OPINION: Why is the F-word so problematic for our community leadership?

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OPINION: Why is the F-word so problematic for our community leadership?

Not one woman elected to the top table at the Board of Deputies: this is the ongoing, depressing, and externally embarrassing saga of women in Jewish leadership

Alliance of Jewish Women
Alliance of Jewish Women

After a gruelling and lengthy campaign,  the Board of Deputies elected five talented trustees from across our community; younger and older, representing our regionality and diversity, but with one gaping gap – the g word… Gender.

Phil Rosenberg, the new President ran a dynamic, exciting, visible campaign, the world of social media finally catching up with the hallowed, traditional image of the Board. But, as even the most “gender blind” observer cannot miss, not one woman was elected to the top table, an anathema in Britain 2024.

Crucially, less women stood, an equal balance for president, but one in five for vice president and none for treasurer, letting Ben Crowne assume the role unchallenged.

The lack of willing women candidates reflects the ongoing, depressing, and externally embarrassing saga of women in Jewish leadership, which has been rumbling on for decades starting with Ros Preston OBE’s report thirty years ago.   The  Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership (2012), highlighted the lack of commitment of our organisations to actively support their women,  so amplifying the reluctance of women to step up.

The Commission led to a year of activity with willing community organisations working on their overt and covert systems, exploring how they might adapt to enable women to progress.   Without funding, this pioneering work was discontinued.

Mia Hasenson-Gross

Twelve years on,  legislation, good practice and sheer hard work have brought many more women to communal CEO (chief executive officer) roles but the less clearly regulated area of lay (voluntary) leadership still leaves women languishing behind our men. The Jewish Leadership Council has striven to keep a gender balanced trustee board but its council representing members, and its appointed Vice Presidents are both two thirds men.

One young woman on our AJWO (Alliance of Jewish Women) exec reported that despite doing more volunteering in her shul, her husband was approached to be a trustee and on various panels whilst she just gets asked to do more community volunteering.  “Women are asked to emotionally support the community and men are asked to lead”.  Our women do indeed hold the familial and emotional ‘portfolio’ and to exclude these qualities from leadership seems communally self-destructive.

Another young professional woman added that she was approached to be a trustee.  The other candidate was appointed despite having less community experience, being the same age and having held less professional roles.  “The only difference, he was a man and didn’t have the same family responsibilities that I had”.

The male banter and camaraderie of Jewish communal spaces can be highly excluding, one Board of Deputies informal WhatsApp group I joined, being practically impenetrable for women.  No wonder women find their own more empathetic spaces.

Laura Marks

All the evidence shows we need women in leadership roles not only to increase real representation, but to facilitate decision-making, relationship-building, championing change, setting ambitious goals, and enhancing collaboration.  Faith communities lag behind partly because most still retain male only clergy but also because historically, culturally, institutionally and attitudinally, male leadership has been the accepted norm.

Given the Israel/Hamas conflict, Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish/Muslim women’s network is strained, but strong, personal female friendships are largely holding it together.  Similarly the new Women’s Faith Forum, multi-faith and focused on collaboration, is starting to have a voice, this week alone meeting the minister for faith and the shadow minister,  with police leadership now asking for input.

It’s time to look at Jewish institutions with a less forgiving and more structured approach as we run the risk of fragmenting, the women opting out leaving the male leadership to deal with the consequences.  Women are no longer prepared to take the crumbs the men deign to offer in compensation for real power.  It’s time for strategic, structured change and for women to be recognised as essential to the communal landscape.

We congratulate Phil, Adrian, Andrew, Jeremy and Ben on their election.  And, we call on them and our male communal leaders to use the erstwhile, and invaluable skills of asking, listening and consulting before acting.   Sharing power is never easy – but if not now, when?

  • Laura Marks CBE and Mia Hasenson-Gross, co-chairs, The Alliance of Jewish Women
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