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Dina Brawer: From rebbetzin to rabbi

Dina Brawer will soon qualify as an Orthodox rabbi. She tells Rina Wolfson about her journey and inspiration.

    Dina Brawer
    Dina Brawer (Photo: Tania Diez)

    For only the second time in 25 years, Dina Brawer did not host her own Seders this year. Instead she was a guest at her parents’ home in Milan, using the time she saved to study Torah and write papers.

    This is because in June of this year, after four years’ intensive Jewish study, Brawer will graduate at a ceremony at Kehillat Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. During the ceremony, she will be awarded an Orthodox semichah (Rabbinic ordination). But, as I found out when we met, it wasn’t a step that the mother of four expected to take.

    Brawer was born in Italy of Moroccan-born parents. Her father, himself raised in a French Chabad community, was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to serve Milan’s Jewish community. So from an early age, service to the community was central to her family’s life and to her own Jewish experience.

    In recalling her childhood, Brawer notes that her Judaism was played out through the filters of school and home. By contrast, synagogue was, she says, “A very small part of my Jewish experience.”

    The Chabad school that she attended attracted students from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds, reinforcing the idea that there are multiple ways of experiencing Judaism. At home, the family would sing the prayers together, while on holiday they would recreate services — something she continues to practice today.

    “Many times, we’d be on holiday in places where there was no shul. We would have a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service on a balcony, overlooking a sunset. It’s a tradition that I love and I kept up with my kids.

    “My dad always spent time studying with me, and reading me Chasidic stories. He tried to teach me Yiddish, in order to be able to understand the Rebbe’s talks. In those days, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would talk to kids at special times of the year, before the internet. There would be a ‘hook-up’, a phone line on speaker, and we would gather at odd times because of the time difference. We’d all get together at ten or 11 o’clock at night at the shul, to listen to this voice in Yiddish.”

    I try to picture the scene. A Moroccan-born man teaching his Italian daughter to speak Yiddish.

    Alongside her immediate family, and the Rebbe, her primary role models were the female teachers at her school and, in particular, the rebbetzen who ran it. She was, Brawer recalls, a “forceful personality”. Her passion and dedication to the girls’ Jewish education remain an influence today.

    I admit that, as she describes her childhood, I’m a little surprised. The Dina Brawer I know is a passionate feminist. She is an unapologetic champion of greater female inclusion in the Orthodox Jewish experience. But feminism doesn’t feature in her childhood memories.

    “Feminism wasn’t something I was aware of. We had a maths teacher who kept her maiden name. I remember somebody explaining to me that that was because she was a feminist, but to be honest I didn’t really know what that meant.”

    Did she never feel exasperated by different gender roles? She smiles. “Well, at home, the girls were asked to clear the table but never the boys.” And she admits that cultural gender segregation was, at times, “infuriating”. But it was never something internalised or experienced as exclusively ‘Jewish’.

    Aged 15, she went to study at a Chabad high school in Israel. As she describes this experience, it’s clear these two years were crucial in developing her identity. She movingly describes the Rebbe’s belief that every Jew has a mission, a purpose that they need to fulfil.

    “There are people who are professional ‘shluchim’, who are sent by the Rebbe to a specific place to set up a Chabad house. But that’s not the only way to serve. Everybody has a mission, in every interaction and in everything they do. That really resonated with me. It left me with the idea that I really wanted to dedicate my life to serving the community.”

    While living and studying in New York, she met her husband, Rabbi Naftali Brawer, and after four years in the United States, the couple moved to the UK. No longer affiliated to Lubavitch, but no less committed to community service, they settled in Northwood, where Naftali was the communal rabbi. For Dina, though, the role was a joint one.

    “We very much worked as a team. And our community also saw us as a team. In announcements it was always ‘the Rabbi and Dina’. At that time, I never felt that titles were important. For me, what was key was getting the work done. The title wasn’t important.”

    So what changed? How did the idea develop that she might study for the Rabbinate? “In 2003 we took a sabbatical to Israel for three months.” There she studied and also encountered Shira Chadasha. This was the community which coined the phrase partnership minyan for Orthodox services where women and men leyn together.

    “There had been a lot written about it and I had been reading the debate around it. I was curious about it. Like one of the wonders of the world is round the corner you need to check it out. It was just a curiosity. It wasn’t like I had always wanted to leyn. In fact, I expected that hearing women leyning would sound really odd. But what surprised me was that actually it didn’t sound odd.”

