Monday, 1 June 2015

On the Role of Women in Services at New London Synagogue - A Discussion Paper with Recommendations


In preparing this paper I’ve reviewed the contributions made at the special Open Meeting on the role of woman in December 2014, over 70 responses shared with me by email and at other meetings and the 250 responses to the Synagogue’s recently held survey, looking at both qualitative and quantitative data. Julian Futter and Lauren Sager-Weinstein have allowed me to correlate the responses to the survey with the demographic profile of those sharing these responses. I am grateful for their efforts. I have also discussed the issue with the Services Committee, Executive and Council. This is the third time I have been part of a formal consultation on this issue at New London –the January 2007 EGM took place during my first week as Rabbi of the Synagogue and a second consultation and EGM was held in 2009-10, under my Rabbinic leadership. I do feel I have gathered a reasonably accurate picture of the feelings of the community on this issue.


I want to record my enormous admiration to all those who have shared their thoughts on this often divisive issue; we have spoken passionately, thoughtfully and, almost without exception, gently. That is considerably to our merit.


The Voice of the Tradition

A fuller review of my understanding of the Jewish legal principles regarding women and Torah reading can be found here[1], regarding women and prayer leadership here[2] and regarding mixed seating here.[3] What follows is a much reduced summary.


In the time of the Talmud the reason women did not receive aliyot was that it was considered an affront to the ‘honour of the community.’ That phrase encapsulated the reflection of the social realities of communities in ancient times – a full engagement with the sources makes that clear. Clearly, in a contemporary society, this concern no longer exists. Members opposed to allowing women to read from the Torah suggest that as traditional practices have become embedded, they should now continue to be followed, regardless of any question of honour.


The notion that there is something about a woman which means that her voice should not be heard is an unsustainable position for us, as members of New London Synagogue. As a matter of Jewish law I hold that there is no technical role played by a leader of prayer that cannot be fulfilled by a woman – again, see the fuller treatment for further information. Therefore the decision as to who to call as a leader of prayer belongs to the community. The Talmud instructs us to call only the most appropriate (lit. hagun) to serve as prayer leaders. The question for us as a community is; does a person’s gender trump all other considerations of what might or might not be hagun?


Separate seating arose in connection to an idea that women were considered a distraction for men – who were held to have primary responsibilities for public worship. It has subsequently been justified as providing a particular environment in which both men and women can find greater connections to prayer separately than by being together. The question of whether the desire for increased spirituality (or decorum, or the appeal of coming to services) is better served by having mixed or single gender seating is hotly debated.


New London’s ‘traditional’ nature, and particularly the nature of the inheritance we receive from our founder Rabbi, Dr Louis Jacobs of blessed memory, has been much fought over, particularly in the Open Meeting. There are members, long-term students of Rabbi Jacobs, for whom our founding Rabbi’s teaching is one of conservativism and rejection of the need to ‘move with the times,’ and equally such students for whom Rabbi Jacobs stands for a rejection of the comfortable in favour of the what must be deemed reasonable and the belief that Judaism must never be rendered immune from development. Both viewpoints, of course, contain much that is true.


The Voice of the Community

In this paper I’m focussing on the data from the survey since these results match very closely the more general picture that emerges from other consultations (noting many members completed the survey, took part in the Open Meeting and also shared their feelings on the issue privately).


The survey asked, on the role of women, whether members felt the Synagogue had ‘gone too far already,’ ‘should not change,’ ‘should make some change short of becoming fully egalitarian,’ or ‘should become fully egalitarian.’ The raw data has been correlated against a range of other data as below – gender, age, length of membership, previous affiliation and frequency of attendance at services. ‘Even’ suggests that there is no bias towards the specific demographic among those giving the respective answer.






Length of membership



Freq attendance

Too far already


Male 2:1



7:1 orthodox:



No change





4:1 orthodox:



Increased role




Slightly skewed towards 3-5 years

2:1 orthodox:



Full egal


Male 2:1



1:1:1 orthodox:





There is no significant bias towards any age, gender or frequency of attendance at services.  However the more likely a member is to have joined NLS from an orthodox Synagogue, the more likely they are to want reduced roles for women. And the more likely they are to be ‘new-ish’ members the more likely they are to want some change short of full egalitarianism.


The quantitative responses to the survey do not reflect a number of comments shared in the survey and elsewhere from members who would prefer ‘full egalitarian’ for themselves, but knowing the feelings of other members, and the historical practice of the community, articulate a wish that the community does not move to full egalitarianism at this time, usually citing concerns lest a rift should develop.


