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Rona’s Story: Women in The Workplace

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(1/7) “You Can Do This”

“Unlike my parents, I did not dream of becoming a classroom teacher. I knew I wanted to work with children in some capacity.  I don’t know when I decided that my other love, theater, would not work in my life beyond being a hobby. I knew that creative passions would always be in my life in some way, but what I really wanted was to take the suffering out of the lives of children.

What was always a part of the story was that I knew that I wanted to live a rich Torah-observant life and I wanted to have a family. Being a good parent and a good mother was as important to me as any career goals. I needed to envision a pathway that would let me have both. I wanted to figure out a way that I could have it all.

Of course, in life you discover that you can never have it all. But you can balance, and find a way to have enough of everything.

I had a very smart mother, who I saw as very capable and competent. But really important was that my father, an industrial arts teacher with a side carpentry business, opened his workshop to me.  He built numerous beautiful and amazing things in our house and fixed anything that broke. He communicated through his actions and attitude that anything could be accomplished if you worked at it, especially if you have the right tools. He let me learn at his elbow, and the fact that I wasn’t his son but his daughter didn’t matter. He imbued me with the sense that there were no limits for me, that  ‘I could do it.’ It had a huge impact, especially considering that his message to me went against the traditional expectations for young women at the time.

My dad not only believed in me, he also insisted I expand my capabilities. When I inherited my grandfather’s car, my dad would not let me drive it to college until I knew how to care for it. How to change the oil, a tire, what to do if the carburetor sticks. What was communicated was, ‘I believe you can learn this. You don’t need to be dependent on other people.’ That early communication of empowerment I think made all the difference.

What I totally internalized was, don’t be limited by what you can do. Don’t be limited by what is typical for people to do. Don’t be limited by the expectations projected on you by others.”

(2/7) “Sailing At the Top”

“My initial professional dream was to be an academic. I wanted to be a university-based psychologist, doing research and some clinical work. When I was newly graduated with my doctorate in psychology and unmarried, I was looking for jobs and the only offer I received was in a small city in a state with no religious Jews. The pay was awful. If I took the job, I thought, I’ll never get married.  So instead I accepted a position in a New York teaching hospital.

That decision led to three decades of work in teaching hospitals. I was a clinician and administrator, and I felt that I had gotten pretty close to the career I was looking for. I grew into leadership and supervisory positions and became the director of child psychology training at my hospital so I had the wonderful opportunity to mentor young psychologists entering the field.

Despite loving the work with children and families, I found it frustrating that in the clinical model you only see children after they have suffered a lot.  Often they had to experience months and years of school failure or negative experiences until they came to the attention of the school or parents and arrived for treatment. I felt very strongly that schools could be spaces of growth and healing, but they also could be toxic. I hoped that one day my work could shift to working with schools, so that we could find a way to get to children earlier and do preventative work. This would also include empowering educators to realize that they are agents of growth and change, as well as agents of learning.

The most surprising thing happened. Around 13 years ago, I was sailing along at the top of my clinical psychology career, in a major health center, in a job I thought I would retire from. I was comfortable. I liked my job. There was no higher to climb.

A colleague approached me and said, “Yeshiva University needs you. The Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education needs people like you.” My first response was, “You’re crazy.” I had no teaching degree I was not trained in education. Why did this school need a clinical psychologist?

My insistent future colleague asked me to come in and meet some of the faculty. Then he asked if I would teach a class for the summer.

The rest is history.”

(3/7) “When Women Come Together”

“I taught a summer class and I fell in love with the students. I fell in love with the idea that there is much that I could offer from my clinical experience and training, to developing educators. They were very hungry to learn what I knew. I discovered that there were other psychologists on the faculty and I had immediate respect for the interdisciplinary and highly dedicated faculty.

There was another draw to the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education.  In my private practice my goal was to address the needs of the whole child, their mind, soul, social lives and overall well- being. When I worked in the secular world, selling schools on educating the ‘whole child’ was a bit of a challenge. But in chinuch it is the essence of Jewish education. Chinuch doesn’t just aim to help students ‘know Jewish.’ It is about creating individuals who can and will ‘live Jewish.’ It isn’t about collecting knowledge, it is about connecting to God and others in a meaningful way.

Quickly, the conversation morphed from, ‘Just teach a course…’ to ‘Will you leave your comfortable, safe, top-of-your-craft job’ for a tenure-track position at a university. In tenure positions, you have six years to prove your research, teaching and service capabilities- or you are out. Within six years I would need to publish enough, meet the criteria, be judged by a jury of peers to be worthy of the permanent commitment of the institution to my professional future; or I would be gone. There is no other option. Six years to remake myself and succeed – or I would be back to square one – out of a job.

So after three decades of clinical work, I took a major risk and entered the system I originally dreamed about. I was not a young person and I had to figure out how to generate publications as a lead author.  Even though I had always loved research, my statistics knowledge was rusty, in clinical settings my opportunity for research had been limited.

