Being one of the first British female rabbis

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, one of the first female rabbis in Britain, describes her journey from

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.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, who was ordained in 1989, was one of the first ten female rabbis ordained in Britain. She has served the Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue congregation since December 2000.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.