Introduction/ Narrated by Harry Hurst
A podcast series compiled from oral histories and produced as part of a digital exhibition exploring how Liberal Judaism has evolved since it was co-founded by British visionary Lily Montagu in 1902.
This episode explores the theme of women and gender equality
From its very foundations, Liberal Judaism has championed gender equality. Liberal Judaism’s prime founder, Lily Montagu herself led services. Liberal Judaism made a significant departure from traditional Orthodox worship allowing men and women to sit together in synagogue. Today men, women -and in fact all sexes and genders- are engaged in all aspects of synagogue life. Women hold leadership positions in communities and the Liberal movement. The upcoming new prayer book aims to be even more radical through feminising some of the Hebrew and using both masculine and feminine imagery. Listen as congregants and rabbis reflect on the ways in which Liberal Judaism has pioneered gender equality.
“I must say I like and I always like the Liberal way of bringing women up onto the bimah. I know that in orthodoxy, it will never ever happen.“
“Going to other people’s Bat Mitzvahs where you’re separated from the men, and the girl doesn’t even read from the Torah. And there’s just kind of male white rabbis singing in Hebrew, where you just can’t join in and you just have to sit there and some people even talk pretty loudly. So I just would never really, that’s never really for me. Also, just being involved in the services like Esther’s going to blow the Shofar tomorrow, which you would never be able to do if we were orthodox. And I think it’s just little things like that. Being involved, being able to feel like you’re part of a community instead of just tagging along. I think that’s important to all of us. you know, 40 years ago, kind of not really any, any girls had a Bat Mitzvah, which is really, really sad and unfair, and it makes me angry.”
“The boys had bar mitzvah, the girls had confirmation. After I was evacuated I came back, then I was confirmed Dr Mattock, you remember him and he had an office at St John’s Wood, which is where it is now. I went up to him, and he gave me a lecture and that was it. Well, it was just the usual: we stood up, said a few words in Hebrew and a few words in English, and we read it, read our portion. There were three or four of us, I was not just the only one, then he said prayers over us, confirmed us in the Jewish faith and that was it.’: ‘I was about 16 then.”
“ when I was ninety-six, I did my bar mitzvah in the synagogue. I heard a lady do it in London and I thought then, quite a long time, I could do that. Why don’t I have a go? I talked to the rabbi and she said, “Of course you’ve got to do it.” they gave me the transliteration because I never learned Hebrew properly…..
that was due to the circumstances in Germany and then in England, I never took the time. It’s my fault completely and I knew prayers all right, but you know, I’ve never really bothered to learn it properly. But I did learn my bit from the Torah portion. And then the – two years ago, I finally did it in August
I was very proud that even at my age, I had now finally managed, because I wanted to properly join the community who had been so brave in carrying on this sort of tradition, which I felt was a very good one and had lasted all through the centuries.
“Even though we had a woman Chairman of the Council, somebody who was who become an MP, Milly Miller. The synagogue was very much male driven. It was only later, well, you know, when I first went there, women weren’t even allowed to open the ark. I mean, it changed, it did change later, but things like being the warden or being active doing things It was very much a man thing. Now that’s changed a lot from the the times. I remember being at the synagogue, when I first came across a woman rabbi and there was a student rabbi who’s now very active in in the movement was Helen Freeman. She was in her last year of of being at Leo Baeck at the time, and that was probably that that was probably the first experience I’ve had where we had a woman rabbi, a woman student rabbi lead aservice. Now it’s common practice in those days it was quite, it was quite a strange thing. The other thing is about what people wore so women went up to the ark they were expected to be presented. You know, I think there was even a case about wearing could you wear trousers.”
“I’m quite happy to accept the women don’t have to wear hats when they go up on the bimah anymore and I expect the rabbi to wear a tallit, whether it’s a man or a woman, but I don’t like to see female members of this congregation going out wearing a tallit. And they do.”
“Women are allowed to wear, Tallit, Wear kippot and a lot of the younger generation appreciate that and that will draw people to, to, to keep within Judaism because all the rituals and the segregation of a lot of the Orthodox .I can only talk for myself over the Orthodox synagogues. Not for me.”
“They’re all there I mean it’s all part and parcel. There’s no distinction I don’t think.
I don’t wanna know, I don’t wanna go where it seems to me time after time after time you go to synagogue on a Shabbat morning and the bimah is full of women.
I don’t mind that. But I don’t want them to be telling me that they’re women all the time. I know they’re women, I can see that they’re women; they’re wearing skirts … or not, for what it matters.
