Rabbis at odds over sexism claim

The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn's successor should have been his female assistant, say her angry supporters. Mark Rowe reports
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The Independent Online
MEMBERS of Britain's leading Reform synagogue are seeking to overturn the recent appointment of an American to replace Rabbi Hugo Gryn, amid accusations of misogyny and sexism.

Their move was sparked by West London Synagogue's decision not to appoint Rabbi Jackie Tabick, the woman who has been its acting leader since Rabbi Gryn's death in 1996.

Under Rabbi Gryn's leadership, the 2,500-member synagogue, founded in 1840 and based at Marble Arch, achieved prominence as a centre of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Gryn, a Holocaust survivor, was an ebullient personality and broadcaster who worked closely with other faiths.

Supporters of Rabbi Tabick say the decision to appoint Rabbi Mark Winer was undemocratic. Rabbi Winer, currently President of the US National Council of Synagogues, is to take upthe London post this summer.

A spokesman for West London Synagogue said he could not comment on claims that its council has agreed, under pressure from supporters of Rabbi Tabick, to bring forward its AGM - at which the post of senior rabbi is ratified by the membership - from June to April.

Rabbi Tabick, who was Rabbi Gryn's assistant, has borne the brunt of rabbinical duties since Rabbi Gryn's death and has been involved with the synagogue for 27 years. Dr Alan Kohn, a member of the synagogue, is sympathetic to her position. He said: "I would have loved to have seen her become senior rabbi. She has the common touch, rather like Hugo did.

"Given the division of opinion over the appointment, perhaps we should have had a plebiscite earlier. I think there should now be a postal vote to decide whether to endorse Rabbi Winer's appointment. If he is rejected, then it does open up everything again."

His view was endorsed by the broadcaster Sarah Nathan. She said: "Rabbi Tabick handled a community that was devastated by Hugo Gryn's death with extraordinary grace. She has led the synagogue in the most admirable manner and her case seemed unanswerable. The behaviour in regard to Jackie Tabick was not what you would expect of a holy congregation. In my opinion, it hasn't been fair and honourable."

A spokesman for the synagogue said: "An independent interview panel was established by the Rabbinical Appointments Committee, which is comprised of officers of the synagogue and members of the community. The interview panel was also endorsed by the council of the synagogue, which is a democratically elected group of people representing our membership."

Rabbi Tabick was the only woman among seven applicants for the post. The interview board insisted the appointment was based not on gender but on the need for an "inspirational and charismatic religious leader", in the mould of Rabbi Gryn.

"It seems as though they didn't want a small leader. They wanted an imposing figure," said Mrs Nathan. She added that she had no doubt there was "an element of sexism and misogyny" in the decision.

"No other Reform rabbi or Israeli rabbi applied for the job.," she said. "Jackie Tabick is fantastically good and has inspired other people to be active within the community. She's good at working both with children and adults."

Dr Kohn questioned the allegation of sexism. "I don't think the board would stoop to that. Rabbi Tabick was treated unfairly to start with but she did want an interview board - which she got. The trouble is, the board drew up their own criteria for the job and there is a community out there that thinks differently."

Reform Judaism - unlike the traditional Orthodox branch - allows women rabbis, permits men and women to sit together in the synagogue and observes the Sabbath less strictly, allowing its members to work or drive. It also holds sermons in English as well as in Hebrew.

It is in this context that issues of sexism and equality have been raised. Rabbi Tabick has often made clear her views on the role of women in Judaism. Last year, she said: "The Torah is written by men for men in such a way as to contain the power of women, which strikes us as very unfair."

Mrs Nathan believes fundamental issues must be addressed. She said: "The system is undemocratic. There is no involvement of the grass-roots community in decisions. It needs to be reformed. Just because it is a Jewish institution doesn't mean it isn't a typically arcane British institution."

Rabbi Tabick was not available for comment.

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