Introduction: Why a radical feminist Jewish lesbian decided to train for the Rabbinate
Good evening everyone. Thank you, Nigel for inviting me to speak to you all this evening. I’m going to begin with a sobering backdrop to our lives and take you back briefly to that devastating time over 75 years ago.
One third of the world Jewish population was murdered and tens of thousands of Jewish communities across Europe were destroyed in the Sho’ah, meaning ‘devastation’, ‘ruin’ or catastrophe’, which is the preferred Jewish designation of the Holocaust. The Nazis also persecuted and murdered the Roma people, disabled people, gay men, lesbians and nonconforming women, as well as communists and socialists. The child of a mother, whose parents fled pogroms in the Russian Pale in 1905, and a father whose own father was incarcerated in Dachau concentration camp after Kristallnacht in November 1938, after I came out in 1978 and became active in the Women’s Liberation Movement and Lesbian Feminism, as a Jew living in the shadow of the Sho’ah, I began to realise that a vibrant Jewish lesbian life couldn’t be forged out of those horrors…
And then, it became obvious to me that I needed positive reasons for being Jewish when, in the aftermath of Israel’s first Lebanon war in 1982, the media reacted with anti-Semitic tropes that included depicting Prime Minister begin as Hitler. Disappointingly, the feminist media, represented by the WLM weekly newsletter, the monthly magazine, Spare Rib and Outwrite, the black feminist newsletter jumped onto the bandwagon. Fortunately, Jewish feminists had already began to connect and I was part of a Jewish Lesbian group, which meant that I was not dealing with this hostile atmosphere on my own. And so, in the company of other Jewish lesbians, rather than be defined by anti-Semitism, I started to explore what it meant for me to be a Jew.
My Jewish education having stopped, aged 8 ½, when my brother became bar mitzvah, I decided to go to Liberal Judaism’s Montagu Centre in central London and learn to read Hebrew. That was the beginning of my rabbinic journey. Very quickly, I went from novice Hebrew reader to applicant for the Leo Baeck College rabbinic programme, starting in autumn 1984.
It was just as well that I became absolutely determined to do what I could to contribute to making Jewish life more egalitarian and inclusive because the next five years were almost impossibly challenging. But I wasn’t alone. Another lesbian, Sheila Shulman, who sadly, died in 2014, not long after we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our ordinations, also decided to embark on the rabbinate at that time. We both belonged to the same Jewish Lesbian group, but hadn’t said a word to one another about it. Clearly, it was meant to be. Except that the Jewish world, even the progressive Jewish world, wasn’t quite ready for two ‘out’ lesbians. We were both put on probation for the full five years of the programme – the usual probation period is one year – and were told that we could be asked to leave at any time if the two progressive movements that sponsored the college, Liberal Judaism Reform Judaism, felt that their constituent congregations were not prepared to accommodate us. Fortunately, the first gay rabbi in Britain, Lionel Blue, became my tutor, and he and other key teachers offered both Sheila and I enormous support. I was very honoured to be ordained by Lionel on 9 July 1989.
Working as a lesbian rabbi in the mainstream Jewish community
When I first began working as a rabbi, I experienced a lot of challenges in my efforts to ensure equality and inclusion for LGBT+ people, particularly, around the issue of trying to secure same-sex marriage.
Back in 1989, Lionel, Sheila and I were the only LGBT rabbis in Britain. Following ordination, Sheila co-founded with a group of other lesbians, Beit Klal Yisrael, a synagogue which has been a beacon of inclusivity in the Jewish community ever since. Meanwhile, I became rabbi of the mainstream Reform synagogue that I had served as a rabbinic student in my fifth year.
I’m not going to recite the litany of homophobia and persecution I have experienced in the early years of my rabbinate – which included a small group lobbying to oust me from that first post. The good news is that since I became part of Liberal Judaism in 1998, beginning with a two-year stint at Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation and then going on to the just over 20 that I have been rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, the involvement of LGBT+ rabbis – now 20% of the progressive rabbinate – has generated a major transformation in Jewish life. In 2000 Liberal Judaism established a rabbinic working party on same-sex relationships, including two LGBT+ rabbis: Rabbi Mark Solomon, who grew up in Sydney and left the orthodox rabbinate for Liberal Judaism in the early 1990s – and me. Liberal Judaism has been championing the rights of LGBT+ people ever since. In December 2005, LJ published the first fruits of the working party, a booklet of commitment ceremonies to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act coming into force.
