The Movement for Reform Judaism will become the first British synagogue body to be professionally led by a female rabbi after Rabbi Tony Bayfield announced plans to retire as head in 15 months.
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand, 42, who joined as executive director in 2007, will move to the post of chief executive in June 2011, according to proposals presented to the Reform Council on Sunday.
Rabbi Bayfield, who retires a month before his 65th birthday after 37 years' service to the movement, will become Reform's honorary president.
He will also continue as a co-president of the Council of Christians and Jews - a position which symbolised his ambition to secure greater recognition for Reform Judaism both inside and outside the Jewish community.
Stephen Moss, the movement's chairman, describing Rabbi Bayfield as one of its "greatest assets", said: "He will continue to have a platform to articulate the theology and ideology of the Reform movement through his writing…and teaching. He will also, very importantly, continue a lead role in the area of interfaith."
Welcoming Rabbi Boyd-Gelfand as an "outstanding successor", Mr Moss said: "She has proved her spurs."
Rabbi Bayfield said: "I am a great believer in… quitting when you're ahead and not overstaying your welcome."
He added: "I don't know where else you would find in the world someone as well equipped as Shoshana to lead the movement forward."
After leading the North-West Surrey Reform Synagogue, he was director of the Sternberg Centre for 10 years, Reform chief executive for a further 10 and will have completed six years as movement head by 2011.
Rabbi Boyd-Gelfand said: "The opportunity for me to take over the reins from such a thoughtful and effective leader was irresistible."
US-born Rabbi Boyd-Gelfand graduated from the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary in 1993 and the Wexner fellowship programme for new Jewish leadership. A mother of three, she is married to Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.