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Britain’s First Female Jewish Leader Pledges Better Outreach, Tolerance

The first woman elected leader of the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews plans to reach out to young, unaffiliated Jews.

The failure to attract young people is “not just a problem in the Jewish community,” said Jo Wagerman.

“Young people are either abandoning their culture or becoming fundamentalists” in Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities as well as among Jews, she said.

On Sunday, the Board of Deputies elected Wagerman the first woman president in its 240-year history.

A former senior vice president of the board, Wagerman was elected unopposed for a three-year term.

She said she was “delighted” that no one ran against her.

“I take that as a great compliment,” she said.

Wagerman made little of being the first woman elected to the position, other than to say it marked the “end of the era in which all Jewish women could do was make the tea.”

“It’s not that I am leading the army” of women, she said. “It’s just that the tide is going in that direction.”

Approximately 55 percent of Britain’s 283,000 Jews are women.

Wagerman emphasized that she wanted to be president of an inclusive organization.

Members of the fervently Orthodox community are not represented on the board, nor are Jews who are not affiliated with a synagogue.

According to some estimates, those two groups make up nearly 40 percent of British Jewry.

A recent study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a British think tank, called for the creation of a more representative, more inclusive structure to represent British Jewry.

Many saw that study’s final report, “A Community of Communities,” as an implicit critique of the board.

“We are the most representative thing we’ve got,” Wagerman said in defense of the board.

“The only groups not represented are those which do not wish to be, or are oligarchic rather than democratic.”

Wagerman said she planned to preside over an organization that was able to overcome rivalries and differences.

“We are not homogenous. We are always going to be different,” she said of Britain’s Jews.

“That should not prevent us from working together,” she said.

“If we preach respect to others, we have to practice it at home,” she said, admitting that “there have been occasions in the past when those crying loudest for tolerance have been slow to give it themselves.”

Wagerman stressed the importance of Britain’s various Jewish organizations working together.

“In the past, organizations have been a little bit territorial. We must stop thinking in terms of `my territory, your territory’ and work together in a cooperative way,” she said.

“If we don’t do that, we’re not going to survive as a community. We’re going to die,” she warned.

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