A JC survey of new Jewish women’s groups has thrown into sharp relief the divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements in tackling gender inequality.
Over the past year, Orthodox women’s organisations have secured access to lay leadership roles — including chair and trustee positions in the United Synagogue — and lobbied against all-male panels at communal events.
But attempts to increase women’s role in synagogue services has been met with opposition from the Orthodox establishment.
Women’s leaders acknowledge that there is still more to do, with one admitting that systemic change will take a generation.
Meanwhile, the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements have watched from the sidelines, confident that they already provide equal opportunities. One Masorti rabbi revealed that issues such as gay marriage are now higher up their agenda than women’s rights.
Laura Marks, senior vice president of the Board of Deputies, co-founded Women in Jewish Leadership last year in a bid to encourage Jewish women to take up leadership roles across the community.
She said: “There was, and still is, a feeling that there are way too few women in top leadership roles.
“Our community lacks fairness and true equality and also that we would be a more effective, dynamic and creative community were our leadership to be more diverse.”
She noted there was a recognition that it was time for reform, but that “deep, embedded and systemic change may take another generation”.
Dina Brawer, the UK ambassador for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance [Jofa UK], which launched in June 2013, has lobbied to dispel myths that prevent women from participating in areas of religious life.
“Changing traditional attitudes towards women can be uncomfortable,” she said. “Some in the Orthodox community perceive the change we are advocating as a threat.”
Mrs Brawer, who believes that Orthodox Judaism and feminism complement one another, said her group had an ongoing responsibility “to shift the soft bigotry of low expectations towards women in the sphere of Jewish education and practice”.
United Synagogue Women, a group which launched in 2009, was pivotal in securing the right of women to chair shuls and become US trustees.
But Dalia Cramer, the group’s co-chair, said there was a hope among her colleagues that one day the group would not exist.
“Our ideal would be for US Women not to be needed. One day we hope all women will feel they have an equal voice, support and opportunity for involvement. But while there has been steady progress, many women still struggle and contact us about various issues.”
Removing the need to campaign on women’s rights has already been achieved by the Reform movement, according to its Senior Rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner.
She said: “We don’t have a women’s lobbying group because, thank God, we are an egalitarian movement.
“We do have a women’s rabbi network, but in a way that’s become less active with meetings less regularly. We have less need to lobby together, to coerce together, because we are egalitarian.”
She suggested that in the drive to achieve “gender balance”, the priority was now to ensure men did not feel excluded.
Rabbi Danny Rich, the chief executive of Liberal Judaism, was reluctant to comment on why there was a need for women groups in Orthodox Judaism.
However, he pointed out that women had always been seen as equal to men in Liberal Judaism.
“One the reasons our movement was founded was to ensure that women’s freedom of religious expression was appropriately represented,” he said.
Matt Plen, the chief executive of Masorti Judaism, confirmed that it too had no need of a distinct group for women.
“Equal representation and participation for women is fundamental,” he said.
“Women are well roped into leadership and to my knowledge, there hasn’t been any demand for a special grouping.
“They can be chairs, trustees and officers. Women are reasonably well represented in the Masorti movement. We would never accept shul membership that doesn’t allow women in lay leadership.”
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, the rabbi of New London Synagogue, said same-sex marriage was higher on the Masorti movement’s agenda than women’s rights.
He said a women-specific forum is “not our way of doing things. It sounds more like that Orthodox way of doing things with a centralised model. It’s not the Masorti, Liberal and Reform movements’ model”.