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Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner in the New Statesman

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner in the New StatesmanRabbi Laura Janner-Klausner writes on the ‘only a third’ moment, which echoes the experience of many women, in a special issue of the New Statesman which asks ‘who speaks for British Jews?’

Recently I met a student at a university Jewish Society who described in eloquent detail how it felt for her to have had an Orthodox bat mitzvah, the Jewish adulthood initiation ceremony. Her bat mitzvah was on a Sunday. Boys, however, celebrate their bar mitzvah on a Saturday, our Sabbath. She read in English rather than Hebrew. She certainly did not read from a Torah scroll – part of the Hebrew Bible. The celebration that followed took place in exactly the same banqueting hall in which her two brothers had held theirs, but as she described with a mixture of derision and sadness, they had partitioned the hall for her party using only a third of the space. It felt to me as if she was describing only a third of the joy.

The ‘only a third’ moment echoes many Jewish women’s experience of being denied an equal portion of participation and representation in the leadership of our organisations. But something might be changing. Perhaps the banqueting hall of women’s participation may be expanding, the partitions shifting as the issue of Jewish women’s participation hits the communal agenda. The Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership was launched this year to examine the leadership gender imbalance. As they described it, ‘the genie is out of the bottle’.

Regrettably, the aspiration of having even a third seems optimistic – a 2011 snapshot of the Jewish community shows that despite high levels of education and achievement in the secular world, Jewish women comprise only a quarter of leadership positions, disproportionately low compared with the wider population.  But the genie is working her way through the community. Well publicised cases of gender segregation are causing concern amongst middle of the road Orthodox people. They realise that the changing status of women is emblematic of the direction in which their stream of Judaism may be heading.

The main newspaper of British Jewry, the Jewish Chronicle pays regular attention to the issue: ‘Women Still Sidelined by United Synagogue’ – the United Synagogue being the main institution for Orthodox British Jewry. One recent letter highlighted the dismal fact that women are specifically precluded from being Trustees of the United Synagogue and from standing for Chair of the Board of an Orthodox synagogue: “This archaic rule alienates and disenfranchises women in our community. Why should educated, capable, articulate women be able to work hard behind the scenes at a synagogue, but not be seen to be leading?”

This is not a narrow tribal, denominational concern; it’s both ideological and practical. We are too small a community to exclude the talent of over half our potential leaders.

The main, well documented barriers preventing change and a truly inclusive model of leadership from emerging include the paradox of what one woman calls the ‘tough stance’; powerful women are seen as aggressive when successful but weak when they fail. It certainly undermines women. There is an expectation that Jewish women will put their family first but they receive insufficient and ineffective support to enable them to balance communal and family needs. There is also the belief (and reality) that there is an ‘old boys’ network’ approach to recruitment of lay positions, effectively excluding many women from consideration. Many observers note a perception that many Jewish communal organisations are simply not committed to change or to gender equality. This leads to a talent exodus; Jewish women are not choosing to focus their energies on developing the community.

However, a far more sinister polarisation is threatening the very foundations of our community: a pernicious increase in gender segregation in public spheres and the silencing of women’s voices amongst certain fundamentalist circles in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora. The debacle in Israel of not only gender segregated buses but also gender segregated health clinics has increased. This is accompanied by a far more disturbing phenomenon of attempts to silence women’s voices emanating from the claim that women distract men from prayer and our voices in song (or even talking) can lead to sexual misconduct.

This silencing is now seeping into public zones, including banning women from singing in some mainstream public ceremonies and even from presenting at religious academic conferences. Some Orthodox women are speaking out against this exclusion of women, seeing it as a misuse of Jewish religious law. Others are calling on Orthodox rabbis to enable maximum participation of women but there are pitifully few such rabbis who are actively encouraging their female congregants to take leadership roles.

In contrast, I know that I am blessed as a women, and as a mother of three, to hold the leadership position of Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, joining other women colleagues in leadership roles such as the Chair of the Movement; the Convenor of our Religious Court; the Principal of our rabbinic training college and the Senior Rabbi of one of our flagship synagogues. I luxuriate in this freedom for some Jewish women to speak out in public, to influence and to lead.

This is the expansion of the banqueting hall and it strengthens the community who celebrate their lives within it. This hall needs to be one in which both Jewish men and Jewish women mingle, where they value each other’s contributions and where our different skills combine to strengthen and improve both the Jewish, and the wider community.

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