LJ then went on to support the campaign for equal marriage. In the past few years, LJ has also provided a home for a series of LGBT+ projects: ‘Rainbow Jews’, exploring the heritage of LGBT+ Jews; ‘Rituals Reconstructed’, creating opportunities for LGBT+ Jews to develop our own rituals; ‘Twilight People’, a multifaith transgender initiative; and ‘Rainbow Pilgrims’, which focuses on the lives of LGBT+ migrants and asylum seekers who come to the UK.
A lesbian rabbi at Brighton Hove Progressive Synagogue
So: a very positive story of LGBT+ inclusion within Liberal Judaism over the past 20 years. But this evening, I’ve been asked to focus on my experience of working to make Brighton and Hove Progressive synagogue a place of welcome inclusion for LGBT+ people.
When I left the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain over the issue of same-sex marriage in July 1997, there was as a vacancy at BHPS, so, thinking that It would be nice to live in the LGBT-friendly atmosphere of Brighton and Hove, I applied. But at that time the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues that came to be called Liberal Judaism, wasn’t any more hospitable, and I wasn’t invited for an interview.
Thankfully, the following summer the congregation I had served as a rabbinic student in my fourth year, Leicester Progressive, offered me a weekend-a-month position, which felt very supportive. I then left London to live in Brighton in March 2000, and when the post at BHPS became vacant again in July 2000, I put in another application. Fortunately, with the help of the Executive Director of Liberal Judaism at the time, Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh, who had persuaded the synagogue leadership to speak to me, after an initial conversation, I was interviewed – by the entire council, the governing body of the synagogue, as it happened. The notion of appointing a lesbian feminist as Rabbi seen as potentially extremely controversial, the council decided to make the decision themselves, rather than take the proposal to a general meeting of the members of the congregation, so I got the job.
In my first year as Rabbi of BHPS, half a dozen members chose to resign their membership rather than have a lesbian as a rabbi. Fortunately, I also received much support from the Council and its officers. After each resignation, the then president of the congregation would call me up and reassure me that I had the support of the Council and that I shouldn’t take it personally, Bear in mind, that each resignation meant a membership subscription fee lost.
So, that first year was challenging. Thankfully, I enjoyed the support of the majority of the congregation, so, I found my feet. I also found that the congregation was willing for us to take a journey together.
Because of my experience as a lesbian on the margins of the Jewish community, the principal priority of my rabbinate has always been the inclusion of people on the margins: in particular, LGBTQI+ people, but also patrilineal Jews, Jews in mixed relationships, women, who had not received a Jewish education as children; people who for one reason or another were unaffiliated or had disaffiliated
And so, as soon as I began at BHPS, I established weekly Access to Hebrew and Exploring Judaism programmes. At the AGM in 2001, the decision was taken to diversify Sabbath services to make them more appealing to a wider range of people. In September 2002, we held our first outreach event on a Sunday morning, headlined as: ‘Are you Jewish or Jew-ish?’ Advertising in the local press and on BBC Radio Sussex, we had no idea how many people would cross the threshold. 70 people – Jewish, Jew-ish and non-Jewish – showed up! Another important change was the council’s decision to adopt a Hebrew name: Adat Shalom v’Rei’ut, ‘Congregation of Peace and Friendship’ – a name that reflected the welcoming, nurturing ethos of the synagogue – and also to give the monthly newsletter a name that reflected this ethos: Open Door.
With inclusion firmly on the agenda, in 2005, after participating in two Sunday mornings of homophobia training, conducted by my partner – now my spouse – Jess Wood, in her capacity as Director of Allsorts Youth Project. the council adopted Liberal Judaism’s policy on the inclusion of LGBT+ individuals and couples and took the decision to allow same-sex ceremonies to be held in the synagogue. Indeed, in March 2006, Jess and I had the joy of celebrating our wedding with the synagogue packed to the rafters. In due course, the council also followed Liberal Judaism’s lead in supporting and endorsing Equal Marriage.
In addition to these changes, I asked the council to look at its publicity materials, and suggested changes that would state that the congregation welcomes people on the margins, including LGBT+ people, people in mixed relationships, patrilineal as well as matrilineal Jews, and so on. And so, in addition to revamping the synagogue web-site, a new attractive synagogue leaflet was created – at a time when paper communications were still important.
Needless to say, before too long more people, who had hitherto lived on the margins, including LGBT+ people, started attending services and study sessions and other events.
