it “is appropriate that someone who has advanced the professional status of thousands of women in Israel will be the first woman to lead JDC Israel.”

Throughout an hour-long conversation with The Times of Israel, Shelach shared her thoughts on what it means to be a rare female nonprofit leader, and emphasized the need for new, broader partnerships with other groups in the welfare playing field to implement a common vision. Shelach said she sees the JDC as a roundtable that can facilitate conversations between the government, the business sector and Jewish world nonprofits.

In Israel, the JDC serves as the de facto startup nation of welfare and social innovation. Through an innovative approach refined since the 1970s for generating new programs, some two-thirds of JDC pilot programs are picked up by the government after a two-year incubation period. In conversation, Shelach attributed the organization’s success to its more holistic, long-term view of what she calls “social R&D.”

“We can take long breaths. We have a very strong board and a strong arm that brings funds into the JDC, which means that we are less donor-driven. We can study what’s going on in the world, we can bring the cutting edge, we can trial it, we can fail,” said Shelach.

Among the key programs continuously dreamed up by the JDC are efforts to bring the poorest populations into the workforce so they may become empowered and independent. The Israeli government, she said, has already taken on a slew of successful programs, which are now ubiquitous across the country, quickly naming day care services for the elderly, women and children centers, employment hubs for ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.

A new project hitting the streets is adopted from similar programs found in the United States. It involves “community courts” that act as rehabilitation centers and remove a burdensome backlog from the justice system. Essentially, explained Shelach, an accused individual must plead guilty to his or her crime to enter into a five-stage program that aims to get the client off the streets and at work. Through the partnership of JDC, the ministries of Justice, Welfare, Internal Security and the Prisons System, there are five such programs in place with plans for more, she said.

JDC-supported educational and training activities for Israeli Arab women seeking employment. (Credit: Gary Aidekman)

Taking a 360-degree approach, the JDC’s fingerprints can be found in virtually every echelon and field. But there is one common thread: “Everything we do affects the more vulnerable populations,” said Shelach.

Unlike other ideologically driven organizations, one of the trademarks of any JDC program is taking into account the needs of the community it is serving. “We’re not coming to change them. We’re not coming with any agenda. JDC is a very apolitical organization, even religiously,” she said.

For example, when implementing courses to help ultra-Orthodox women enter the hi-tech community, the JDC also instituted a “cultural hotline” where the women, accustomed to a more sheltered lifestyle, could ask rabbis questions ranging from whether it was acceptable to sit next to a male co-worker or even use the company microwave.

Now, said Shelach, some of those first ultra-Orthodox women who received training for entry positions in quality analysis are going back for additional courses to become engineers. Likewise, their husbands are increasingly entering the workforce, with some even having served in the Israel Defense Forces — an increasing trend that she said she is only recently permitted to discuss.

The following is a condensed transcript of the portion of our conversation in which we discussed how it feels to be a woman in a man’s world, and how the next generation, including her three children, will benefit.

Working together at JDC-Israel’s Social Impact Hackathon held in Jerusalem to close social gaps in Israel, January 2017 (Courtesy)

The Times of Israel: In the Jewish non-profit world, there are many women who enter the field but there are very few who reach good management positions, not to mention directorial positions. But isn’t it true that most of the workers today are female?

Dr. Sigal Shelach: I don’t know in the Jewish non-profit world. I can say in the Israeli nonprofit world, certainly. But I imagine [that is the case], yes. I know that there are very few directors in the [Jewish] Federation system… There are not enough women reaching higher positions.

Do you have any thoughts why that is happening, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, where there is this swath of workforce but very few are reaching the role that you have reached yourself?

I think it’s like in every sector. The business sector has more and more women at the top, but it’s still not equal. I think it’s both the barriers that are always there: that people promote those who are like them and as long as men sit at the top it’s very hard to [be more diverse]. But it will happen. It will happen.

