Women in Jewish Leadership: The Genie Escapes the Bottle at London Open Meeting

Any lingering doubts about whether the under-representation of women in Jewish leadership is a concern for the community were dispelled at an event held to discuss the issue: it was clear from the start that this particular genie has well and truly escaped from his (or her) bottle.

The first of two Open Meetings organised by the JLC Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership (CWJL) and hosted by Jewish Care drew a 100-strong crowd from across the community on Thursday 22nd March.

Attendees included a Vice-President of the Board of Deputies and senior figures from the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), single mothers, business leaders and key figures from a broad spectrum of communal bodies.

The meeting was held to capture the community’s views about women in leadership, part of a wider consultation which will shape recommendations for change.

While the panel of women who opened the event may have differed in their views about how to change, there was clear consensus that change is needed. The panel comprised of Maureen Kendler (Head of Educational programming at London School of Jewish Studies), Jenni Frazer (Assistant Editor of the Jewish Chronicle), Tracy Fine (the Jewish Princess) and Lisa Ronson, (Commercial Director of Heron International and Trustee of the Community Security Trust). Steven Lewis, Chair of Jewish Care and CWJL member, was sat alongside them.

The audience included Mick Davis, Chairman of the Trustees of the JLC and Jeremy Newmark, Chief Executive of the JLC.

Commission Chair Laura Marks, founder of Mitzvah Day, explained that the aim of the Commission was to build a stronger community, which made everyone feel valued. She led a focused discussion about how to break down the barriers experienced by women, encouraging concrete suggestions for change rather than simple observations about gender inequality. Participants were asked to consider women’s leadership at both organisational and individual levels.

Panellist Lisa Ronson raised the question of whether women actually need to show that they perform better than men to achieve success. A contributor suggested, on the other hand, that rather than emulate male models women should instead aim to bring their particular skills into the boardroom in order to change working culture:

If women have to act like men to achieve success, then what’s the point?

The issue of confidence was also high on the agenda. Audience member and leadership consultant Annette Kurer reminded those present that :

"leaders don’t have to know everything. They have to be committed, manage relationships effectively and have excellent listening skills. Many women are extremely capable of leadership posts but lack the confidence to take them on."

This point was reinforced by Gill Caplin, Chair of the Masorti Movement in Europe, who described how the support she received from female colleagues after having children enabled her to overcome the lack of confidence she suffered on her return to work:

“I definitely lost confidence when I had children, but I got it back. The women around me really helped me believe in myself again. We need to identify women and encourage them to take on leadership roles. We need to mentor them and urge them to stand up and be counted.”

Organisational responsibility for leadership equality was also debated. UJIA employee and ex-movement worker Robin Moss, one of a number of men present, suggested

“an annual survey of Jewish organisations to highlight the number of women and the type of roles they work in. In particular, this should show whether the organisation has improved or otherwise in terms of women’s leadership,”

To applause from the audience, Mr Moss continued:

“We also need to find more male allies to support change. This is a simple issue of justice.”

Sally Miller, Assistant Director of Nightingale care home, suggested that in some cases it would be useful for men to experience secondments into management roles held by women.

“The jobs carried out by their female counterparts can, in practice, be quite different to what they might have expected,” she said.

Whilst the focus of the meeting was on professional and lay leadership, many women expressed a view that Halacha was being used as an excuse to exempt women from taking on more significant roles. A number of contributors felt that greater rabbinical effort should be made to enable maximum participation of women, within the frameworks relevant to the different synagogue bodies.

Jerry Lewis, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies, said that the Board wanted 50 per cent of its Deputies to be women, and urged the community to exercise their vote in the forthcoming elections to help achieve this. Dr Jacqueline Naftalin, a Deputy who is leading this campaign, was in the audience.

The meeting encompassed a wide range of suggestions, including mentoring, the need for transparent recruitment, skills development and confidence training. Very worryingly, a number of audience members who had left the Jewish world to take up senior roles outside the community stood up to say that they simply found working in the secular world ‘more enjoyable’ and felt more valued outside the community.

Speaking after the meeting, CWJL Chair Laura Marks said:

“We are delighted that so many awe-inspiring women and men turned out to make their voices heard – we had such valuable input from all corners of the community. We were particularly pleased that Mick Davis joined us – his presence acknowledges the importance of this issue to the Jewish Leadership Council.”