LONDON – At least four women are standing for election as leaders of Orthodox synagogues in London next month, according to Dalia Cramer, co-chair of the US Women group.

This is a first for the UK, where until December 2012, women were forbidden to serve as chairs of shuls belonging to the United Synagogue (US), Britain’s largest synagogal organization. Previously, they could only serve as vice-chairs.

Three other women are apparently still considering putting their names forward in the shul board elections, which take place over May. Should all seven be voted in, more than 10 percent of the United Synagogue’s 62 congregations would be led by women. Seven women are also standing as vice-chairs of their shuls.

The potential revolution topped the agenda at “In Charge and Inspired,” a panel discussion on women and leadership organized by US Women, which was attended by around 65 people – including a handful of men — Monday night.

While panelists were at pains to emphasize that communities which did not want women chairs would not have them imposed, the consensus seemed to be that they would be quietly accepted.

“In all the years when I was president [of the United Synagogue], I found very little opposition,” said Simon Hochhauser, who headed the organization between 2005 and 2011.

100 years after the suffragettes, ‘we should be really angry’ that there is still a distinction between men and women in leadership

A week after the burial of Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and 100 years after the suffragettes, he said, “we should be really angry” that there is still a distinction between men and women in leadership.

He called for the United Synagogue to take things “much further,” allowing women to stand as president and sit on the trustee board, two positions which remain out-of-bounds but are where legal power in the US ultimately lies. One option, he suggested, was to explore whether denying women these roles breaches UK law.

The assumption in the audience seemed to be that Britain’s modern Orthodox shuls are decades behind America’s in giving women leadership roles. But the New York-based president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Judy Heicklen, said that the phenomenon of women shul presidents was still “not widespread” back home, noting that the Young Israel movement still outlaws it in its bylaws.

She counted four main barriers: women’s historical lack of Jewish knowledge and training for leadership roles; the perception that it was “immodest” for a woman to head a congregation; a non-insurmountable halachic issue around accepting women’s authority; and tradition.

The most important issues, she said, seemed to be emotional.

‘It’s about comfort levels, men in positions of power not seeing what women can bring to the table’

“It’s about comfort levels, men in positions of power not seeing what women can bring to the table. It’s not malice.”

British Jews, meanwhile, may see more change quickly. According to Cramer, there are already discussions taking place “around the trustee board table” about allowing women to join it, and to serve as United Synagogue president. Panel moderator Doreen Samuels said that the aim was to conclude the process before the next trustee elections in July 2014.

However, the change to the statutes and bylaws would have to be approved by the London Beth Din, the Chief Rabbi and the US Council before next spring, possibly a tight schedule.

“We can safely say the Beth Din is very cooperative,” Samuels added.

This may prove crucial as many in the community believe that the traditionalist religious court, whose halachic authority the United Synagogue defers to, was responsible for vetoing women shul chairs.

New West End Synagogue’s Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler, who gave an overview of the halachic issues involved, denied this was the case, blaming instead the United Synagogue’s own community rabbis, some of whom, he claimed, think that late-night meetings with female chairs is immodest. Hochhauser said responsibility lay with “the chief rabbinate,” as Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had maintained that there would be no change during his tenure.

Why the US leadership changed the rules quickly last December remains unclear. So does the position of chief rabbi elect Ephraim Mirvis, who is due to take over the role in September.

But Shisler pointed out that under Rabbi Mirvis’s leadership, Finchley United Synagogue recently appointed a female halachic advisor.

“We can look forward to a much more inclusive community,” he concluded.

Former United Synagogue head Simon Hochhauser and New West End Synagogue’s Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler made up the male contingent on the US Women panel. (photo credit: courtesy)

Former United Synagogue head Simon Hochhauser and New West End Synagogue’s Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler made up the male contingent on the US Women panel. (photo credit: courtesy)