The History of AJWO

1965 – 2015

Written by Valerie Bello and Louise Freedman for the AJWO 50th Anniversary Dinner Brochure, June 2015

The establishment in 1965 of AJWO (The Association of Jewish Women’s Organisations in the UK) was a landmark in the history of Jewish women’s organisations in this country.

In 1964, Vera Braynis, President of the League of Jewish Women, was elected to represent it at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She believed that the time had come for other women’s organisations to seek similar representation at the Board and, further, to establish a communal forum of women in the community to work together on matters of communal concern.

Together with Edie Noble, Chairman of the National Executive of the League, Vera arranged a meeting to explain the mutual benefits of such a forum and invited all the main Jewish UK women’s organisations to participate. It took some persuading to convince women to attend this meeting but eventually most agreed to join this new organisation. Some, however, were reluctant, joining only as observers but later, they too became full members widening the range of organisations from which AJWO’s officers could be elected.

Paradoxically, it was also the decline in the early Sixties of the Union of Jewish Women, founded in 1902, which had long championed the cause of women and had pioneered middle-class women’s involvement in social action, which prompted this look towards the future.

This new umbrella organisation, embracing the major Jewish women’s organisations, would provide “a forum to promote unity and understanding among Jewish women of all shades of opinion, encouraging them to deliberate on matters of common interest and concern.” It would urge representation on communal bodies, act as a source of information and make public statements and/or take common action, if necessary.

From the outset, AJWO was joined by the women’s sections of the four main synagogal movements – the United Synagogue, the Spanish & Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, the Movement for Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism – and, though separate women’s sections of the Reform and Liberal Movements no longer exist, they nevertheless still maintain the representation of their women members on AJWO, later being joined by the women of Masorti Judaism.

The League of Jewish Women was amongst the first to join AJWO, together with WIZOUK, British Emunah, B’nai B’rith UK, (then it was only the First Women’s Lodge, which subsequently merged with the First Men’s Lodge) and the Friends of the Hebrew University Women’s Group. In the early days, the JIA Women’s Division, JNF ‘First Ladies’ and the Women Friends of British Ort became affiliated but have since withdrawn. With the collapse of the Soviet regime, the 35s Group of The Soviet Jewry Campaign also ‘retired’, but continues to function in Israel as ‘One to One’, supporting immigrant families.

More recently, AJWO has been joined by organisations which represent the changes in society over the years, such as The Agunot Campaign, Jewish Women’s Aid, (which provides refuge and help for victims of domestic abuse) Chana (which supports couples with fertility problems) and Paperweight (which helps widows or the recently bereaved with their administration and finances), and Women in Jewish Leadership.

Having a voice in the community is very important and, from its earliest days, AJWO has been represented on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the National Council of Women, and its sectional Committees, the former Women’s National Commission and, until the collapse of the Soviet regime, the Soviet Jewry campaign.

AJWO has been fortunate in its leadership, benefiting from the wealth of experience of women who have led their own organisations and its Chairmen have been elected from the

organisation’s diverse membership. Vera Braynis from the League of Jewish Women was the organisation’s founder and its first Chairman, followed in 1967 by Frances Rubens, the first UK President of the International Council of Jewish Women. The Honorary Secretary was generally chosen from the same organisation as the Chairman.

Until 1986, a Chairman served a two-year term but it was then felt that a three-year term would be more appropriate. On her retirement as Chairman, Vera Braynis was elected Life President and, after her death in 2000, was succeeded by Edie Noble, also a former President of the League and a past Chairman of AJWO with vast experience of voluntary social work. After Edie’s death in 2005, the office of Honorary President has remained vacant.

AJWO has been involved with a host of campaigns in the community:

  • In 1966, at the International Council of Jewish Women Convention in Woburn House, AJWO added its signature to the petition to the Rabbinate in Israel on the status of women in Jewish law.
  • AJWO was in the forefront of the Soviet Jewry Campaign in the Seventies and many of its members participated in the March of Silence in 1971. AJWO also supported the formation of the National Council for Soviet Jewry.
  • At the request of the Defence Division of the Board of Deputies, AJWO members undertook a survey of public libraries and bookshops to seek out anti-Semitic publications.

The most public face of AJWO is its Annual Seminar, first held in 1978. A wide range of topics has been covered and one year, at the height of the AIDS awareness publicity campaign, AJWO held a dedicated seminar. Other topics have included Judaism, Education, The Role of Women, The Media, ‘The Glass Ceiling’, Family Values, Finance, Nutrition and Gender – to list but a few.

At one seminar, AJWO brought together on the same platform the United Synagogue’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, Dean of Jews’ College, and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet, Dean of Leo Baeck College, the UK institution for progressive Jewish rabbinic and educational training.

In another year, AJWO extended an invitation to the UK Asian Women’s Conference to a reception at the West London Synagogue and, during an exchange of information in a warm, friendly atmosphere; much was learnt about our mutual faiths and practices. There was the added bonus, too, of a conducted tour of the synagogue by Rabbi Hugo Gryn z”l, the first time for many that they had visited a synagogue.

AJWO has twice previously marked a significant anniversary with a celebration: its 30th with a summer lunch at the Lauderdale Road Synagogue where Jean Clark, then President of the National Council of Women, was guest speaker; and ten years later, for its 40th anniversary held at the West London Synagogue, where Edie Noble,

at the age of 94, wise and erudite, could look back with pride on the history of the organisation she had helped to found. The guest speakers at this event were Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger, DBE, who spoke of the role of Jewish women in the feminist movement and in public life; and Rosalind Preston, OBE who challenged her audience to consider the future of women’s organisations and the role of younger women in the community. That was ten years ago!

Over the fifty years since its foundation, AJWO has firmly established its place in the Jewish community, bringing together Jewish women in the UK from across the religious and communal spectrum, occasionally with different views but always with a common purpose and united by the common thread of their Jewish values.