Have lesbian and gay rabbis found equality?

One of the first LGBT rabbis ordained in the UK 25 years ago reflects on how far attitudes have changed towards them

By Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, July 10, 2014
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah (right) and Jess Wood at the celebration of their civil partnership

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah (right) and Jess Wood at the celebration of their civil partnership

Twenty-five years ago, two lesbians were ordained under the auspices of London's Leo Baeck College: Rabbi Sheila Shulman and me. Until then, there was only one gay rabbi in Britain, Lio nel Blue. Since then, a further 12 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rabbis have received semichah from LBC, and four others, ordained elsewhere, have become part of the Progressive movement. That's 19 so far - over 20 per cent of the Liberal and Reform rabbinate.

To appreciate the significance of 1989 as a milestone, some additional facts: at the rabbinic programme interviews in 1984, Sheila and I were given two psychological assessments apiece - other applicants, just one - and were then put on probation for the entire five years, rather than the usual one. We were told we could be asked to leave at any time if there was a "problem". When we asked what sort of "problem", we were told no one knew because the situation was unprecedented.

So, Sheila and I tried our best to be exemplary students. And we succeeded, both academically and vocationally, but it was a strain. At that time, there were some superb rabbis and lay people, who supported us. Nevertheless, even after receiving semichah, the Reform Assembly of Rabbis held a day-long meeting to discuss whether or not to admit us as members - usually an automatic process for any rabbi taking a position in a Reform congregation. Fortunately, the vote went our way.

It was just the beginning. Sheila became rabbi of the inclusive congregation she had co-founded, Beit Klal Yisrael. I became rabbi of the mainstream Reform congregation that I had served in my fifth year. I am not going to recite the litany of prejudice and persecution I have experienced - which included a small group lobbying to oust me from my first congregation. The reality is that most of the congregants I have encountered over the years have been open and many of those who were initially sceptical and fearful changed their attitudes.

The lowest point came in autumn 1996. Director of programmes for the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain at the time, I spoke about planning to officiate at a "Covenant of Love" for two women in my Kol Nidre sermon. All I had intended to do was unpack the concept of "covenant" by showing how seriously "marginal" Jews took their Jewish identity. But a vocal minority were not yet ready to expand the Jewish tent.

After months of managing my job while dealing with hostility - including nasty letters - I left the RSGB in July 1997. Fortunately, I found some friends while out in the cold, at Liberal Judaism's Rabbinic Conference, Southgate Reform, Belsize Square Synagogue and at the alternative Beit HaChidush congregation in Amsterdam, where I conducted their first Kol Nidre service at the newly-renovated Uilenburger Synagogue that September. Then in January 1998, I visited Leicester Progressive, which I had served as a fourth-year student. Six months later, they appointed me as their first part-time rabbi. On December 1, 2000, I started at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue and have been there ever since.

A small group lobbied to oust me from my first congregation

As it happens, I had first applied to BHPS in July 1997 and been rejected, without an interview. This time, the leadership decided to take a chance on me - indeed, the council made the decision rather than put it to a membership vote and risk that prejudice would prevail. Responding to their courage, I resolved to ensure that they would never have any regrets.

A handful of members left during my first year. But overall, my rabbinate has flourished at BHPS and so has the congregation. In March 2006 when my partner and I celebrated our civil partnership with a chupah at the shul, almost half the congregation turned up.

I chose to become a rabbi to participate in building a vibrant Jewish community in Britain fit for the late 20th and 21st centuries. I was also determined that Jewish life would include my Jewish life as a lesbian and a woman and wanted to help transform Jewish teaching and practice to encompass the lives of all Jews on equal terms.

Since 1989, huge strides have been taken by LGBT Jews, by Leo Baeck College, which now practises a non-discriminatory selection process, and by Liberal Judaism, whose efforts have included liturgy for same-sex kiddushin (sanctification of a couple), published to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act in 2005, and supporting equal marriage.

More recently, Liberal Judaism hosted the Heritage Lottery-funded, Rainbow Jews project and extended outreach to transgender Jews. Meanwhile, Reform Judaism has got behind LGBT equality and the Masorti movement is also making moves.

So, what about the United Synagogue? Shortly after he was inaugurated into office in 1991, Chief Rabbi Sacks consented to the exclusion of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Helpline from a Jewish community walkabout that was supposed to signal his "inclusive approach". Will Chief Rabbi Mirvis take a new lead? All we can do is hope that in the next 25 years, we will see the emergence of a truly inclusive Jewish community, a real Klal Yisrael that embraces all those who wish to participate in Jewish life.

Last updated: 1:45pm, July 10 2014