Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Q1: How have your intersecting identities affected your (faith) leadership?

Back in the late 1970s, I was a lesbian radical feminist separatist. Married to a man in 1975, I came out in 1978. A Marxist during my undergraduate studies as a Sociology student at LSE, after I graduated in 1977, I discovered the Women’s Liberation Movement and realised that, aware of my sexual orientation since I was a child, it was possible for me to come out and live with pride as a lesbian.

It was a heady, liberating moment. But it didn’t last. Within a couple of years, it became clear that the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, as in the USA, was rather WASP, that is, predicated on White Anglo-Saxon Protestant assumptions, which marginalised me and my identity and experience as a Jewish woman. We didn’t use the language of intersectionality back then, but along with other Jewish women, I began to feel the need to occupy a feminist space that embraced me as a woman, as a lesbian and as a Jew. So, not long after being involved in the foundation of the Jewish feminist movement in Britain in January 1982, I became part of a Jewish lesbian group.

The journey from radical feminism and lesbian feminism to Jewish lesbian feminism involved me coming to terms with complexity. My life was not just connected to a sisterhood involved in a struggle to overcome patriarchy, it was also connected to a people, with a long history that was, both, one of glorious ongoing inventiveness and creativity and also horrific persecution, exclusion, and genocide.

So, I saw myself confronted with a double challenge. I needed to do what I could to contribute to the struggle to end patriarchy, and I needed to do what I could to contribute to the task of enabling Jewish life to flourish – in particular, after the Holocaust, what Jews refer to as the Sho’ah, the ‘devastation’, that saw the murder of half the Jews of Europe – one third of the world Jewish population – and the destruction of tens of thousands of Jewish communities.

As it happens, my connection to the Sho’ah was also personal. While my mother’s parents fled anti-Semitic pogroms in eastern Europe in 1905, settling in the East End, where they met and married in 1906, my paternal grandparents were Viennese, and experienced the disintegration of their world after the Nazis invaded Austria in February 1938. My paternal grandfather was one of the 30,000 men rounded up by the Nazis after Kristallnacht, the infamous ‘night of the broken glass’ on 9 November 1938 that heralded the beginning of the violent persecution of the Jews of Europe. Incarcerated in Dachau concentration camp on 13 November 1938, my grandfather was released on 19 January 1939, on condition that he and his family left the country. I have a copy of the Dachau document. But it wasn’t easy to get out because refugees were not welcome… In the end, my father, who had emigrated to South Africa in 1936, managed to organise domestic permits for his parents and two siblings to travel to England, and they escaped shortly before World War II was declared.

It’s a much longer story, but for the sake of brevity, determined to contribute to the defeat of patriarchy and refusing to grant Hitler a ‘posthumous victory’[1], I decided to become a rabbi.

That decision was not only about taking on that double challenge. It also involved the realisation that to have a chance to effect real change, it was no good being part of a radical cadre, separated from society. I needed to participate in society and work to generate change from the inside. My way of doing this was by joining the mainstream Jewish community and doing what I could to contribute to making Jewish life egalitarian and inclusive and fit for purpose in the late 20th century.

But of course, I chose a very challenging path. Needless to say, there was resistance. Another member of my Jewish lesbian group, Sheila Shulman, who sadly died in 2014, shortly after we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our ordinations, had also reached a similar conclusion. So, we both applied to the Leo Baeck College in London, which trains rabbis for the progressive rabbinate, and after a week of interviews in March 1984, we are both admitted – but only on condition that the usual one-year probationary period was extended for the full five years of the postgraduate rabbinic training programme. I don’t have the time here to say more about how difficult those five years were. Suffice it to say that opposition only made me more determined: More determined to create space for LGBT+ people within the Jewish community; more determined to enable all those on the margins of Jewish life to feel welcome and included and enabled to participate.

I have spoken about myself as a woman, a lesbian, a Jew. These are labels, categories. In the past 10 years, I’ve added another: gender-queer. But people are not categories, they are individuals. When we speak as we do today of the ‘protected characteristics’ – race, disability, mental health, gender, gender identity, sexuality – we have to remember the individuals who inhabit those characteristics, many of whom embrace within themselves several at once. Ultimately, my intersecting identities have informed my leadership as a rabbi by making me sensitive to the importance of welcoming, including, and enabling individuals to participate. The text that has influenced me most in this regard is a passage at the beginning of the Book of Exodus chapter 25, which introduces the project of constructing the tabernacle in the wilderness. We read (25:1-9):

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. / According to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so shall you make it.

There are very important messages for us in these verses. That a collective enterprise requires the participation of individuals. That individuals contribute voluntarily. That each person brings their particular 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.

