Rabbi thrives in shadowy role

By Robyn Rosen, January 21, 2010
Show of hands: Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner addressing girls at the Henrietta Barnett School

Show of hands: Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner addressing girls at the Henrietta Barnett School

Standing in front of a class of 14-year-old grammar school girls explaining the Jewish perspective on sex before marriage and homosexuality would seem daunting to most. But it is just another day at the office for Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner.

The JC accompanied Rabbi Janner-Klausner to the Henrietta Barnett School in north London as part of a Leo Baeck College initiative giving those contemplating a rabbinical career the opportunity to shadow Progressive ministers.

Rabbi Laura, as she is fondly known, was up at seven. She had participated in a public debate the previous evening with her two rabbinical colleagues at North Western Reform Synagogue, Golders Green, Mark Goldsmith and Josh Levy. She has been with the Alyth Gardens congregation for six years, having returned to England from Israel, where she promoted dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I decided to do what I always wanted to do and be a rabbi,” she said. “I love all things Jewish. I’m mouthy and like teaching so it was a good shidduch between what I’m interested in and my skills.” She studied at Leo Baeck for five years and considers Alyth “home”.

Today, the mother-of-three has helped her daughter Ella prepare for her upcoming batmitzvah, before working on her Shabbat sermon and attending a curriculum meeting at Akiva School in Finchley, where she is a governor.

She then sat down with a congregant recovering from cancer and another going through a divorce. All this before one o’clock, when she managed a quick lunch before rushing off to take a Talmud class in the shul’s library.

The weekly class attracts 15 regulars, mostly retired. They are all enthusiastic and up for a debate and Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s animated gestures and booming voice keep the energy levels high.

But she has to leave the hour-long class slightly early to be on time for her Henrietta Barnett appearance.

There, the girls immediately warm to her and after a few minutes of explanations of Judaism and the woman’s role in it, half-a-dozen hands shoot up.

Questions vary from “What did you parents think when you moved from Orthodox to Reform?” to “What if you’re a female rabbi and you get pregnant by a man that’s not your husband?”

Another girl, one of a handful of Jewish pupils, asks for the rabbi’s views on allergies and kashrut. Met with a slightly perplexed look, the girl continues: “My mum has a gluten allergy and the only sausages she can eat are pork.”

“What about vegetarian sausages? the rabbi inquires.

“My mum doesn’t like vegetarian sausages,” the girl responds. In answering the pupils, the rabbi outlines both Orthodox and Reform viewpoints.

After the class, Rabbi Janner-Klausner accompanies her daughter to her batmizvah class at Finchley Reform Synagogue and in the evening attends the launch of Sewa Day, the Hindu equivalent of Mitzvah Day. “My days are not usually that bonkers” she admits.

The shadowing scheme was “a good way to dispel misconceptions”.

Rabbi Judith Levitt, rabbinic admissions adviser at Leo Baeck, said the initiative helped people “understand the experiences of the rabbinate with the intention of wanting to do it themselves.

“The day went very well and people had a whole range of experiences from visits to residential homes to conversion classes and they found it extremely useful.”

Last updated: 3:39pm, January 21 2010