New chief rabbi's wife must face selectors

By Jessica Elgot, February 16, 2012
Lady Sacks

Lady Sacks

The appointment procedure for the next Chief Rabbi has been questioned by leading employment lawyers after it emerged that the selection committee will meet the wives of candidates.

But the United Synagogue has insisted that such discussions will have "no bearing" on its choice of candidate.

The application pack states: "A small team will be formed to meet the wife of the preferred candidate, to include at least one woman on the consulting group, and they will liaise with the working group."

Employment barrister John Bowers QC said that there could be a potential legal problem if a candidate did not get the job because of how the selection committee regarded his wife.

He said: "I think it reflects stereotypical views about women being supportive of their husbands. If a candidate were turned down because of his wife, he might bring what is called an associative discrimination case.

It must have a bearing or they wouldn’t be doing it

"I think it could be discriminatory against the candidate if a selection were to be based on the quality or otherwise of the person to whom he was married."

Another employment law expert, who did not wish to be named, said the meeting "must have a bearing [on the final decision] or they would not be doing it. A robust employment judge may not believe them."

The US has made clear that the job is not for a "Chief Rabbi and Rebbetzin" and it says that the wife of the future chief rabbi will not be employed by the US.

According to the application process, the meeting with the wife of the potential chief rabbi is set to take place before the candidate has been formally endorsed by the consulting group or the rabbinical council.

But the US said the meeting was purely for the benefit of the couple. Chair of the Chief Rabbinate Trust Stephen Pack said: "The role of chief rabbi will not only change the life of the successful candidate but also that of his wife and family. As such, we are very pleased to have built into the process the opportunity for a small group to meet the wife of the preferred candidate - once one has been identified.

"This meeting does not form part of the interview process and will not have any bearing on the appointment itself. It is however a very good opportunity for the wife of the preferred candidate to ask any questions she may have about her potential role as wife of the chief rabbi, or anything else that she may be interested to know."

Historically, the role of the chief rabbi's wife has varied. The most prominent in recent times was Lady Jakobovits, who maintained a hectic schedule of entertaining, speaking engagements and charitable work, long after her husband's death in 1999. Lady Sacks, wife of the current chief rabbi, is a trained radiographer who gave up her job to take on official duties.

All of the leading candidates tipped to become the next chief rabbi are married. Gina, wife of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein of South Africa, organised a conference for rebbetzins in 2009 and launched a support group for them to help wives who might find "the visibility of their job very challenging".

Sarah Robinson, married to Rabbi Shaul Robinson of Lincoln Square synagogue in New York, has also spoken at length about the challenges of a rebbetzin's role.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski of Golders Green Synagogue is married to journalist Vicki, community news editor of the Orthodox newspaper Hamodia.

Last updated: 1:38pm, February 16 2012