In comments received, and especially at the Open Meeting, the dominant concern of those who wanted an increased role for women was around reading from the Torah and receiving aliyot in the main service. In part this is because service leading is technical and services in the mikdash[4] are most often led by our Cantor (as opposed to the general membership) and there is very broad support for that to continue. In part this is due to the particular way in which restricting women from reading from the Torah and receiving aliyot is connected to matters of cavod - honour.


Some members have suggested that the drive towards increased participation among women is coming from members who grew up abroad. The survey records members who feel we have gone too far are divided between British and foreign born 72%:28:% while members who want full egalitarian services split between British and foreign born 75%:25%.


I have not done extended demographic work on the issue of mixed seating. Responses to the survey were as follows.


I don’t want to see any change in current seating arrangements

35 %

I wish to see some area for mixed seating, but want to preserve some areas for separate seating.

38 %

I wish to see full mixed seating in the main synagogue

27 %


If there was a mixed seating area I would sit in the mixed area







Many members, both using the comments section of the survey and in other communications, have pointed out that the particular architecture of New London allows for a separate men-only section on one side, mixed seating in the middle and a separate women-only section on the other side. Indeed we have done this on two occasions for egalitarian Bnei Mitzvah celebrations successfully. The question of what to do about seats that members have reserved for many years in the expectation of being located in a single-gendered seating area is complicated.


Many members opposed to further change on the issue have argued that the status quo should be considered a privileged position, either through its sheer force of existence, or as a result of being the practice of our founding Rabbi. I give consideration to the nature of this claimed-privilege below.


The Voice of This Rabbi

I have my own views on these matters, which I suspect are generally known. That said my role in this debate is not to serve as an advocate for my own position. Nor, however, do I accept that my role is one of adding up the votes on each side, and declaring the side with the tallest stack the winner. It’s more complicated than that. I’m wrestling with questions of ownership and leadership.

This sacred community does not belong to me as a personal possession. The community doesn’t even exclusively belong to its current members. It belongs in a complex weave to God and the traditions of our faith as understood through the rabbinic tradition - as well as the current membership, our future membership (whatever that may look like!) and our past membership (to include our founder Rabbi). This means that no single person’s personal proclivities, mine included, can be allowed to dominate even our internal deliberations, let alone the public debate. They must be suppressed behind an overarching desire to do what is right for the community even at the expense of our own ideals. In part this is about, at the very least, accepting outcomes that differ from our personal agenda. It also means that we must all work to ensure the unity and togetherness of the community, even as we engage in these emotive discussions. Again I commend all those members who have noted the importance of this in their responses.


However this ‘weave’ of ownership creates particular challenges. How does one balance the passionately articulated desire of a founder member of the community – a past Chairman – for no further change on this issue against the equally passionately articulated desire of a 12 year old girl who wants to be able to continue to read from the Torah after her one-off Bat Mitzvah exemption? On the one hand we must, as a community, focus on our future. On the other hand I am struck by the almost hurt tone of a member of longstanding who could not understand why someone wanting something different from the clear historical practice of this community would consider joining New London.


On the last occasion I engaged in this matter, in 2010, I aimed a proposal at what I considered the community’s sweet-spot; causing minimal discomfort to those did not want change while offering some provision to those who did, most notably around the issue of Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies where pressure was particularly strong. The paper also imposed a three year moratorium on future discussions on the subject. That both did and did not work. The paper received significant majority support at General Meeting and the balancing act has proved doable. We have done exactly as we said we would. On the other hand no-one was ‘fooled.’ Members who felt, then, that we had gone too far remain anxious. Members who wanted more roles for women remain frustrated. The proposal which went to the last EGM was also inflexible. On the one hand it gave clarity, but on the other hand it meant that it was impossible to gain an experience of regular Shabbat morning services featuring elements of egalitarianism and/or mixed seating – these only being available for Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.


At this time I feel it is important for us as a community to be more honest and to look further into the future. We need to be clearer about what we wish to become. Looking at the data received in these past months, and reflecting on the changes that have been manifest in the eight years since the EGM in 2007, it’s hard for me to imagine our future lies in restricting the role of women to peripheral parts of the service. In early 2007 the question ‘should any change be made’ was rejected by a single vote. Taking the figures of the survey as a guide (figures which are broadly matched by comments shared at the Open Meeting and otherwise) a very substantive majority (63% in the survey) now want an increased role for women. Some of that shift is due to membership growth, but there are also a number of members of long-standing who have changed their position in the past years. I was particularly struck at the Open Meeting by a founder member who spoke of watching his grand-daughter read from the Torah on her Bat Mitzvah and re-evaluating his position, even in his seventh decade.


