This 50th anniversary year offers an opportunity to bring new ideas and energy to the task of imagining our organization’s future in a time of rapid change. Over the course of this year, the amazing members of the AJS staff, guided by the indefatigable Warren Hoffman, have launched exciting new initiatives and programmatic expansions. As you read about them in these columns, you will see that there is much to celebrate! But because even important changes can sometimes be subtle and easy to miss, I wanted to use this column to highlight some of the ways in which new ideas and energy are transforming the AJS into a more democratic, transparent, inclusive, and member-oriented organization.
On the principle that more voices, and more diverse voices, will build a better organization, the AJS has made important strides in expanding both leadership and participation opportunities for the membership. As a first example, wherever possible within the bounds of our by-laws, the AJS now endeavors to fill positions by voluntary application rather than appointment. This approach was modeled already last year with a change in the way members are nominated to serve on the Board of Directors. Starting with the 2017 slate, members are invited to submit names, including their own if they wish, to the nominating committee. The nominating committee then assembles a slate with an eye to experience and knowledge, but also diversity of career stage, academic discipline, type of institution, gender, and region. In compiling the 2018 slate of nominees, the nominating committee did not add a single name to the 37 individual names proposed by the membership. In other words, the final 2018 slate is drawn entirely from names submitted by the membership. For those who would like more detailed information about the nomination process, I have prepared a brief video explanation that will accompany the announcement of the slate in November.
The same approach of issuing a call for volunteers was adopted in the formation of our four new Task Forces (on Professional Development, Membership Engagement, Sexual Misconduct, and Diversity and Inclusion). The eagerness of members to work to build a better AJS was evident in the number of members that stepped forward -- more than could be accommodated. As a result of this spirit of volunteerism, the Task Force chairs and the executive director were able to assemble task forces that reflect a range of skills, expertise, backgrounds, institutional locations, and levels of seniority.
A similar process was adopted when the untimely and tragic death of Jonathan Hess made it necessary to find new editors for AJS Perspectives. Rather than simply appointing co-editors as had been the custom in the past, the AJS Vice President for Program, Robin Judd, outgoing Co-editor Laura Lieber, and Managing Editor Karin Kugel issued a call for applications from the membership. Looking for editors who would foster the traditions of AJS Perspectives while bringing innovative ideas, they asked for proposals that included a statement of editorial policy and two issue themes, along with a Forum topic/question. This competitive process resulted in the selection of Chaya Halberstam and Mira Sucharov as the new co-editors of AJS Perspectives.
This simple shift towards increased volunteerism has brought more voices, and more diverse voices, to the table. But we all know that there are subtle ways to silence the many voices in our community, and I want the membership to know how much time and brainpower has been and is being invested in addressing problems of climate and culture at the AJS. Guided by our new statement of Core Values, our new Sexual Misconduct Policy, and the work of the new Task Forces, the AJS is taking concrete steps to ensure that its many events, programs, and activities are welcoming to all participants and free of harassment of all kinds. The most significant effort in this connection is the crafting of a set of informal and formal procedures for handling violations of our sexual misconduct policy. In a matter of months, and after a full and thorough review by the Sexual Misconduct Task Force and AJS’s legal counsel, these procedures will be presented to the board for approval. I take enormous pride in the fact that the AJS will be known as a clear leader in this area among learned societies.
Finally, a word about the 2018 Membership Survey. I want to thank all those who volunteered countless hours to the crafting of the survey and all those who responded to the survey. A survey is one tool – not the only one, of course, and not a perfect one – for accessing the voices of our members around issues of critical importance. The results, currently being analyzed by an outside professional, will soon be available to assist the AJS Task Forces and the newly assembled Strategic Planning Committee in their work. But we must not imagine that this survey is the end of the conversation; on the contrary, it is just the beginning. At the upcoming conference, the Task Forces will be engaging the membership in further conversation about many of the issues raised in the survey. Look for these opportunities to make your voice heard.
Because more voices, and more diverse voices, will build a better AJS.
Christine Hayes is the Robert F. and Patricia Ross Weis Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. She is also the President of the Association for Jewish Studies.