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European Conference of Women Rabbis, Cantors, Scholars and all Spiritually Interested Jewish Women and Men
Tagung europäischer Rabbinerinnen, Kantorinnen, rabbinisch gelehrter und interessierter Jüdinnen und Juden

Berlin // 13.-16. Mai 1999 // 27.Ijar-1.Sivan 5759


Women on the Bima

by Rabbi Daniela Thau
Opening talk Thursday, 13th May 1999, 16.00 hours

Emotionally, it was not 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.
It was only recently, when I felt compelled to explain myself in writing to a couple of pen pals on the Internet, that I found that I could talk of any of it at all. Till then, it had been too painful to think about.

From Elisa we heard how after she became aware of Regina Jonas, she so much wished for a continuation of the presence of women rabbis in Judaism in Germany.
Regina Jonas was the first and only woman ordained as a rabbi in pre-war Germany in 1935. As we know she was subsequently murdered by the Nazis in 1944, in Auschwitz only months before its liberation.

Also for me, Regina Jonas played a role long before it was commonly known that she ever existed.
My late uncle, the youngest brother of my father, was taught by her, here in Berlin most probably in the same vicinity as we are now because in the later Nazi years they were forced to live here a few blocks away, rather than in the posh suburbs where they used to live.

Regina Jonas was always mentioned to me when it became known that I was to be or am ordained as a rabbi. I had even hoped at one point to write my rabbinical thesis on her but this was long before The Wall came down and any material about her was hidden away in some archive in the GDR unreachable for me.

Now, you might be wondering why, since I am the next in the chronology of female German rabbis albeit quite obviously post-war, I give this opening note in English and not German and that is exactly one of the points I shall be trying to make.

But let's start at the beginning with a very brief outline of my life.
Although conceived in Jerusalem by German Jewish parents, father Berliner, mother from HeideIberg, I was born in Johannesburg South Africa in 1952. The next eight years of my life were spent triangeling between South Africa, Israel, and Germany for various family reasons. In the late 1950s my family finally settled in Germany because my father was quite simply homesick and had literally "Heimweh nach dem Kurfuerstendamm". Here we lived in three different towns Koblenz, Hannover and Berlin.

As I was growing up in those towns going to school and making friends and generally socializing with society I thought it was quite normal to be the odd one out.
In Koblenz, in those days there were about a 100 Jews in a radius of 60 km. In Hannover were a couple of hundred or at the most 300 in a radius of 30 km and in Berlin or West-Berlin as it was then there were about 6000 Jews.

As I grew older and moved from one town to the next slightly larger one, I became aware of more fellow Jews. Yet there were still only 6000 Jews in Berlin compared to 2 mill. inhabitants in all. So, although Berlin was the Mecca, if you pardon my image, of the Jewish world for me, I was, within the larger picture, still on the margin.

It was not till I was a student and started, together with my Jewish, as well as my non-Jewish friends, to think more deeply about life, the universe and everything that I realized that my identity was very different from the one of everybody else. That was definitely true not only among my non-Jewish friends but also among my Jewish ones.

I was proud of being Jewish, I told everybody that I was Jewish and never tried to hide it in any way. I also didn't mind having had a German socialisation, was not ashamed of having been brought up here at all.
I never was led to believe by my parents or thought for myself that Germany wouldn't be my permanent home. I did not adhere to the so-called "gepackte Koffer Syndrom" (packed suitcase syndrome) which so many of my fellow Jewish friends had implanted in them. What this expression meant and possibly still means was the understanding that one wasn't really settled in Germany but only on the "Durchreise" - passing through, as it were.

This attitude prevented so many of my fellow Jewish pals from developing a proper and secure Jewish identity because they always thought they would rather wait to become integrated in some other country once they were finally settled. It was a shock to quite a few of them that by the time they were adults, they were still here, married with professions and careers.

Some did leave and never came back, others left and came back, most of them stayed and ironically it was I, who never had a problem with this syndrome, who was one of those who left, and was until now at least, not to come back. More about that later.

The Judaism I encountered at home was a pre-war version of German Liberal Judaism. I was told from a very young age that I was Jewish and was provided with some stock answers to give when I was asked what that meant.

Like: we don't believe in Jesus, and we believe the Messia still has to come. I didn't really understand what the implications were, but when things came up in conversation while playing with other non-Jewish children I reeled these stock-answers off to any child, parent or adult who happened to be around.

We did go to Synagogue on Erev-Shabbat (Shabbat mornings were a different matter as I had school) because in Koblenz there were so few Jews that my parents felt compelled to go although my father much rather stood outside acting as the Shomer, smoking one cigarette after the other.
My mother on the other hand genuinely enjoyed going to Synagogue. Later on, in Hannover and Berlin where numbers were not so crucial anymore the frequency reduced slightly although holidays were always kept.