My rabbinate has been framed by my combined personal and professional tabernacle project: to integrate all of who I am in my life and work as a lesbian, feminist, gender-queer Jew and to enable others to live integrated lives in which all the different aspects of their identities thrive, and to participate in all their lived complexity in the life of community.

Q2: People with intersecting identities often find it harder to feel seen and welcomed in faith spaces – what advice would you give faith communities to provide more positive experiences to their members?

Faith communities don’t have a good reputation for being inclusive. Most LGBTQI+ people in search of community and belonging, probably wouldn’t set foot inside a synagogue, a church, a mosque, or a temple, because judging by official religious teachings and standard communal practices, they would regard such spaces as excluding and unwelcoming. Given this perception, which matches with reality in the majority of cases, a religious or spiritual community committed to being egalitarian and inclusive needs to take action to demonstrate that they are inclusive and treat everyone equally.

When I began working as rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue in December 2000, the synagogue was not inclusive. Nevertheless, in response to the presence of LGBT+ rabbis since the time that Sheila Shulman and I were ordained in 1989, the movement to which the congregation is affiliated, Liberal Judaism had embarked on a journey, and by 2002 when LJ set up a rabbinic working party on same sex ceremonies on which I served, it had begun to consider the practice of inclusion and equality for LGBT+ people. In the next few years, there were a series of landmark developments. In December 2005, LJ published the Working Party’s liturgy for same-sex ceremonies to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act coming into force.[2] As the Equal Marriage Campaign gained momentum, with leadership from the Rabbinic Conference, Liberal Judaism gave public support for equal marriage, and also began working with Queer and Trans Jews UK.[3] LJ also launched other projects: Rainbow Jews[4], recording Jewish LGBT+ history from the 1950s to today, the trans interfaith project Twilight People[5] and Rainbow Pilgrims, a project exploring the experiences of LGBT+ migrants and refugees[6].

It was against the backdrop of the first signs of change within Liberal Judaism that I presented to the synagogue Council, the governing body of the congregation, the need to become more inclusive, starting with our approach to unaffiliated and disaffiliated Jews. 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, 70 people – Jewish, Jew-ish and non-Jewish – showed up! And so, we continued. Another important change was the Council’s decision to adopt a Hebrew name: Adat Shalom v’Rei’ut, ‘Congregation of Peace and Friendship’, and also to give the monthly newsletter a name that reflected this ethos: Open Door. At the same time, the decision was taken to address the synagogue’s PR, and proclaim the message of equality and inclusion via our leaflet and website. With inclusion firmly on the agenda, in 2005 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, my partner Jess and I had the joy of celebrating our wedding with the synagogue packed to the rafters. In due course, the Council also endorsed Equal Marriage. And then, with growing awareness of marginalisation of trans people, the Council’s plans to rebuild the synagogue as an eco-friendly, level-access accessible space, with wide-door entry to all spaces, a new improved hearing loop and sound system and a lift that could take a large mobility scooter, also included an all-gender accessible toilet downstairs and an all-gender toilet upstairs with requisite signage. A 50-month project, the new building was inaugurated and rededicated on the Sabbath of Chanukkah, the festival of ‘dedication’ in December 2015.

As I mentioned earlier, inclusion is not just about how we welcome people in, it’s also about enabling individuals to participate and contribute their gifts. Providing educational opportunities, diversifying religious services and empowering people to participate in these activities in their own ways is essential to ensuring full inclusion. And so, six months after I began work at BHPS, at the AGM in 2001, the congregation voted to vary eve of Sabbath services to broaden their appeal: a shared meal with blessings and songs on the first Friday; a shortened service and a speaker on the second; a creative service on the third, and a classical Liberal service on the fourth.

Meanwhile, I introduced Hebrew for adults at all levels twice weekly, and a rolling Exploring Judaism programme. The idea behind both these initiatives was to give individuals the resources to access Jewish texts and participate in services, and to engage Jewishly in their own lives at home. Over the years, these programmes have attracted members of the congregation who missed out on a childhood education, and individuals on their journeys – Jewish, Jew-ish and non-Jewish – many of whom took their first step by meeting with me and sharing their story. So, the classes have always included a range of people of all ages and backgrounds, identities and life situations.

Empowerment of individuals has extended to religious services. Lay readers lead in their own way, determining how much they do in Hebrew/English and read/sing, how many verses of the weekly Torah portion they read or sing, the incorporation of poetry, meditative practices, and so on. The rota of ‘lay readers’ includes our young people, aged 8 to 15, whose regular leadership of the congregation’s Sabbath morning service with their teachers, includes performing a mini-play written by themselves based on a theme from the Torah portion.

In Jewish life, a young person transitions into adulthood at the age of 13, and at BHPS, the young person leads the service before being called up to read the Torah and give a mini-sermon about their portion. Perhaps the most important step on the path to full inclusion was taken in 2018, when we decided that in addition to preparing young people to become bar mitzvah, a ‘son of the commandment’ or bat mitzvah, a ‘daughter of the commandment, we would offer each young person the gender-neutral option of becoming b’ mitzvah, rather than assume their gender on their journey to adulthood.

Just as services vary according to who is leading, so the congregation are invited to participate in their own way: for example, to sit or stand for as they choose for key prayers rather than be directed one way or another.

I hope that the example of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue shows that if we are committed to ensuring that people with intersecting Identities feel seen and welcomed in faith spaces, those spaces need to send out messages of welcome, ensure accessibility, and also be committed to putting inclusion into practice for all by treating each person as an individual, cherishing the gifts they bring, and enabling everyone to participate in their own ways.

Q3: What has been your experience with inhabiting other identity spaces with your “faith hat” on?

It’s quite hard to answer this question without sounding angry. The issue from a Jewish point of view is not about being a person of faith in a context in which others are not people of faith. The issue is about being a Jew in a society that is still dominated by Christian cultural assumptions – even, if most of those who are nominally Christian don’t attend church or practice Christianity. So, in a nutshell, when I inhabit other identity spaces as a Jew – which basically means any time I go anywhere that isn’t a Jewish space – my experience as a Jew is marginalised at best and I’m presented with explicit anti-Semitic tropes at worst. The exceptions to this experience are those spaces that are consciously dedicated to Interfaith exchange – and I have been engaged in in-depth Jewish-Christian dialogue and Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue for over 35 years.

Let me share a couple of examples of my experience of marginalisation. Since British life follows the Christian calendar, around Christmas or Easter, the assumption is that everyone is celebrating or marking these festivals – so, I’m usually asked questions like: What are you doing for Christmas? When I meet people for the first time, I’m often asked where I’ve come from – I guess because I have looks that mark me out as different from the British norm – although surely, by now, with all the waves of immigration that have followed Jewish immigration in the past 70 years, you would think that being ‘British’ would encompass a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. But of course, what is true of London and of the other major urban centres, is not true of smaller towns and rural areas.

When it comes to anti-Semitic tropes, the most common and least offensive include the response to a contribution I might make to a discussion, that: ‘Jews are very clever’. And needless to say, in left-wing or progressive circles, I’m often given the strong message that I’m only acceptable as a Jew if I denounce Israel. And then, there is my experience of attending some Christian services, where I’ve heard the Hebrew Bible referred to as the ‘Old’ – as in, redundant – ‘Testament’, and I’ve listened to Christian Ministers contrast the ‘harsh justice’ of ‘the Old Testament’ with the message of ‘love’ in the New Testament, as if ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ was not a Jewish teaching – as set out in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18 – and as if 2000 years of Christian anti-Jewish hatred and persecution had never happened.

These situations make me feel angry. The times when I feel hurt and pained are when I face marginalising or anti-Semitic comments in LGBTQI+ spaces. Of course, like any other person identified with a faith or religious community who is committed to equality and inclusion, when I’m in LGBTQI+ spaces, I’m acutely aware of the terrible impact of homophobic religious teachings, and that many people who are LGBTQI+ reject religion on this basis. I’ve dedicated a lot of my time during my rabbinate to re-interpreting religious teachings – not least, those infamous verses in the Book of Leviticus, in chapters 18 (:22) and 20 (:13) outlawing sex between men – and to reading sacred texts with LGBTQI+ eyes and generating new teachings that are affirming of LGBTQI+ existence.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah is a Liberal Rabbi, author, and social justice activist. An LGBTQ+ pioneer, who became one of the first two openly lesbian rabbis in the world in 1989, Elli is a member of the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights and a long-time participant in Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue. Liberal Jewish Chaplain at Sussex and Brighton universities and rabbi of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue for 20 years, following retirement in April Elli was appointed as Rabbi Emeritus.

  1. This is the additional commandment articulated by the Jewish philosopher Emil L. Fackenheim (The Jewish Return Into History. Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem. Schocken Books, New York, 1978, p. 22).

  2. Covenant of Love – B’rit Ahavah (Liberal Judaism, 2005). See www.liberaljudaism.org. Also see ‘Marriage by any Other Name’, chapter 8 in my book Trouble-Making Judaism. (David Paul Books, 2012).

  3. http://transgenderjews.org.uk/

  4. http://www.rainbowjews.com/

  5. http://www.twilightpeople.com/

  6. https://www.rainbowpilgrims.com/