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.
Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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