I first got to know Sheila in 1982 when we were in a Jewish Lesbian group together for two years. In addition to that connection, which involved
weekly gatherings, often at her home, I also worked for Onlywomen Press in 1983 – a unique publishing enterprise run by Lilian Mohin, together with a collective that included Sheila.
It was a time of great tumult within the Women’s Liberation Movement, as women who were not part of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority began to assert our particular identities. As we did so, our Jewish Lesbian group tackled the feminist magazine, Spare Rib, the black feminist magazine, Outwrite, and the internal Women’s Liberation Movement Newsletter, when each publication became a mouthpiece for the post-Israeli invasion of Lebanon anti-Israel, Begin equals Hitler, backlash.
In addition to actively engaging in the WLM, our Jewish Lesbian Group also spent a good deal of time discussing together what being feminists and Jewish lesbians meant to us. As part of these discussions, we did a lot of reading. One of the books we read was Emil Fackenheim’s, The Jewish Return Into History, and we were all deeply affected by what Emil Fackenheim said about the additional commandment, ‘Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory’. Not long afterwards, Sheila and I both decided to become rabbis. Curiously, we didn’t discuss what we were thinking of doing, until we both found ourselves making applications to the college.
The story of our journey as rabbinic students is now familiar to many people. It was an obstacle course. We were expected to fall at one hurdle or another. We didn’t. The crucial thing in all of this is the ‘we’. Sheila and me: two very different personalities, with differing backgrounds and experiences, were treated as ‘the two lesbians’ for the full five years at the college that we were on ‘probation’. It was very challenging and trying to say the least – for both of us. And even, when we finally got ordained in July 1989, the Reform Assembly of Rabbis spent a whole day debating whether or not to include us as members.
Post-ordination, Sheila and I went on different paths. Sheila became founder-Rabbi of the unique, inclusive community that is Beit Klal Yisrael. In addition to nurturing and nourishing BKY, Sheila also made a valuable contribution to the life of Finchley Reform Synagogue, and was a beloved teacher at Leo Baeck College. One of her greatest accomplishments as a Rabbi was to inspire and mentor so many individuals on their journeys into the rabbinate. In doing this, Sheila demonstrated that, ultimately, the contribution that any of us make to Jewish existence and to life in general comes down to the extent to which we enhance and enable the lives of individuals.
Sheila was a remarkable individual – with a distinct voice and vision and way of being. I will miss her. She will be missed by many, many people. Zichronah livrachah – may her memory be a source of blessing in the lives of all who knew her.