LGBTQ Panel: What is the Legacy of Queer Rabbis? Rabbis Judith Levitt, Daniel Lichman, indigo Raphael, Judith Rosen-Berry, Elli Tikvah Sarah, Anna Wolfson Finchley Reform Synagogue, 8 November 2023

Personal introduction

It’s good to be here with you all for this special event.

I was ordained on July 9th 1989 by my tutor, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Zichrono Livrachah, alongside my classmate Rabbi Sheila Shulman, Zichronah Livrachah. May their memory be for blessing.

Lionel and Sheila are both in my thoughts this evening.

Given that at that time, Lionel was the only out gay rabbi, and that Sheila and I became the first lesbians to receive s’michah at Leo Baeck College, some background feels appropriate.

I met Sheila when we were both involved in creating a Jewish Lesbian Group following the first Jewish Feminist conference in London in January 1982. The Jewish Feminist movement was formed in response to the experience of marginalisation felt by Jewish women in the WASP milieu of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Later that year, Israel invaded Lebanon, and the Women’s Liberation Movement got caught up in anti-Israel / anti-Zionist sentiment, expressed chiefly through the weekly Xeroxed WLM newsletter, and the monthly journal, Spare Rib. Our Jewish lesbian group began to write letters.

We also started reading Jewish writers. One of the books we tackled was Emil Fackenheim’s, The Jewish Return Into History (Schocken Books, New York, 1978). After we read the chapter about the 614th commandment, ‘Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory’, I began to feel compelled to commit myself more fully to Jewish communal existence.

I had been a Lesbian Separatist. I was still a radical feminist when I decided in 1983 to apply to the LBC rabbinic programme. I was motivated by two imperatives: to contribute to the rejuvenation of Jewish life after the Sho’ah, and to do what I could to help transform the Jewish community so that it would become fully inclusive.

From the very outset, it was a struggle. During the interview process, Sheila and I were subjected to two psychological assessments, rather than the usual one. When we were accepted, we were put on probation for the full five years of the rabbinic programme. Enquiring about the terms of probation and what behaviour might constitute a breach, we were told that no one knew, and that we might be asked to leave at any time, if the two movements that funded the college were not happy.

Our situation remained precarious right up to ordination. It was for this reason that we insisted that the names of the ordinands should appear on the ordination invitation, so the college couldn’t back out at the last moment.

Even after we received s’michah, since we were both taking up positions under the auspices of the Reform movement, the Rabbinic Assembly spent an entire day debating whether or not we should be accepted as members.

During the challenging obstacle course of rabbinic training, establishing a connection with the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, and leading the monthly Erev Shabbat chavurah services provided a much-needed oasis of support and solidarity.

So much has changed over the past almost thirty-five years. I will say more when I reflect on ‘formative moments in my queer rabbinate’. Suffice it to say now: When I retired at the end of April 2021 after over twenty years as Rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, I had the satisfaction of knowing that the congregation had been transformed into a proud, vibrant, and inclusive centre of Jewish life.

What have been formative moments in your queer rabbinate?

The first formative moment

From the time that I entered Leo Baeck College, I knew that I wanted to be a rabbi in a mainstream Liberal or Reform synagogue, so I could work with congregants to make congregational life inclusive.

I was thrilled when the shul I served as a 5th year student, Buckhurst Hill Reform Synagogue, invited me to be their first full-time rabbi.

Things went well for a couple of years, but then a small group began to agitate against me. One couple was afraid that I might molest their daughters. Fortunately, when it became clear that some people wanted to get rid of me, a groundswell of support, which manifested itself at the AGM that year, overcame the opposition. Grateful for that validation, I was nonetheless very disheartened by the homophobia that had preceded it, and when the post of Director of the Programmes Division in the reorganised RSGB was created, I applied and got the job, starting in the autumn of 1994.

The second formative moment

I loved my new role, and felt, as they say, that ‘things could only get better’. One development and one event fuelled my optimism: At my suggestion, a rabbinic/lay working party on same sex commitment ceremonies was set up in 1995; a few months later in February 1996, I appeared in my official capacity alongside Peter Tatchell on BBC 2’s ‘Heart of the Matter’ with Joan Bakewell on the issue of lesbian and gay equality.

They also say that ‘pride comes before a fall’: In September that year, I gave the Kol Nidrei sermon at Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogue, the shul where, with the support of the then Rabbi, Barbara Borts, I had begun teaching in the cheder the summer before entering Leo Baeck College. Addressing the theme of Covenant, I mentioned that I was going to be conducting a ‘covenant of love’ ceremony for a lesbian couple.

The immediate horrified reaction of a handful of people indicated that I had misjudged the moment. The broader reaction that followed Yom Kippur underlined the gravity of my mistake. I paid a very high price for it. Having to give multiple apologies. Receiving hate-mail. Because there were those in the wider Reform movement who no longer felt comfortable working with me, in March 1997 I offered my resignation, which was accepted. 

