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Rabbi on the Margin

Rabbi Daniela Thau

Emotionally, it was no easy for me to sit and write down the reasons why I chose to become a rabbi in the first place and particularly why I no longer work as one at present. In 1976 I met for one Sybil Sheridan who then was just starting her rabbinical studies at Leo Baeck College. She, Pnina Navè Levinson z’l and her husband Rabbi Nathan Peter Levinson as well as Rabbi Albert Friedlander helped me on my "road to Damascus" if I may borrow yet again an image from another religion.

With the encouragement of these women and men this whole idea of studying for the rabbinate became clear to me. I had always dreamed of a situation like that especially in the wake of the knowledge of Regina Jonas through other sources and through Pnina Navè Levinson z’l, but never thought it possible to put this dream into reality because my Jewish socialisation was German minded and in Germany for a woman to do something like that was not only impossible but totally outrageous even to think about.

I didn’t feel that I had any problems at the college as a woman. I didn’t feel the male students got better or worse jobs in their student placements than I did. No, there I really didn't feel any discrimination.

The problem arose from a different area – it was my socialisation. The fact that I wasn’t born and bred English. The language wasn’t a problem I spoke English well enough, grammatically more correct sometimes than the English. No, the problem was I didn’t know the English ways and there was also nobody to teach me. I was just again the odd one out. I was on the margin yet again. It wasn’t so much in the non-Jewish English society that I was Jewish, it was more that in the Jewish society I was not an English Jewess. But a post war German Jewess...? Was nicht sein kann, nicht sein darf!!! (What can’t be must not be!!!)

In July 1983 I got S’micha and in October 1983 I married. My husband and I settled in Bedford a county town 80 kilometres north of London. In a town like Bedford, where there are officially only half a dozen Jewish families, that is, families who actually are members of a synagogue somewhere in Britain, I have met in the last 16 years at least another dozen Jewish families who for all intents and purposes have lost contact with all things Jewish. In the little street alone with 18 houses where my husband and I live, I have already found two families who were totally disconnected from Judaism although fully Jewish. These are all Jews who live on the margins of Judaism and for one reason or another feel or felt threatened by organised religion. I as a marginalised professional Jew could very much relate to that. It made me realise that I am also really at loggerheads with organised religion and that I am a free, lateral thinker who never tows the line and has always lived right on the brink of Judaism. I can very much sympathise with these marginal Jews and wherever possible do what I can to help them to re-enter Judaism one way or another.

What is somehow in the back of my mind and I can’t really express is that I feel that not by design or choice but through force of circumstance I became the rabbi for the Jews on the margin. I am not a paid outreach rabbi but I share with those people who I find on my journey through life my personal private Judaism. I invite them to my own home observances, like Shabbatot, Sedarim, sitting in the Sukkah, Chanukkah candles, etc.

I have to admit that it does upset me that week after week I get letters from Jewish educational institutions telling me that there aren’t enough Jewish professionals around and asking me to contribute financially to the training of more rabbis and teachers while I who am trained get ignored and am denied any opportunity to use my skills in the non-orthodox Jewish world. I am not the only one in this situation. But the last thing I want to do is to blame others for my plight or make them responsible for it or criticise them in any way. Although if anyone were to ask me, am I hurt or do I feel that my talents are wasted I would have to say, yes. I got hurt but never did it shake my belief in G’d or Judaism. I love G’d and Judaism with very fibre of my being. I know that I was born a Jewess for a reason and I know that I have a message to pass on. But who should I do this? Quietly and gently in the privacy of my home, with a few stragglers here and there? Or loud and clear from a Bimah, like the blast of a Shofar?

Since force of circumstance has resulted in me being a rabbi on the margin, I find myself asking this question: should I compromise my integrity and identity just to serve the larger more established community? It’s a question to which I am still seeking the answer.

Daniela Thau was born as a child of Jewish emigrants in Johannesburg, Southafrica, in 1952. Her family moved back in the late 50ies. She was the first woman of Germany after Regina Jonas who became a rabbi. She started her rabbinic studies in 1978 and was ordained at Leo Baeck College in 1983. She lived in Britain, Switzerland and India.

After Bet Debora Daniela Thau was invited to Vienna by the Progressive Community "Or Chadash" and to Berlin by the Synagogue Oranienburger Strasse. She officiated as a rabbi in Berlin together with the cantors Mimi Sheffer and Avitall Gerstetter. It was the first time after the Shoah that women led the services of the High Holidays.


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