Simon Hochhauser, the president of the United Synagogue, announced this week that he is to seek re-election on a platform of greater freedom for local synagogues and equality for women as lay leaders.
Elections for the head of the mainstream Orthodox body take place in July, with nominations due to close in the middle of next month.
The 55-year-old new-media entrepreneur from South Hampstead Synagogue believes that synagogues should assume greater financial responsibility for their own affairs, even employing their own rabbis — who are currently employed through the organisation’s head office.
He said: “I do believe it is a help for the communities to consider setting up their own trusts, to create their own set of rules, but at the same time allowing them to call on the centre for support in all sorts of areas.”
The idea of synagogues becoming individual trusts was first mooted in the Kalms review of 1992 but thought too radical to implement.
Dr Hochhauser explained that the United Synagogue would continue to own local synagogue buildings “and the condition for use of those assets would be adherence to the authority of the Chief Rabbi”.
But synagogues, if they became trusts, would enjoy financial autonomy, at the same time being able to call on the US centrally for financial aid for developing buildings or programmes. Communities would be able to apply for funds as long as they sought to raise some locally, he said, though “not necessarily on a 50/50 basis”.
As for the role of women, he wants to press during a second three-year term for “total gender equality on lay leadership, to include the trustee table”.
Women may not at present serve as officers of the United Synagogue, and are permitted only to be vice-chairmen, not chairmen, of local synagogues.
Ultimately, any decision on progress for women would rest with the US’s rabbinic authorities, he stressed. “There are many rabbis within the United Synagogue… who fully support the notion based on halachah,” he said. “But we also recognise that there are many rabbis opposed to the idea of gender equality and this is a matter that requires airing.
“Obviously, we have to work within halachic parameters but even there, there is debate.”
Overall, he believes the organisation is working “smoothly” and while head-office staff providing a range of services to communities are doing an “excellent job, there is room for very strong improvement”.
Over the past few years, the US has achieved “an enormous amount. Principally we have created an environment which is stable, which allows for open and active debate and difference, and we’ve built up a very strong relationship with our rabbanim. I’ve always maintained that is a precondition for successful communities.”