Community cries out for gender equality

L-R at the launch of AJWO: Laura Marks, Ruth Smeeth, Rachel Riley, Tamara Finkelstein and Judy Silkoff (Jewish News)
L-R at the launch of AJWO: Laura Marks, Ruth Smeeth, Rachel Riley, Tamara Finkelstein and Judy Silkoff (Jewish News)

Who ever heard of a Jewish communal meeting starting at 9.30pm, and ending 45 minutes later with a full list of agreed action points by each group member? Working with the new executive of the Alliance of Jewish Women and their Organisations (AJWO)has been extraordinary – sleeves rolled up, dinner washed up and computer switched on ready for an online power brainstorm. As we launched the findings this week from our consultation, we saw British Jewish women demanding, and ready to implement change.

The figures spoke for themselves, with 77 percent of more than 360 women consulted believing the Jewish community has still not reached gender equality. More than 50 percent believe women don’t have the same opportunities for advancement and recruitment in Jewish organisations as men (17 percent do), and 75 percent feel we are too often represented in the media by men (despite having a woman president of the Board of Deputies).

Ten years after the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership, this consultation, What Jewish Women Want 2020, has asked women how they feel, but also what they want to do next.

Some 96 percent of the women thought AJWO should support women and girls developing leadership skills. Eighty-six percent demanded we campaign against all-male panels. An enormous 95 percent of the women agreed (72 percent strongly) that the Alliance needs to educate boys and men about gender equality in our community, while 69 percent agreed the past 10 years has shown progress but it’s not enough.

Equally, and following on from120 years of Jewish women’s activism, Jewish women have mandated AJWO to speak up loudly, as Jewish women, on issues shaping the national agenda; engaging on issues of social justice, climate change, and being part of the national women’s equality movement. Eighty-eight percent of the women, for example, felt that the Alliance should help women to build relationships with other faith groups and while this, like other issues relating to the wider world, was felt less strongly amongst self-defined Orthodox women, 69 percent of this group concurred.

Deliberately independent, entirely voluntary and self-funding, and answerable only to our members, and with my co-chair Judy Silkoff, we will now consider how to take action.

One woman in the consultation, from the north, commented that she wanted “real change and not just talking about change, support that gives us skills and connections – such as training and networking”. We aim, through the endeavours of our members, to deliver.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, we can direct our members to support existing member organisations that already lead the way, such as Jewish Women’s Aid on domestic violence, Jewish Vegetarian Society on green living, René Cassin on human rights, or Lead on leadership programmes. In addition, with volunteer AJWO members at the helm, we will engage on the issues that matter to Jewish women, with campaigns and networks, and with huge amounts of mutual, caring, gentle, sisterly (and hopefully brotherly) support.

Probably the question evoking the strongest response was whether, for women to progress, they need to support one another.  Sixty percent strongly agreed (93 percent in total agreed) and only two percent disagreed.

As the esteemed  Jewish woman Madeleine Albright said: “It is important for women to help one another. I have a saying: There is a special place in hell for women who don’t.”

With our priorities defined, it is time to set to work, in inclusive cooperation. With 100 members, and with the next step always a challenge, Judy and I can take some comfort. A total of 24 organisations are affiliated and more than 120 individuals have put their time and membership money into the work, the nine-strong exec is now far from alone.

Next week, as we meet on our computers or over a coffee, we know we are the next step on the journey Jewish women have been following for more than a century, dating right back to Lady Louisa de Rothschild in 1902, both to make the world better for Jewish women, but possibly more importantly, for us all.

About the Author
Laura Marks is the founder and chair of Mitzvah Day, an international charity which works to alleviate poverty, to support the environment and to bring a little kindness all through active, hands on projects on Mitzvah Day. At the heart of Mitzvah Day is a belief that if we work side by side with our neighbours, we will build stronger, more resilient local communities. Taking the same thinking forward, Laura launched and co-chairs, Nisa-Nashim, a new national Jewish/Muslim women’s network. She is the newly appointed chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust which runs a national event and also thousands of local events, bringing people together to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and also, of other genocides. Laura lives in London, has three almost grown up children and husband, TV producer Dan Patterson.
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