While other women are advancing, ours are not

By Gita Conn, December 9, 2010

There are more women in Parliament, following the last election, than ever before in the history of the UK. Almost a quarter of MPs are female with four women in the Cabinet and 12 in ministerial posts.

In the professions and public life generally, women are winning the fight for equality that previous generations worked so hard to achieve.

But the Jewish community seems to be going backwards. A few years ago, the Board of Deputies of British Jews elected a woman president. However, at last year's elections, not a single woman made it to the 22-strong executive committee. Slightly ashamed, the new president attempted damage limitation. He didn't actually use the word "token" but that's the word that springs to mind when two women, unelected, are somehow co-opted (without voting rights) to the executive.

Just as in Parliament, almost a quarter of the number of deputies, representing synagogues and Jewish organisations countrywide, are women. And, if they are fast enough on their feet, they have a good chance of reaching the microphone to have their say at monthly plenary meetings (the plenaries are heavier on talk than on tachlis - getting down to business. It is the executive that has the power).

The Board can be justly proud, on its 250th anniversary, to be "the voice of British Jewry" - a voice that is heard in the "corridors of power" here and abroad - raising concerns about antisemitism, shechitah, security, universal jurisdiction and all matters affecting our community. There is no doubt that, under its current president, the Board is raising its head and shouting above the parapet.

Isn’t it time we recognised the worth of the single woman?

But the voice is male. The Board's recent gala anniversary dinner provided a glaring illustration. Of 11 speakers only one was female. "Outrageous," declared a woman at my table. "How can they have only one woman speaker. And," she spluttered, "she's only making a presentation!" Another woman chimed in: "Oh, I prefer to let the men run things."

Perhaps that's the nub of the problem. While we assume women want to participate equally, many are more comfortable working with other women. Wizo raises millions of pounds every year; the League of Jewish Women does sterling work for those in need and, indirectly, for our community's reputation. The list goes on. Men are just as active but they, too, seem to prefer to work with their own sex. UJIA has only two women among 35 lay leaders; Magen David Adom has two women on its 11-strong Board, and JNF, where all five honorary officers are men, has just two women on its eight-strong executive board.

Are we still hardwired into Eshet Chayil mode? The "woman of worth, her price above rubies" is lauded for her care of husband, home, children and the poor. Isn't it time we recognised the worth of the many single women with other important priorities, as well as the many mothers who succeed in their careers?

Some blame for the anachronistic gender imbalance must lie with the United Synagogue, where men lead the prayers and control shul affairs while the woman's place is on the balcony and in the ladies' guild.

A couple of weeks ago, the JC reported that a senior US rabbi had "no objections" to women becoming chairs or presidents of synagogues. Breath should not be held!

Even in the Reform movement, where women participate equally in prayer and leadership, the Kiddush rota is invariably "womanned" and many are still reluctant, despite encouragement, to mount the bimah.

"It runs right through the community," declared one community activist bitterly (and anonymously) when I asked her about sexism in our leadership. I turned to another woman, one who has bucked this backward trend. Manchester - which, it has been said, leads the trend in matters Jewish - has elected a female president to its Jewish representative council several times. The present incumbent, Lucille Cohen, wants women to "empower themselves".

They should make sure they are nominated to positions of lay leadership, she says. Women can do the jobs at least as well as men but she admits they have to overcome a male tendency to "talk over" and cut in when women are speaking. But she is adamant that women must embrace power. "To achieve a fully functioning society, the talents of women must be harnessed to the full."

If a young, bright, modern woman were to attend a Board of Deputies plenary meeting, she would be faced with a platform of middle-aged men-in-suits and witness a procession of mainly elderly male speakers at the mic. Yes, the Board is to be commended for addressing the age problem (someone once remarked that the average age was… dead). In order to attract younger people, it offered free affiliation to under 35s. This has resulted in 32 new, young deputies. How many are women? Five.

Clearly, it is time for a new beginning. Perhaps we should look to that superior body, the Jewish Leadership Council for guidance. Then again - with one, possibly two, women on its 24-strong council - perhaps not.

Gita Conn is a journalist and deputy for Menorah Synagogue: Cheshire Reform Congregation

Last updated: 3:12pm, December 9 2010