2011-2021: The last ten years
And then, with growing awareness of the marginalisation of trans people, the council’s plans in 2011 to rebuild the synagogue as a totally accessible space encompassed installing an all-gender accessible toilet downstairs and an all-gender toilet upstairs – with requisite signage – proclaiming loud and clear that when we say ‘all are welcome’, we really mean it.
The rebuilt synagogue was inaugurated on Sabbath of the festival of Chanukkah, on 12 December 2015. In 2017, one of our members, who had become bar mitzvah with me at the synagogue celebrated her transition as a Trans woman, with a special ceremony during a Shabbat morning service. Then in 2018, very significantly, the council unanimously endorsed the Education committee’s proposal to offer each 12-year-old the option of preparing to become bar, bat, or non-binary gender b’ mitzvah, rather than continue to assume their gender identity.
Meanwhile, the synagogue began to connect with the LGBT+ calendar of the city. I had already participated over the years in LGBT+ History Month, and other LGBT+ community events, by giving talks and sharing panels, and had also participated in Trans Pride. So, the decision was taken to host a Sabbath evening meal with blessings, songs and reflections on the eve of Brighton Pride 2016. Open to our own congregants, it was also open to anyone who wished to attend. The event was so successful that until the pandemic struck, eve of Sabbath shared meals have been held on the eve of Pride each year through 2019. At one of these, cis ally, Rabbi Janet Darley, came to speak to us and showed a film of the special LGBT+ Seder meal held each year at her congregation, South London Liberal Synagogue.
In addition to the annual eve of Pride event, the new building has hosted exhibitions created by the various Liberal Judaism LGBT+ projects I mentioned earlier, including, Rainbow Jews, Rainbow Pilgrims, and Rituals Reconstructed.
Creating an inclusive congregation
I have focused on the journey to inclusion of one synagogue. What does it take to make a synagogue – or a church, or a mosque, or a temple – a place of welcome and inclusion?
My 20-year experience with BHPS suggests a number of key factors:
- That the larger movement to which the particular congregation belongs makes inclusion and equality a priority, and takes action to demonstrate that commitment.
- That the spiritual leader of the congregation is fully committed to making inclusion and equality a priority.
- That the lay leadership of the congregation is prepared to work with their spiritual leader to make inclusion a reality.
- That congregants themselves are prepared to open their hearts to welcome others into their midst.
With all these elements in place, it is possible to transform the culture of a congregation. And let’s remember, that when we are talking about creating a culture of welcoming and inclusion, people don’t approach our congregations as categories, they are individuals, with their own lives and stories and journeys. Being welcoming and inclusive, comes down to how we treat each and every individual who comes knocking at the door, or who sends a message to the website or an email to the office.
I would like to close by sharing with you one of my favourite passages from the Torah – which is at the beginning of the Book of Exodus chapter 25, and introduces a theme that takes up most of the rest of the book; the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 25:1-8):
The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: /Speak to the Israelites, that they take for Me an offering; from everyone whose heart makes them willing you shall take my offering. / And this is the offering that you shall take from that which is theirs: gold, and silver and brass; / and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, / and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins and acacia-wood; / oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; / onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the cape and for the breastplate. / Then let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.
The Jewish people has not had a physical sacred place, a mishkan, a tabernacle, a Temple, for almost 2000 years since the Romans destroyed the last Temple in 70 CE, but, nevertheless, there are very important messages in these verses for our lives today. That individuals contribute voluntarily. That each person brings their own special gifts for the creation of community. That participation involves enhancing the community with our personal contributions. That the Eternal One dwells amongst the people when every individual offering is included. I’ve been fortunate to spend the last 20 years of my rabbinate at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue. In the past two decades the congregation has gone on a journey to becoming an inclusive congregation. As I prepare to retire in a few days’ time, just prior to my 66th birthday on Monday, my hope is that before too long all congregations of every faith and culture will find ways of accepting and embracing the gifts of LGBTQI+ people and all those who seek to contribute to communal life.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Sexuality, Gender and Faith Group
Zoom meeting, Tuesday, 27 April 2021 at 7.30 pm
Holocaust means ‘burnt offering’, suggesting that the murder of the Jewish people had a sacred quality to it. Alternatively, Sho’ah, found in the Hebrew Bible, e.g. in Isaiah chapter 10, verse 3, more directly suggests the impact: ruin, desolation. ↑
Covenant of Love. Service of Commitment for Same-Sex Couples. Liberal Judaism, London, 2005. ↑