How far have women come?

By Simon Rocker, June 13, 2008
In 1994, a major review examined attitudes to women’s roles in the community. Its author says it is time for a new study

The head of a review into the role of women in the Jewish community is to take a fresh look at the subject to see what progress has been made — 14 years later.

Rosalind Preston, former vice-president of the Board of Deputies and ex-chairman of Nightingale, is putting together a team for a 2008 study.

Rosalind Preston

“People I have spoken to feel that it is timely and necessary,” she said. “I want to rediscover whether there was any value to what we did, to look at what progress has been made, and if not, why not, and whether we need to do anything about it.”

The original review in 1994 was commissioned by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks as one of his first major projects in office. It produced a 120-page report and a survey of  women’s attitudes.

Recommendations ranged from being more attentive to the needs of single women or providing a family mediation service, to publishing new prayers for Orthodox women on the loss of a child, guidelines on the recitation of Kaddish or encouraging naming ceremonies for daughters.

“Some recommendations have been well advanced, such as on women who suffer abuse,” Mrs Preston said. “Jewish Women’s Aid is well established and they are doing a grand job. It has got much more recognition.

“On practically every front there has been progress, with the exception of get and agunah,” a reference to the plight of a woman unable to remarry in an Orthodox synagogue because her husband denies her a religious divorce.

Among other things, Mrs Preston wants to investigate the effectiveness of pre-nuptial agreements — which were designed to prevent agunot in the event of marital breakdown. Changing circumstances may have also affected the position of women, she said, citing the explosion of Jewish day-school education, the expansion of the Charedi community or more couples choosing to live together rather than marry.

Some of the original team have agreed to take part in the follow-up review, including Judge Dawn Freedman and demographic expert Marlena Schmool. This time it will be conducted under the umbrella of the Board of Deputies.

Mrs Preston said: “One can’t be complacent and think that because it was done before, that’s it.

“You have to go back to it every generation, perhaps every decade.”

A few things women want to change

Prominent women have welcomed the new study. Lilian Brodie, former chair of the women’s Zionist movement Emunah, said that the original review had failed to help singles as much as had been hoped.

The review urged “a nationwide, independent, self-financing, data-based introduction agency, offering an affordable and professional service to all Jewish singles”.

But Mrs Brodie does not feel this has happened. “Traditionally, we are a couple-based community. We need to be more thoughtful in synagogue. 

“For instance, a single mum wanting to take her son to synagogue might need a ‘shul-buddy’, if it is not appropriate for her to take him with her, and the same for a father with a daughter.”

June Jacobs, former president of the International Council of Jewish Women, saw the recommendations in relation to get and agunah as out of date. The review states: “The Chief Rabbi should issue guidelines on what is judged to be acceptable to grant a get.”

Mrs Jacobs said: “Rabbis should completely change the interpretation of a get so that it doesn’t exist any more. It is nonsense that men have the power to give it. Not enough has changed and the Chief Rabbi sending out guidelines doesn’t help.”

Conservative peer Baroness Miller said: “There are more things that need to be looked at, such as conversion.

“We need to do things to make it easier for people to be Jewish and bring up their children Jewish.”

Last updated: 1:59pm, June 17 2008