The United Synagogue's gamechangers

A programme initiated by the Chief Rabbi is helping to raise the profile of women as religious leaders


When Shira Jackson addressed the congregation at a Friday night service at Finchley Synagogue, one of the largest in the United Synagogue, she spoke from the bimah. “It felt quite radical,” she recalled.

Twenty years ago it would have been unlikely for a woman to appear as a guest speaker at a Shabbat service. But a growing cadre of female educators have quietly been ushering in change.

She was one of the second cohort of graduates from the Ma’ayan programme, the initiative launched by the Chief Rabbi in 2016 to increase opportunities for women to take on religious roles. Ma’ayan, meaning “spring” in Hebrew, was a newly minted title, alluding to a phrase, me’irat einayim, “enlightening the eyes”, from Psalms.

The five-term course, which is unique within the Orthodox community in Britain, consists of three strands: training to deliver educational content; in-depth study of the laws of taharat hamisphachah, family purity, led by dayanim from the London Beth Din; and education about women’s health, including a series on counselling.

Ma’ayan Jackson, a  physics-turned-Jewish studies teacher at her alma mater, Hasmonean High School for Girls, and a mother of five, had shown an early taste for education. When she returned from a gap year at a seminary in Israel, she began working for  the outreach organisation Aish.

While juggling career and family, she felt the lack of an educational “buzz”, so she took the Susi Bradfield Educators Programme, the London School of Jewish Studies’ course to train women as adult educators, which led her to running shiurim for women in her own community, Toras Chaim in Hendon.

Once the excitement of learning returned to her life, “I feel it was quite transformative”. Her adult education range has expanded: she has spoken at various US communities and she will be one of the ma’ayanot featuring in pre-Purim and Pesach roadshows in coming weeks.

Now 36, she believes a lot has changed in the community over the past couple of decade. There is more adult education now, both for men and women. A network of organisations that advise women in different ways and do “amazing work” like Chava, which offers support on fertility, has taken root.

Women can chair US synagogues, the organisation’s first female chief executive has taken up post — “I don’t think you could have predicted that 20 years ago” —- it recently changed its constitution to allow a woman to become president in future.

And congregational rebbetzins are often now employed in their own right. “Previously the rebbetzins might not have had their own contracts. I think in most of the shuls now the rebbetzin has got her own list of duties and her own role to play,” she said.

But while there has been progress for women, some believe it has not gone far enough and want the Orthodox establishment to recognise the rabbinic ordination of women and to accept partnership minyanim, where women can lead some of the prayers and leyn from the Torah.

However, she believes debates over whether women should be rabbis are a “distraction from the much broader issue” —  that while there may be only a few Orthodox women who want to become rabbis, there are far more who “feel quite disengaged and don’t feel catered to” but who could be reached within the current religious framework.

The more women educators there are, the more they can engage those women who feel their spiritual needs are not being met. “I would love every Jewish woman to have at least one moment of real connection with Judaism, with God, with the Jewish people, where they feel excited to be a Jewish woman,” she said.

“It genuinely pains me that anyone feels upset about their Judaism… For people whose frustrations are outweighing their joy in Judaism, let’s see what we can do about that,” she said.

Her fellow ma’ayan, Pnina Savery, similarly believes in concentrating on what women can do now rather than arguing whether the doors of the rabbinate should be open to them. “I am not going to say everything’s perfect, there’s always room to improve,” she said. “But it’s important to focus on how far we have come and what we do have available.”

Her own path has differed from her colleague’s. She grew up in a Reform family who attended synagogue every Shabbat morning and she leyned from the Torah for her batmitzvah. She enjoyed the experience but could not understand what she was reading and her dvar Torah was written for her.

In hindsight, she believes, it is not the ceremony that counts most. “We need to reframe the question — not to be about why can’t girls leyn [in Orthodox synagogues] but rather how can we make bar and batmitzvah process for both boys and girls more meaningful and show them what it means to be a Jewish adult in the 21st century within the realm of halachah.”

It was at JFS that “I saw a different side of Judaism, I saw the beauty of Orthodox Judaism.” Its residential programme in Israel as well as Shabbatonim in Gateshead helped inspire her over time to become more observant herself. One summer she volunteered in Ghana with the Jewish aid charity, Tzedek.

After university, she went to Israel to do a master’s degree at the Hebrew University as well as a two-year high level Tanach course at the Matan Institute for women. In 2013, she returned with her husband to the UK, taught English for nine years at Menorah High School for Girls before they and their three young daughters made aliyah last summer.

Now living in Bet Shemesh, she teaches at a local religious high school and also gap-year girls at seminary, incuding some from the UK. She has  continued giving shiurim for the United Synagogue, via Zoom, and writing on the prophets for its weekly newsletter.

She took the Ma’ayan course because she  “was really passionate about working in the Jewish community, being a female role model and helping other people to connect to Judaism and make it a positive part of their life.”

She hopes to be involved in an advisory hotline for women, which is in the pipeline — a ma’ayan already runs one in her community — as well as maintaining her educational work. “I urge people to use us. There are a number of highly trained, expert educators who are here for the community.”

Over the past five years, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbi observed, “we have achieved a significant shift in the religious leadership opportunities that exist for women in our communities”.

Apart from the growing portfolios of rebbetzins, “We now have three yoatzot halachah [advisers on Jewish law] working in the UK, in addition to the outstanding graduates of our Ma’ayan programme. The Chief Rabbi’s aim is to expand this over the coming years, creating more positions of religious leadership for women in our communities.”

More information on learning and leadership courses is available from

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