Miriam Lorie makes history with rabbinical appointment at UK Orthodox community

She hopes her role as 'rabbi in training' at Borehamwood partnership minyan will have 'positive ripples on the Jewish world'


An Orthodox community in Hertfordshire is making history as the first in the UK to appoint a woman to a rabbinic leadership role.

Miriam Lorie, 35, who is studying for ordination at New York’s pioneering Yeshivat Maharat for women, has started work part-time as “rabbi in training” with Kehillat Nashira, a partnership minyan in Borehamwood.

For a number of years Maharat graduates have been assuming leadership roles in American communities and Rabbanit Shira Marilee Mirvis recently became the first spiritual head of an Orthodox community in Israel after studying in a women’s leadership programme there.

“It doesn’t feel radical to me,” Ms Lorie told the JC. “It feels like a very natural progression from work I was already doing in a community which welcomes it.”

She was “immensely fortunate to live at a time when women can become rabbis in Orthodox communities and look forward to watching the positive ripples this will have on the Jewish world and individuals, whatever their gender”.

A Kehillat Nashira trustee, Jonny Hart, said the minyan “has always aimed to be inclusive and inspiring and hiring a woman in a rabbinic role is a natural step for us. Understanding that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, we believe that Miriam’s work will provide girls and boys, men and women with a crucial role model for community leadership, Torah learning and religious support.”

The Chief Rabbi and United Synagogue neither recognise women rabbis nor accept partnership minyanim, where women can read from and be called to the Torah and lead certain prayers. But since Kehillat Nashira, one of half a dozen such minyanim in the UK, started in 2013, tensions have eased.

It meets in a hall for Shabbat services every month, alternating between Friday night and Saturday morning, as well as running educational and other events.

One of its members, Miriam Shaviv, said Ms Lorie “is one of the most gifted educators of her generation. But until recently, Orthodox synagogues would have missed out on almost everything she and women like her have to offer.

“We all gain when we can draw on rabbinic talent from both sides of the mechitzah and I’m excited that Miriam will be serving the entire community — not just other women, as is sometimes the case in Orthodox frameworks. I’m hopeful that as the community becomes used to seeing Orthodox women like Miriam in rabbinic positions, it will create opportunities for women in other Orthodox shuls as well.”

A Cambridge University theology graduate, Ms Lorie grew up in the local Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue and will still attend services there, though she regards the partnership minyan as “her spiritual home”. Her father is former Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush.

She has studied at Midreshet Harova, a seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem and a few years ago, returned for a second gap year to study Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute. “It was while I was there that I thought, ‘this was what I want to dedicate my life to’.” After her degree, she worked for seven years with the Cambridge Interfaith Programme and the Woolf Institute, which specialises in relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Had the Orthodox rabbinate been open to women then, “I probably would have trained to be rabbi in my 20s — back then it was so not what you could do in the Orthodox world.”

But the rabbinic door was opened by the example of Rabbi Dina Brawer, the first woman from the UK to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat four years ago, “a massive changing point”, Ms Lorie said.

Rabba Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz followed suit last year. The London School of Jewish Studies, whose president is the Chief Rabbi, initially said she could no longer teach after her graduation but relented after deciding her role was academic, rather than rabbinic.

Now in the second year of the four-year course as a long-distance student at Yeshivat Maharat, Ms Lorie has sessions four days a week from 2pm to 10pm. The American hours means she can drop her two little boys off at school and cook a family meal in the evenings during the yeshivah lunch hour before returning to study. She will be off to the States next month for a yeshivah retreat.

In her new role, she will also spend one morning a week working for the community, which she hopes will become a day a week later in the year.

“I’m qualified to do quite a lot of what a rabbi does, such as teaching” she said. “We’ve got a very strong pastoral course at yeshivah. I’m not trained in all the areas of halachah but I’m trained in quite a few already. I’ve got a good phonebook of rabbis to pass questions on to.” One dream is to start a Jewish version of a rock choir.

Ms Lorie maintains “positive relationships with United Synagogue rabbis. They have always shown friendship and support on a personal level.”

It was “fantastic” that women were being recruited as educators within United Synagogue communities and being seen as part of the rabbinic team, even if they are not known by a rabbinic title.

But Orthodox women rabbis are gradually gaining acceptance and by the next generation, she believes it will be “normal — that is my ardent hope”.

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