Can we practise what we protest?
Self-help seems the only way to combat women's communal frustrations
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In 2009, the report, Connection, Continuity and Community (widely referred to as Women in the Community) was published. This represented the authentic voice of female Jewry in contemporary Britain. It spoke of a desire for a cohesive, dynamic and inclusive community. It called for an exploration of Jewish education, family, community life, and spiritual growth.
Alongside many positive stories, British Jewish women described the gulf between their secular achievements and aspirations, and their communal and spiritual experience. They revealed a lack of inclusivity and expressed disappointment and frustration in their connections with the Jewish community.
The research undertaken for the report could identify no communal forum in the UK for Jewish women to communicate freely, exchange ideas, share concerns, or simply find information to help them navigate their way through their lives as Jewish women.
Many hundreds of women responded to our survey and participated in our focus groups and we have now had almost 12 months to consider the way forward. So how can we address the range of needs and suggestions expressed, and find practical ways of satisfying them?
One response is properly to exploit the potential of the internet. If we developed a virtual model for cross-community networking, could this include the marginalised? Encourage discussion? Dispense practical information? Lead to change?
Could we create a dynamic and organic website that would provide useful information, link to other organisations, develop chat-rooms and blogs, advertise events and products?
If so, then, at the click of a mouse, Jewish women would be able to find schools for their children, appropriate care for their elderly relatives, learn Hebrew, join book clubs, engage in politics, discuss personal problems, and find full, up-to-date details of Jewish events.
It all sounds very exciting and yet, for all the imaginative and creative thinking of our respondents and the goodwill of our colleagues and friends, we have not been able to make anything practical happen. We resourceful Jewish women, who are used to making things happen, have not yet managed to make this thing happen.
Why? Is it because of the undeniable demands on women's time? Or on account of wider social and economic realities? Or have those of us responsible for producing the report misread the situation?
Have we been wrong to think in terms of a grand project to address the needs and frustrations of Jewish women? Is this too conventionally communal a response? Perhaps, after all, Jewish women are not in need of our help.
It now seems to us that, if anything is going to change in line with the report, it will do so only when individual women and/or groups of women from within the community themselves decide to make things happen.
The reality is that if you want something to happen, then you have to make it happen. If, for example, you want good children's services on Shabbat in your synagogue, you may have to be the one to organise them. If you want an inclusive discussion group, don't wait for somebody else's permission - take it into your own hands and set it up. If Jewish women on the fringes of community life feel the need to seek out one another, form new groups or join existing ones, then they can do it. It already happens in some places; it can happen in others
We know that it is not always easy to "do it yourselves". There are only so many hours in the day and none of us has a limitless reservoir of energy. But we do need more leaders from within the ranks of Jewish women in the UK; more female role models for our children; more of us to put our heads above the parapet.
My fervent hope is that the energy generated by the Women in the Community report will not be wasted.
If you are happy with how things stand, then fine, but if you believe there is more that can be done for Jewish women in the UK, then start making it happen. We will support you.
Rosalind Preston OBE is chairman, 'Connection, Continuity and Community' report 2009, available at ww.bod.org.uk/publications