Rabbis leaving United Synagogue not a crisis but ‘a challenge’, says first-ever female CEO

Jo Grose, the organisation’s first female head, said the rabbinical exits were 'not a surprise' and part of a needed 'refresh'


The Corporate Headshots of United Synagogue Board Members at Office, Finchley On Feb2023 By Adam Soller Photography

The new chief executive of the United Synagogue believes the recent wave of rabbinic departures represents “a challenge” but not a crisis.

At least eight rabbis have left or are due to leave their congregations this year with most opting for roles outside the pulpit.

But Jo Grose, who in February became the organisation’s first female head in its 153-year history, said the rabbinical exits were “not a surprise."

She said: “I don’t feel it is a crisis point. We have had some great new rabbis come in, we’ve got some more coming in the summer and we’ve got some more we know coming in the next few years. That’s important because we do need that refresh.”

The recruitment and retention of rabbis will be one priority for the head of one of the community’s largest and most complex charities, which has some 37,500 members and an income of around £40 million.

But it is not the only one. Engaging young adults and developing women’s leadership are two other key areas.

Grose, 48, joined the US in 2015 to implement its strategic review, rising to become director of communities and strategy before being chosen to succeed Steven Wilson in the top job.

But while she, husband Dan and her three boys belong to the US’s largest synagogue, Borehamwood and Elstree (BES), she is in one sense an outsider. She grew up in south Manchester, attending a local Sephardi synagogue and North Cheshire Jewish Primary School.

From cosy North Cheshire, she went to a local comprehensive as one of a handful of Jewish students among a diverse pupil body.

She recalled it as "identity-forming", adding: "I had to learn how to stand tall because it was quite an intimidating environment."

Her youth movement was FZY and she chaired the Jewish society at Birmingham University.

After a year back home, she moved to London, spending the “obligatory period of time” in Hendon. After she and Dan married, they lived in West Hampstead, hopping between various US synagogues as well as the experimental Saatchi Shul.

They eventually opted for BES, having “wanted to move somewhere that had one big Jewish community that we could get stuck in and really feel like we belonged”.

An educational publisher, Grose was approached to edit the report of the Jewish Leadership Council’s Commission on Jewish Schools, an entry into “this whole world of Jewish professionals I had no idea existed”.

That led to a job with the Jewish Curriculum Partnership, which was absorbed into the schools’ network, PaJeS. From there, she went on to help set up the UK branch of the children’s Jewish book club, PJ Library.

Meanwhile, she was becoming involved in BES, setting up the women’s Megillah reading for Purim. She says the satellite Yavneh minyan — which may soon become an independent community in its own right —“started in our front room." She added: "I played quite a key role in that and loved it. Of all the things I have done — apart from my children — that was the thing I am most proud of."

Her second most rewarding achievement was helping to launch the Mill Hill East community after she had joined the US professionally.

She adds: “I was there right at the beginning, delivering the leaflets with the first two people involved.” It has grown to the point of now looking for its own building.

During the pandemic, she was responsible for drafting the often complicated guidance on closing and opening synagogues, her work ranging from liaising with government to fielding questions from families on funerals and simchahs.

When the opening emerged at the head of the US, “some great colleagues and friends and mentors” gave her the confidence to explore it. She says: “I also know once you’ve worked at the US, you realise when you get something right — and we don’t always get it right — the impact you can have because of the scale of the organisation is immense. And there are things I want to achieve.”

How to attract young adults is “an existential question” for the ageing organisation, she adds. “In an increasingly secular world we need to make sure Orthodox tradition is relevant to them.”

Her guiding principle is “listen and empower”, helping young people create the models that work for them rather than impose programming. She said: “It is not about saying: ‘Come and stand in our cathedral shul and join in.’ It is about how can we help you have an Orthodox experience that works for you.”

Grose believes the US should be looking at collaboration with outreach organisations such as Aish. At the same time, she cites the work in West Hampstead of Rabbi Jack Cohen — now at Mill Hill East — as an example of the initiatives for young adults that the US has itself been able to sponsor.

Its approach will lean “much more towards employing some strong spiritual leaders, men and women in religious teams — and also empowering, so using seed money to let people do things in the way that they want”. That might mean supporting activities beyond the synagogue walls.

Another priority is developing professional leadership roles for women in communities. She says: “We know there’s a challenge post-bat mitzvah. We need to have role models who know th e Torah, are educated to a high level, are able to answer the kind of questions that women don’t necessarily want to take to a rabbi.”

A new programme for training women is shortly to be announced in association with other organisations which will begin later this year. What its graduates go on to do "will look different in each community."

She explains: "So in an older, more senior community, they might be the director of care, there to be present at end of life moments or shivah or hospital visiting. In another, they might be much more youth-focused or running women-only services.”

Overall, learning for women in US communities “is going up and up and up”. But while Grose acknowledges that some women seek an increased role in ritual, she is conscious that there are many who “are not necessarily looking for [that] but just feel there is no space for them at all — they don’t know what to do on Shabbat morning. We have to crack that.”

A meeting on women’s experience of Kaddish was due to take place this week. And as an example of a successful event, she cited a learning session run by rebbetzens in Hampstead Garden Suburb in memory of Lucy Dee and her daughters.

A year ago, she and a colleague penned a paper anticipating an exodus of rabbis. She says: “Because if you look at many of the rabbis who have left, they have been in their communities quite a long time — eight, ten, 15 years.

“That’s not to say you can’t be in a community for a long time and continue to be successful.” But there may come a time when it is in the interests of rabbi and community for a change.

In the broader world, she pointed out career patterns were altering and “very few of us stay in the same career all of our lives." She added: "One of our key challenges is for a rabbinic career to be running alongside another career.

"Some of our rabbis do it brilliantly here but we need to be able to develop those pathways further. We have the Centre for Rabbinic Excellence looking at those career pathways at the moment.”

The US operates a diversification fund to enable rabbis and rebbetzens to explore other opportunities.

But she added: “I don’t think it would be wrong to say that the pandemic for some rabbis had a real impact and that the cost of living is having an impact.”

During the pandemic, rabbinic couples were “carrying the weight of the community”, having to take difficult decisions. She adds: “A rebbetzen can be working ten hours a week but yet there could be six people in a day who call her up because they are in distress. She is not going to put the phone down.”

But what is happening here reflects a broader trend in the Jewish world on communal service, Grose observed.

“There is a movement, post-Covid especially, that says community work is hard and doesn’t pay enough. Globally we have to answer to this.”

Meanwhile, she continues to keep an eye on the post-Covid return to in-person activity. “If your only measure is Shabbat morning, then attendance for many has been hit.

"There are many who have now gone way beyond where they were before because they have recognised they have had to do things differently. Or they have run things on Friday night or run multiple services.”

As for seeding new communities, there are a “few irons in the fire”. As well as finding a home for Mill Hill East, there are major capital projects scheduled for Hendon, Bushey and BES. A redevelopment of Hendon in particular has long been overdue.

“I am determined not to leave my job until something has happened there," she concludes.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive