The very good news is that most of the 1,636 people who took part in the Women’s Survey run by the Jewish Leadership Council were in favour of “change” – meaning an unspecified agreement for a need for more women leaders: 83% identified a need for more women leaders in the Jewish Community, and the male and female responses did not differ widely.
However, the 1,636 breaks down into the following predictable gender divide: 1166 women and 396 men answered the survey; 74 did not disclose their gender.
The fact that a majority of respondents were women, in one sense weakens the conclusion that the community wants more rights and opportunities for women: women are voting for a better deal for themselves. But I see that as a huge step forward. One of the accusations often thrown at women is that they do not push themselves, volunteer themselves, speak up even when they have the chance to do so. The inference is that they enjoy and accept their more passive status, they don’t want to be involved.
Well, a whole bunch of us do, at least 1166. And it has not been made easy for us with the blanket insistence that we don’t.
I have heard it said that change in the Jewish world will only come if men want and “allow” it to happen. Annoying as this may sound, it is partly true, and less than 400 responses to this survey from men does not bode well- but it is not nothing, it is a start. Men have the most to lose, and if they genuinely do not see the benefit of having women integrated into communal life, why would they want all the upheaval, invasion, loss of power and control?
The numbers answering the survey are very small and they are self-selecting. The silent majority may well be bored by the column inches devoted to this in the Jewish press recently. They may well be equally unmoved by the parallel coverage given to the question in the wider community, in churches, in the City, in government, in the media.
I imagine quotas will have to be introduced to achieve more women in leadership positions in Jewish organisations. I cannot imagine organisations will have the will, the energy and the creativity to sort this one out for themselves. The worst case scenario is that women will be tolerated rather than welcomed and they will be set up to fail; if they push for new agendas too quickly it will cause panic, if they sit quietly they may be accused of not doing enough.
Young people who set up flat-structured, meritocratic gender-blind groups for social events, services and learning will be reading this in disbelief- what century are we in, exactly, just who puts up with this stuff? The answer is that we do. Or we have done up till now, but just maybe, just maybe, this genie won’t go back in its bottle.
One issue that seems to have struck a particular chord is “vice-chair syndrome” where in orthodox synagogues, far more women than men hold this “hands-on” role while a man occupies the position of senior decision maker. In some Orthodox synagogues, where women cannot currently take the role of chair, a sort of legal fiction continues where a man will have the title of chair in order to facilitate the woman’s leadership in her roles as vice-chair. If the survey’s work achieves nothing more than ending for good this demeaning and degrading situation it will have been worthwhile. Interestingly, the only organisations to show gender parity are arts and culture groups- it seems that religious organisations have much to learn from their so-called secular counterparts.
There have been so many moments in the recent past which seemed to herald moments of change for women in the Jewish world and disappointment followed. Reports were brandished with triumph then too. Thanks to Laura Marks and her team this time the momentum has hopefully reached beyond the same-old niche group of voices who have been asking over decades for change, change change… The thought that my sons and daughters will be reciting the same tired formula does not bear thinking about. But they won’t. By then, unless we act now, there will be only empty rooms for such conversations.