The charge often leveled against Anglo-Jewry by their more open-minded international counterparts, that British Jews are "more British than the British," springs to mind in view of how negligible and slow are the reforms transpiring in Her Majesty's domain regarding women's roles in Orthodox Judaism over the past 20 years. The trend stands in marked comparison with substantial advancements on the issue in Israel and the US during that same period.
"Anglo Jewry appear to have adopted a characteristic British conservatism," observes Canadian-born Dr. Tamra Wright, director of academic studies at modern Orthodox adult-learning center London School of Jewish Studies. "Accordingly, change to established community norms tends to be subtle and gradual."
"In contrast to Israel and the US," according to Wright, "Women's synagogue participation is limited to the recitation of kaddish and women's Torah-reading services on some holidays in a small minority of United Synagogue congregations [the umbrella organization incorporating the majority of modern Orthodox synagogues] and at Yakar [a small, independent, London-based congregation established on inclusive principles similar to those of the modern orthodox Jerusalem synagogue bearing the same name]."
Needless to say the UK doesn't boast a radical "Shira Hadasha-style element," and such a development, Wright maintains, is unlikely to transpire in the near future.
"There's no significant call for changes of this nature in the UK community," she admits. "In fact, women's synagogue participation of any nature appeals to a limited sector of modern Orthodox women... I wouldn't characterize it as a trend that's gaining momentum."
Despite its wide-spread validation in the modern Orthodox world, women's Talmud learning in the UK is confined to a small number of modern Orthodox institutions of which London School of Jewish Studies is the most prominent. "Although Talmud is a subject some women pursue at LSJS, we are one of the only Orthodox institutions which offer this opportunity," says Wright.
The conservative nature of Anglo Jewry isn't the only factor to contributing to the restricted changes in women's religious roles, according to Wright. She argues that modern Orthodoxy's limited influence on orthodox norms in the UK also impacts this trend.
"A significant proportion of modern religious Anglos identify themselves with the substantial 'Yeshivaish' elements of our community for whom changing women's religious status is not high on the agenda," she explains.
These limitations aside, Wright is adamant that changes to British orthodox women's religious status have transpired over the last 20 years: "Today it is almost a given that orthodox girls spend a gap year following high school at institutions of higher Jewish learning, which in turn means they are imparting religious knowledge back into our community," she says.
She cites modern orthodox learning initiatives such as the London School of Jewish Studies' Beit Midrash program which she says is "attracting grater numbers of participants - both male and female - than ever" and a successful weekly learning program at London's Kinloss Synagogue which "appeals to many women." Wright also acknowledges the "highly successful" UK branches of religious outreach organizations Aish Hatorah and Ohr Sameyach, which, she claims, "are educating significant numbers of young women about Orthodox tradition."