Other Jewish home traditions like lighting Shabbat candles, keeping kosher, bedikat chametz etc. I didn't learn at home - those things I picked up along the way from Jewish summer camp or other Jewish families in the area.
I always attended Cheder classes, I was even Bat-Mitzva in Koblenz. In Koblenz the class was tiny, 4 children at the most, in Hannover slightly larger and later in Berlin I even had private classes with Mrs. Lapidoth in my High-School parallel to the religious tuition of the others.

In particular the Jewish Youth Group in Berlin under the guide of Fredi Schulze z"l added greatly to my Jewish knowledge and socialisation. So in one way or another by the time I was 17/18 I had accumulated quite a bit of Jewish knowledge and to my great surprise I knew sometimes a lot more than my fellow youngsters who did come from orthodox homes.

This knowledge and also, dare I say it, my outgoing personality, led to the fact that by the time I was barely seventeen I was elected to be on a council of three or five people, I don't remember so clearly anymore, who led the Berlin Jewish Youth.

The experience of serving 5 or 6 years on this council and the exposure to other identity forming events such as being part of a editorial team of a bilingual Jewish publication called "Schalom-Dialoge" most definitely, however subconsciously, laid the corner stone for my vocation.

In 1976 after the death of my father I went back to Israel, after a gap of almost 20 years to search for more Yiddishkeit.
What I encountered was truly amazing. I met for one Sybil Sheridan who is also here today and 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.

In Israel 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 two sources, the afore mentioned uncle and also through Pnina Nave-Levinson z"l, but never thought it possible to put this dream into reality because my Jewish socialization was German minted and in Germany for a woman to do something like that was not only impossible but totally outrageous even to think about.

Therefore when in 1978 after a lengthy struggle of securing finances I started to study at Leo Baeck College in London I thought that I had won my worst battle but this was not so.
I didn't feel that I had any problems at the college as a woman. This particular topic I felt was well and truly licked at least as far as I was concerned. 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.
To me I was and still am Jewish first and then a nationality and not a nationality first and then Jewish.

This singled me out again from everybody else because even if the others weren't English they still were American, Australian, South African, Brazilian Jews. 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 km north of London. He had worked near by since 1977 with a multinational company and had made Bedford his home and I joined him there of course.

I managed to get a part time job with a congregation near by for a brief time where basically the same situation arose. It wasn't so much the fact that I was a woman that posed the problems although I dare say that also may have played a role - it was again that I was considered so different from everybody else. It also was a congregation very much on the periphery of main stream Judaism.

My life however took again an unexpected and yet oh so familiar turn. My husband's job forced us to be on the move again.
The moves took us for several years respectively to two very different countries: Switzerland and India. Both countries are not exactly brimful with Jewish life and especially the respective towns Thun and Bangalore were not at all conducive to finding employment as a woman rabbi.

Yet in both countries I still worked, not as a regular congregational rabbi but as a teacher and bridge builder. In both countries I engaged myself as I had done before both in Germany and England in the dialogue with other faiths. Not only with the majority faith in either country, Christianity in the one and Hinduism in the other, but with all the different faiths that were either inherently present or that had come later.

In Bedford where I live today I am a council member and the treasurer of the Bedford Council of Faiths. This organisation fosters the understanding between the many different faiths that live in this multi-cultural town and tries to act against racism born out of prejudice and ignorance.

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 2 families who were totally disconnected from Judaism although fully Jewish. The reasons why that should be are manifold. Either they were children of Jewish emigrants during World War II who were fearful of being found out a second time that they had the wrong religion, and kept it a secret in front of their children that they were Jewish, or at least, kept it very quiet. Or they themselves or somebody in their family married out so that they thought that they were no longer acceptable as Jews.

The other scenario is that they simply dropped out of Jewish society because of a lack of opportunity or interest and then when they wanted to get back again simply didn't know how to go about it.
These are all Jews who live on the margins of Judaism and for one reason or another feel or felt threatened by organized religion. I as a marginalized professional Jew could very much relate to that.

It made me realize that I am also really at loggerheads with organized 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 sympathize 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 Sukka, Chanukka candles etc...

I am not part of the establishment anymore, most probably I never have been part of it at any time but I still have some connections. I still am asked sometimes to do funerals, weddings and bar/bat mitzvot. Less so now than before India. I somehow carved a role out for myself also through my work with the other faiths about which I feel very strongly.

I don't need to remind this group that a third of the Jewish population of the world was murdered during the 2nd World War.
It is a painful irony that the Jewish population of Great Britain for instance has also declined by a third in the years since the war. The number dropped from 450 000 in 1945, to 300 000 in 1991. Germany of course gives us a false picture because of the new influx of Jews from the East since the iron curtain melted.

