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Meeting in London, Women Rabbis Find Similarities Cut Across Borders

January 23, 2003
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The 100 women who gathered in London for a conference on female rabbis may have come from different countries, but they found that they face many of the same challenges.

The four-day conference of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, which ended Wednesday, was the first held outside the United States, demonstrating the growing number and importance of women rabbis internationally.

Rabbi Kathleen de Magtige Middleton, the presiding rabbi at the main conference venue, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in West London, was one of the meeting’s co-chairs.

Women rabbis “come up against many challenges, struggles and opportunities that may not be shared with male colleagues,” Middleton said.

For example, Middleton, who trained in London, is not allowed to practice as a rabbi in her native Holland.

A major preoccupation for female rabbis in England and the United States is equality of pay and responsibility with their male counterparts. In Britain, for example, no woman rabbi occupies a senior leadership role, Middleton said.

“Women rabbis often feel isolated, especially in the U.K. and continental Europe,” Middleton said. “This conference is an opportunity to build bridges and to find support and inspiration from other women on the same journey.”

For Jackie Tabick, who in 1975 became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in England, this week’s conference was a milestone.

“It has made feel that I’m not alone any more,” she said. “Eight years after the first woman was ordained in the U.S. there were 50 women rabbis. In Britain, there are 30 after 35 years.”

For some of Tabick’s American counterparts, the struggles of women rabbis in Europe have made them reflect on the daily difficulties of leading a congregation.

Rabbi Myra Soifer called her European counterparts “heroic.”

For Rabbi Marcia Plumb, a conference co-organizer, it’s especially important that the meeting was held in England. Plumb, who was born in the United States but is based here, sees a renaissance in the British Reform and liberal worlds, sparked in part by women.

“There is an enhanced sense of drive and enthusiasm,” she says, and “many of the new ideas — such as the creation of new prayers — are coming from women.”

The first female rabbi was ordained in the 1890s in the United States. In Germany, women were ordained in the 1930s.

With women coming to the conference from the United States, Belarus, Israel and several European countries, the theme was building bridges between women rabbis in different countries.

Rabbi Nelly Shulman, based in Minsk, Belarus, has to travel about 5,000 miles to meet her nearest female colleagues in Germany or Hungary.

In a country that only recently emerged from what Shulman calls “the black hole of communism,” the main issue for her congregants is not whether to have a woman rabbi but how to build Jewish identity.

“People only now, after 12 years of the Reform movement” in the former Soviet Union, “have got to the point where they are shaping their identity, who they are,” Shulman said. “People don’t care that I’m a woman; they’re happy for anyone to be there.’

For Rabbi Katalin Keleman, traditional views on community leadership in Hungary have made her gender a major stumbling block. Jewish groups outside of the liberal community she serves do not even recognize her as a rabbi, she said.

Both Shulman and Rabbi Cathy Felix, an American, spoke of Orthodox suspicion toward the liberal movements, though the situations in Hungary and the United States clearly are different.

Another universal theme was the way women rabbis can change the culture of Judaism. Like women in other professions, many of the rabbis try to juggle traditional roles as mother and homemaker with their working careers.

The women rabbis need to “fight society’s expectations of role,” Tabick said. “Women are seen as nurturers, not as leaders.”

Even on a community level, women often take behind-the-scenes roles, with men taking more prominent positions in spiritual and practical matters.

Plumb, who teaches at the Leo Baeck Center for Jewish Education, recalls a member of her community asking, “If you’re here, who is doing the cooking and the shopping?”

“Well, my husband is doing the cooking and the shopping,” she replied, “and that’s just fine.”

Plumb admits it can be hard for people to accept a woman rabbi as a leader. But a female rabbi shows that women can represent all parts of the community, she said.

Some women rabbis work on a part-time or freelance basis, sometimes because of family commitments but sometimes to explore new models of leadership.

Plumb herself works with a team of rabbis at the Southgate Progressive Synagogue. The model, in which several rabbis share decision-making and practical responsibilities, is unusual for British Jewry, she said.

“The style of women rabbis, and the fact that women represent equality, give the approach of inclusion and intellectual integrity that modern Jews appreciate,” she says.

Despite an openness in the progressive movement, there is little uniformity for women at worship.

For example, levels of participation in services or the wearing of prayer shawls by female congregants vary from one shul to the next.

For many, the lack of uniformity is unsettling. But for Plumb this diversity is the key to an informed choice of worship.

“Rules keep people safe and I agree that people need a path, but the path can be broadened and the path will still be there. It will not disappear,” she says. “There has always been a wide range of views; why should it be different now? Modernity has shifted the boundaries and it can be frightening to have more avenues, but Judaism can still have diversity.”

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