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Could this woman lead a revolution in British Jewry?

    Hampstead Synagogue welcomed a much larger crowd than usual on Friday night. It was not only because of Shabbat UK: the community's new scholar-in-residence Dina Brawer was making her debut.

    As the voice of Orthodox feminism in Britain, she has become an increasingly prominent figure on the religious scene over the past two years. But her rising profile has caused alarm among some of the mainstream rabbinate.

    Her appointment is widely believed to have been the main reason Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote to his rabbis a month ago to warn them against inviting "inappropriate speakers" to their synagogue.

    But there was nothing radical about her first official appearance at Hampstead when she led a text-based session on the holiness of Shabbat. Whatever background politics may have preceded her arrival, she was not going to comment. "I am here to teach Torah," she said.

    Her activism springs from what some will see as an unlikely source - growing up in a Lubavitch family in Milan. But it was her upbringing, she said, that had given her "that sense of mission and responsibility to other Jewish people, which the Lubavitcher Rebbe really infused".

    There is a disparity between the expectations we have of men and of women

    In three years, she is set to become the first graduate from Britain to receive ordination from the Yeshivat Maharat in New York, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women.

    Mrs Brawer explained: "It is not something I ever imagined I'd be doing. But it feels very much an outgrowth of my mission to make Judaism accessible to as many Jews as possible, including women.

    "I realised that it was my responsibility to study at Maharat and receive semichah [ordination]. The community needs it. It is important to raise the bar for girls in the Jewish community."

    Mrs Brawer's husband, Naftali, is also from a Lubavitch family. After working in New Jersey, the couple came to the UK in 1996. Rabbi Brawer served as a United Synagogue minister in Northwood and then Borehamwood and Elstree for 15 years. In the meantime, Mrs Brawer gained a series of religious and secular academic qualifications.

    She said the turning point came in 2003 while on sabbatical in Israel where, studying for three months, she happened to go to the conference of Kolech, the Orthodox women's organisation. It was there she was "exposed to Orthodox feminist issues, which I had never encountered before".

    It was the same year that she met the pioneering Orthodox women's educator Belda Lindenbaum, a founding member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa) in the United States and a "huge influence".

    When Mrs Brawer attended a Jofa dinner four years ago, she saw a video detailing the progress of Orthodox feminism. "It struck a chord with me. I realised I had to do something," she said.

    Two years later, the first Jofa conference was held in the UK. Its mission, Mrs Brawer said, is "to create as many entry points for women into study, ritual and leadership in the Jewish context and to open up and to make sure people are aware of all the different possibilities within halachah

    "One of the things we are working on is best practice when it comes to women and Kaddish. It is not enough to say that, if a woman wants to say Kaddish, she is allowed to. It's about training rabbis to invite women's participation.

    "There is a disparity between the expectations we have of men and of women in the Jewish community. It is not in the community's best interest to have such low expectations of 50 per cent of the population."

    Jofa is also considering what can be done for girls after batmitzvah. "Unlike boys who have a clear path, there is no specific ritual for girls. There is a gap between batmitzvah and getting married," Mrs Brawer said.

    But Jofa's most controversial activity has been to host speakers who support partnership minyans - services where women can read and be called up to the Torah as well as men. "We don't start them, we don't fund them," Mrs Brawer said.

    "All Jofa did in the States was publish a collection of scholarly articles for and against, with all the arguments so people can learn and educate themselves. Jofa wants to empower people."

    Now 44, with the youngest of her four children still at primary school, she spends a few weeks each year in New York but mostly pursues her Maharat course as a long-distance student.

    The institution's first graduates used the new-fangled title "maharat" - "leader in halachic, spiritual and Torah matters". This year some went for "rabba" - the female equivalent of rabbi but decried by much of the mainstream American rabbinate. One graduate so far has opted for "rabbi".

    What title Mrs Brawer plans to adopt remains to be seen. "Everyone is agreed that women should be studying to the highest level," she said. "The onus is on people who say we should not get the title to prove why we should not and what the problem with it is. Let them explain why the title should not be used just because of my gender."

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