Women may gain right to lead Orthodox synagogue boards in Britain

Impending decision would grant both genders the right to chair United Synagogue congregations

Orthodox women praying (illustrative photo: Mariam Alster/Flash90)
Orthodox women praying (illustrative photo: Mariam Alster/Flash90)

LONDON — Rabbis from Britain’s main group of Orthodox synagogues are “livid” after being left out of a decision to allow women to serve as leaders of their congregations, The Times of Israel has learned.

Currently, women belonging to the United Synagogue, which runs about 60 shuls in the London area, can act only as vice chairs of their institutions. But on Monday, the United Synagogue council is going to vote on a motion proposed by the lay leadership stating that both “male and female persons may be elected as honorary officers,” and hence as leaders. The motion is expected to pass easily.

Many United Synagogue rabbis only learned about the vote last week. Two days ago, roughly 30 met with Rabbi Menachem Gelley, a judge from from the London Beth Din, or religious court, in an emergency session to discuss the development.

According to several sources who would not be named, the rabbis were so angry at having been left out of the process that they considered insisting that the motion be rescinded. Ultimately, they decided to demand that they be consulted before any change takes place. They will also convey their dissatisfaction to the United Synagogue trustees.

The sources emphasized that most of the rabbis were emphatically not against the idea of female chairs — only against the way in which the proposed change had been handled. Even the motion’s few opponents believe female leadership is inevitable, and therefore should be implemented gracefully.

‘This is a truly historic development which comes following a huge amount of hard work’

The question of whether women can serve as shul chairpersons has been raised repeatedly since they were first allowed to serve as financial representatives and vice chairs in the United Synagogue more than a decade ago. A 2009 report on the status of Jewish women in Britain, “Connection, Continuity and Community,” highlighted Orthodox women’s frustration at being barred from top leadership positions, noting, “Unless women are offered opportunities to lead the community on an equal footing with men, the gap between their secular and their communal lives will become unbridgeable.”

As in much of the Jewish world, however, there has been strong resistance to opening leadership positions to both genders, with critics citing tradition and “modesty,” among other reasons.

In the UK, it was widely accepted that due to the reservations of the London Beth Din, the change would not take place during the tenure of the current chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. The reason for the volte-face is unclear, though some have speculated that it is due to Sacks’ concerns about his legacy, or to hesitations about leaving the issue for a new chief rabbi. Others have suggested a desire to divert attention from the search for the next chief rabbi, which has become mired in controversy.

Despite the procedural irregularities, the move is being warmly welcomed by women in the United Synagogue, many of whom have fought for the change for many years.

According to Dalia Cramer, chair of United Synagogue Women, “We are thrilled by this proposed change to the bylaws, giving half of the membership the opportunity to be recognized as leaders of their communities. This is a truly historic development which comes following a huge amount of hard work and in consultation with our [religious] authorities. We are proud that the leadership of the United Synagogue fully supports women as lay leaders in the community.”

Philippa Sneader is currently the vice chair of her synagogue, Radlett United. She called the potential policy change a “very positive move for the United Synagogue, and for synagogues in general. I believe that women’s voices should be heard just the same as men’s — it’s not a boy’s-only club. Women’s input is just as valuable.”

One United Synagogue rabbi, Dov Kaplan of Hampstead Garden Suburb, cautiously welcomed the move, saying that “some shuls were ready for this and should be encouraged and allowed, while others are not. But it should be an option.”

The change, he said, was largely symbolic, because there are already several shuls that have deliberately not appointed a chairman, in order to allow their female vice chairs to effectively lead the synagogue.

The rabbis were not against the idea of female chairs — only against the way in which the proposed change has been handled

“It’s not as if it wasn’t happening anyway,” he said. “Not giving the title is a bit outdated.”

He said equality had not been granted earlier because the community was previously “not ready for it.”

But now that women routinely take on senior leadership roles in secular society, “it is time to look at the next generation and breed the next generation of leaders” in the religious world as well, within the bounds of Jewish law.

Kaplan, an American who worked for many years in Israel, added that he had been “very impressed by the attitude of the rabbis” in the UK on the issue. “Most agreed it was an appropriate decision, and that if [congregations] want the option, they should have it.”

Another rabbi, Meir Salasnik of Bushey United Synagogue, said he had no strong feelings on the matter, but that if women are voted in as shul chairs, careful guidance will have to be issued to “protect” both parties from situations in which they might be compromised.

Despite the prospect of change, some women say this is not the end of the battle. One senior United Synagogue woman noted that women have representatives on the trustee board of the United Synagogue, but are still not allowed to become trustees, “although they do the same work.”

Addressing this, she said, will be “the next step.”

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