‘I live and work in the Orthodox British Jewish community. It’s my home. And the frustrations, indignities and lack of sensitivity sometimes displayed towards the women in our community drive me crazy on a daily basis. But that is nothing to the long-term dangers of ignoring and sidelining our women, who will be unable to — and uninterested in — making their contribution to the community’s future.” This was how Maureen Kendler, the pioneering and inspirational Jewish educator, who has died aged 62, expressed her concerns about the Charedi community, speaking at JW3 in 2013.
Her fear was the “erasure of women in public spaces”and her words were the measure of that indomitable spirit that led Kendler to warn against the “peril of rendering 52 per cent of the Orthodox community invisible”.
The key to Kendler’s focus on women’s issues stemmed partly from her interest in women’s voices in the Bible. She would refer to the culture that had “formed a patriarchy which was not necessarily the law and could be challenged.”
But Maureen Kendler invigorated the Jewish community at all its levels. Her life-work was simply — and expansively — to teach Jewish culture, history and traditions; from illuminating students at university Jewish societies to guiding participants on Jewish London tours.
She taught at the London School of Jewish Studies, where she was head of education and eventually a teaching fellow, and was education director at Tzedek, which finds practical ways, through funding and volunteers, to reduce extreme poverty in Ghana and India. She brought all this to the Jewish community with a transcendent warmth that inspired many young people she mentored who have now become leaders in the Jewish world themselves.
Ms Kendler also spread Jewish awareness through Limmud, with which she was involved from its inception, and where she developed her own programmes, through the media, Jewish and national, broadcasting on BBC Radio’s Pause for Thought and through the JC’s Sidrah column in 2016. Most recently, she was one of the judges for this year’s Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize.
At Limmud events internationally, she attracted thousands keen to learn some spiritual or philosophical lesson, which she articulated in calm and measured tones, no matter how intricate the concepts she was putting across, and no matter the complexity of her audience. She could not have done any of this without an intense and heartfelt love of Torah and literature in general.
According to Richard Verber of World Jewish Relief, “Maureen Kendler was one of the best human beings to have walked the planet. She had a unique ability to make Jewish education relevant and engaging for everyone – of any age, any background, any country. Her lectures at LSJS and JW3 made you think and they made you laugh. She was an outstanding March of the Living educator. She was in demand as a teacher at Limmud events around the world as far away as Australia and South Africa. She was a popular contributor to BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought, able to share Jewish wisdom with an audience of different faiths and none.
“In short, Maureen loved her Judaism. And she made anyone she came into contact with love it more. Maureen, we will miss you.”
Leading the many tributes on our news pages this week, Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks spoke of her “humble wisdom that was infused with emotional sensitivity and a profound understanding of Judaism.”
In an emotional tribute, Rabbi Raphael Zarum, Dean of the London School for Jewish Studies described her as “a great enabler.” Teaching was in her blood,” he added.
It was telling that Rabbi Zarum reflected that “she wanted us all to know that our Jewish faith is made up of men and women and that we must listen and learn from both.”
Yet it was this very reaching out, arguably based on her female biblical role models, which fuelled Kendler’s awareness over the role of women in the Orthodox community.
Maureen Kendler risked unpopularity in the Orthodox world by refusing to take a back seat where women’s issues in the Charedi community were concerned. What she had learned and seen about the marginalisation of Orthodox Jewish women had fired a vociferous energy in her as she spoke out against it wherever possible, in a fervent attempt to redress this balance.
Maureen Kendler was born and raised in Ilford, Essex, growing up in what she described as “a very standard Anglo-Jewish family.” She did not go to a Jewish school, as there were none in the area at the time. So, despite her wide-ranging Jewish study courses, she was, in fact, self-taught, armed with little formal Jewish education. This, she acknowledged, made her “ a very empowering role model.”
“Women of my generation did not go to seminaries unless they came from an ultra-religious background,” she admitted. Her main influence as she grew up was the now defunct Jewish Youth Studies Group, a peer-led organisation where participants created and developed their own programmes.
She graduated in English at Sussex University and trained as a teacher, living in Brighton with her husband Hayden, where she found the Jewish community quite ageing and where, “as a very big fish in a goldfish pond” she found it quite easy to take an active role.
Maureen developed her educational programme informally by teaching batmizvah girls and through Jewish radio, before becoming involved with Limmud. The couple moved to London after the birth of the first of her four children, where she found Jewish life and opportunities abounded. In fact, it may surprise her students to learn that it was only very recently that she took a Master’s Degree in Jewish education.
She first taught A-level Jewish studies to Jewish girls in English and religious studies at North London Collegiate School. She became education officer at JCORE, the Jewish Council for Equality and after that UJIA Makor head of Jewish literacy. She joined the London School of Jewish Studies in 2007. Apart from both formal and informal teaching, she organised walking tours on the history of Jewish London and tours of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, evaluating biblical art through Jewish eyes. Group tours and book clubs which considered non-Jewish books through Jewish eyes was another interest.
Ms Kendler was keen to stress the modern Orthodox status of LSJS but said she welcomed everyone at whatever level of Judaism, in a desire to make everyone “comfortable”. She described her focus as being on biblical women “and how to empower women through the many models to draw on.” She favoured teaching both ancient and modern texts at the same time.
Significantly, she chose to discuss the biblical figure Ruth at Cheshire’s Yeshurun Synagogue’s 50th anniversary, because of its happy ending. Maureen Kendler died after a short illness and is survived by her husband Hayden, children Jessica, Matthew, Adam and Miriam; her mother Evelyn and brother Ray.
Maureen Kendler: Born: January 13, 1956. Died February 23, 2018