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Rabbi is targeted ‘every week’

The minister who, at 27, is one of the community’s youngest rabbis, was moved to break her silence

    Rabbi Hannah Kingston has had enough.

    Having suffered inappropriate behaviour on what says is a “weekly basis”, she decided to take action.

    So, last Shabbat, Rabbi Kingston took to her pulpit at Alyth Gardens synagogue to speak out against sexual harassment in the community, and called on her fellow rabbis to do the same.

    The minister who, at 27, is one of the community’s youngest rabbis, was moved to break her silence after a congregant made inappropriate comments about her appearance.

    She said: “I can lead an entire service and have someone come up to me at the end and say: “oh you look pretty today”.

    That wouldn’t happen to a male colleague and it completely degrades what I’ve spent two hours talking about. It happens weekly.”

    She recalled an instance when “someone who I’d never had any contact with before came up to me and said: ‘You don’t know me, I like what you say, but mostly I like how you look’.

    “I smiled and walked away because, above all of this, I am a rabbi and I have to create a community where everyone feels welcome.

    In her sermon, Rabbi Kingston explained that “to ignore this issue as a female rabbi would have been a disservice to my community”. She is the first rabbi to publicly address the issue.

    It was important for people to “not objectify each other, male or female, because it is demeaning and threatening,” she believed

    She revealed the extent of the problem facing her and her colleagues.

    “Many female rabbis I know have come forward to share their stories of harassment and sexual abuse, some of which was conducted in the workplace.

    “One very close colleague of mine relived the moment she found out that she was known by her congregants as ‘the rabbi with the nice legs’. “She said that, after that, she took to wearing trousers.”

    The rabbi pointed out that Jewish scriptures were “not immune to stories of sexual violence and objectification of women” and cited the story of Sarah as a lesson in what happened to women who felt unable to speak out.

    “In this life story, the main character is noticeably silent — and dead — as the parasha begins. The life story of Sarah is one that she is considerably absent from. The reader is left wondering: who really was Sarah?

    “What we see through the narrative of Sarah is a woman who is silenced. Her own story is suppressed, she is not listened to.”

    On Wednesday, Alyth held an event for members to talk about their experience of sexual harassments.

    Rabbi Kingston said: “We wanted to create a sharing space for people and their stories.

    “Hopefully it will continue and be an opportunity for people to learn more about the issue and not trivialise it.

    “It is something I think other communities should be thinking about doing for their members.”

    The rabbi said the issue had been ignored in the community because “it is terrifying for leaders to speak up.

    “I was scared about doing it. When we come forward and speak about sexual harassment we are letting our humanity show in a way that we might normally try to protect. I think that is true of female rabbis, leaders and anyone with a high-powered position.”

    She said one of the challenges within the community is that “we don’t like to tackle issues that look inwards.

    “We like to reach out and help other people.” Rabbi Kingston said it was easier for younger women to speak out because “we grew up in a different generation where sexual harassment was part of our vocabulary.

    “We walk home with keys in our hand, we don’t park our cars 
in dark places — we are just more aware 
it can happen to us and we are more willing 
to stop it happening to other people.

    “I have memories of going clubbing and knowing to hold my hand over the top of my drink so that I wouldn’t get spiked.”

    She hopes that by speaking out it will inspire others to do the same.

    “When you have a chorus of voices it is easier to join in,” she said.

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