When I was ordained in July 1989, the Leo Baeck College graduating class of five ordinands included two women: the ninth and tenth female rabbis in Britain. The first female rabbi, Jacqueline Tabick, had been ordained in 1975. Meanwhile, in the United States, Sally Priesand, had become the first female rabbi in 1972.
But even before the new era of gender equality began to dawn in the 1970s, back in December 1935, the first woman rabbi of all time was ordained in Germany – Rabbi Regina Jonas. Perhaps if she hadn’t been deported to Terezin in November 1942, and sent to her death in Auschwitz in October 1944 – perhaps, that is, if the Holocaust had not happened – there may have been other female rabbis, even before ‘second wave’ feminism arrived on the scene.
There is a connection between being a woman rabbi and the Holocaust simply because the Holocaust forms the backdrop to Jewish life during the past sixty-plus years, even in countries not subjected to Nazi occupation including Britain and the United States. As a London School of Economics Sociology graduate (1977) and a Women’s Studies writer and editor, I decided I wanted to become a rabbi in order to do two things: contribute to the feminist transformation of Judaism and play my part in helping to maintain and develop post-Holocaust Jewish life.
Today women rabbis represent almost half of the Progressive Rabbinate in Britain – as of now there are thirty women rabbis in Britain – and our presence has already led to important changes, including the adoption of inclusive language liturgy. However, Progressive Judaism represents less than 30% of British Jewry, estimated at around 300,000 people according to the Jewish Policy Research Survey 2006. Yes, the Jewish community is that small.
So, what is it like to be part of this tiny, relatively new breed of female rabbis? Like all the ancient religions, Judaism has been formulated by men. Women rabbis are still a very new phenomenon for most progressive congregations – over half of which have not yet been led by female rabbi – and a significant minority of which, judging by examples of recent appointments, would still choose a male over a female.
My own experience has changed over time and varies from place to place. When I first visited synagogues as a student, avoiding inappropriate male behaviours was a big issue. And those were the congregations that were prepared to welcome women rabbis. But while that problem has decreased, I still meet with patriarchal attitudes and practices as I go about my work – especially in the wider Jewish community. When I started at Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue in December 2000, I was the congregation’s first woman rabbi, and felt under close scrutiny for some time. More than seven years on, I experience no issues whatsoever around my gender. But then, who knows what I might encounter if I decided to apply for another pulpit. The fact is the goals I set myself when I went into the Rabbinate remain at the top of my agenda.