I spend a great deal of time thinking about the next generation of New London Synagogue members (my own children, hopefully among them). For over 50 years we have waited for well-intentioned members of Anglo-Orthodoxy to come to our doors. The flood has never materialised. We have attracted refugees from orthodoxy, pushed away or rejected for one reason or another. But we have largely not proved attractive to those wishing for ‘just the same’ as the contemporary United Synagogue with added intellectual honesty. In fact the largest streams of refugees from the contemporary United Synagogue are drifting either in search of more extreme closed-mindedness or because of frustrations around a reduced role for women! We attract neither group. Our future does not lie in attempting to be similar to the United Synagogue.


We live in a society where ‘questions’ around the role of women are simply no longer questions for the vast majority, and particularly the vast majority of younger members of our society. It is assumed that men and women have equal roles and by retreating behind a veil of a religious exemption from the mores of our time, we find ourselves increasingly at odds with our society – that’s an odd experience for New London Synagogue. I attended the Noam Training Camp in the summer of 2014 and one of the undergraduate youth-leaders asked which Synagogue I served. ‘New London,’ I responded proudly, ‘Oh, the sexist one?’ came the response – charmed I’m sure. Short, God forbid, of the rise of religious fundamentalism on these shores I do not see this trend reversing.


Our future lies in two directions.

The first generation of New London children largely drifted away, we have to do better with our own youth. Members of the BM class at our Cheder have shared their opinions on this issue with me. They are committed to an egalitarian Jewish life and opposed to their (our) own Synagogue’s practice. That’s unsustainable.

We also must do more to be attractive to new members, to include refugees from orthodoxy and Reform as well as those who have no current Jewish point of connection or home. We are, to an extent, attractive already – and there are those among our new members who find us comfortable because of the reduced role of women – but I don’t want us to be attractive because we are cosy. I want our future membership to be drawn to New London because we are courageous in encountering the challenges of the age, intellectually honest about our beliefs and committed to engaging with our faith in a traditional manner, even if we are doing things that are less traditional.


That said questions about the privileged position of current practice do weigh heavily on me. We celebrated our 50th year last year and I was touched, again and again, by the sacrifices so many made over so many years to have the kind of services they wanted enshrined somewhere in Anglo-Jewry. I believe some will find change that happens slowly easier to accept than they fear, but I know many will not. Also, despite all the Open Meetings and surveys, I don’t feel any of us have an accurate sense of what a more egalitarian service, or mixed-seating, would feel like, on a regular basis – outside of our current experience with BM celebrations. The proposals I am making are an attempt to explore that in the context of a majority position looking for more opportunities for women to have regular aliyot in the mikdash, while retaining a strong non-egalitarian praying community for those who wish for that.



I make the following proposal for the consideration of the community;


·         On Torah Reading

As a substantive change to the form and conduct of services we will move to institute egalitarian Torah reading on alternate weeks. This includes offering aliyot, opportunities to reading from torah and haftarah, standing sagan, shamash, hagbah and gelilah to both men and women.[5] I refer to such services as Torah-egal.

We shall begin with one in six Torah-egal services for the next six months, in addition to scheduled egalitarian BM celebrations.[6] The frequency of Torah-egal services shall be increased to be monthly and then fortnightly in six month intervals. The issue shall be revisited at the end of the 24 month period. The nature of that revisiting shall be in line with the constitutional processes of the Synagogue.[7]

While regularity and clear communication regarding scheduling is important, the Rabbi and Services Committee shall have leeway to alter the schedule of Torah-egal Shabbat services should, for example, a run of egalitarian BM celebrations or the fall of Festivals make such alteration in the best interests of the community.

Second Day Rosh Hashanah and the services of Simhat Torah shall be Torah-egal in the coming year. The other Tishrei Festivals shall not be.

Services for future Yomim Tovim shall be either Torah-egal or not on a similar timetable to Shabbat services with the precise dates and details a matter for the Rabbi and services committee.


·         On Seating Arrangements

As a substantive change to the form and conduct of services we will schedule an infrequent series of services where mixed seating, as well as separate seating, shall be available on a ‘normal’ Shabbat. There shall be eight such services over the next 24 months, in addition to egalitarian BM celebrations. The issue shall be revisited at the end of the 24 month period. It is however envisaged that we will retain substantial separate seating areas into the future. The scheduling and exact delineation of seating areas shall be determined by the Rabbi in consultation with the services committee and executive more broadly and shall largely but not exclusively overlap with egalitarian services (as below). Services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this coming year shall not offer mixed seating.


·         On Prayer Leadership

As a substantive change to the form and conduct of services we will schedule an infrequent series of Shabbat morning services which can be led by women as well as men. There shall be eight such services over the next 24 months, in addition to egalitarian BM celebrations. When bringing in new service leaders, of either gender, our goal shall be to maintain the professional, skilled and dignified nature of our services in the tradition of Minhag Anglia. It is envisaged that we will remain a community led, in prayer, by our Cantor for the vast majority of services into the future. The issue shall be revisited at the end of the 24 month period. The scheduling and exact delineation of what shall be led by women shall be determined by the Rabbi in consultation with the services committee and executive and in continued consultation with the community and shall largely but not exclusively overlap with mixed-seating services (as above). Services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this coming year shall be male-led.


