Women taking reins of Jewish communal life in Europe

Bonna Devora Haberman of Israel making a point during the Bet Debora conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, in June 2009. (Toby Axelrod)

Bonna Devora Haberman of Israel making a point during the Bet Debora conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, in June 2009. (Toby Axelrod)

SOFIA, Bulgaria (JTA) — Hanna Lorer, 80, a leading member of this small Jewish community in the Balkans, had never met a female rabbi or cantor until this summer.

Several came to Sofia in June for a conference on European Jewish women organized by Bet Debora, a group that aims to empower Jewish women on the continent.

“It was the first time that I had any contact with women rabbis,” Lorer said. “It was surprising and interesting.”

Lorer said she was pleased to meet the rabbis at the conference. But in this culture steeped in tradition, many Jews still feel female rabbis are too radical an innovation.

In a rapidly changing Jewish Europe, however, the presence of Jewish women in leading communal roles is becoming more commonplace. Female rabbis have held positions in France, Poland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Holland and Belarus, according to Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, the first female spiritual leader appointed to a pulpit in Berlin.

London’s Leo Baeck College ordained eight liberal rabbis this summer, and six were women. England saw the appointment of its first female senior rabbi in 2004 — Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood, London. And the new Jewish Institute of Cantorial Arts in Potsdam, Germany, is directed by a woman, Cantor Mimi Sheffer.

Charlotte Knobloch in Germany is an example of one of Europe’s female Jewish leaders. She started out as president of the Munich Jewish community 24 years ago and now heads the country’s main Jewish political organization, the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

When colleagues first urged her to run for office, Knobloch said she hesitated.

“My answer was, ‘You’d better ask the rabbi if it’s OK,’ ” she told JTA.

It was the first and last time she sought such permission.

Berlin’s Jewish community also now has its first woman president, Lala Suesskind.

There may not be droves of Jewish women in leadership roles in Europe, but today "the women who want it can make it," said Rabbi Elisa Klapheck, who co-founded Bet Debora 11 years ago in Berlin with Lara Daemmig and Rachel Herweg. Klapheck was just appointed to a pulpit in Frankfurt.

“Things have changed,” but not significantly, said Alice Shalvi, founding chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network. Other than Knobloch, she said, “I don’t know of anyone who has attained that kind of leadership position.”

Jewish women in Europe still are playing catch up.

Many pioneers of Jewish egalitarianism fled Europe or were murdered during World War II, such as Regina Jonas of Berlin, who in 1935 became the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. She died in Auschwitz.

While women’s movements thrived in the United States, Britain and Israel, shattering the glass ceiling of gender limitations came more slowly to many Jewish communities in Europe.

In recent years, however, that change has picked up pace.

Michal Ben Ya’akov, a scholar in residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Massachusetts, is studying the phenomenon. The study is not simply academic. Ben Ya’akov, who conducted her first fieldwork at the Bet Debora conference, hopes to find out what roles Jewish women are playing in Europe and to encourage them to be role models.

Barbara Lerner Spectre, founder of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, says there are many role models for European Jewish women.

Rather than juggling family life, career and Jewish activism all at once, women in Europe increasingly are doing those things sequentially, Spectre said, changing areas of focus along the way. It may be tough, she said, “But you can do it all, eventually.”

Demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University says “institutional interventions” are needed to ensure that women play an equitable role in Jewish society.

Behind the scenes, however, women wield greater influence than men, DellaPergola told JTA. By bearing and raising children, women “have the main role in transmitting Jewish identity to the next generation,” he said.

But they still don’t equal men in terms of recognition and power in communities.

Bet Debora might qualify as one such “institutional intervention.” The organization, along with trying to empower Jewish women in Europe, aims to bridge gaps between tradition and the future, co-founder Daemmig said.

At the Sofia conference, cantors like Yalda Rebling of Berlin mingled with women like Roza Berger, who runs a local Rosh Chodesh Ladino singing group for Jewish women.

Berger and Lorer spontaneously sang an old Ladino favorite — “Adio Querida,” farewell my love — for participants.

“It is necessary to preserve our traditions,” Lorer said, referring to the Sephardic roots of Bulgarian Jewry, “because if not, it is ‘Adio querida.’ ” 

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