Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
A feminist, who came out as a lesbian in 1978, after engaging in feminist research, writing and editing, I entered the Leo Baeck College in 1984, and was ordained as a rabbi in 1989, becoming the first lesbian to lead a mainstream congregation in the world.
I’ve served both progressive movements in Britain and was rabbi of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue from December 2000 until retiring at the end of April 2021. I am now Rabbi Emeritus.
A pioneer in the area of LGBTQ+ inclusion and same-sex marriage, putting this commitment at the heart of my work as a congregational rabbi, I’m also deeply committed to promoting human rights, social justice, interfaith dialogue, Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, and tikkun olam, repair of the world, and have written extensively on all these themes.
I adopted the middle name ‘Tikvah’ in 1998 because my journey has taught me that whatever the challenges and obstacles we face, individually and collectively, we must embrace hope (tikvah).
More about me
I was born in South Shields, County Durham in 1955, the child of a mother, whose Russian/Polish Jewish parents had fled pogroms, and a Viennese Jewish father, whose father was incarcerated in Dachau concentration camp by the Nazis in November 1938. My educational path was fraught, but eventually I found my feet and studied Sociology at the London School of Economics (BSc. Soc., 1974-77). I later found my own Jewish raison d’être and trained to be a rabbi at the Leo Baeck College in London (1984-89), receiving s’michah (ordination) from Rabbi Lionel Blue, Zichrono Livrachah, May his memory be for blessing.
Prior to the rabbinate I engaged in feminist activism, research, writing and editing. A member of Lesbian Line (1979-1982) and the Women’s Research and Resources Centre collective (1979-1984), I was Assistant Editor of Women’s Studies International Forum edited by Dale Spender (1979-1984), edited Reassessments of ‘First Wave’ Feminism (Pergamon Press, 1982), and coedited, Learning to Lose – Sexism and Education (with Dale Spender, Women’s Press, 1980) and On the Problem of Men (with Scarlet Friedman, Women’s Press, 1982). I was also a member of the collective that created the Jewish feminist magazine, Shifra, in 1984.
Following ordination in 1989, appointed as Rabbi of Buckhurst Hill Reform Synagogue, I became the first lesbian to lead a mainstream congregation in the world. I then worked as Director of Programmes for the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain and Deputy Director of the Sternberg Centre (1994-97), during which time, I became a rabbinic tutor at the Leo Baeck College (1994-2009), and later a lecturer, teaching ‘Classical Hebrew’ with Rabbi Colin Eimer, ‘Spirituality’ with Rabbi Marcia Plumb (1997-2002) and ‘Progressive Judaism’ with Rabbi John D. Rayner, Z”L, (1997-98). In 1998, after two years of controversy because of my promotion of same-sex marriage that had forced me to go freelance, I returned to the congregational rabbinate and became Rabbi of Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation (1998-2000).
As Rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue for over 20 years (December 2000-April 2021), I was committed, above all, to supporting the learning, participation and contribution of everyone in the congregation, regardless of background, fostering a sense of community, and creating opportunities for those living on the margins, in particular, LGBTQ+ people, to engage in Jewish life. Upon my retirement, I was appointed as Rabbi Emeritus. While Rabbi of BHPS, I also served as Liberal Jewish Chaplain of Brighton and Sussex Universities in a voluntary capacity.
A campaigner for same-sex marriage since 1996, I was a member of the Liberal Judaism working party on same-sex relationships established in 2000 that created a liturgy for same-sex ceremonies published by LJ in December 2005 to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act. LJ then went on to support the Equal Marriage Campaign. My testimony as an LGBT queer Jew and rabbi is included in Queer In Brighton (New Writing South, 2014). I’m also one of the 25 contributors to LGBT Voices published to mark the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 2014. In addition to my dedication to LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion, I’m deeply committed to and active in promoting human rights and social justice – in particular, concerning the plight of refugees – interfaith engagement, Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, and tikkun olam, repair of our broken world.
I have also continued to write and edit. Author of Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012) and three booklets, Compelling Commitments: A New Approach to Living as a Liberal Jew (Liberal Judaism, 2007), Celebrating Shabbat (BHPS, 2018) and Ten Days of Return (BHPS, 2020), I also wrote a monthly article for Sussex Jewish News for twenty years (2001-2021) and have contributed over four dozen articles and several poems to various journals and anthologies. These include: Beyond the Dysfunctional Family. Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue with Each Other and With Britain (Manor House Abrahamic Dialogue Group, 2012), Deep Calls to Deep. Transforming Conversations between Jews and Christians (SCM Press, 2017), Tikkun, Vol. 32, No. 2. Special Issue: ‘Israel’s Occupation at 50’ (Spring 2017), and Confronting COVID-19. Liberal and Reform Rabbis in the United Kingdom Respond to the Global Pandemic (Hakodesh Press, 2021). I was on the editorial group for Haggateinu, the haggadah of the Movement of Reform Judaism (2013) and coeditor of Welcome to The Cavalcade. A Festschrift in Honour of Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet with Rabbis Howard Cooper and Colin Eimer (Kulmus Publications, 2013) and Women Rabbis in the Pulpit. A collection of sermons with Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts (Kulmus Publications, 2015). In 2017, I became coeditor with Rabbi Lea Mühlstein of the new Liberal Judaism prayer book, Siddur Shirah Chadashah (work in progress).
I’m married to Jess Wood, an artist and theologian and Founder/Director of Allsorts LGBTQ+ Youth Project (1999-2019) until her retirement, who was awarded an MBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours List in recognition of her contribution to LGBT equality and inclusion.