Orthodox women in the UK have hailed an historic breakthrough after the chief rabbi and United Synagogue leaders cleared the way for them to become chairmen of synagogues.
Since US women were first permitted to become local synagogue officers in 2001, they have been restricted to the roles of vice-chair or financial representative.
But on Monday, the US Council is expected to support a rule change that will allow women to chair congregations from next spring.
The US Women’s Organisation said that it was “thrilled” at the proposed change, which would be a “truly historic development”.
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks voiced his delight at the move.
But congregational rabbis appear to have been taken by surprise, hastily discussing it this week after discovering it on the agenda of next Monday’s Council meeting.
Rabbi Baruch Davis, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said: “We are broadly supportive. We are not going to oppose it.
“But there are certain things we’d like to take up for discussion with the trustees.”
Privately, some rabbis have expressed unease about the prospect of women chairmen, believing, for example, that it would be more difficult for them to have late-night, one-to-one meetings with a woman chair.
Some US synagogues have already been led by a woman vice-chair when there was no elected chairman. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation and a number of independent Orthodox synagogues have long allowed women to chair synagogues.
US president Stephen Pack, who took office nearly 18 months ago, said that he had pledged when elected as president to resolve the matter. “I am delighted that we have been able to reach agreement. ”
But no-one from the US hierarchy has explained the shift in thinking after previous leaders failed to persuade the religious authorities to allow women to occupy the top seat.
Last year, Mr Pack’s predecessor, Simon Hochhauser, who had pressed for progress for women, reported that Lord Sacks had not wished to change the status quo during his chief rabbinate.
Dr Hochhauser said this week that, while delighted, it was “only a step. We are after full equality for men and women in lay leadership which includes becoming trustees and president of the United Synagogue.”