From touchline to Torah for Liberal chaplain

November 24, 2011
Rabbi Ariel Friedlander

Rabbi Ariel Friedlander

Picture a typical Jewish chaplain. A bearded man in a black suit, white shirt and a black kippah may spring to mind. Not this one.

Ariel Friedlander is a 48-year-old Liberal female rabbi wearing jeans and a purple striped T-shirt, with a gold hoop in one ear - and the New Yorker is Liberal Judaism's new university chaplain.

Concerned that Liberal students were struggling with questions and concerns and had no one to provide answers, Rabbi Danny Rich, LJ chief executive, created the new position.

Rabbi Friedlander began work in the summer and is now travelling between campuses, going to Limmud events and co-ordinating with LJY Netzer to create a voice for Liberal students who may feel they get a raw deal.

She has been in contact with students in 32 cities, from London to Cardiff and as far afield as Dublin, and believes progressive Jews might not feel comfortable talking to an Orthodox chaplain about religious and relationship issues.

Rabbi Friedlander said: "The [University Jewish Chaplaincy] chaplains are very welcoming and do a great job, but they don't cover everything that a student might need if they aren't Orthodox. There are certain issues in your personal life that might be more difficult to go to an Orthodox person to discuss because you know that their belief systems are different and you don't want to be arguing the politics, you actually just want help with the situation you're in."

She added: "Because we are flexible, because we are liberal, other sections of the Jewish community forget we have a very strong philosophy of our own. Because we are prepared to try to find a way for all the community to get on there's often an assumption that we will simply give in."

Her decision to become a rabbi began in the most unlikely of circumstances. As a photographer for Queens Park Rangers football club she was working at a match against Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Rosh Hashanah when, in the midst of a thunder storm and with QPR one-nil down, the crowd starting singing: "Does your rabbi know you're here?"

Her surprise at feeling so guilty for being at the match on Yomtov made her realise how important Judaism was to her.

Rabbi Friedlander went to train in a reform rabbinical school in the United States, serving in communities in Canada and the US before returning to the UK.

Last updated: 11:49am, November 24 2011