Earlier this year Jo Grose made history when she became the United Synagogue’s first female chief executive in its 153-year history.
The US said it was impressed by “her clear vision”, her management experience and “passion for our work and desire to take the charity forward to engage even more of our members.”
At the time, she told Jewish News of her ambitious plans to empower young adults to build communities that meet their needs and that she wanted to attract and retain the best rabbinic couples.
She’s certainly no shy, retiring community wallflower. The Borehamwood and Elstree shul member, originally from Manchester, former chair of Yavneh College, was a director at Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS) and PJ Library, before joining the US to implement the 2015 Strategic Review.
She then worked with the communities team, before being appointed communities director.
Fast forward eight years and Grose is keen not to be “put in a box” as the first of her kind at the United Synagogue.
However, she says the upside is that “it has shown our female staff that there is a route to promotion and that females have a significant voice in the organisation. It’s shown our female spiritual leaders, our rebbetzens that they have platform.”
She says she works closely with both rebbetzens and female educators, and feels part of their community. “They now feel they are well represented at the top of the organisation. And our members have approached me. I’ve genuinely received hundreds of messages from women and girls in the community saying that ‘we feel now that we have an opportunity to be heard’.”
Grose was already “quite used” to speaking to rooms full of rabbis and “very male-dominated spaces” but notes that the sands are shifting. She envisages a time, possibly “in the next few years” where it’s possible there will also be a woman president of the United Synagogue.
She describes the shift at the US towards fully embracing women as a gradual evolution, commenting that “it’s of course impacted by what goes on in women’s lives outside of the United Synagogue but it just feels like a natural progression.”
One of the reasons she feels she’s in her current role is because she’s worked so closely with the rabbanit over the last few years; “In order to have been successful in my job as Communities Director, I needed to understand the rabbinate and by that I mean rabbis and rebbetzens and their roles; they needed to trust me and I think that’s what I succeeded in doing.”
She notes that she’s only “had support from the Chief Rabbi – there has been absolutely no resistance. It’s not been an issue.”
Grose is open about her own Jewish learning experiences: “I didn’t go to sem (a seminary is an institute of Jewish studies for women). I’ve made space for the additional Jewish learning i needed to do this role.”
Top of her agenda are young adults, describing their relationship with the US and the wider Jewish community as “the existential challenge”.
For Grose, “it’s making sure that there are community models, spaces and encounters that speak to young adults and we’re able to bridge the gap between their living in an increasingly secular world, with liberal values, and being able to bridge that with authentic orthodox tradition. The only way to do that is to listen.”
And she does seem to be particularly good at it. She’s wary of expecting the younger generations to want to exist in the same religious spaces as their parents did.
“We don’t expect them to pop up in the cathedral style shuls performing the same roles that their parents did,” she explains. What’s key for her is “that everyone wants to feel that they belong. Everyone is looking for a community of sorts and people want a means of expressing their Jewish values. That’s what we need to provide and build. we need to create something new within our tradition. That’s priority one.”
True to her word, priority two is the rabbis and rebbetzens, who she describes as “critical to the success of our communities”.
Grose says that the US are acutely aware that they “need to ensure that we are attracting the very best spiritual leaders to our communities, we are retaining them, we’re making sure that they can have meaningful careers, they constantly have the opportunity to develop and that they are living financially secure professional lives.”
Touching on subject of recent rabbinical departures from the United Synagogue, Jewish News asks if there is a problem with retention.
“It’s true,” she admits, “that there are quite a few empty pulpits at the moment and you are right to highlight that. But I think framing it as ‘a problem’ isn’t quite right. We have known for a long time that there would be a shift post Covid. Some rabbis are very successful and stay and grow with the community; for others they have reached the end of the time.”
She says what’s new to the rabbinate is the development of portfolio careers.
“You’ll see that many of our rabbis are serving our communities but they are also working as a lawyer, an accountant, doing something creative in another Jewish organisation.”
She’s confident the Jewish community will see “spikes of engagement” as younger rabbinic couples come in.
“That model of getting to know young, fresh talent early, nurturing the relationship and learning from them so that when the right vacancy comes up, we are able to say ‘this one is for you’. That’s the beauty of the United Synagogue.”
On the subject of intricate issues, such as the religious get (divorce agreement) and role of divorced women, that many forward-thinking rebbetzens want to bring to the fore, Jewish News asks if there is now space for rebbetzens to have the floor as equal partners in the conversation.
“You couldn’t say anything that I would believe more” is the response.
“I have worked very hard with and for the rebbetzens. What do they think? How do we bring them into the conversation. How do we talk about salaries? How do we talk about strategy? Where are their voices? I’ve worked hard to ensure that the rebbetzen role, whilst never perfect, is defined.”
Does she think people turning away from the United Synagogue? A slight pause for a considered response: “It depends on what you mean by ‘turning away from’. I think that we’ve been watching a strong rebuilding post Covid when everyone was hit. Some communities have returned to pre-pandemic levels of engagement. Other communities you can see there is still some way to go.”
Grose is passionate about a greater awareness that community and synagogue don’t mean “just the Shabbat morning moment”. She wants the conversation broadened, and a recognition that “it’s everything that happens in the week. It’s the Chesed deliveries, the difficult conversations that you might have over a coffee, around the rabbi’s table or in someone’s home. We are not just our shuls. We are a charity that’s serving the British Jewish community in as broad as possible a way.”
Grose knows there are always going to be challenging conversations about ‘what does religion mean to an individual’. The challenge for the US is to “help address those and to enable people to grow and develop relationships with their Judaism. It was a challenge 20 years ago. It was a challenge 40 years ago. We just have to keep evolving.”
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