What Will Services Be Like Under the New Proposals?

These changes, while substantive, do not affect the vast majority of what goes on a Shabbat morning.

Aside from egal-BM celebrations and the rare occasions when we trial areas of mixed seating and egalitarian prayer-leadership, there will be no difference between current and proposed services during Shacharit or Musaf. During the Torah service the leadership of that service will continue to be male (and predominantly Cantor) led. On alternate weeks all the Aliyot and associated honours will be taken by men. On alternate weeks, perhaps, three or four Aliyot will be taken by women with, perhaps, one or two associated honours. On some alternate weeks there may be some women who will leyn, but we don’t have a vast cadre of women, or indeed men, able to read the longer Aliyot we read in the mikdash. While I hope more members, of both genders, will develop the skills needed to leyn, the experience of listening to the reading of the Torah will not change dramatically from what is experienced currently, even on Torah-egal weeks.


Services in the Hall

Currently we offer two kinds of service in the hall; the Minyan Chadash and a non-egalitarian service when there is an egalitarian service in the mikdash.

Some have suggested the Minyan Chadash, or the Kiddush Hall more generally, should be the outlet for those who wish for egalitarian services in the mikdash. That has always been disputed both by those who appreciate the Minyan Chadash as a participative and more informal environment than services in the mikdash, and also by those who wish for egalitarian services in the mikdash which, for reasons of both architecture and clergy-presence, has always had a different place in the heart of members than the Hall. In theory I see no reason for the support of the Minyan Chadash to be impacted by more egalitarian services in the mikdash. In practice we have, at the present time, a limited number of lay members able to read from the Torah – especially the longer aliyot that feature in the main service and that means, in particular, scheduling of leyning in the mikdash shall be sensitive to the needs of the Minyan Chadash. This will receive the attention of the relevant professional and lay leaders.


The non-egalitarian, or traditional, services that have taken place in the Hall when egalitarian services have taken place in the mikdash present a different challenge. They have not attracted the constituency of members they were designed to attract. We have struggled to make a Minyan on some occasions, relying on pre-service ring-arounds and availing of the good will of members who would rather be in the egalitarian service both as service leaders and participants. It is not clear to me that these services should continue, and certainly I don’t advocate we look to create a permanent weekly non- Torah-egalitarian service. But I would be interested to hear more from members whose needs are met by this service as to their suggestions as to what should happen.


These proposals recognise that, for the majority of members, this is an issue about services in the mikdash. As one member put it to me, because we can’t deal with this issue using separate spaces we have to deal with it at separate times.


A Concluding Thought

I don’t feel triumphant making these recommendations. I know they will cause pain to a significant minority of members about whom I care deeply. That makes me deeply sad. I have spent many, many hours trying to work out the best recommendations I can make for the future of this community I care about so deeply. This is as good a job as I feel I have been able to do.


In particular I plead with all membership, particularly those whose feelings are not reflected in the recommendations made above, for understanding and patience. Being part of a community always makes calls on our ability to tolerate views other than our own. I am aware that calling for toleration in the context of the recommendations in this document is not an easy ask. But I do so call. I have to. It’s not just I don’t want to lose any member from this community, it’s also that we are about so much more than the gender of the person who reads from the Torah. New London is, and will continue to be, a community for people who are prepared to wrestle at the meeting point of tradition and modernity. And while there will always be discomfort in the meeting place of two such mighty opposing forces, there is so much more that binds us; a love of traditional liturgy, the dignity of our services, the sense that this is a community ‘for people like us;’ with our enquiring minds, our passions and our sense of justice and decency. I hope your love of this community and the approach to Judaism we represent, even as we consider such a dramatic step, will allow us all to continue to walk together into our future.


Rabbi Jeremy


[4] In this paper I use word mikdash to so describe the Synagogue’s main prayer space, to distinguish services held there from those held in the Hall.

[5] I have written a responsa on the matter of women and the Cohen and Levi Aliyot, it can be read at It may be women will not regularly perform Hagba’ah.

[6] There will be an egalitarian BM celebration on 4th July. The BM celebrations on 17th October and 21st November will be Torah egalitarian. The BM celebration on 5th March may be egalitarian. There are no other egalitarian BM celebrations planned before Pesach 2016.

[7] Any changes are the responsibility of the Rabbi in consultation with Services Committee, changes deemed substantive by the Chair need the agreement of Council and membership at General Meeting.

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