Four women to stand for top synagogue jobs

By Sandy Rashty, April 24, 2013

The United Synagogue is likely to get its first woman chairman of a congregation when it hold its elections next month.

The Chief Rabbi and US leaders passed a ruling allowing women to become chairmen of synagogues last December. Women had previously been restricted to the roles of vice-chair or financial representative.

This week, it was announced that at least four women will stand as chairmen, while another seven will stand as vice-chairs. The news came during a panel discussion on leadership organised by US Women Executive at Norrice Lea Synagogue, in north-west London, on Monday.

Speaking at the event, former US president Simon Hochhauser expressed frustration that the rule change did not go far enough, because women are still barred from taking positions as trustees or presidents of synagogues.

"We should be really angry," he said. "It's not a feminist issue, it's a human rights issue. The change is minimal because all power ultimately resides with trustees."

Jewish Leadership Council vice-president Michele Vogel pointed out that only 13 per cent of major positions in the community are held by women. She called for "gender balance in the community but not tokenism".

Rabbi Shisler, of the New West End Synagogue, agreed, saying that, if there "were more women in leadership it would be a better thing all together".

One woman with direct experience of issues surrounding leadership is Jacqui Zinkin, the former vice-chair of Golders Green Synagogue. She held the position for six-years from 2004, including four without a chairman.

"We faced difficult times," she said. "No one stood for chair, so I filled the gap. Some people didn't think it was right because it hadn't been done before. There was a lot of resistance - from men and women."

A key argument against women taking up senior administrative roles has been the potential for a breach of yichud (the rule banning the inappropriate seclusion of a man with a woman). But Mrs Zinkin said she found ways to avoid the problem. "If we were working late, we would meet at the rabbi's house or a public place - it was never an issue."

Mrs Zinkin believed that competence was a major factor in overcoming prejudice against women in leadership roles. "If you're good at what you do, the issues melt away," she said, adding that she felt that "women will soon be able to become trustees, but the idea that the president must be a man will last for a long time."

Among those running for synagogue chair in May's elections are Frances Grossman for Belmont, Rosalind Goulden for Cockfosters, and Nicky Burns for Central. Ms Burns said: "I've been very angry that there's been no opportunity for women to become chairs. I have two grown-up daughters who are now prepared to stay with the US. Otherwise we could lose that generation to Masorti and then Reform."

Last updated: 12:16pm, April 25 2013