Leo Baeck picks its first woman head

Deborah Kahn-Harris

Deborah Kahn-Harris

The Leo Baeck College in London, the leading European institution for training Progressive rabbis, has appointed the first woman principal in its 55-year history.

Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris, 42, will take over from Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, who retires after five years at the helm in the autumn.

She said she was "humbled and thrilled" to lead the college. "It is an interesting and exciting place with a huge amount of potential," she said.

A graduate of the LBC's rabbinic programme, she was raised in Houston, Texas and came here in 1989 to take a one-year course at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

After her rabbinic ordination, she served as a Reform university chaplain and director of young adult work before spending time in Jerusalem and Australia.

Since returning to the UK, she has been part of the rabbinic team at Shaarei Tzedek North London Reform, while researching a doctorate in Bible studies under Sheffield University.

Her appointment marks a departure for the college not only because she is a woman but she also has congregational experience: Professor Saperstein and his predecessor Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet were primarily scholars.

Rabbi Kahn-Harris said that one of her aims would be to bring the academic and vocational aspects of Leo Baeck "closer together". While one of her tasks will be to implement a review of Leo Baeck's activities, she said its core work would remain in training.

LBC chairman Alasdair Nisbet said: "Deborah is one of a new generation of leaders of the Progressive Jewish community that was trained at the college. I believe that she is one of the first women to be appointed to lead a rabbinic college anywhere in the world."

Rabbi Kahn-Harris's son Kobi and daughter Ella attend Akiva school. Her husband Keith Kahn-Harris is the co-author of Turbulent Times, a study of modern British Jewry published last year.

Last updated: 9:14am, April 1 2011