Dina Brawer is utterly determined to blaze a trail for women as a British rabbi-at-large, reports 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, as the senior rabbi of Reform Judaism. 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.
That may be all set to change, and it has a particular resonance as the Church of England welcomes Libby Lane, its first female bishop. Dina Brawer is set to become Britain’s first Orthodox woman receiving rabbinical ordination, from an American study centre specifically launched for the purpose.
The Yeshivat Maharat — a religious seminary for female leaders — in New York is already sending out its first graduates to work with congregations across the United States. There is, though, no particular dress code for the female Orthodox rabbis graduating from Yeshivat Maharat. “What’s important is what a rabbi does, not how he or she looks,” Brawer insists.
Brawer, whose husband Naftali is 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. She does not 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 which she means that British synagogues have traditonally left it to the rabbi to run Jewish life for his congregation. “I see myself as going back to the original role of rabbi: to teach, to lead — but above all to engage.”
Currently she is running a revolutionary (in Orthodox terms) series of workshops for brides and grooms together to teach about sexuality. “I had taught brides before their weddings for many years but then I did an intensive course, partly sponsored by Yeshivat Maharat — we wanted to find ways of teaching couples together. We found that often men and women were being taught different things.” Her workshops attract young couples who have been living together but who are eager to learn what Orthodox Judaism brings to marriage.
Brawer, who has a BA in Jewish studies and holds a master’s degree in psychology and education from the Institute of Education, describes herself as a full-time student. Two years ago, however, she became Britain’s first ambassador for JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was founded in America; Brawer set up its British wing. She works hard at what she describes as “grassroots activism, enabling people to think differently about how Judaism could work”. Often this involves teaching in community homes or holding seminars. Sometimes 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 newborn girls. There are plenty of such ceremonies in Progressive Judaism, but relatively few in the Orthodox world, although this is changing.
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. Ironically, all too often Orthodox Jewish women 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 as “aping Reform”.
Within congregations, women’s desire to participate more found expression in “partnership minyan”, which enables women to lead parts of the service, read from the Torah, and serve in lay leadership positions. However, the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has ruled out such services in synagogues under his authority. Brawer says that the feedback from her JOFA work 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 planted the seed that I should study.”
She lives in Hertfordshire with her family, studying remotely, with a couple of visits to New York every year of her four-year degree. She will qualify in 2018 with exactly the same skills that lead to rabbinical ordination for men.
Long before making this historic jump, Brawer, 43, had had years of experience in the “non-job” of “rebbetzin”, 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. “What message does a community convey when the role of female leader is limited to women who happen to be married to a rabbi?” Brawer says. “It is insulting to women’s intellectual and pastoral capabilities. It also severely limits the pool of potential leaders.”
Brawer is confident that acceptance will come, albeit not overnight. 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 a synagogue. But that has changed a lot and in the past ten 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.”
It’s too easy for religious authorities to dismiss women’s aspirations if the women are not well-informed. Brawer aims to change all that, by helping to create a core of Jewish women who are knowledgeable about their own faith.