The training course that gave Orthodox women a platform

Since its launch 20 years ago, the innovative Susi Bradfield programme at LSJS has trained more than 200 women as educators and community leaders


A few weeks ago Dr Lindsay Simmonds delivered a dvar Torah towards the end of a Shabbat morning service at Magen Avot, one of the United Synagogue’s newer communities.

Even 20 years ago the idea of a woman speaking on Shabbat in a central Orthodox congregation in the UK might have left some traditionalists spluttering behind their siddur. But it is a novelty no more. It reflects  a quiet transformation that has been aided in no small part by an initiative launched back in 2000 by the London School of Jewish Studies.

The Susi Bradfield Educational Leadership Programme  is a one-year part-time course set up to encourage more Orthodox women educators. Initially sponsored for three years, it continues to attract students. “I don’t think any of us could have envisaged after 20 years, we’d still be going strong,” said its founder, Dr Tamra Wright, now LSJS director of academic studies.

By the summer, some 235 women will have graduated from the programme, many of whom are making a mark in the community. Joanne Greenaway, chief executive of LSJS and former get case director at the London Beth Din, is an alumna, as is Judy Silkoff, director of operations for the Board of Deputies, Sharon Dewinter, director of British Emunah, and many more.

It grew from “a light-bulb moment” Dr Wright experienced in 1998 when she was teaching part-time at LSJS. Her speciality was post-Holocaust Jewish philosophy.

“I realised I was getting more invitations to speak to Orthodox communities. And it was not because people were suddenly interested in Jewish philosophy,” she recalled. “They were actively looking for Orthodox women speakers.”

When she looked at the communal listings the JC used to publish weekly, she found there was just one class out of 35 that was given by a woman, and just five out of 18 talks.

“I knew women who had the type of learning background and interests that shuls wanted,” she said. “I wanted to take women  either because of their background in traditional learning or because of their academic background in a relevant subject and give them training.”
Around the same time as she was hatching the idea, the philanthropist Michael Bradfield was looking to sponsor a programme in honour of his mother Susi’s 70th birthday. And hence the programme was born.

Dr Simmonds, who was one of its early graduates, said the bringing together of educators and community leaders has led to “an important shift in the Orthodox establishment”. She came to the programme with a strong educational record — apart from her pre-university gap year in Israel, she spent five years in religious institutes for women there. 

What Bradfield did was to help women “feel confident you had something to say, at a time when most of the people of leadership status you were dealing with were men,” she said. Having found on her return from Israel that attitudes were still “Dickensian”, she believes “ the Bradfield programme has enabled women to stand in front of the community and teach Torah”.

She was involved in the first women’s Megillah reading in a United Synagogue congregation, which was considered radical at the time but has spread to many other communities since. A former scholar in residence at Hampstead Synagogue, she is scholar in residence for the Council of Christians and Jews and has gained a PhD from the LSE on the religious life of Orthodox women.

Besides nurturing teachers, the programme added a leadership track for women who may not see themselves primarily as educators but are involved in organising education. 

Jemma Levene, who previously worked with the family education organisation Seed and the Orthodox Union in the USA, joined the anti-racist charity Hope Not Hate as deputy director five years ago. Its schools programme reaches more than 18,000 children and it also does teacher training.

She’s also helped to arrange education for parents at her children’s school, Noam, bringing another Bradfield graduate Michelle Sint to teach a course on Rashi.

The Bradfield course she took around 10 years ago offered practical skills — “how to be more effective in meetings, how to work with the media, how to be a better speaker.” But above all, it was “empowering — encouraging people to cast aside restrictions on what you might think of doing next,” she said. 

“I had a really diverse cohort. One of the beauties of LSJS is that you learn as much from the group you do it with as from the educators. It is quite clear it’s created real change. It’s fulfilled a need to bring women as educators and leaders right to the forefront of the Jewish community.”

Dr Wright says that since many of the programme’s graduates have made aliyah, there is a continuing need to replenish the pool of women teachers and leaders.  “Orthodox women educators are much more accepted - people are no longer surprised to have a woman speaking in shul or presenting,” she says.

Whereas a Shabbat afternoon shiur for women in Hendon was once led predominantly by rabbis, now around half the presenters are women, she says.

And whereas a leading Bible commentator such as Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg would talk of how a formative influence was learning with her father, Dr Wright hopes that a new generation of women scholars will recall that what got them started was “learning with their mother”.

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