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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.