The British women who are training to be Orthodox rabbis

'I have no doubt in our kids' generation, women will be rabbis in the United Synagogue'


Two UK Jewish women who are training to become Orthodox rabbis spoke of their hopes of forging a path for others.

Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, a teaching fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies and a longstanding lecturer at Limmud, is due to complete her rabbinic studies at the pioneering Yeshivat Maharat for women in New York in the coming year.

Miriam Lorie, one of the founders of the Kehillat Nashira partnership minyan in Borehamwood, joined the yeshivah’s four-year semichah programme in autumn.

Dr Taylor-Guthartz told Limmud,I thought, well if I can do it, I will be a sign to other people that they can do it. And if I am not a communal rabbi, it doesn’t matter… I will have done something that will possibly help the next generation.”

Mrs Lorie said she didn’t know where her career would lead but she hoped to be able to officiate at weddings and life-cycle events.

While her career may not fulfil her rabbinic dream, “it might be our daughters’”, she said. “But I hope that what we are doing gets us to the point where it is a norm and it is not controversial.

“I am pretty sure I won’t have a job at a United Synagogue shul in my lifetime but I really have no doubt that in our kids’ generation, women will be rabbis in the United Synagogue.”

It is two years since Rabba Dina Brawer, now in the United States, became the first British student ordained at Yeshivah Maharat.

Dr Taylor-Guthartz said that Rabba Brawer had encouraged her to enrol there – even though, as she explained, her own route to a rabbinical qualification had been unconventional; apart from a two-month ulpan in Israel, she had received no formal Jewish education.

Born in Australia to a non-Jewish father, “my family were totally assmiliated… and I didn’t know I was Jewish till I was seven.”

After returning as a child to Cornwall with her mother, she went to a Church of England boarding school. But she had become curious about Judaism – “ I used to devour the relevant articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and whatever was in the library. She learned biblical Hebrew at the age of 14 from a teach-yourself book she found in Truro Library.

When she went to Cambridge University to study archaeology and anthropology, “I met Jews for the first time ever in my life. It was quite traumatic. I walked in on erev Simchat Torah and everyone was dancing – and it was very loud and I was quite frightened. And I almost walked out again but luckily I didn’t. “

By the second year, she was keeping Shabbat and kosher, by the third she was going to a Talmud class with a rabbi who, though quite Charedi, “didn’t mind having a girl in the class”.

At 21 she went to Israel, where she lived for 17 years, attending the innovative Orthodox Kehillat Yedidya, where women could read from the Torah.

When she and her family returned to the UK, she was “amazed” to find herself being asked questions on Judaism. The first she remembered was from a woman in the United Synagogue who wanted to know “are we allowed to pray outside the synagogue and are we allowed to pray in our own words. I was so shocked that she had no idea.”

After enrolling in the Susi Bradfield programme at LSJS to train women educators, she began teaching. Her Jewish knowledge has been largely self-taught.

She also completed a doctorate on the religious lives of Orthodox Jewish women in the UK – her book on it is due to come out in a couple of months. “One thing the research had made me very aware of was the frustration of Orthodox women in this country… at how little opportunity there is for them to progress in learning, how little opportunity is for them to partake in ritual, even when it is halachically fine,” she said.

But what finally prompted her to study at Maharat was attending the funeral of her LSJS colleague Maureen Kendler in early 2018. The Reform movement’s senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, was “standing behind me and she said, ‘You should do semichah for Maureen’”.

The Orthodox women now being ordained in the USA and Israel were “not the very first pioneers”, she explained. In 17th century, Rabbanit Osnat Barzani had taken over a yeshivah in Kurdistan.

She said she knew she “never would be a communal rabbi in this country, I don’t think that’s possible”.

For her, “I wouldn’t say it is a feminist gesture, it is a gesture to support women who will go on with this path.”

Miriam Lorie, who was programme director at the Jewish Leadership Council’s leadership training department, Lead, said, “If I think back, I wanted to be a rabbi even before I knew it was a possibility.”  

When she was a sixthformer at Haberdasher’s Aske’s Girls School, she took an automated questionnaire to see what career she would be suited for  and the response it came back with was “priest”.

Embarking on her rabbinic studies reflected a “love affair with Judaism and the Jewish people”. She started teaching batmitzvah girls 10 years ago and trained as a teacher for marrying couples in Jerusalem.

At Kehillat Nashira, the minyan she founded with friends in 2013 where women can read from the Torah and lead some prayers, she said, “To watch women in tears having that first aliyah to the Torah, to hear men say other shuls don’t feel complete any more when you can’t hear 50 per cent of voices in the room, it’s really been a very fulfilling thing to do.”

It was “a hard decision to become an Orthodox rabbi as a woman” and hard “to build up that inner strength to say I am going to…  take this leap”.

But since she had begun, she had received only positive comments – her favourite, which was posted on Facebook, “Thank you for doing this for our daughters”.

Two other Yeshivat Maharat graduates in London also took part in the discussion, both Americans who have settled here.

Ramie Smith, who graduated in 2016 and has variously used the title Rabba, Rabbanit and Maharat, is the founding executive director of GETT Out, an organisation set up to help agunot achieve a divorce. She is also creator and producer of the forthcoming Yeshivat Maharat podcast.

Rabbi Eryn London, who was ordained in 2017, is scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK and a voluntary hospice chaplain.

When she was growing up in New Jersey, Rabbi London recalled, people used to joke that she’d become a rabbi, but they added, “You’ll have to be Yentl and dress up like a boy”.























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