A win for Reform, not women

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 7, 2012

The sweeping election of Laura Marks as senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies of [some] British Jews is certainly a landmark and possibly a signpost.

Marks is not the first paid-up member of a Reform synagogue to be elected as a senior honorary officer. Indeed, her victory last month pales into insignificance compared with that of Osmond Elim d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, who was elected president of the Board in January 1926. And of course there have been a number of "progressives" since who have held the office of vice-president, notably Eric Moonman who, as a member of the Belsize Square Synagogue, held the office of vice-president from 1994 to 2000, having been senior-vice-president between 1985 and 1991.

Nor is Marks the first woman to be elected as a senior honorary officer. That honour belongs to Rosalind Preston, who was elected to a vice-presidency in 1991, and to Jo Wagerman, the former JFS headteacher, who became a vice-president in 1994 and was president from 2000 to 2003.

Why, then, do I devote an entire column to Marks's success and why in so doing do I urge you - whatever your religious affiliation - to join with me in marking this occasion?

Yes, Osmond d'Avigdor-Goldsmid was a Reform Jew. But he hadn't campaigned for the presidency of the Board on that basis - indeed he had not campaigned at all. He was, first and foremost, a member of the Cousinhood, that select, dependable network of wealthy interrelated families that had ruled Anglo-Jewry since the 18th century. Though not a Zionist, he supported Zionism out of patriotic duty - meaning his patriotic duty as an Englishman whose government then patronised Zionist endeavours. "His contacts with mainstream Judaism," wrote Dr Bernard Homa, "were very tenuous" and - as Homa reminded us - he ended his resignation speech at the Board in December 1932 by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

At that time, the Reform movement was little more than a minuscule, if exotic, appendage to the liberal-conservatism of the United Synagogue. Its members were, as Reformers, totally devoid of communal ambition. Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz was as much their public religious representative as he was that of the US, the Federation of Synagogues and even the (equally minuscule) Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

That world is long since dead. The Reform movement has come of age. When Moonman held the vice-presidency, my impression was that the movement (of which the Belsize Square synagogue was not formally a member) was still inflicted with the inferiority complex that had for decades driven it to undertake a fruitless search for Orthodox legitimation - like some insecure adolescent desperate for adult approval of his unorthodox lifestyle.

But a sea-change has also overtaken the US and the "mainstream" Orthodoxy that it represents. When Dr Lionel Kopelowitz retired as Board president in 1991, Moonman ran for the presidency against Judge Israel Finestein, and lost. I can well recall the whispering campaign that was conducted against Moonman on the grounds that it would never do for the presidency to be held by a member of a non-Orthodox synagogue.

Last week, I took the trouble to remind one of those whisperers of the election of d'Avigdor-Goldsmid some 65 years previously. He replied that d'Avigdor-Goldsmid was of the "establishment," whereas Moonman was definitely not - which was precisely why he got my vote.

The runaway victory of Marks, who had been a deputy for only four months, could not have been achieved without the votes of deputies representing Orthodox synagogues. That - not the fact that she is a woman - is the true significance of her success.

I am chutzpah-dik enough to offer her two pieces of advice. The first is not to be distracted by the patronising words of the moneyed machers who run the Jewish Leadership Council, Community Security Trust and other edifices constructed by the Anglo-Jewish plutocracy. She has a democratic mandate; they do not. The second is not to waste her valuable time holding out the hand of friendship to the Union and its fellow travellers. I doubt that any of them would shake her hand. Even if it was enclosed in a glove.

Last updated: 2:13pm, June 7 2012