Britain’s first Orthodox woman rabbi

Britain’s first Orthodox woman rabbi

Dina Brawer published in The Times faith pages January 31 2015 /By Jenni Frazer

This year it will be 40 years since Britain got its first female rabbi, Jackie Tabick. And to date, Laura Janner-Klausner is the country’s only Jewish female head of faith (she is the senior rabbi of Reform Judaism in Britain). But both women are from the Progressive wing of Judaism. It seemed that there was no place within Orthodox Judaism for educated Jewish women to become religious leaders.

But that may be all set to change, and it has a particular resonance at the moment as the Church of England welcomes its first female bishop, Libby Lane. Dina Brawer, Italian-born, Jerusalem- and New York-educated and London-based, is due to become Britain’s first Orthodox woman receiving rabbinical ordination, from an American study centre specifically launched for the purpose.

New York’s Yeshivat Maharat is already sending its first graduates out to work with congregations across the United States. “Maharat” is a Hebrew acronym which means “female leader of Jewish law, spirit and Torah”.

Mrs Brawer, whose husband Naftali is himself a rabbi (though no longer running a congregation), is also the daughter and sister of Orthodox rabbis, although none of the Brawers’ four sons are thinking of going into what looks like a family business.

Like many of her counterparts in the Church of England, Mrs Brawer knows well the world of teaching and community development – she has a BA in Jewish Studies and holds a Master’s in psychology and education from the Institute of Education.

These days she describes herself as a full-time student, studying eight hours a day. But two years ago she became Britain’s first ambassador for JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. For JOFA, a revelation for British Orthodox women, Mrs Brawer works hard at what she describes as “grassroots activism, enabling people to think differently about how Judaism could work.”

Often this involves in teaching in community homes or holding one-off seminars. Frequently she is approached by Orthodox women who ask her to devise “life-cycle” events such as a batmitzvah service – the equivalent for girls of a boy’s barmitzvah or coming-of-age ceremony – or a “simchat bat” (welcome celebration of a girl) ceremony for new-born girls. There are plenty of such ceremonies in Progressive Judaism, but relatively few in the Orthodox world, although this is changing.

Part of the problem has been that in the Orthodox world there is concern not to be seen to be doing things which could be misinterpreted, so sometimes actions which are completely “legal” under Jewish law are ruled out for fear of appearing as though Orthodoxy is appropriating Reform or Liberal practices.

Although within Britain’s (Orthodox) United Synagogue, women have begun to be employed in a variety of roles, there is no specific programme for training female religious leaders.

Within the Orthodox world, a longing for definition and acceptance by Jewish women on their own terms has frequently been treated with doubt and mistrust by the long-established religious authorities. All too often Orthodox Jewish women, ironically, have suffered precisely because of the Progressive trailblazers such as Rabbi Tabick and Rabbi Janner-Klausner, with every bid for equality in the Orthodox world dismissed sneeringly as “aping Reform”.

And within congregations, women’s desire to participate more in synagogue services found expression in recent years in what has become known as the “partnership minyan”, but the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has ruled out such services in synagogues under his authority. (A partnership minyan enables women to lead parts of the service, read from the Torah, and serve in lay leadership positions.)

In fact, says Mrs Brawer, it is the feedback from her JOFA work which inspired her to pursue the study necessary to achieve rabbinic ordination. “I went to a congregation to speak about JOFA and the rabbi – jokingly – referred to me as ‘Maharat Brawer’ [the female rabbinical title]. Then the rabbi’s wife talked to me about the lack of female role models in the Orthodox community. This really planted the seed for me that I should study. I felt a responsibility to do something and for me, this is the best way to serve the community.”

Her course in New York – on which technology has allowed her to study remotely, with a couple of immersive visits every year of the four-year-long degree – will give her the identical skills which lead to rabbinical ordination for men.

Long before making this historic jump, Mrs Brawer, who will qualify in 2018, had had years of experience in the “non-job” of “rebbetzin”, which is a colloquialism for “rabbi’s wife”. But while people instantly understand what being a rabbi means, explaining what she did as a rabbi’s wife took a whole lot longer. Orthodox congregations have frequently exploited the “”two-for-one” situation whereby an educated Orthodox woman was drafted in for additional counselling or Torah study, while less educated wives were sometimes completely sidelined. Mrs Brawer notes: “Our communities deserve the best leaders: the best male leaders, irrespective of their wives; the best female leaders, irrespective of their husbands.
“What message does a community convey when the role of female leader is limited to women who happen to be married to a rabbi? It is insulting to women’s intellectual and pastoral capabilities. It also severely limits the pool of potential leaders to spouses of rabbis”.

Dina Brawer, however, is confident that acceptance will come, even if not overnight. “Things have changed a lot in the UK,” she says. “People travel more and they realise how things here are decades behind America and Israel, and much more conservative. Social media has led to vibrant conversations about the position of women in modern Orthodoxy. There is a part of the Jewish community which is very defensive and has no interest in change, just in defending the status quo – but not everyone is like that.”.

She came to Britain from the US with her family 18 years ago when her husband was appointed to head a large London congregation. “The differences then between London and New York were striking. There weren’t even any outward signs on the synagogue building that it was [itals] a synagogue. But that has changed a lot and in the last 10 years I’ve seen a flourishing of Jewish life and confidence. The current spate of antisemitism and the Paris attacks has set British Jews back from the sense of ease that was being developed, but – though I don’t want to be a prophet – I hope it will return.”

Mrs Brawer does not, she says, want to become a congregational rabbi, rather a rabbi-at-large. “The concept of rabbi as the professional Jew is peculiarly British,” she says. By that she means that traditionally, British synagogues have left it to the rabbi to run Jewish life for his congregation. She is demonstrably more hands-on and when she qualifies hopes to expand on the work she is already doing by engaging and advising in a variety of outreach events.

Before her marriage and after concluding her formal education in New York, Dina Brawer wanted to go to art school. It didn’t prove possible then but now she parlays her artistic skills “in the service of the community.” Most recently she got the chance to make creative decisions about the design of an internal synagogue for a Jewish school in Hertfordshire, many of whose pupils come from non-Orthodox homes. “I wanted to make this a space for the children that would inspire them, particularly the girls.” So there is artwork all over the walls, and as the pupils are gender-separated in synagogue, what the girls see during the service is very important.

Mrs Brawer has discovered a hunger and appetite from Jewish women to learn more. It’s too easy for religious authorities to dismiss women’s aspirations if the women are not well-informed. But Dina Brawer aims to change all that, by helping to create a core of Jewish women who are knowledgeable about their own faith.

There is currently no particular garb or dress code for the female Orthodox rabbis graduating from Yeshivat Maharat. What’s important, Mrs Brawer insists, is what a rabbi does, not how he or she looks.

Instead, with quiet determination, the one-time rebbetzin is staging a low-key – and long overdue – revolution.

  • 2 February, 2015