Role of Women in Our Community

By Ruth Deech, September 20, 2012
Jewish Community Centre's Dame Vivien Duffield

Jewish Community Centre's Dame Vivien Duffield

No society can be a healthy one where its women are excluded from the decision-making processes and deprived of their voice. These are issues for all countries and all societies, not least the Jewish community of the UK.

I recently attended the annual Israel Presidential Conference, Facing Tomorrow, in Jerusalem. It is an enormous gathering of Jewish activists from all over the world, benefiting from a wealth of presentations on current topics. As at previous conferences, I was struck by the relative paucity of women speakers, but even more so by the way British Jewry is ignored. It seems we count for very little compared with other European countries and, of course, the United States, when it comes to deliberating Jewish and Israeli interests in the world. To say that you come from Britain elicited the general response that it was the hub of the movement to delegitimise Israel and noteworthy for its lack of leadership.

My theme is that, as a community, we are punching below our weight in international and domestic affairs because our message is unrepresentative and inarticulate. The Anglo-Jewish community lags 50 years behind general society in gender relations and democracy. The rest of the country is grappling with profound difficulties concerning religious leaders, women in business, and financial probity, and these issues are reflected in our community.

To concentrate on the woman issue — women constitute well over half the Jewish community, one third of them have degrees (slightly more than their non-Jewish counterparts), and their earning power is above average. They are prominent in British journalism, academia, law, medicine and psychotherapy, the arts and politics. Some are household names and some have raised funds for charities on a nationwide scale, but they are not “Jewish leaders”.

There is not much cause for optimism in the younger generation: very few women have risen to the top of the Jewish students’ organisations. There are, however, important females heading up the more communal grass roots ventures. Limmud, the Jewish Museum, pro-Israel advocacy, Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival, the Jewish Community Centre all have significant female input.

Now is the time to let the women lead

by Ruth Deech

This may be because much of the Jewish community is moving away from organised religion and finding more identification with cultural and educational events. The women in those endeavours may unwittingly make more of a contribution to the continuation of a vibrant Jewish life in the UK than any number of religious organisations, from whose leadership they are excluded.

The fact that Jewish households have higher incomes than the average also enables more women to volunteer for communal work — a Google check for “Jewish women” brings up not celebrities, but page after page of charitable organisations.

Yes, of course this work needs doing — it is invaluable. But where are the talents of those women when it comes to leading the British Jewish community out of the shadows and giving it a strong voice?
We are familiar with the barriers to participation. Halachic barriers, which sometimes drive women to non-Orthodox synagogues, where they will see Rabbi Baroness Neuberger, for example, in charge. We are still “other”, and second-class citizens, serving the table rather than sitting at it.

While Orthodox Judaism is benevolent towards women and encourages them to see themselves in a special role, that is not how it feels to most of us. If the centre of gravity were to move towards Orthodoxy, equality would suffer even more.

In the non-Jewish world, varying family lifestyles and claims to equality are taken so much more seriously. Jewish women are stereotyped, by Jews and non-Jews alike, as either becky (with a little help from Michael Winner) or princesses.

Indeed, it is hard to see oneself as a Jewish woman leader in a religion where the men will not shake hands with you and where the Orthodox rabbis boycott Limmud, the greatest contribution made to Jewish vitality in the past few decades.

Women who have jobs and family responsibilities find it almost impossible to carve out the time for extra communal activities unless very well supported at home.

Then there is the lack of openness in making appointments, and the feeling that they are just not welcome or taken seriously. And the elephant in the room — the identification of UK leadership with enormous wealth. Are there echoes in our community of the reasons, whatever they may be, for the dearth of women sitting on corporate boards and becoming CEOs in the city? Are our own internal disputes reflecting the ones in the Church of England over women and gay bishops? It has always been said that the Anglo-Jewish community takes on the colours of the surrounding civil society, and nowhere is this more evident than in the women leadership dilemma.
There has been a will to face up to it. In 1992 the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, initiated a review of Women in the Jewish Community, the sensible recommendations of which dribbled away into the sand, as did his Jewish Continuity project.

The plight of agunot may have been assisted by a change in the civil law through parliamentary action, but the religious attitudes to women are, of course, unwavering. The indomitable Ros Preston, who had headed up the Chief Rabbi’s review, revisited the issue 15 years later, to find no change.

Most recently we have had the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership, conceived by the Jewish Leadership Council and chaired by senior Board of Deputies vice president Laura Marks. The report was excellent, but it too needs implementation, and it seems unlikely that the JLC will fund the personnel needed for this task, although they have set up a “Leading Opportunities” programme to develop leadership.

This is ironic, as the Sunday Times annual Rich List regularly features members and trustees of the JLC Council, who may be deemed to be able to make change happen if they back it with their own funds. Ironic also because the JLC is, apart from religious organisations, the most male-dominated one in the community.
The JLC has (according to the information on its website) four women on the council, one woman trustee and no women vice presidents. The deputation of Jewish leaders that recently went to congratulate the Queen on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee embarrassingly included only one woman. One wonders what Her Majesty, our female sovereign, made of it.

The JLC is made up largely of leaders of communal and religious organisations and, overwhelmingly, they have risen to the top because of the financial contributions they have been able to make, and for which they seem to demand recognition. The Jewish community is in thrall to the rich, just as it was in the 19th century. It is virtually impossible to imagine women making either the amount of money apparently required as an entree or succeeding in some big businesses.

The Jewish failure to place women in leadership roles is linked to the way in which, until this very year, society in general fawned on the great bankers, businessmen, moguls and CEOs. Now some of them have been exposed as responsible for business failures and bad practices, and their reign is crumbling.
I know of no women in the Jewish community who have ever been accused of unethical practices in business, but most of them are not hugely wealthy, although talented, and thus they do not have the status and power that the community apparently admires so much.

Of course, the community is indebted to those who have both the time and the resources to enable them to contribute to our organisations. The dilemma is how to widen the pool so that those who are fitted, but lack the wherewithal, can also contribute.

Jews give disproportionately to Jewish and non-Jewish charities. But this is a mitzvah that is supposed to be undertaken without ostentation, not in order to buy oneself a leadership position. The late Lord Wolfson, one of the most respected and effective philanthropists of the 20th century, did not seek to lead the organisations that he supported. It should be sufficient that philanthropy leads to honours and recognition in British society and abroad; the great wealth that lies behind it is not necessarily synonymous with representational qualities or with advocacy and sensitivity.

Clearly, big business is vital to our nation, but to draw our leaders only from that pool results in too narrow a range of talent. People in that position cannot be expected to share the normal experiences of living Jewishly in this country; they do not necessarily represent the community’s views on Israel and other Jewish issues, and they are not accountable in the way that only popular selection can achieve.

The JLC compounds the problem because it is composed mostly of (male) heads of existing organisations. So one has to wonder whether the JLC is necessary at all, and whether the resources that it consumes would not be put to use better by the organisations from which they were taken, and by the Board of Deputies.

I hazard that women do not want to lead where it is wealth, and wealth alone, that defines leadership. They want to be selected on the basis of their own merits. A leadership characterised by wealth neither represents the heterogeneous community nor gives it the influence and prestige that it needs and deserves.
The Chief Rabbi, by way of contrast, has earned enormous respect in the wider society because of his intellect and articulacy; whatever the internal problems, his spokesmanship has raised the respect in which the community and the Jewish religion are held in this country.

The Board of Deputies, at least, is an elected body and is pulling ahead in female representation. This seems to be due to a ginger group within it, dedicated to getting in more women, and which has been sympathetically received. More than one third of places at the Board have gone to women, with Laura Marks holding the most prominent position among them.

The way forward may be to tap into existing resources in Israel and the United States that assist women, rather than spending money, which is not there, on creating new programmes.

I conclude that the Anglo-Jewish community has sapped itself of strength and reputation at home and abroad in part by neglecting to take on board those women who have proved themselves in the outside world. Each and every organisation should be seeking them out amd getting them to join their ranks. If the JLC has any function at all, it should be persuading the organisations that fund it to identify women leaders, and it should support those programmes that will implement the findings of the Preston and Marks commissions.

And finally — we are soon to have a new Chief Rabbi. There needs to be female input into the choice, and the candidate should be asked to make a commitment to forward the recommendations, religious and secular, that would make such a difference. That might be the greatest contribution a prospective Chief Rabbi could make to the health of our community.

Last updated: 3:19pm, September 20 2012