This Shavuot, Taking Count of Women’s Experiences: From Hardship to Leadership

Wednesday, May 27 2020

By Janice Weinman

With Shavuot comes an end to the Counting of the Omer, where we mark each of the days for seven weeks, beginning after the first Passover Seder.

In the United States this weekend, we faced another kind of counting — for many, the most somber in a lifetime. American flags flew at half mast to mourn the 100,000 lives lost in our country to COVID-19. So far. Too many of us have had to mourn the loss of life.

At the same time, we've lost any semblance of normalcy. And for many of us, counting brings order where so much is beyond our control. So we're counting the days since our social distancing began — and the weeks since we've held close the loved ones with whom we aren’t sheltering in place, our grown children and grandchildren for some, our parents and grandparents for others, our best friends.

During Shavuot, Jews traditionally read the Book of Ruth, and this year I ask you to join me in taking time to reflect on women's experiences.

Exacerbating Economic Inequities
At Hadassah, we often talk about gender disparities. When it comes to COVID-19, however, the pandemic has taken more men’s lives than women's. Yet women have been far from immune to its effects.

Earlier this month, in the Forward, I wrote about this: "Women have been bearing the disproportionate brunt of its social effects, including lost jobs, domestic violence, increased family care-taking, reduced access to reproductive care, and food, housing, and income insecurity. Caregivers are more likely to put off their own healthcare, skipping appointments and practicing fewer healthy behaviors for themselves. All of these factors have health and economic effects, both in the short and long terms."

There's a new term to mark this moment, which the New York Times published for the first time ever in early May: "We should go ahead and call this a 'shecession,'" quoting C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

For evidence, one need look no further than the title of a May 2020 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research: "Dramatic Decline in Employment Hits Women Even More Severely than Men." In part, this is because in sectors where women are the majority of the workforce, such as leisure and hospitality, job losses have been "particularly severe."

The unemployment rate for women, which was lower than that of men, has now surpassed the men’s unemployment rate. "Of the 20.5 million jobs lost last month," the Times reported, "women make up 55 percent of those now looking for work." According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in April the unemployment rate for women hit 15% — from 3.1% in February — compared to men's 13%.

For single mothers, the unemployment rate tripled in that period. And women of color are feeling the strain, with Hispanic women seeing a devastating surge to more than 20%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We do not know how large a toll this recession will take, but we must be clear: We cannot allow the long-term impact of this pandemic to leave women further behind.

A Testament to Women’s Leadership
Shavuot is part harvest festival and part joyful commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And so even during a pandemic, we are getting ready to celebrate. Let’s be uplifted by recent worldwide recognition of the strength of women’s leadership, one of the few silver linings in this global crisis.

Since the earliest moments of this pandemic, women have answered the call of their communities and countries, playing a key role in combating the virus: in hospitals and labs (including, of course, Hadassah's hospitals in Israel), in philanthropy (thank you to our donors), in business and in our volunteer efforts (thank you to our Hadassah family around the country).

Women heads of state are far and few between, yet countries led by women have seen remarkable success in combatting the virus, acting decisively and quickly in the face of uncertainty. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand describes her aggressive approach to testing and tracing as "go hard, go early." Yet at the same time, she kept her sense of humor — and her humanity, telling the children of her nation not to worry because her government considers the Tooth Fairy to be an essential worker. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg imposed an early lockdown, which has kept her country's infection rate low. But her message to Norwegians, has acknowledged the emotional response: "It's okay to be scared."

In an early televised address, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the value of each life: "We are a community in which every life and every person counts." At the same time, her swift action kept the spread at levels other countries have been unable to achieve.

Thanks to the efforts of President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland, the outbreak has been muted in much the same way as in Norway and New Zealand.

When it comes to women leaders' pandemic response, I agree with Amy Traub, who concludes in her New York Times analysis that this "new leadership style offers promise for a new era of global threats."

This Shavuot, Looking Ahead
Hadassah, an organization by and for women, has always been ready to help in times of crisis, through its work at medical facilities in Israel, where, not surprisingly, almost half of all doctors are women. In the US, we've trained generations of women leaders to support that work in Israel, and to fight for women's health around the world. As a women's organization committed to empowering women, we must keep our eye on the very tangible toll this pandemic is taking on women, specifically. As Jan Beagle, Director-General of the IDLO, put it: "We cannot let gender equality and women’s rights be among the casualties of COVID-19."

This Shavuot, our nation faces the biggest economic recession since the Great Depression. As we celebrate this harvest festival, let us find our resolve in the Torah and the Jewish tradition: "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”

In other words, as Proverbs tells us: "Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy."

Chag Sameach.

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