Around the Jewish World: Female Rabbis, Cantors Meet in First European Conference

It was a rare scene: A student rabbi from Belarus and a cantor from California stood on the same bimah, both thousands of miles from home, and both women.

But it happened last week in Berlin, at the first-ever European conference of female rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators.

The conference, called Bet Debora Berlin, featured presentations by some 25 European women and one American. It was designed as a forum to air new ideas and address current problems regarding women in Judaism. Sponsored by a variety of groups, including the Berlin Jewish Community; the Jewish College of Berlin; the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation; Berlin’s City Department for Jobs, Education and Women; and the City Ministry of Family, Seniors, Women and Youth, the event drew some 200 participants, mostly women, from across Europe.

Most discussions, workshops and services took place in the Jewish Community Center of Berlin, in a building that occupies the same space where the first female rabbi delivered a sermon. Rabbi Regina Jonas, ordained in 1935, died in Auschwitz in 1944, only a few months before the camp was liberated.

Her spirit was invoked by several opening speakers, including Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of the Leo Baeck College in London. "We are her future," she told the crowd Thursday night. "May we prove ourselves worthy of the aspirations that she did not live to fulfill."

By the end of the conference Sunday that goal seemed to have been met – - despite the fact that Jonas might have felt uncomfortable here as a more observant Jew.

"This was so very positive, especially for those of us who live in the far corners of the Jewish world," said Nelly Kogan, who leads the progressive congregation Simcha in Minsk.

Her California colleague, Cantor Pamela Rothmann-Sawyer of Temple Israel in Alameda and Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, said she thought too many people "came to the conference having rejected what they don’t understand" in traditional Judaism.

Among the problems at the conference: Some observant guests felt shut out by the lack of strictly kosher food and meager opportunity for traditional prayer; those who gave workshops lamented that they could not attend the classes of others; and those with less Jewish education wished for explanations of prayer services.

But praise for the conference itself was overwhelming.

"The conference gave me a chance to talk about what German-Jewish culture means to the world," said New Yorker Ilse Perlman, 82, who grew up in Berlin, studied in the liberal Jewish college here and fled with her family in 1939.

"This is the symbol of the new European Jewry," said Joel Levy, director of the Berlin office of the Lauder foundation.

For European Jewish communities still recovering from the Holocaust, the event was seen as a reaffirmation of Jewish diversity and of this century’s developments for Jewish women: ordination, life-cycle rituals for girls and women, and practice of traditions formerly reserved for men — such as reading from the Torah.

While these practices are nothing new in the United States, progressive Jewish groups in Europe are struggling for their acceptance, despite the fact that Germany is the birthplace of the Reform movement.

Germany has dozens of small congregations who lack rabbis, said Nicola Galliner, director of Berlin’s Jewish adult education program.

Vienna, too, is looking for a rabbi. At the conference, members of that congregation practically begged Rabbi Daniela Thau to be their spiritual leader. Thau, who grew up in Germany but lives with her husband in England, probably received more informal job offers during the conference than in the 16 years since her ordination at the Leo Baeck College of London.

Hands-on workshops were a feature of the conference. In a small room in the Jewish center, Rothmann-Sawyer, 46, taught men and women how to chant from the Torah. Their voices could be heard in the courtyard below.

Down the street, in the headquarters of the Lauder foundation, Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, 41, of the Jewish Community of Orpington, England, shared new rituals: marking joyful occasions like the birth of a daughter, or sad events like the loss of a baby.

Other workshops focused on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, new concepts of God in liturgy and the experience of being a lesbian rabbi. Later, Iris Weiss gave a walking tour of Berlin, "In the Footsteps of Regina Jonas."

A recurrent theme was frustration at what they perceive to be the lack of support given by Orthodox leaders in various communities. Rabbi Sybil Sheridan said London’s chief rabbi agreed not to issue a ruling against a women’s prayer group if the petitioners agreed not to advertise themselves. On the other hand, Iris Weiss prefers that Berlin’s egalitarian service not be widely publicized because this would attract too many curious onlookers. "It would be like a zoo," she said.

Some expressed hope that Europe’s progressive and traditional Jews would be able to work together. But for now, only a few have the clout to bridge the gaps.

One of those may be Andreas Nachama, president of Berlin’s Jewish community, who had visited an Orthodox conference a few subway stops away before coming to the progressive one. "It’s all about bringing more Yiddishkeit into the world," said Nachama.

Mostly, participants were looking for ways to express themselves as Jews, and there was no lack of encouragement. "I want to see more women on the bimah, learning Torah, and I want to see it in Europe," said Rothmann-Sawyer, who has come to Germany for several summers, teaching Jews how to read Torah.

It wasn’t so easy, said Petra Kunik of Frankfurt, who admitted to being uncomfortable during the Sabbath service, when the Torah was passed around. "I said, `No.’ Then suddenly I found the Torah in my arms, and it felt like my 3- year-old grandchild with whom I danced on Simchat Torah. And I remembered that my mother said to me, `The Torah is like a child.’"

Kunik overcame one fear this Sabbath, but was still not ready to be called up to the bimah. "But maybe by the time I am 60 I will have found my really own place in Judaism," she said, to warm applause.

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