Rabbis crush bid to give women a role in shul

Protesters say Beth Din’s move will deepen alienation and widen chasm within community


An innovative bid to give women greater involvement in United Synagogue services has been scrapped, after objections from the London Beth Din.

The move has prompted protests among congregants, with warnings that it will deepen alienation among women.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski — at one time a candidate to become chief rabbi — last year began allowing women to carry the Sefer Torah around the female section of Golders Green Synagogue on Shabbat mornings after it had been taken out of the Ark.

But to the dismay of some of his congregants, he announced last Saturday that the practice would stop.

He insisted he had not been ordered to do so by the Beth Din but had acted after canvassing opinion. He said he had decided that “the needs of the community are best served by discontinuing it”.

He added: “The Beth Din over the past few months have expressed the view that they did not like the practice.

“I asked around the community to get some sense of how people felt about it. There was a mixture of views — some supported it but others were opposed.”

Both Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and his predecessor Lord Sacks witnessed the new custom while visiting the synagogue.

Now a letter signed by 45 people who object to the decision to end the practice has been sent to the Beth Din. One of them, Sally Berkovic, a member of the synagogue, said: “The pressure to stop the women taking the Sefer Torah is merely the touchstone reflecting a deeper chasm between the Beth Din and the communities it serves.

“The impact of ignoring the religious needs of the women in United Synagogue communities is at the Beth Din’s peril — the alienation and disaffection of young women in particular is clear to anyone who understands these communities.

“Consequently, over time, some of those men and women who care deeply about inclusivity may seek to establish alternative, independent minyanim outside the United Synagogue.”

Jacqui Zinkin, a former vice-chairman of the synagogue, said she was “very saddened by the fact that many women will now be denied the opportunity to be more physically and spiritually involved in the Shabbat and Yomtov services.”

Another congregant, Eva Blumenthal, said: “In most areas of the secular world it has been possible for women to overcome resistance to their progress. For Orthodox Jewish women in England, there seems to be no way forward.

“We can do nothing, we can try to advance very slowly and cautiously but, as in this case, one step forward is likely to be followed by at least one step back. Or we can opt out of the United Synagogue.”

But a spokesman for the Beth Din defended its intervention. “A dayan had private, informal discussions with Rabbi Belovski in which he expressed concerns that deviations in the practices of the synagogue are problematic,” he said. “This was not a question of curtailing the rights of women, but was an issue of protecting the synagogue customs and practices.”

Attempts within the United Synagogue in recent years to be more accommodating to women — such as allowing them to dance with the scroll on Simchat Torah — have provoked a backlash from the right.

A few months ago the head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, condemned such practices as “under the influence of Reform”.

But other rabbis have been prepared to permit such innovations during services. At South Hampstead, pre-batmitzvah girls can now sing Anim Zmirot, the Hymn of Glory, on Shabbat mornings as long as they do so in a group with boys; women can recite the prayers for the Queen and the state of Israel from the gallery, and mothers and grandmothers can bless bar- and batmitzvahs in front of the Ark.

Rabbi Mirvis was unavailable for comment. But Rabbi Baruch Davis, the chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said that on the question of girls singing Anim Zmirot, “the chief rabbi has made it very clear that it is not the right thing to do.”

Last updated: 10:27am, April 11 2014