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What is it like to be a woman in Judaism?

A female rabbi argues that Jewish women should not be denied an equal portion of participation.

Recently I met a student at a university Jewish society who described eloquently how it felt for her to have had an Orthodox bat mitzvah, the Jewish adulthood initiation ceremony. It was held on a Sunday. Boys, however, celebrate their bar mitzvah on a Saturday, our Sabbath. She read in English rather than Hebrew. She certainly did not read from a Torah scroll – part of the Hebrew Bible.

The celebration that followed took place in the same banqueting hall where her two brothers had held theirs but, as she described with a mixture of derision and sadness, they had partitioned the hall for her party, using only a third of the space. It felt to me as if she was describing only a third of the joy.

The “only a third” moment echoes many Jewish women’s experience of being denied an equal portion of participation and represen­tation in the leadership of our organisations. But something might be changing. Perhaps the banqueting hall of women’s involvement may be expanding, the partitions shifting as the issue of Jewish women’s participation hits the communal agenda. The Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership was launched this year to examine the leadership gender imbalance. As the members put it, “The genie is out of the bottle.”

Status symbols

Regrettably, the aspiration of having even a third seems optimistic – a 2011 snapshot of British Jews shows that despite high levels of education and achievement in the secular world, Jewish women occupy only a quarter of leadership positions, disproportionately low compared to the wider population. However, the genie is working her way through the community. Well-publicised cases of gender se­gregation are causing concern among middle-of-the-road Orthodox people. They realise that the changing status of women is emblematic of the direction in which their stream of Judaism may be running.

The main newspaper of British Jewry, the Jewish Chronicle, pays frequent attention to the matter: earlier this month it published a letter on the subject under the heading “Women still sidelined by United Synagogue” – the United Synagogue being the main institution for Orthodox British Jews. The female correspondent highlighted how dismal it was that women are precluded from being trustees of the United Synagogue and from standing for chair of the board of an Orthodox house of worship. “This archaic rule alienates and disenfranchises women in our community,” she wrote. “Why should educated, capable, articulate women be able to work hard behind the scenes at a synagogue, but not be seen to be leading?”

This is not a narrow tribal, denominational concern; it is both ideological and practical. We are too small a grouping to exclude the talent of more than half our potential leaders.

The main, well-documented barriers preventing change and a fully inclusive model of leadership from emerging include the paradox of what one woman calls the “tough stance”: powerful women are seen as aggressive when successful but weak when they fail. It certainly undermines women. There is an expectation that Jewish women will put their family first but they receive insufficient and ineffective support to enable them to balance the needs of the community with those of the family.

There is also the belief (and reality) that there is an “old boys’ network” approach to recruitment into lay positions, in effect excluding many women from consideration. Many observers note a perception that many Jewish communal organisations are simply not committed to change or to gender equality. This leads to an exodus of talent; Jewish women are not choosing to focus their energies on developing the community.

However, a far more sinister polarisation is threatening the very foundations of our community: a pernicious increase in gender segregation in the public sphere and the silencing of women’s voices among certain fundamentalist circles in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora. The debacle in Israel of not only gender-segregated buses but also gender-segregated health clinics has increased. This is accompanied by a far more disturbing phenomenon, emanating from the claim that women distract men from prayer and that our voices in song – or even talking – can lead to sexual misconduct, of attempts to silence women’s voices.

Take the lead

This silencing is seeping into public zones, including banning women from singing at some mainstream public ceremonies, and even from presenting at religious academic conferences.

Some Orthodox women are speaking out against the exclusion, seeing it as a misuse of religious law. Others are calling on Orthodox rabbis to enable maximum participation of women, but there are pitifully few who actively encourage their female congregants to take leadership roles.

In contrast, I know that I am blessed as a woman, and as a mother-of-three, to hold the leadership position of rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism. In this, I join other female colleagues in leadership roles, such as the chair of the movement, the convenor of our religious court, the principal of our rabbinical training college and the senior rabbi of one of our flagship synagogues. I luxuriate in this freedom to speak out in public, to influence and to lead.

This is the expansion of the banqueting hall and it bolsters the community that celebrates living within it. The hall needs to be one in which Jewish men and Jewish women mingle, where they value each other’s contributions and where our different skills combine to strengthen and improve both the Jewish and the wider community. 

Movement for Reform Judaism:

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.