“The stained-glass ceiling has not yet been broken”, declared Baroness Julia Neuberger at a panel debate of women rabbis at Limmud on Sunday.
In what was supposed to be a celebration of 40 years of women rabbis, instead the four rabbis, speaking to an almost entirely female audience, agreed that, after 40 years, they were “still in the desert”.
The panel comprised Jackie Tabick, Britain’s first woman rabbi; Julia Neuberger, the first woman rabbi to have her own synagogue in Britain; Laura Janner-Klausner, the first female movement rabbi; and Naamah Kelman, Israel’s first woman rabbi.
Talking about their highs and lows, Rabbi Tabick said: “Recently, I had someone complaining it was disturbing to them that I sing in a soprano voice. I don’t know what to do with that.
“I have been accused of bringing down the wages of male rabbis — you know, because women are paid less,” she said.
Rabbi Kelman said that things were worse in Israel: she had been told that women rabbis were “emptying the synagogues”.
“Discrimination is more subtle now,” she said. “Like when you make a statement and nobody hears and then a man says the same thing straight after and it’s the most fascinating thing anyone has ever heard.”
Baroness Neuberger said that matters were better than they were. She said that, once, when she was the only woman in the room in a class at Leo Baeck rabbinical college: “One person asked me to make the tea and got it thrown at him. He hasn’t forgotten.”
Another situation worse than it seems is that of the Charedi population in Israel, warned economist Ben Richardson, himself a former member of the strictly Orthodox community, at another session.
A potent cocktail of high birth rates, poor education, lack of economic engagement and high dependency on benefits spelled the potential collapse of the Israeli economy.
“Israel may be the first country to go from being undeveloped to developed and back again,” he said.
Mr Richardson was due to speak on Tuesday about leaving Charedi society. Other highlights of Limmud included a session on settlers in the Occupied Territories, a talk on forgeries of historic Jewish documents and Strictly Limmud, its own take on Strictly Come Dancing.