The organisations in Britain are addressing this issue with various initiatives but these fail to reach the real marginalized Jews in the rural districts away from the big cities.
In no way whatsoever do I want to criticize the outreach programmes of the various organisations, be it by the Lubavitchers or the non-orthodox movements but instead I see the need for a wide spectrum of activities and I see myself as part of that spectrum.

I am lucky that
a) though not particularly wealthy I don't necessarily have to earn my living;
b) I have the benefit of a rabbinical training; and
c) I have ample opportunity to share my Judaism with those Jews in my immediate vicinity.

I have learned very effectively in my life to operate my Judaism right on the brink of the jewishly possible and often invention became the mother of all wisdom or rather of "that will have to doism".
I love everything about Judaism and I am a strong believer but I draw the line at a dictated lifestyle.

That is why I am not 'schomer shabbat' in the traditional sense or a traditional Jew in any way, but I have my own rules and idiosyncrasies.
Despite having lived on the margins of secular and Jewish society in my life, I still managed to keep a strong Jewish identity but was only able to develop it because of Jewish education and rabbinical training both of which I could only find to my satisfaction outside Germany.

So, the reason why I chose to give this talk in English rather than in German is that in the end I found my Jewish identity not in Germany and also not in Israel but on the margins of Jewish life of Britain, Australia and India.
There is a parallel process going on here, to borrow a term from psychotherapy. The parallel process is between myself as a marginalized rabbi and those Jews I meet on my life's journey.

I can empathize as well as sympathize with them. The fact that women traditionally also have been marginalized may play a role here but I don't necessarily feel that this was the only reason for my marginalization. That would be far too simple.

This leads me to examine the question: is there a place for marginalization in non-orthodox Judaism?

Every time I come to Germany I am painfully aware of the tremendous hole that the Shoa has left here in the evolution of modern Judaism. All the innovations, which I take for granted in other, but mainly the Anglo-Saxon, countries are total novelties here and can only be introduced, if at all, with enormous emotional discussions.

And yet it was here, right here, in this vicinity of Berlin where the cradle of non-orthodox Judaism stood before the Shoa.

In the Artilleriestr. 14, today's Tucholskystr. 9 was the HOCHSCHULE FÜR DIE WISSENSCHAFT DES JUDENTUMS where Regina Jonas studied but was not to be ordained.

That she had to do elsewhere, privately on the margins in Offenbach through Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann. I am sure we will hear elsewhere at this conference, all the details of the hardships she endured in obtaining S'micha.

Through the Shoa, as we all know, the institution of the Hochschule although not physically destroyed was yet destroyed and successor organisations were founded all over the world albeit directly or indirectly - Leo Baeck College more directly perhaps than HUC through the person of Leo Baeck although HUC also had its fair share of Hochschule educated teachers.

But the Shoa did something far more grave then just displace an institution, and I am not talking of course of the systematic murder and genocide of 6.000.000 Jews.
The Shoa stopped in its tracks point blank the evolution of non- orthodox Judaism in Germany and also in other parts of continental Europe.

This very Synagogue the NEUE SYNAGOGE, this beautiful building with its silver and gold copulas glistening in the Berlin sun was the stronghold, the epitome of non-orthodox Judaism. It was part of the German Jewish concept of the Einheitsgemeinde, the idea of an all-encompassing congregation, where all traditions and views were equally allowed to be expressed. This very idea of the Einheitsgemeinde worked from the premise of inclusivity and not exclusivity.

As a result of the Shoa the pendulum swung from liberal openness and inclusivity to narrow- mindedness and exclusivity.

We felt, or at least some of us felt, that we had to close ranks in order to protect what was left of Judaism so that it doesn't get watered down or weakened at all and that the spark was kept alive.

This feeling of having to act in such a way led again to more marginalization of not only a certain group of people who were already, even in good times, on the very periphery of Judaism, but also of those who were strong Jews within the Jewish community but wouldn't necessarily support all the actions this community undertook.

One point of disagreement on the road to marginalization is the dichotomy of inclusivity, which is what the marginalized Jew might want to see, and exclusivity, which is the practice of the establishment.

Inclusivity automatically weakens the establishment; however it is the exclusivity and intolerance of the diversity by the establishment that pushes ordinary Jews as well as certain rabbis into marginalization.

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 what we, i.e. the ones on the outside, all have in common is that we are no door mats.
But the last thing I want to do is to blame others for my plight or make them responsible for it or criticize 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.

Both my husband and I were hurt by congregations. He certainly has never recovered from it and that is why he is now so cynical towards religion.
I got hurt but never did it shake my belief in G'd or Judaism. I love G'd and Judaism with every 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 how 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 bima, 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.

Thank you!

[photo-exhibition] - [program] - [reactions]
[history of women in the rabbinate] - [women on the bima]
[start in german] - [start in english]

every comment or feedback is appreciated

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content: 1996 - 1999