Kiddush can't keep our community alive

The JC Essay

By Laura Marks, May 17, 2012

I was in Carluccio's in St John's Wood having breakfast, planning a fundraiser. It was for the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies but it might have been for any one of the plethora of Jewish organisations. The restaurant was full of women ready for the gym - dynamic, educated, powerful women. My colleague pushed aside his croissant and said, pointedly: "Those are the women who should be running this community." And he was probably right.

I understood at that moment that the issue was not actually about women at all: we are in the throes of a demographic time-bomb. Women are just the most easily identified example of the urgent need to consider who in our community is valued, empowered and responsible, who feels disenfranchised and who, crucially, will lead and nurture Anglo-Jewry in the future.

Day by day, we could be forgiven for not noticing this time-bomb. We are a vibrant, active community, made up of countless, committed individuals who get on with the job of making communal life, in its varied forms, continue to happen. Reassuringly - in London, at least - it is still difficult to find a date in our collective calendar to hold a meeting that doesn't clash with another Jewish event. But this is just an illusion, a kind of communal comfort blanket. Because, year on year, and with the exception of the strictly Orthodox community, our numbers falter and we struggle to engage.

You might imagine that this would cause us to do everything we could to ensure that every one of us feels valued and inspired to contribute to Anglo-Jewry's future. Sadly, that is not the case. It is increasingly clear that women in particular are not feeling valued within our community and this is reflected at a leadership level.

This isn't a personal view - it's a fact. The professionals who run our organisations include many quality women (such as Elaine Kerr at Norwood and Deborah Nathan at Emunah) but, as in the USA, they tend to lead the smaller organisations. Our "lay" boards are dominated by men. A snapshot of the community last summer revealed that women comprise only around 20 per cent of the trustees of the 20 Jewish Leadership Council organisations, a quarter of their chief executives and under a quarter of members of the Board of Deputies.

We can’t blame the men alone — after all, a doughnut doesn’t vote for Chanucah. Women need to step up to the plate.

Initial findings from the current community-wide consultation, set up by the JLC's Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership (CWJL), which I chair, show that people overwhelmingly feel there should be more women leading our community. Ros Preston's 2009 report, "Connection, Continuity and Community: British Jewish Women Speak Out", made it clear that women are not satisfied with the status quo. The report states: "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. Young women have no desire to sustain another generation of tea-makers."

That last point is key. Our young women are high-achievers and won't find fulfilment solely in the roles that their mothers traditionally played in our community. We learnt from the 2001 census that the average Anglo-Jewish women is more highly educated and enjoys greater professional success than the average non-Jewish man. Every day, Jewish women deploy their professional expertise, leadership skills and strategic insight in the boardrooms of the UK's most important financial institutions, law firms, government bodies and charities. They run their own successful businesses, they voluntarily serve non-Jewish charities at a senior level and act as role models for women in the secular world. Somehow, many juggle the responsibilities of running a family with the satisfaction of knowing that they are making a valued contribution. But, overwhelmingly, they are not willing or able to do this within our community. Indeed, for the majority, women are not permitted to chair their synagogue's board, a fact that aroused exasperated comment in the CWJL's meetings.

Women do make things happen in the community. They set up our Seders, run our cheders, lay out kiddush, organise fundraising dinners. The Progressive movements are lucky enough to enjoy the leadership of inspirational women rabbis such as Laura Janner-Klausner and Alexandra Wright, to name just two of an exciting, emerging force. The vast majority of Mitzvah Day co-ordinators are women (although we are also blessed with some great men). And yet, when it comes to running our organisations, to occupying those top board and trustee-level posts in which key decisions affecting our communal future are made, women are less visible, especially in London. The collective expertise of stockbrokers, lawyers, teachers, psychologists, doctors, working mums and non-working mums is elsewhere. It is helping other organisations, other charities, other communities, other shareholders achieve their objectives.

W orryingly, change is painfully slow. In 1991, Jo Wagerman, then president of the Board of Deputies wrote that 23 per cent of deputies were women, following a campaign for change. Eleven years on, this figure hasn't really changed - but there are now no female honorary officers at all. And with only three female presidents of the Union of Jewish students in 30 years, change is certainly not round the corner. Almost no women speak at our communal dinners, men-only panels are frequent and men-only boards remain common. A week after a group of male leaders supported the CWJL at its launch in February, 13 of a 14-strong delegation to meet the Queen were men.

We can't blame the men alone. A doughnut doesn't vote for Chanucah. We have to look to the women and to the institutions themselves. Our institutions and the men running them need to find ways to encourage women to take up leadership positions and - to use an Americanism - women need to step up to the plate.