    She was taken aback by two things. “One was how much it meant to be among a community of women who were actively part of the congregation. In a normal shul experience, you are rarely in a women’s section when the whole of the section is actively singing and participating out loud, where you feel like your tefillah [prayer] is lifted by the whole community.”

    And the second thing?

    “A woman opened the ark. And another woman took the Sefer Torah through the women’s section. I found that really moving. I’m a visual person and this image of a woman standing before the Aron Kodesh, holding a Sefer Torah was really very powerful.

    “It helped me realise that when your Judaism is experienced through the prism of shul, and you’re sitting at the back and looking at the most precious thing in Judaism, and you have no access to it, and you can’t touch it, I understood why some women might feel marginalised.”

    The next step was attending a two-day conference of Kolech, the sister organisation of JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). “I was exposed to a range of issues within the Orthodox communities that really need to be dealt with and were not being dealt with. So that was my first real introduction to Orthodox feminism.” She launched JOFA UK, in 2013.

    “To me”, she says, “setting up JOFA was another iteration of my shlichut. I realised that this might be my purpose, and I’m in the right position to do this”

    She recalls the final talk that the Rebbe gave to his followers. “He told us, ‘I am handing the mantle on to you. You are now responsible for doing this job.’ Well, this is the job. This is my purpose.”

    And the Rabbinic path? Is this also part of her purpose?

    “This was something that I never dreamed of.” Growing up in Chabad, she insists that the male shaliach and the female shlucha were equal. The title really wasn’t important. The role was what mattered.

    “If there was any status symbol, it was in dedicating yourself to the community. The Rebbe spoke to the men and the women. At conferences, he would address them both. We shared that clear sense of purpose.”

    But outside of the Jewish community, the role was harder to explain. Being married to a rabbi doesn’t give justice to the role of rabbi’s wife, in terms of service to the community.

    Brawer says she felt this most acutely when, in 2006, her husband was invited to take part in the Review of Women in the Community. The invitation was sent to community leaders, but the Brawer household’s envelope was addressed only to Naftali.

    “I realised, that as much as I was considered a leader in my own shul community, I wasn’t perceived as a leader in the wider Jewish community, because there’s no official title. People just see me as a spouse. So, if there’s a social event, you get invited. But this wasn’t a social event, it was an event for communal leaders, and so I wasn’t invited.”

    It wasn’t quite the ‘aha!’ moment. But it crystallised her belief that there was a significant gap between her perception of her communal role, and the perception of others. As the founder and director of JOFA, she attended and spoke at a number of conferences, where she met other Orthodox feminists, and where the issue of the rabbinate slowly evolved. She met women, from Israel, America and the UK, who were expressing similar concerns.

    “If we want change in the Jewish community, one of the things we need are women rabbis. For women who access their Judaism largely through synagogue, and who feel marginalised, women rabbis are one of several ways to engage those women.”

    So what has the reaction been to her decision to become a rabbi?

    “On the whole, positive. When I told some people, they hugged me and jumped for joy. It reinforced my belief that this was needed.”

    And her family?

    “Well, some of my family needed time to adjust to the decision. Initially they were a little bit bewildered. And I understand that. But overall they are very proud and supportive and everyone is looking forward to my graduation in June.”

    As she anticipates her graduation, it is clear that the semichah offers her an opportunity to be a role model in the community, and she hopes that it will encourage others to aspire to a high level study of Torah.

    Fittingly, her graduation will be marked in the UK with a weekend of Torah, culminating in a dinner in July, to celebrate the achievements of JOFA UK over the past few years. It’s certainly an impressive list of achievements, including an increase in women’s megillah readings, partially facilitated by JOFA’s Megillat Esther app, growing numbers of students reached through JOFA’s International Women’s Day programming, and a surge in the number of families seeking creative and meaningful ways for girls to celebrate their batmitzvah. Undoubtedly, there is now wider understanding that women’s voices and participation in the Orthodox community is crucial, and should be actively encouraged.

    When those achievements are celebrated, however, I imagine that there will also be a few tears shed. Since our conversation, she and Naftali have announced that they will soon be leaving the UK, to take up positions in the United States. She is completing Hillel’s Office of Innovation Fellowship for Rabbinic Entrepreneurship, and Naftali will be taking up the position of Executive Director of Tufts University Hillel. As they prepare for this new chapter in their lives, it’s clear that while their location may change, their service to Judaism, and to the Jewish community, remains as strong as ever.

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