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United Synagogues: what about the women?

Some synagogues are pushing away the very people who could be making them thrive

    Columnist Ben Judah certainly struck a nerve when he complained last month about how unfriendly synagogues are towards three-times-a-year Jews.

    “The rabbi lavishes his attention on the frum core… while the less frum families are pretty much ignored,” he wrote. “This is more or less what they get from the synagogue: a High Holy Days handshake, a funeral, and some glossy stuff in the post.”

    Although Judah never mentioned the words “United Synagogue,” the president of that august institution immediately fired off a defensive letter to the JC.

    “The article reflects a type of synagogue that I believe has been confined to the past,” protested Stephen Pack. “We are committed to ensure… every Jew is welcome within the US family.”

    The US’s strategic review last year warned that the US is “highly exposed” to disaffiliating Jews. So one might think that Mr Pack would listen carefully to a young Jew explaining why he feels alienated from synagogue, instead of lecturing him about why he’s wrong.

    But Judah was wrong about one thing. The US does not even welcome its frum members – not all of them, anyway. Those to the left of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, particularly those active in women’s issues, are increasingly banished from the “US family”.

    The first thunderbolt came last year, when Rabbi Mirvis warned his rabbis against inviting “inappropriate speakers”. He never denied this referred to Dina Brawer. She is, astonishingly, former rebbetzin of one of his flagship synagogues, but – oy! – also a student at a NY yeshivah which ordains Orthodox female spiritual leaders.

    Then, last month, Rabbi Mirvis announced that he supported Kavanah College’s application to open a new Jewish high school over that of Barkai College.

    This put the Chief Rabbi in the bizarre position of supporting a school whose secular or traditional founders want a minimum of Jewish Studies – but under his aegis, while spurning an independent school founded by some of his most religiously active members, to provide a rigorous modern Orthodox Jewish education.

    Why did he oppose it? Because Barkai intends to integrate practices such as allowing girls to leyn in front of other girls, which are increasingly accepted in many Orthodox communities around the world, but G-d save Queen Victoria, are still not “normative United Synagogue practice”.

    A sensible leader would have said nothing. Instead, Rabbi Mirvis plumped for those paying lip service to United Synagogue values, and threw those living them under a bus.

    Meanwhile, Rabbi Mirvis has happily accepted credit for his “tolerant” public stance on Partnership Minyanim (services where women lead some parts of davening, within the confines of halachah), which says they cannot take place on US premises but does not condemn those held elsewhere. Yet behind the scenes, hypocritically, he has allowed one of his rabbis to ban PM leaders from educating and leading some services at a US synagogue.

    The result is that observant people who have served on their synagogue’s education committee, who regularly gave shiurim in shul and who spent hundreds of hours volunteering for the US in other capacities have been pushed away.

    I can vouch personally for the hurt and disaffection this has caused, as my own husband is one of those affected.

    Given that membership of “central Orthodox” synagogues dropped by 31.4 per cent between 1990 and 2010, the US can hardly afford to alienate these valuable members (even as it alienates the Ben Judahs of this world….).

    Nor should it, on principle. Stephen Pack wants “every Jew” to be welcome in the US. They aren’t, and he shouldn’t be allowed to pretend they are.

    The entire Orthodox world is grappling with the issue of women’s role in the synagogue. Excluding those at the forefront of the conversation will not make the issues go away, it will merely make the US irrelevant.

    Indeed history shows that whenever the US tries to exclude, it pays a heavy price. It tried to ban Louis Jacobs, and ended up with the Masorti movement. It tried to ban Progressive converts and even Israeli rabbinate converts entering JFS, and ended up with JCoSS and CRP. It didn’t want US rabbis going to Limmud, and ended up irrelevant at the UK’s flagship Jewish cultural event. (Its members all went anyway.)

    Now it is pushing out Orthodox feminists. Rabbi Mirvis and Mr Pack should carefully consider what they are going to end up with instead.

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