Two amazing things happened. First, I rediscovered my love of research. For my brain, research feels like play. Secondly, I found a colleague who would very positively impact my career. I arranged to meet with a statistician at the university, someone I would contract to consult with me on research.  I discovered in our initial meeting that we were fellow travelers – both working to advance academically, both interested in similar areas of study. I wondered whether it might not be to our mutual benefit to collaborate and co-publish our research rather than work as employer/employee. To my delight and great benefit, my colleague agreed.  To this day, we are close collaborators and I think we have been important supporters in each other’s careers.

We are both mothers but decades apart in age. We are hashkafically very different. And yet, the work together has been unbelievably enriching, and I believe I could never have accomplished alone what we have accomplished together.  It is amazing to me how when women come together, we can help each other achieve more.

Two women, partnering together in work, felt very natural. In our case, we were not competing. There was no way that one of us succeeding would have hurt the other. But what became clear was that working together both of us could succeed beyond what we could have done alone.

As wonderful as it was, this collaboration required me to admit a professional weakness. My colleague attends statistics camp for fun, while I have a math allergy. This meant allowing myself to be vulnerable with a colleague. Admit where I needed help. When you are going for tenure, it doesn’t always feel so safe to reveal your limitations.   But I did, and I found amazing support that allowed me to succeed.”

(4/7) “Saying Yes”

“I was the first female tenured professor in my department. At the time there weren’t a lot of women in the department. I think academia in general may have more male professors than female, even though there are more female teachers in schools. The most jarring part of switching my career path was asking myself, ‘Do you really want to take on a challenge, to work so hard, to take this huge risk, or do you want to coast through the rest of your career?’ The lesson I learned is that you are never done. It’s tempting to say ‘It’s too hard.’ But such amazing things have happened because I took the chance and the risk.

Because I said, ‘Yes.’

My career change took me from clinic to academia AND from the secular work world to working in a truly Jewish environment.  Despite the fact that every mental health facility I worked at had something Jewish in its name, they weren’t Jewish settings. I always felt like there was my professional life, and then separately, there was my soul. Although I would like to think that my spirituality informed my work, there was a limit to how I could bring it into the work.

When I came to YU, I thought, ‘Wow, now I can be whole.’ I can work in a place where I can hear a leading secular educational theorist come to lecture and then later day hear Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks give a presentation. I thought, ‘What a life to have!’ I actually get to live, ‘Torah U’Madda,’ the combination of Torah and science in my professional life.

With this great complete, integrated professional life, there came a challenge. In my secular career, in my secular world, my work and my role was gender blind. If I was invited to a conference and was invited to speak, there was no question of, “Is there a mechitza? Are the people there going to be comfortable hearing a woman speak? Are there halachic issues to consider?”

As a halachic professional there were always the questions of ‘How am I going to handle handshaking’ and other personal issues. But those were choices I made for myself. Now I had entered a world where my professional life and religious life were finally merged. I realized that I can be a scholar in the academic world with no barriers. But to be a scholar in certain religious contexts, shuls, other settings, there are different sensibilities about where a woman can and cannot participate. I had never had to come to terms with that on a professional level.

On a personal level, I had no issues with my roles and access in my community. I was comfortable with my role in my family, and my shul, with what my tefilot looked like, where I felt comfortable davening. I was not interested in pushing these boundaries or trailblazing.  

But now I find myself, being called by mental health agencies to do high profile presentations. Yet there are segments of the Jewish world, where only a male colleague would be given such an invitation.”

(5/7) “The Open and Closed Doors”

“I think that as women and professionals in advanced leadership positions, it is tempting and perhaps natural to get angry at such limits, but I didn’t find the anger helpful. My anger is not going to change the stance or policies of an organization, and I accept the Torah approach. I decided to focus my energy on where there are opportunities for women and think about how I might help grow them.  In my leadership role, how could I ensure that diverse, representative and of course, female voices are included.

This translated into a specific and new response to opportunities.  As a psychologist in the secular world, I had been selective regarding which engagements I would “book”.  As a woman in the Jewish professional world, I began to say yes whenever invited to speak. Since not everyone will invite women to speak, and those places that do may still provide fewer opportunities for female than male scholars, I want those places that do open the door to find people who will walk through it. I want to pave the way for other women.   I want communities, shuls, agencies, to see that there are women with much to offer. I often find myself doing extra work, and being outside my comfort zone. but I tell myself, ‘You never know who may walk in after you.’

Focusing on existing opportunities doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider the doors that are currently closed. Doors are sometimes closed because of valid and important halachic considerations. I am humbled by the halachic knowledge that other women and men have about these issues. I defer to those with authoritative knowledge, and I would not want to do anything against halacha.  I hope that those with halachic wisdom can help determine where there are problematic issues and where, within Torah law and sensitive to religious needs, there may be a workaround.

