Moving On: Jewish Women in the 21st Century

A Women in the Jewish Community Event held on 20 January 2002 in London

Seven years ago an initiative by Dr. Jonathan Sacks sparked a major debate about the role and aspirations of women in Britain's Jewish community. Women all over the country volunteered their views on the family, education, adoption, conversion, communal life, marriage and divorce. The results were published as Women in the Jewish Community with an agenda for action on a multitude of issues.

So what has happened since 1994? Is the debate over? What - if anything - has changed? A new book MOVING ON: Jewish women in the 21st Century reviews seven years of progress and seeks to answer these and many other vital questions.

It was launched in January 2002 at a conference in central London. where experts and discussion groups sought to debate the future role of Jewish women in Britain. The keynote speaker was the author, columnist and broadcaster Anne Karpf, noted for her trenchant views on issues confronting Jewish women. Among the other speakers were Rosalind Preston, chair of the original review committee, Marlena Schmool, Director of Community Issues at the Board of Deputies, and Jewish Chronicle reporter Helen Jacobus.

The fundamental question seems to be: does Judaism still treats its female members as second-class citizens? In the earlier report Dr. Sacks recommended that major social changes were necessary if women are to return to synagogues. Particular bones of contention are the rules surrounding divorce and remarriage. It still seems debatable whether much has happened to alleviate the exclusion Jewish women feel, or if they have a sense of having achieved a greater role in their religion.

The compiler of the new book has expressed the fear that while there are "some small improvements," unless these matters are dealt with comprehensively "many women within the US framework will continue to feel alienated". She says that "rabbis do not always understand the needs and concerns of women" and recommends a mandatory training course for ministers to remedy this. Interestingly the research suggests that 'formal contracts' be given to rabbis' wives and that they should be remunerated for the duties they undertake. She adds: "I would like to see more dialogue between rabbis and women so that women's issues can be addressed specifically."

Apart from a somewhat unkind and unjustified attack on the keynote speaker at the start of the conference, it was in the main an extremely good-natured day amongst women who were all clearly trying to get to grips with progress on all aspects of the issue. The workshop sessions were amazingly inclusive - women from diametrically opposed viewpoints patiently heard each other out, listening to things they could not possibly have agreed with, with complete goodwill. (Perhaps then this is the key to Jewish coexistence - harmony being something women manage best by themselves!)

A good day - but were any questions answered? And has any genuine progress been made? It seems likely that many delegates would still find these questions difficult to answer.

To read reports from the conference workshops click here

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