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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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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.