JDC Israel head Dr. Sigal Shelach with some of her youngest clients. (JDC)

And second of all it’s also women deciding — and it’s a decision — that you’re willing to give up on some of the things that maybe you [wish you] didn’t have to, like time with your children or time with your friends or other things — and deciding to give a lot of yourself to work, which is still needed.

We [at JDC] try to [allow] balance and to give more women the opportunity to advance — even if they want to be in the home. But their decision is part of it.

So it’s not only a problem of women not being appointed, but it’s actually the women themselves who don’t necessarily want to commit to the lifestyle that one would need in order to reach this kind of position.

Yes, especially when you’re young and raising a family, it’s really a decision. I try to talk with my mother every day when I drive back home, just for 10 or 15 minutes, just to see how she’s doing, and I say to her, “Wow, today was such a hard day.” And she says, “For you, it’s every day.” [laughs]

So it’s also an internal decision, but I think that the labor market does have to change. I don’t think that’s a given. Part of our job as women who understand what [the work-life balance] means is to make sure that the labor market for directors allows for more flexibility.

I don’t think it’s a given that everyone who enters [the work force] needs to give up their lives, no, but now it’s kind of like that.

Do you feel like you gave up quite a bit in order to reach the role that you are in today?

I reached it a little later in my life. But if you ask my children, I did. If you ask any children about any job, they’ll say their mom wasn’t there enough.

I just spoke with my youngest child who is 19. She said, “I remember I never saw you, dad took me to school and a babysitter picked me up.” And those were the days that were easier. [laughs]

For me, I was many years in the university, I did my PhD and I wrote. So I kind of managed my days to work a lot after the children went to sleep and before [they got up]. I was lucky in that sense, a lot of my growth was within academia, which actually allows for flexibility.

And when I grew into managerial roles, my children were already a little older. So I experienced that [tension] less.

But now women are having children later and they want to be with them. And it’s understandable and I think we all need to see — men and women — how we allow for the workplace to actually interact with life itself and balance it.

Especially for the young generation — they’re smarter than us. They understand that they want a work-life balance and not everything is work, work, work, and work. And they’re going to live for many years and they’re going to change many jobs.

Some articles I’ve read talk about 14 changes throughout their lives for those who are entering the market now, so they understand that they’re going to need a lot of strength coming from the home, from the children, enjoying that part of life. So I think we need to be part of changing that atmosphere.

A woodworking class in the trade school established and funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at a Cyprus detention camp in 1947. (Courtesy JDC Archives via JTA)

How would you, in your position today, help somebody in your position 20 years ago, to become “you.”

First and foremost, it’s an internal understanding that you can. I had a good mentor. It was Alan Gill who headed the R&D department here and then after that headed JDC Global. I came to him and he asked me, “What do you need [from me], as a mentor?”

And I told him, “You know, I’m not really a manager, I’ve only managed a little bit.” It was before I managed Tevet, the employment arm. And he said, “Ah, I’m not a manager, I’m not going to help you with that. If you want help, you go to someone else,” and he gave me the name. “But I’m going to help you be a leader at the Joint.”

That sentence alone opened my mind like nothing else did in terms of what I thought about my role in life, within the working environment. And I think a lot of women don’t get that chance, for someone to just allow them to imagine themselves in that position.

That is mind-blowing: I will help you be a leader, not just a worker bee. I will help you be the queen bee. With that in mind, what kind of advice do you have for your daughters?

To my daughters [19 and 23] and also to my son [26], I say that they need to imagine themselves in a position where they can contribute the most to society and enjoy life. Because they will have a lot of life to live, so they need to study something that is flexible.

JDC Israel head Dr. Sigal Shelach at the 2019 Herzelia Conference (Gilad Kavalerchik)

I’m a labor market person so I follow all the trends, so today, if you want to be able to support yourself financially, you need to study something that is both technological and has some kind of extra value in terms of ruach, in terms of humanities.

So take that base, do it — through university, through a coding bootcamp, whatever — but take it upon yourself to be strong in what you hold as your skills, and then open yourself up and think big, and don’t be afraid.

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