Have les­bian and gay rab­bis found equal­ity?

One of the first LGBT rab­bis or­dained in the UK 25 years ago re­flects on how far at­ti­tudes have changed to­wards them


TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, two les­bians were or­dained un­der the aus­pices of Lon­don’s Leo Baeck Col­lege: Rabbi Sheila Shul­man and me. Un­til then, there was only one gay rabbi in Bri­tain, Lionel Blue. Since then, a fur­ther 12 LGBT (les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der) rab­bis have re­ceived semichah from LBC, and four oth­ers, or­dained else­where, have be­come part of the Pro­gres­sive move­ment. That’s 19 so far — over 20 per cent of the Lib­eral and Re­form rab­binate.

To ap­pre­ci­ate the sig­nif­i­cance of 1989 as a mile­stone, some additional facts: at the rab­binic pro­gramme in­ter­views in 1984, Sheila and I were given two psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sess­ments apiece — other ap­pli­cants, just one — and were then put on pro­ba­tion for the en­tire five years, rather than the usual one. We were told we could be asked to leave at any time if there was a “prob­lem”. When we asked what sort of “prob­lem”, we were told no one knew be­cause the sit­u­a­tion was un­prece­dented.

So, Sheila and I tried our best to be ex­em­plary stu­dents. And we suc­ceeded, both aca­dem­i­cally and vo­ca­tion­ally, but it was a strain. At that time, there were some su­perb rab­bis and lay people, who sup­ported us. Nev­er­the­less, even af­ter re­ceiv­ing semichah, the Re­form As­sem­bly of Rab­bis held a day­long meet­ing to dis­cuss whether or not to ad­mit us as mem­bers — usu­ally an au­to­matic process for any rabbi tak­ing a po­si­tion in a Re­form con­gre­ga­tion. For­tu­nately, the vote went our way.

It was just the be­gin­ning. Sheila be­came rabbi of the in­clu­sive con­gre­ga­tion she had co-founded, Beit Klal Yis­rael. I be­came rabbi of the main­stream Re­form con­gre­ga­tion that I had served in my fifth year. I am not go­ing to re­cite the litany of prej­u­dice and per­se­cu­tion I have ex­pe­ri­enced — which in­cluded a small group lob­by­ing to oust me from my first con­gre­ga­tion. The re­al­ity is that most of the con­gre­gants I have en­coun­tered over the years have been open and many of those who were ini­tially scep­ti­cal and fear­ful changed their at­ti­tudes.

The low­est point came in au­tumn 1996. Di­rec­tor of pro­grammes for the Re­form Syn­a­gogues of Great Bri­tain at the time, I spoke about plan­ning to of­fi­ci­ate at a “Covenant of Love” for two women in my Kol Nidre ser­mon. All I had in­tended to do was un­pack the con­cept of “covenant” by show­ing how se­ri­ously “mar­ginal” Jews took their Jewish iden­tity. But a vo­cal mi­nor­ity were not yet ready to ex­pand the Jewish tent.

Af­ter months of man­ag­ing my job while deal­ing with hos­til­ity — in­clud­ing nasty letters — I left the RSGB in July 1997. For­tu­nately, I found some friends while out in the cold, at Lib­eral Ju­daism’s Rab­binic Con­fer­ence, South­gate Re­form, Bel­size Square Syn­a­gogue and at the al­ter­na­tive Beit HaChidush con­gre­ga­tion in Am­s­ter­dam, where I con­ducted their first Kol Nidre ser­vice at the newly-ren­o­vated Uilen­burger Syn­a­gogue that Septem­ber. Then in Jan­uary 1998, I vis­ited Le­ices­ter Pro­gres­sive, which I had served as a fourth-year stu­dent. Six months later, they ap­pointed me as their first part­time rabbi. On De­cem­ber 1, 2000, I started at Brighton and Hove Pro­gres­sive Syn­a­gogue and have been there ever since.

As it hap­pens, I had first ap­plied to BHPS in July 1997 and been re­jected, with­out an in­ter­view. This time, the lead­er­ship de­cided to take a chance on me — in­deed, the coun­cil made the de­ci­sion rather thanputit­toamem­ber­shipvote­an­drisk­that­prej­u­dice would pre­vail. Re­spond­ing to their courage, I re­solved to en­sure that they would never have any re­grets.

A hand­ful of mem­bers left dur­ing my first year. But over­all, my rab­binate has flour­ished at BHPS and so has the con­gre­ga­tion. In March 2006 when my part­ner and I cel­e­brated our civil part­ner­ship with a chu­pah at the shul, al­most half the con­gre­ga­tion turned up.

I chose to be­come a rabbi to par­tic­i­pate in build­ing a vi­brant Jewish com­mu­nity in Bri­tain fit for the late 20th and 21st cen­turies. I was also de­ter­mined that Jewish life would in­clude my Jewish life as a les­bian and a woman and wanted to help trans­form Jewish teach­ing and prac­tice to en­com­pass the lives of all Jews on equal terms.

Since 1989, huge strides have been taken by LGBT Jews, by Leo Baeck Col­lege, which now prac­tises a non-dis­crim­i­na­tory se­lec­tion process, and by Lib­eral Ju­daism, whose ef­forts have in­cluded liturgy for same-sex kid­dushin (sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of a cou­ple), pub­lished to co­in­cide with the Civil Part­ner­ship Act in 2005, and sup­port­ing equal mar­riage.

More re­cently, Lib­eral Ju­daism hosted the Her­itage Lot­tery-funded, Rain­bow Jews project and ex­tended out­reach to trans­gen­der Jews. Mean­while, Re­form Ju­daism has got be­hind LGBT equal­ity and the Ma­sorti move­ment is also mak­ing moves.

So, what about the United Syn­a­gogue? Shortly af­ter he was in­au­gu­rated into of­fice in 1991, Chief Rabbi Sacks con­sented to the ex­clu­sion of the Jewish Gay and Les­bian Helpline from a Jewish com­mu­nity walk­a­bout that was sup­posed to sig­nal his “in­clu­sive ap­proach”. Will Chief Rabbi Mirvis take a new lead? All we can do is hope that in the next 25 years, we will see the emer­gence of a truly in­clu­sive Jewish com­mu­nity, a real Klal Yis­rael that em­braces all those who wish to par­tic­i­pate in Jewish life.

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