The fact that feminism has become a term of disparagement (if not abuse) is tragic. My mother qualified as a GP in 1954 at UCL, where there was a female quota, and took a job in practice on totally different terms to my father, who worked in the same practice. She was a wonderful role-model as mother, professional, local personality, Justice of the Peace, shopping partner on trips to the newly opened Brent Cross. I grew up attending the all-girls South Hampstead High School and then Haberdashers, never questioning issues of gender equality. True, my brother had a barmitzvah while my sister and I didn't, but that was fairly standard at that time.

My parents, relatively pink in political terms, encouraged us to join Habonim, where I thrived, learning leadership skills, independence and of course, a serious interest in boys - until I realised that those gorgeous and fascinating objects of my youthful curiosity were in charge. Habonim has always been at the forefront of issues of equality but at the time the social norms were different. The boys steadfastly, though probably unconsciously, retained all the power: while determinedly socialist, they were oblivious to the issue of egalitarianism with regard to their female peers.

After university, teacher training, and a Masters degree I found myself working in a large prestigious London advertising agency in the late 1980s. It was a time of boom, shoulder pads, fast cars and Thatcherism. Men were invariably promoted to the board before women were but I got there in time to produce my first baby and (somewhat radically) returned to a four-day a week job that of course really took five. Like many, I didn't really engage with the Jewish community until I had children. My husband, Dan Patterson, a TV producer, had a show in the USA so we moved there with three tiny children. When we returned, three years later, I was ready to quit the commercial world and to bring some of the positive, assertive, creative Judaism I had seen in California to the UK, and I set up Mitzvah Day in 2005.

Since its birth at a JCC event for 120 people, it has grown to international proportions, with 22 countries and 300 communities taking part in this cross-generational, cross-communal, interfaith day of social action.

Social action is an area where women leaders do stand up and lead. The renaissance in Tikkun Olam (looking after our world) is not just a Jewish phenomenon. It reflects the fact that, for some, working and campaigning for others or for the environment enables them to express their faith. This is one of the reasons for the success of Mitzvah Day and our new project, the 2012 Year of Service, an interfaith project sponsored by the government in which the nine main faiths in the UK participate in 12 days of volunteering in community projects. Many of these social action organisations are run by women and it seems to be an area where they thrive.

We see women running important and creative initiatives like the Jewish Film Festival, Jewish Book Week and, of course, Limmud. There is change but it is slow. Where women are missing - and where we need to be if we want to defuse that demographic time-bomb - is in our most influential and public communal positions.

O ur community needs to have its most talented leaders - women and men - at the helm. It needs to bring women back into the fold by valuing their professional and lay contributions. It needs to use those volunteers not only at the kiddush table but in its boardrooms and on the Board of Deputies; and it needs to address the concern that halachah is sometimes inappropriately applied in order to hold women back.

But what difference does it make whether our organisations are run by women or men? Recent evidence demonstrates that organisations with gender-balanced boards are more successful and that women make highly effective leaders. Last year's government-commissioned Davies Report, an inquiry into women on company boards, noted: "Women ask the awkward questions more often, decisions are less likely to be nodded through and so are likely to be better." It found that "a 'critical mass' of 30 per cent or more women at board level or in senior management produces the best financial results".

This was a study of the profit-making world and it would be misleading to draw direct comparisons with non-commercial institutions. However, our leading communal bodies must ask themselves whether they could be performing better, achieving a more effective output and contributing to an even stronger community if they had more gender-balanced and diverse boards that were more representative of the Jewish population.

A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review highlighted the capability of women leaders. More than 7,000 were evaluated by their peers, bosses and subordinates against 16 leadership competencies. At all levels, women scored higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree - taking initiative and driving for results - have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.

We need supportive men and my husband has unswervingly stood by my career and communal choices without question (and even without dinner). But women also need to support one another. Several times a year I meet seven others: outspoken, hard-working and determined. Together, we consider the state of our world. For me, this mixed group of women - secular and Orthodox, with children, grandchildren, great- grandchildren and no children - has been transformational. We watch our female (and often male) friends disengage, our children move away and the community organisations refuse to pull together on a range of issues. Yes, we are women, but above all, we are engaged in the community and this is what matters.

To see this simply as "feminism" is to miss the point completely. This is about survival. It matters because there are currently too few women leaders for our young women to emulate and it would be communal suicide to lose them by refusing to change. We have a responsibility to take action now for the sake of the next generation and those beyond.

Laura Marks chairs the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership

Last updated: 12:08pm, May 17 2012