British Orthodox women join US feminists in fight for rights

Dina Brawer (right) with the UK delegation at the Jofa conference in New York

Dina Brawer (right) with the UK delegation at the Jofa conference in New York

Orthodox women have made progress in gaining a greater role in Jewish religious life, but more still needs to be done, says a leading campaigner.

Dinah Brawer, UK "ambassador" to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa), said that in Britain, steps towards equality were permitted rather than actively encouraged.

She was speaking after leading a delegation of eight women from Britain at Jofa's "Voices of Change" conference in New York, attended by more than 800 people.

The organisation was launched 15 years ago in American to "expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women in the framework of halachah".

Melissa Leigh

Melissa Leigh

It boasts an active following in the US and Israel, and was launched in the UK earlier this year, where it has supported the introduction of partnership-minyans (men and female jointly leading services) in the United Synagogue.

Ms Brawer said: "In this country, the idea is that if women insist on saying Kaddish, rabbis will say 'yes, they can say it'. That is a great step forward.

"But when you contrast this attitude with that of the rabbis and leaders speaking at the conference, who said that we have to actively engage women and invite them in, you understand that merely permitting involvement is not enough."

The British delegation included journalist Miriam Shaviv, lecturer Lindsay Simmonds, and student Melissa Leigh, who was recently appointed Jofa first campus representative in the UK.

The women led their own session on Orthodox feminism in Britain. "We used the UK as a model to explore how you introduce change and how you go about it in a small community which hasn't changed much", Ms Brawer said.

She noted that there was a need to break with preconceived notions of feminism, which can often alienate women. She said: "Feminism in Jofa is very joyful and happy. But I have sometimes encountered a sort of reverse snobbery, especially in more traditional communities. People may say to me: 'Feminism? That's not my cup of tea'.

"There's a generation of women who take feminism for granted. We live in a secular society which has benefited from previous generations of feminists. But there are issues in Jewish law that still need to change, like that of agunah [where only a man may grant a religious divorce], or the fact that female converts have to immerse themselves in the mikvah in front of three male dayanim.

"A lot of these things are hidden. Our aim is to spread the word about issues.

"When you go to synagogue, you see it all happening in the men's section, while women are kept back. That is a shame, because it's a waste of talent and potential."

Ms Leigh, a third- year at Manchester University, said, despite the progress already made, women needed to be given an even wider role within Judaism.

"It needs to be accepted that a woman's status has changed. I would never demand Orthodox feminism in a Charedi shul. But for a community that wants it and is ready for it, there is no reason why it should not be considered 'Orthodox'."

2013 — A good year for progress towards equality

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance was launched in the UK earlier this year to help promote women’s role in Jewish religious life, following the model of the 15-year-old USA-based organisation.

With a specific focus on Orthodox women’s rituals and education, it is just one strand in a general move towards equality and women’s rights, that has seen significant progress over the past 12 months.

In May, women were granted permission to serve as chairmen of United Synagogue congregations, with support from then Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and the London Beth Din.

This was followed by another landmark event in November, when Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis approved the ruling that female members could be elected as trustees of the United Synagogue.

In the same month, Borehamwood Synagogue became the first shul to hold a partnership-minyan on a regular basis, enabling women to conduct parts of the service alongside male rabbis.

Meanwhile, in September, Women in Jewish Leadership (WJL) led a campaign to ban communal discussion panels that featured only male speakers.

WJL co-chair, and Board of Deputies vice-president, Laura Marks said the campaign aimed to counter the lack of female representation in Jewish public life.

Senior figures who backed it included Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman, Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Jeremy Newmark and director of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism Danny Stone.

Last updated: 9:45pm, December 19 2013