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Jewish women speak out about discrimination and abuse

Ahead of International Women's Day, the Jewish Leadership Council discussed the need for change in our community

    Joanne Greenaway at the London Beth Din:
    Joanne Greenaway at the London Beth Din: "Everyday I am making progress" (Photo: John Rifkin)

    Jewish women have spoken out about the discrimination they experience within the community as part of an initiative launched for International Women’s Day.

    Women participating in the Jewish Leadership Council’s IWD project discussed the need for gender balance in leadership roles, the problem of domestic abuse and the measures needed to boost women’s status across Anglo-Jewry.

    Civil servant Tamara Isaacs, who is the former chair of New North London Synagogue, said she would like to see Jewish women treated equally in the religious sphere.

    She said Jewish girls are taught from as early as 12 years-old that leadership roles are closed to them.

    She said: “My family belonged to a synagogue which, somewhat eccentrically, allowed a girl to have a batmitzvah that was exactly the same as for a boy, including being called up and reading from the Torah.

    “But after that as a woman you could play no part in leading the service or participating on the bimah. 

    “I can feel my anger today at this discrimination and injustice exactly as I felt it then.”

    Mrs Isaacs said that the inequality experienced by Jewish women who wish to participate in religious life has become worse.

    “We live our lives in the modern world and give our daughters the same education as our sons, we work in organisations where we expect women to take their place at the top table, in a country with laws on equality of treatment. 

    “Yet we attend celebrations for boys and girls entering their teenage years that are fundamentally different,” she said.

    Mrs Isaacs said it explained the lack of women in leadership roles.

    “We celebrate when a community turns to a young girl and says firmly ‘we do not expect the same of you as the young boys'.

    “You look at the leadership of our communities and wonder where the women are. I can tell you. At 12 years old you told them to leave it to the men.”

    Joanne Greenaway, a  lawyer who works at the London Beth Din focusing on get refusal, said women needed to be supported in matters such as securing a religious divorce.

    She said it was vital “that no stone is left un-turned in resolving difficult situations, and that women feel represented within the Jewish court”.

    Women who took leadership roles in the community needed the backing of a supportive family, according to Sharon Bannister, president of the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester and Region.

    She cited how her husband had helped her career. “He has quite a few times given up something that he wanted to do in order to accompany me, rather like Denis Thatcher trailing behind Margaret, trying to look interested,” she said.

    Naomi Dickson, chief executive of Jewish Women’s Aid, said an increase in calls to the organisation was evidence that women in the community felt more empowered to report abuse.

    “In the first two months of this year, 70 women have called Jewish Women’s Aid seeking help in their abusive relationships.  This is double what we received in the same period last year.

    “Is this progress?  Yes it is. The Anglo-Jewish community now acknowledges that domestic abuse is an issue in a way it has never done before.

    “Women are reaching out for support to JWA with the encouragement of their friends, doctors, rabbis, rebbetzens and family.”

    But she said she wanted to progress to a point where women were able to identify signs of abuse at an early stage and not “feel that they have to wait until the abuse escalates before seeking help."

    “I’d like every professional in our community to understand the prevalence and presentation of domestic abuse so that they can support the women who need it. 

    “Seventy women in two months is too high – together with the community we need to prevent domestic abuse happening in the first place, and that is the progress we need to push for.”

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