There are many agencies and organizations out there that are doing good work to promote women’s scholarship and leadership. On an individual level for me, what has kept my sanity, is focusing on the amazing opportunities that have come my way to be a spokesperson for the mental health of children and for the value of chinuch.”

(6/7) “Space for Us at the Table”

“We hear a lot about the cost of Jewish education today. But what we also should be talking about is the value of chinuch. The role it plays and should play in the formative lives of our children.

We should be talking more about the value of Jewish educators, who are formative agents in the lives of children. We need to celebrate the work they are doing, and figure out how we find more of those young people who have the spark, power, chein, and knowledge to become dynamo educators. We need to figure out how to keep them in the field.

I had all my degrees before I was married. I was Dr. before I was Mrs. Then I became “Mom.” By the time I was a mother balancing my family and my career, I was already supervising other clinicians. When I would meet a young frum female clinician, I always heard, ‘It is so good to meet someone like you.’

They would tell me, ‘I have wonderful supervisors at school, but they can’t tell me how it is to manage to get the challah done and still see a patient. And how do you leave a session with a really hurt kid, and then go home to your own kids and not worry. How do you balance your religious passions when you have a patient who is struggling with their religious commitments?”

Mentorship is so important. The other week I participated in a doctoral defense. Usually, there are seven people on the panel. In this case, four of them were Jewish women with doctorates. One of them remarked, ‘Isn’t it amazing- the female power in this convocation.’

I’ve learned that women’s growth is not just women’s work.  You can only ‘lean-in’ if there are men who have made room for you. Otherwise, when you lean-in, you may hit a brick wall. We need men who not only make space but also cheerlead for women’s professional progress.

My husband is the biggest cheerleader of my career. But my husband is beyond my rock, he is the continuation of my father’s message of ‘You can do it.’ He has been encouraging me ever since I met him. It has been a great model for our three sons.

I worry and wonder if men are willing to make space for a less out-there and verbal woman. I am not a quiet person. It is rare that I am in the room and you don’t know it. I don’t think men who meet me say, ‘Oh I better make room for Rona.’ Because I make my presence known and make room for myself. I don’t think men think that they need to support my efforts.

But what about my female colleagues who are equally bright and passionate, but more reserved in their manner? More thoughtful. I wonder if men will notice, will be sensitive and think to themselves, ‘Oh I better invite her forward to the table.’

If we think about men supporting us, we also need to think about what we women do for each other. I think that all women out there need to work more on advancing each other’s careers. We need to think, ‘Here is an opportunity, it’s not for me, but what woman do I know who would benefit from this? Can this move her forward? How can I mentor and coach her? How can I support her efforts?’”

(7/7) “Prioritizing Jewish Continuity”

“Being seen as a role model makes me nervous. Because I don’t exercise enough. My desk is a disaster. There are places in my emunah that need growth.

But being a mentor? I never thought I would be a teacher, but I always wanted to be a mentor. Every job that I have taken, as soon as I was able to, I morphed it into a position where I was developing others.

Mentoring is more than teaching skills and content. It is facilitating another person’s growth.  Shining a light on the path they want to travel. Sometimes it is giving a little push. But I prefer to work together to help the mentee identify what push they need. I’ve mentored colleagues towards tenure and they have all been successful. I am constantly mentoring students to finish their doctorate- and there is nothing like that moment when they succeed.

For the last few decades of mentoring men and women, there have been so many moments where a student or colleague I supervise has come to me with trepidation and anxiety in their eyes. I can see that they are waiting to make a big statement, and then they share the news of an upcoming marriage, pregnancy, or other life cycle event. In every instance I have the same exact response, ‘Mazal tov! You only job now is to take care of yourself and your needs. My job as the chief psychologist/administrator/dean is to backfill your time. That is not your worry.’ I think that is what we have to do for each other. Colleagues did that for me.  When I lost my father a year and a half ago, my colleagues took care of anything and everything that needed to be done. ‘The dean is sitting Shiva. The dean is not available.’ If we are going to grow the next generation of educators, or clinicians, or human beings, then we have to nurture them.

What I love about my work at Yeshiva University is the integration of our lifecycle events and the work. Inevitably during the semester, we have engagements, babies born, and unfortunately, losses. We celebrate together, we mourn together. The work that we do is chinuch. We are creating Jewish educators. So being there for each other is the outcome we are looking for. This is Jewish community and continuity. This is what it is all about.

I’m so proud and so fortunate to be a female Jewish educator, to mentor other Jewish educators and to contribute in some way to the lives and growth of Jewish children.  It’s not where I thought the journey would take me, but I’m so thankful for all the support, experiences, and people who gave me the skills and confidence to take this amazing trip.”

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Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism. She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira made aliyah with her family a year ago to Jerusalem.
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