Thursday, October 20, 2005

Women as lay leaders

Yesterday at a friend's house, we were discussing a few words the president of my parents' shul said from the pulpit on Kol Nidrei night, which had disturbed me at the time and which I was suprised to hear apparently others had noted as well. He was naming the chairs of each of the shul's committees to thank them for the work over the past year, and when he got to the chairwoman of the shul's Sisterhood, he thanked her for bringing to the Board's attention the women's point of view, adding something to the effect of, "which otherwise we would not have considered." (I can't remember the exact quote, but that was basically it; he didn't mean it meanly, he was trying to emphasise the importance of the Sisterhood chair.)
Women are not allowed on the Board of this particular shul, and it was extremely jarring to me that the opinions and points of view of 50% of the shul's adult members had to be covered and conveyed by one informal representative, and that their opinions and points of view were incidental to the main discussions and considerations. The fact is, when it comes to an institution such as a shul, women's needs and wants are often very different to the men's, and as long as their voices are afterthoughts, the shul is unlikely to be fully accomodating to them or to serve their needs as well as it could; women will not feel like (or be) full and equal members; and the entire shul will miss out on women's talent, energy, leadership and contributions.
It is hard to believe that in this day and age there are still Orthodox shuls where the women are not allowed on shul Boards, but there are, and it's a disgrace.
Even when women are allowed on the Boards, however, they are too often not there in sufficient numbers, and there's usually a thick glass ceiling. Which brings me to this story from last month, which I originally missed (in fact, I don't think it was really discussed anywhere in the J-blogosphere) but which, in this context, I would like to note. Sydney's Central Synagogue has just appointed its first female president, Rosalind Fischl:
Mrs Fischl cannot preside over services, a role that will be delegated to a senior male vice-president. Nor will she be able to process with the Torah, as is the executive's role, through the men's section. But on certain shabbats through the year, when there are two Torahs read, she will be able to take the second Torah to the women's gallery. She will sit in her own seat and wear her own hat, rather than a top hat. [! -- MS]
Not only is her election massively important symbolically -- there are only a handful of Orthodox synagogues anywhere which have had female presidents -- but hopefully it will lead to greater participation of women and families in the synagogue, help make women's lay leadership the norm rather than the exception, and set an international precedent. We wish her a big Mazal Tov, lots of luck and hope many other women will follow in her footsteps all over the world.

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