Women to get vote in Federation elections

After more than a century, women in the Federation of Synagogues are set to get the vote in synagogue elections.

Leaders of the Orthodox organisation, founded in 1887, are planning to change its constitution to enable the move later this year.

It was over 30 years ago when the Federation's then rabbinic leader, Dayan Michael Fisher, reaffirmed the bar on women's participation in elections. But now the head of the Federation Beth Din, Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, has given his approval for change.

"We have had a lot of single women, particularly widows, who have been upset that their voices could not be heard," he explained. "They asked me to review the position.

"I looked through the [rabbinic] sources and found certain sources that permitted it. Those sources have also been relied on for women voting in Israeli elections."

When the constitution is changed, women should be able to vote for members of their local synagogue board and the Federation's governing council. Because of legal technicalities, the full extent of voting rights remains to be clarified.

Federation leaders have also been exploring the possibility of enabling women to sit on shul boards and the council, while at the same time limiting their vote to non-religious matters.

But this could be problematic because council members are automatically trustees of the organisation and it might be difficult under charity law to restrict their voting rights.

Meanwhile, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has confirmed that there is unlikely to be further progress on women occupying leadership positions within the United Synagogue.

Women have been able to sit on local US synagogue boards and the US council for a number of years, as well as be elected as shul financial officers and vice-chairs.

But US lay leaders have sought further advances to enable women to become synagogue chairmen and trustee officers of the US centrally.

Explaining the Chief Rabbi's position, his office said: "There is considerable debate in halachic circles on the extent to which the traditional role of men in communal religious institutions should pass to or be shared with women. Further changes should not be undertaken without consultation with and the support of US rabbis and the London Beth Din." 

It added, however, that the Chief Rabbi "does not believe that further changes are likely during the remainder of his term of office but will continue to consider all such requests".

Lord Sacks pointed out that under his aegis, "the United Synagogue, with the fullest support from its Beth Din, has given women a far greater role in synagogue affairs than most other Orthodox institutions. Within the last year alone, it has been found possible for women representatives to attend all meetings of the US honorary officers, where they make a valuable contribution."

At the Association of US Women, co-chair Irene Leeman said the Chief Rabbi's stance had "left the door open" for further changes. "So nothing is altogether ruled out. It will be up to the US leadership and the community, including women, to put any requests forward for consideration."

    Last updated: 2:01pm, May 13 2010