My year as a synagogue chair
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In January 2013 the United Synagogue voted to allow women to become chairs of their synagogues. When the news was announced I knew that, after 25 years of communal involvement, I would stand.
As a chartered engineer, I felt my project management experience would be useful, but the part of my work I enjoy most is the personal interaction and this, I believed, would be key to being a successful chairman.
There have been many excellent events but the year — and there are elections beginning this week — has been bookended by two highlights: at the start with the induction of Rabbi and Rebbetzen Kanterovitz, who have helped create a positive atmosphere in shul with a feeling that good things are happening; and the recent visit of the Israeli ambassador, which has seen the relaunch of our Israel committee.
We have sought to provide value for membership, not just in the range of religious, educational, social and cultural events, but also by fostering a sense of being part of a community that is dynamic and developing.
Along with the highlights there are, of course, challenges. Aside from the obvious issues of working within a tight budget, and there not being enough hours in the day, every chairman is part of a large volunteer-led organisation.
I went into the position thinking that I would be the one to run the shul in a business-like fashion. I soon realised that the difference between being an employer and managing volunteers prevents the shul being run as a business. However, it doesn’t mean it can’t be run in a professional and efficient manner and I am fortunate in having an outstanding team.
Would I encourage others to stand for the position? Of course. Would I encourage other women? Definitely. The gender of the chairman should be irrelevant: it is about who has the best skills for the position. I suspect that many women would think themselves underqualified if they have not held senior positions in a profession, had a full-time career, or a career at all. A successful lawyer or accountant may assume that they are highly qualified for the position where a housewife may not.
In reality, they both bring useful experience and the successful chairman is the one who can deal sensitively with the emotions that run high in shuls, leaving their own ego out of the equation. It is the skills you bring that affect your ability to fill the role, not the letters after your name or the salary you command in your day job. It is not politically correct to say it, but many women don’t have the confidence to think they can be chairman — and some men have too much!
I also believe it is beneficial for everyone, but especially the children, to see both men and woman leading the community. On my first Shabbat, after making the announcements from in front of the Aron Kodesh, I was delighted by the positive comments, from both men and women, who were proud to belong to a synagogue with a female chairman.
I can’t believe a year has gone by. Despite the occasional low points, I have really enjoyed the experience. I feel well-supported by the whole community. Although there are always complaints, most of them are prefaced with an apology for complaining!
The overwhelming feedback is positive and constructive. It is a great chance for women to step up to the challenge and use their experience to be a new kind of role model for young girls across our communities.
Anne Gordon is chair of Elstree and Borehamwood Synagogue