Jewish women in Britain are frustrated at being denied equality in running Orthodox synagogues and concerned that community institutions are failing to keep pace with changes in family make-up, according to a new report.
It highlights a “reality gap” between Jewish leaders’ assumptions and modern Jewish living as well as “inconsistent and anachronistic” attitudes over women’s participation in synagogues.
Connection, Continuity and Community — British Jewish Women Speak Out is based on the response of focus groups across the country and more than 700 replies to an online questionnaire.
The results, says the report’s author Tobe Aleksander, “illustrate the perceived gulf between women’s achievements and aspirations in secular life and their Jewish communal and spiritual life”.
The report is a follow-up to the 1994 review on Jewish women commissioned by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. The new research was produced by an independent team chaired by Rosalind Preston, formerly president of the National Council of Women and vice-president of the Board of Deputies, who chaired the original review.
Calling for Jewish organisations to be more inclusive, the report notes “something of a reality gap between the ways in which Jews today live (and will increasingly live) their diverse lives, and the ways in which the leaders of institutional Judaism would ideally wish they might live their lives”.
It continues: “We have to accept that there will be a rich variety of prevailing family structures. Single-parent families, complex step-family arrangements, mixed-faith and same-sex partnerships, couples who choose to cohabit rather than marry, increasing numbers of people who will remain single — these are the realities we must embrace and to which we must positively respond.”
Frustration remains high among Orthodox women about the lack of equality in synagogue leadership (United Synagogue women cannot chair their congregations or be trustees of the organisation).
The report observes: “The community is brimming with able women whose business and management skills are acknowledged and rewarded within their secular lives but who cannot receive proper recognition within the community because of their sex.
“Unless women are offered opportunities to lead the community on an equal footing with men, the gap between their secular and their communal lives will become unbridgeable. Young women have no desire to sustain another generation of tea-makers.”
Some Orthodox women also feel that involvement in religious life remains a “rabbinic lottery” and there is a lack of coherent policy. One young modern Orthodox woman confided: “I find many women discouraged from coming to the synagogue because they feel that there is nothing there for them.”
More than half the respondents to the questionnaire were from Orthodox communities, 88 per cent belonged to a synagogue, 73 per cent were married, 45 per cent were aged from 40 to 59, while seven per cent were men.
For most women, education is their “number one priority. Mothers have a pivotal role especially as traditional family units become fractured. Unless we can find ways of engaging women and giving them the confidence to mentor their children in Jewish belief and practice, then regardless of whether our children participate in formal Jewish learning programmes, we run a risk of producing a disaffected and disconnected generation of young adults.”
Women question the “limited use” of synagogue buildings, recognise the benefits of “cross-communal working” and deplore “divisive attitudes”.
The report notes moves made since 1994 to reduce the occurrence of agunot, women unable to remarry in synagogue because their husbands have denied them a get, a religious bill of divorce. But it says that “challenges remain” and that many Jews are unaware that they require a get to remarry under religious auspices even if they are civilly divorced.
‘You need a man by your side to feel integrated’
“People drift away because they feel undervalued, or not rich or clever or knowledgeable enough, to be part of the community”
“Being single at 20 is acceptable. At 30 folk wonder why, and at 40 one is written off”
Outer NW London, married, 56, Masorti, somewhat secular
“I still feel you need a man by your side to feel integrated”
North London, divorced, 38, Orthodox, somewhat religious
“We were happy with a woman running the state of Israel but not the shul board”
Married, 33, somewhat religious
“Shul is a men’s club”
Lancashire, married, 28, Orthodox, somewhat religious
“I no longer want to be a spectator at shul. I would like to be called up when I have yarzheit and to be able to say Kaddish”
Inner NW London, married, 73, Orthodox, religious
“There is very little point trying hard to educate kids without any kind of support from the parents”
Married, 32, religious
“As a child, I never acquired the knowledge in cheder that I would have had, had I been a boy”
West London, widow,79, Liberal, somewhat secular
“We need more women teaching women more Jewish academic subjects, rather than being relegated to the touchy, feely realm as ladies’ shiurim often are”
Lancashire, married, 28, Orthodox, somewhat religious
“It is pathetic that we often have large premises whose facilities could bring people together and yet because of ridiculous political barriers we refuse to do so”
Inner north London, single, 40, Orthodox, religious
“The divisions within our community are painful and sometimes cruel”
Outer NW London, divorced, 69, Liberal, secular