When I was preparing to leave RSGB in July 1997, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue were seeking a new rabbi. I applied, but I was not invited for interview. Fortunately, after a visit in January 1998 to Leicester Progressive, one of the congregations I had served as a 4th year student, I was invited to be their first rabbi. I began working on a weekend-a-month basis six months later.

The third formative moment

In July 2000, after I had already moved to Brighton, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue was once again looking for a rabbi. The then Liberal Judaism Executive Director, Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh urged me to re-apply. Meanwhile, he encouraged the lay leadership to have an informal conversation with me.

It was during that informal conversation with the congregation’s Chair and Vice President that the Vice President referred to a report on the Jewish Chronicle’s front-page the previous Friday about the decision taken by Finchley Reform Synagogue not to employ a lesbian as full-time Principal Rabbi. The Vice President asked me how to avoid that happening at BHPS. I suggested that rather than leaving the decision to the congregation, the Council, the shul’s elected representatives, should take responsibility for it. That is exactly what happened. After leading a Shabbat morning service, I was interviewed by the entire Council, and although the Vice Chair objected, the majority were prepared to take a leap into the unknown, and I was offered the job.

The fourth formative moment

I started work on December 1st 2000. Half a dozen member families resigned in the first six months. On Sukkot morning 2001, I conducted a blessing ceremony for the two children of a lesbian couple, who had joined the congregation when I became the rabbi. At Kiddush, the Vice Chair who had objected to my employment, confronted the Vice President. It was very gratifying to overhear her response: ‘This family belongs to our shul and all congregants are entitled to receive the congregation’s services on an equal basis.’ The Vice Chair and his family subsequently left the shul.

The fifth formative moment

I was a member of the LJ Rabbinic Working Party on Same Sex Commitment Ceremonies set up in 2000. The new policy was ratified at the LJ Council in 2002, and the Working Party was tasked with creating a liturgy.

With the publication of the new liturgy arranged for December 2005 to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act coming into force, and aware that there were a few BHPS Council members who were not completely on board, I suggested that the Council consider homophobia training before taking a vote on whether or not ceremonies might be conducted under the shul’s auspices. The Council agreed and attended two consecutive Sunday morning sessions conducted by my partner, Jess Wood, in her role as Founder Director of Allsorts, a charity working with LGBTQ Youth in Brighton. Shortly afterwards, the Council vote in support of same-sex ceremonies was unanimous.

When, two days after our Civil Partnership in March 2006, Jess and I celebrated our chuppah at the shul, half the congregation attended.

Achieving full acknowledgement for same-sex couples in the shul made it possible to re-draft the synagogue leaflet to include a welcome to LGBTQ individuals, couples and families. It also meant that when I met with individuals on their journeys, some of whom were LGBTQ, I could reassure them that they could make a home in the congregation, feel valued for who they were, and be supported to make their own unique contribution to congregational life.

The sixth formative moment

The rebuilding of the synagogue, which began in the autumn of 2011, and was completed fifty months later, created the opportunity for the congregation’s vision of an inclusive community to be expressed in the fabric of our congregational home.

In addition to refashioning the building so that it ensured complete physical accessibility, including a lift that could take a mobility scooter, and the absence of a bimah, attention was also paid to signalling a clear welcome to LGBTQ people. And so, a beautiful Rainbow Ark became the dominant feature of the sanctuary, and alongside female and male toilets, all-gender toilets, too.

In the past seven years since the rebuilding was completed, LGBTQ exhibitions and events have entered the shul calendar, including the annual eve of Brighton Pride Erev Shabbat celebration.

The seventh and final formative moment

The re-designed building opened for the first time on Shabbat Chanukkah December 12th 2015, when we were also celebrating the adult bat mitzvah of one of our lesbian members.

Present at Kiddush, was one of our younger members, whose bar mitzvah we had celebrated a few years earlier. I knew it was their birthday that day. I also knew that they were transitioning. I invited the congregation to sing her ‘happy birthday’. It was wonderful hearing everyone sing her new name. A few months later, we celebrated her again with a ceremony on a Shabbat morning sanctifying her transition, when she received a Mi Shebeirach in her chosen new Hebrew name.

More recently, a year after my retirement, one of the young people who had come to speak with me a few years earlier, a trans man who later studied for his conversion with me, was elected to the shul Council. In his new position, he was supported to organise the first eve of Trans Pride Erev Shabbat celebration in July.

I am very proud that BHPS continues to be a beacon of LGBTQ inclusivity.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah


Rabbi Lionel Blue Memorial Lecture (Leo Baeck College)

Finchley Reform Synagogue

8th November 2023 / 25th Cheshvan 5784

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah