Women on the Bima
by Rabbi Daniela
Opening talk Thursday, 13th May 1999, 16.00 hours
was not easy for me to sit and write down the reasons why I chose to become
a rabbi in the first place and particularly why I no longer work as one at
It was only recently, when I felt compelled to explain myself in writing to
a couple of pen pals on the Internet, that I found that I could talk of any
of it at all. Till then, it had been too painful to think about.
From Elisa we heard how
after she became aware of
Regina Jonas, she so much wished for a continuation of the
presence of women rabbis in Judaism in Germany.
Regina Jonas was the first and only woman ordained as a rabbi in pre-war
Germany in 1935. As we know she was subsequently murdered by the Nazis in
1944, in Auschwitz only months before its liberation.
Also for me, Regina
Jonas played a role long before it was commonly known that she ever existed.
My late uncle, the youngest brother of my father, was taught by her, here in
Berlin most probably in the same vicinity as we are now because
in the later Nazi years they were forced to live here a few blocks away,
rather than in the posh suburbs where they used to live.
Regina Jonas was always
mentioned to me when it became known that I was to be or am ordained as a
rabbi. I had even hoped at one point to write my rabbinical thesis on her
but this was long before The Wall came down and any material about her was
hidden away in some archive in the GDR unreachable for me.
Now, you might be
wondering why, since I am the next in the chronology of female German rabbis
albeit quite obviously post-war, I give this opening note in English and not
German and that is exactly one of the points I shall be trying to make.
But let's start at the
beginning with a very brief outline of my life.
Although conceived in Jerusalem by German Jewish parents,
father Berliner, mother from HeideIberg, I was born in Johannesburg South
Africa in 1952. The next eight years of my life were spent triangeling
between South Africa, Israel, and Germany for various family reasons. In the
late 1950s my family finally settled in Germany because my father was quite
simply homesick and had literally "Heimweh nach dem Kurfuerstendamm". Here
we lived in three different towns Koblenz, Hannover and Berlin.
As I was growing
up in those towns going to school and making friends and generally
socializing with society I thought it was quite normal to be the odd one
In Koblenz, in those days there were about a 100 Jews in a
radius of 60 km. In Hannover were a couple of hundred or at the most 300 in
a radius of 30 km and in Berlin or West-Berlin as it was then there were
about 6000 Jews.
As I grew older and
moved from one town to the next slightly larger one, I became aware of more
fellow Jews. Yet there were still only 6000 Jews in Berlin compared to 2
mill. inhabitants in all. So, although Berlin was the Mecca, if you pardon
my image, of the Jewish world for me, I was, within the larger picture,
still on the margin.
It was not till I was a
student and started, together with my Jewish, as well as my non-Jewish
friends, to think more deeply about life, the universe and everything that I
realized that my identity was very different from the one of everybody else.
That was definitely true not only among my non-Jewish friends but also among
my Jewish ones.
I was proud of
being Jewish, I told everybody that I was Jewish and never tried to hide it
in any way. I also didn't mind having had a German socialisation, was not
ashamed of having been brought up here at all.
I never was led to believe by my parents or thought for
myself that Germany wouldn't be my permanent home. I did not adhere to the
so-called "gepackte Koffer Syndrom" (packed suitcase syndrome) which so many
of my fellow Jewish friends had implanted in them. What this expression
meant and possibly still means was the understanding that one wasn't really
settled in Germany but only on the "Durchreise" - passing through, as it
This attitude prevented
so many of my fellow Jewish pals from developing a proper and secure Jewish
identity because they always thought they would rather wait to become
integrated in some other country once they were finally settled. It was a
shock to quite a few of them that by the time they were adults, they were
still here, married with professions and careers.
Some did leave and never
came back, others left and came back, most of them stayed and ironically it
was I, who never had a problem with this syndrome, who was one of those who
left, and was until now at least, not to come back. More about that later.
The Judaism I
encountered at home was a pre-war version of German Liberal Judaism. I was
told from a very young age that I was Jewish and was provided with some
stock answers to give when I was asked what that meant.
Like: we don't believe
in Jesus, and we believe the Messia still has to come. I didn't really
understand what the implications were, but when things came up in
conversation while playing with other non-Jewish children I reeled these
stock-answers off to any child, parent or adult who happened to be around.
We did go to Synagogue
on Erev-Shabbat (Shabbat mornings were a different matter as I had school)
because in Koblenz there were so few Jews that my parents felt compelled to
go although my father much rather stood outside acting as the Shomer,
smoking one cigarette after the other.
My mother on the other hand genuinely enjoyed going to Synagogue. Later on,
in Hannover and Berlin where numbers were not so crucial anymore the
frequency reduced slightly although holidays were always kept.
Other Jewish home
traditions like lighting Shabbat candles, keeping kosher, bedikat chametz
etc. I didn't learn at home - those things I picked up along the way from
Jewish summer camp or other Jewish families in the area.
I always attended Cheder classes, I was even Bat-Mitzva in Koblenz. In
Koblenz the class was tiny, 4 children at the most, in Hannover slightly
larger and later in Berlin I even had private classes with Mrs. Lapidoth in
my High-School parallel to the religious tuition of the others.
In particular the Jewish
Youth Group in Berlin under the guide of Fredi Schulze z"l added greatly to
my Jewish knowledge and socialisation. So in one way or another by the time
I was 17/18 I had accumulated quite a bit of Jewish knowledge and to my
great surprise I knew sometimes a lot more than my fellow youngsters who did
come from orthodox homes.
This knowledge and also,
dare I say it, my outgoing personality, led to the fact that by the time I
was barely seventeen I was elected to be on a council of three or five
people, I don't remember so clearly anymore, who led the Berlin Jewish
The experience of
serving 5 or 6 years on this council and the exposure to other identity
forming events such as being part of a editorial team of a bilingual Jewish
publication called "Schalom-Dialoge" most definitely, however
subconsciously, laid the corner stone for my vocation.
In 1976 after the death
of my father I went back to Israel, after a gap of almost 20 years to search
for more Yiddishkeit.
What I encountered was truly amazing. I met for one Sybil Sheridan who is
also here today and who then was just starting her rabbinical studies at Leo
Baeck College. She, Pnina Navè Levinson z"l and her husband Rabbi Nathan
Peter Levinson as well as Rabbi Albert Friedlander helped me on my "road to
Damascus" if I may borrow yet again an image from another religion.
In Israel with the
encouragement of these women and men this whole idea of studying for the
rabbinate became clear to me.
I had always dreamed of a situation like that especially in the wake of the
knowledge of Regina Jonas through two sources, the afore mentioned uncle and
also through Pnina Nave-Levinson z"l, but never thought it possible to put
this dream into reality because my Jewish socialization was German minted
and in Germany for a woman to do something like that was not only impossible
but totally outrageous even to think about.
Therefore when in 1978
after a lengthy struggle of securing finances I started to study at Leo
Baeck College in London I thought that I had won my worst battle but this
was not so.
I didn't feel that I had any problems at the college as a woman. This
particular topic I felt was well and truly licked at least as far as I was
concerned. I didn't feel the male students got better or worse jobs in their
student placements than I did. No, there I really didn't feel any
The problem arose from a
different area - it was my socialisation.
The fact that I wasn't
born and bred English. The language wasn't a problem I spoke English well
enough, grammatically more correct sometimes than the English. No, the
problem was I didn't know the English ways and there was also nobody to
teach me. I was just again the odd one out. I was on the margin yet again.
It wasn't so much in the
non-Jewish English society that I was Jewish, it was more that in the Jewish
society I was not an English Jewess.
To me I was and still am Jewish first and then a nationality and not a
nationality first and then Jewish.
This singled me out
again from everybody else because even if the others weren't English they
still were American, Australian, South African, Brazilian Jews. But a post
war German Jewess….? Was nicht sein kann, nicht sein darf!!! (What can't be
must not be!!!)
In July 1983 I got
S'micha and in October 1983 I married. My husband and I settled in Bedford a
county town 80 km north of London. He had worked near by since 1977 with a
multinational company and had made Bedford his home and I joined him there
I managed to get a part
time job with a congregation near by for a brief time where basically the
same situation arose. It wasn't so much the fact that I was a woman that
posed the problems although I dare say that also may have played a role - it
was again that I was considered so different from everybody else. It also
was a congregation very much on the periphery of main stream Judaism.
My life however took
again an unexpected and yet oh so familiar turn. My husband's job forced us
to be on the move again.
The moves took us for several years respectively to two very different
countries: Switzerland and India. Both countries are not exactly brimful
with Jewish life and especially the respective towns Thun and Bangalore were
not at all conducive to finding employment as a woman rabbi.
Yet in both countries I
still worked, not as a regular congregational rabbi but as a teacher and
bridge builder. In both countries I engaged myself as I had done before both
in Germany and England in the dialogue with other faiths. Not only with the
majority faith in either country, Christianity in the one and Hinduism in
the other, but with all the different faiths that were either inherently
present or that had come later.
In Bedford where I live
today I am a council member and the treasurer of the Bedford Council of
Faiths. This organisation fosters the understanding between the many
different faiths that live in this multi-cultural town and tries to act
against racism born out of prejudice and ignorance.
In a town like Bedford,
where there are officially only half a dozen Jewish families, that is,
families who actually are members of a synagogue somewhere in Britain, I
have met in the last 16 years at least another dozen Jewish families who for
all intents and purposes have lost contact with all things Jewish.
In the little street
alone with 18 houses where my husband and I live, I have already found 2
families who were totally disconnected from Judaism although fully Jewish.
The reasons why that should be are manifold. Either they were children of
Jewish emigrants during World War II who were fearful of being found out a
second time that they had the wrong religion, and kept it a secret in front
of their children that they were Jewish, or at least, kept it very quiet. Or
they themselves or somebody in their family married out so that they thought
that they were no longer acceptable as Jews.
The other scenario is
that they simply dropped out of Jewish society because of a lack of
opportunity or interest and then when they wanted to get back again simply
didn't know how to go about it.
These are all Jews who live on the margins of Judaism and for one reason or
another feel or felt threatened by organized religion. I as a marginalized
professional Jew could very much relate to that.
It made me realize that
I am also really at loggerheads with organized religion and that I am a
free, lateral thinker who never tows the line and has always lived right on
the brink of Judaism. I can very much sympathize with these marginal Jews
and wherever possible do what I can to help them to re-enter Judaism one way
What is somehow in the
back of my mind and I can't really express is that I feel that not by design
or choice but through force of circumstance I became the rabbi for the Jews
on the margin. I am not a paid outreach rabbi but I share with those people
who I find on my journey through life my personal private Judaism. I invite
them to my own home observances, like Shabbatot, Sedarim, sitting in the
Sukka, Chanukka candles etc...
I am not part of the
establishment anymore, most probably I never have been part of it at any
time but I still have some connections. I still am asked sometimes to do
funerals, weddings and bar/bat mitzvot. Less so now than before India. I
somehow carved a role out for myself also through my work with the other
faiths about which I feel very strongly.
I don't need to remind
this group that a third of the Jewish population of the world was murdered
during the 2nd World War.
It is a painful irony that the Jewish population of Great Britain for
instance has also declined by a third in the years since the war. The number
dropped from 450 000 in 1945, to 300 000 in 1991. Germany of course gives us
a false picture because of the new influx of Jews from the East since the
iron curtain melted.
The organisations in
Britain are addressing this issue with various initiatives but these fail to
reach the real marginalized Jews in the rural districts away from the big
In no way whatsoever do I want to criticize the outreach programmes of the
various organisations, be it by the Lubavitchers or the non-orthodox
movements but instead I see the need for a wide spectrum of activities and I
see myself as part of that spectrum.
I am lucky that
a) though not particularly wealthy I don't necessarily have to earn my
b) I have the benefit of a rabbinical training; and
c) I have ample opportunity to share my Judaism with those Jews in my
I have learned very
effectively in my life to operate my Judaism right on the brink of the
jewishly possible and often invention became the mother of all wisdom or
rather of "that will have to doism".
I love everything about Judaism and I am a strong believer but I draw the
line at a dictated lifestyle.
That is why I am not
'schomer shabbat' in the traditional sense or a traditional Jew in any way,
but I have my own rules and idiosyncrasies.
Despite having lived on the margins of secular and Jewish society in my
life, I still managed to keep a strong Jewish identity but was only able to
develop it because of Jewish education and rabbinical training both of which
I could only find to my satisfaction outside Germany.
So, the reason why
I chose to give this talk in English rather than in German is that in the
end I found my Jewish identity not in Germany and also not in Israel but on
the margins of Jewish life of Britain, Australia and India.
There is a parallel process going on here, to borrow a term
from psychotherapy. The parallel process is between myself as a marginalized
rabbi and those Jews I meet on my life's journey.
I can empathize as well
as sympathize with them. The fact that women traditionally also have been
marginalized may play a role here but I don't necessarily feel that this was
the only reason for my marginalization. That would be far too simple.
This leads me to examine
the question: is there a place for marginalization in non-orthodox Judaism?
Every time I come to
Germany I am painfully aware of the tremendous hole that the Shoa has left
here in the evolution of modern Judaism. All the innovations, which I take
for granted in other, but mainly the Anglo-Saxon, countries are total
novelties here and can only be introduced, if at all, with enormous
And yet it was here,
right here, in this vicinity of Berlin where the cradle of non-orthodox
Judaism stood before the Shoa.
In the Artilleriestr.
14, today's Tucholskystr. 9 was the
HOCHSCHULE FÜR DIE WISSENSCHAFT DES JUDENTUMS where Regina
Jonas studied but was not to be ordained.
That she had to do
elsewhere, privately on the margins in Offenbach through Rabbi Dr. Max
Dienemann. I am sure we will hear elsewhere at this conference, all the
details of the hardships she endured in obtaining S'micha.
Through the Shoa, as we
all know, the institution of the Hochschule although not physically
destroyed was yet destroyed and successor organisations were founded all
over the world albeit directly or indirectly - Leo Baeck College more
directly perhaps than HUC through the person of Leo Baeck although HUC also
had its fair share of Hochschule educated teachers.
But the Shoa did
something far more grave then just displace an institution, and I am not
talking of course of the systematic murder and genocide of 6.000.000 Jews.
The Shoa stopped in its tracks point blank the evolution of non- orthodox
Judaism in Germany and also in other parts of continental Europe.
NEUE SYNAGOGE, this beautiful building with its silver and gold
copulas glistening in the Berlin sun was the stronghold, the epitome of
non-orthodox Judaism. It was part of the German Jewish concept of the
Einheitsgemeinde, the idea of an all-encompassing congregation, where all
traditions and views were equally allowed to be expressed. This very idea of
the Einheitsgemeinde worked from the premise of inclusivity and not
As a result of the Shoa
the pendulum swung from liberal openness and inclusivity to narrow-
mindedness and exclusivity.
We felt, or at least
some of us felt, that we had to close ranks in order to protect what was
left of Judaism so that it doesn't get watered down or weakened at all and
that the spark was kept alive.
This feeling of having
to act in such a way led again to more marginalization of not only a certain
group of people who were already, even in good times, on the very periphery
of Judaism, but also of those who were strong Jews within the Jewish
community but wouldn't necessarily support all the actions this community
One point of
disagreement on the road to marginalization is the dichotomy of inclusivity,
which is what the marginalized Jew might want to see, and exclusivity, which
is the practice of the establishment.
automatically weakens the establishment; however it is the exclusivity and
intolerance of the diversity by the establishment that pushes ordinary Jews
as well as certain rabbis into marginalization.
I have to admit that it
does upset me that week after week I get letters from Jewish educational
institutions telling me that there aren't enough Jewish professionals around
and asking me to contribute financially to the training of more rabbis and
teachers while I who am trained get ignored and am denied any opportunity to
use my skills in the non-orthodox Jewish world.
I am not the only one in
this situation. But what we, i.e. the ones on the outside, all have in
common is that we are no door mats.
But the last thing I want to do is to blame others for my plight or make
them responsible for it or criticize them in any way. Although if anyone
were to ask me, am I hurt or do I feel that my talents are wasted I would
have to say, yes.
Both my husband and I
were hurt by congregations. He certainly has never recovered from it and
that is why he is now so cynical towards religion.
I got hurt but never did it shake my belief in G'd or Judaism. I love G'd
and Judaism with every fibre of my being. I know that I was born a Jewess
for a reason and I know that I have a message to pass on. But how should I
do this? Quietly and gently in the privacy of my home, with a few stragglers
here and there? Or loud and clear from a bima, like the blast of a shofar?
Since force of
circumstance has resulted in me being a rabbi on the margin, I find myself
asking this question: should I compromise my integrity and identity just to
serve the larger more established community?
It's a question to which
I am still seeking the answer.
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[history of women in the rabbinate]
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