“I got involved with NLPS. they asked me to join the Committee, which I did. And then I became vice chair. it was at the time as well when Marcia Plumb became the rabbi and she was into spirituality and we had a spirituality session sometimes on a Saturday and there was Half An Empty Bookcase. the Jewish Women’s Network, these were all kind of big things that were happening. So I got involved with all of that.”
“What I’m really into at the moment is telling the stories of people whose stories don’t usually get told. So this Passover I ran like a women’s Seder at my house. And there was a big focus of Miriam in the Seder, which of course is that is like becoming more of a tradition. But I think things like that, like kind of picking up so forth for the Moshe house, for example, we had to write a, like a mock Calendar of what events we would run. And I said, I would like to run monthly deep delves into like the women of the Torah and like looking at their stories, and what can we interpret from it and actually studying it in like a really, in depth way, and what we can learn from them. Bringing people together, it makes me really happy. In a space that makes everyone feel welcome and special and included. And like spiritual singing that kind of stuff. I find that really kind of inspirational and motivational.
I think it is a special movement to be part of, for the values kind of I said before, like the values that it holds and like, being able to trace you know, it’s very , for example, the inclusion of women to the beginning of the movement. But yeah, aside from that, I don’t think I just don’t think I’ve engaged with it that much actually, if I’m honest. And I would like to more. I think in the future, I’d really love to be a rabbi. So that’s kind of my journey has gone from not knowing anything to kind of, I really feel at my most happy and it’s not really a feeling I can really explain but my most kind of elated when I’m sort of talking about Judaism, or reading Jewish texts or studying Torah, like that kind of thing.”
“Services and prayer books have become more radical. And we’re going to be more radical because in the new Siddur we’re working on, we’re looking at using the feminine much more. Rather than just being gender neutral, we’re looking at having masculine and feminine imagery. Because in Hebrew, the Hebrew’s either masculine or feminine, there’s no gender neutral. So it’s quite challenging but I think quite a lot of the movement are with us already on that. And it’s very exciting to work on it and to think that we are at the forefront. Whilst also, you know, recognising people’s different sensibilities. But it’s about thinking of God , for me, anyway, you’re always thinking of God in metaphors. You can’t possibly pin down God, as it were. So everything that you talk about God’s a metaphor. Whether you talk about God as a divine presence or a ruler or whatever, there are all different ways of thinking about God. And it is important that that includes the masculine and the feminine. So, yeah, we’re always working on liturgy. ”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
“There’s a lot of debate, among Progressive Jews, not just Liberal Jews, about how far you change prayers in order to say what you believe and how far you reinterpret. And I can see both views, but I think I’m still where John Rayner was. Which is that, you know, you should change things you don’t believe you can say. He was full of integrity. So, you know, he was never afraid to speak out, for example, on Israel and Palestine. He was very clear about what Progressive Jewish values were. I know at our ordination service, there were certain prayers he said he wouldn’t lead because he felt, in all sincerity, he couldn’t say them. And that always stuck, with me, having that sort of courage to be really clear what you believe and what you’re willing to say.I don’t remember the exact prayer, but I know that when we were ordained, our prayers were a mixture of Reform and Liberal. And I suspect it was something related to redemption or something. I’m not sure.
And at the same time he was an innovator and he reintroduced traditions to Liberal Judaism, so he again made Judaism both more radical and more traditional. So he introduced a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, for the night of Shavuot, which go on all night. And one of my great Jewish experiences in my twenties was going to that at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and learning for a whole night with him. And, like so many great teachers, you know, it was who he was really and it’s sometimes just hard to say exactly – you can name some things and I have, but they’re also towering figures. And from what my dad and from what John said about Lily Montagu, I think she was the same. That she just had this sort of aura about her. ”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
“ I think it was about 11 12, maybe 13 years ago, I’m not sure, when I came across NLPJC North London Progressive Jewish Community. And what is true is that I was very impressed by the Rabbi there who was at that time Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu and I was impressed by the atmosphere that she seemed to be creating in the services. I was very interested in some of the things she had to say and the sermons that she gave. I was extremely impressed with her as a teacher. And I found that I loved it. I just I enjoyed the classes. I increasingly found that the services were satisfying to me on a spiritual level as well as interesting because they were about Jewish culture that I felt my family had entirely lost. In those years while I was there, and Shulamit was still there, we changed our name, we gave ourselves a Hebrew name under her leadership. And also under her leadership I developed really hugely as a Jew. Two really big things happened that she suggested. And there’s only one reason that I said yes to them. I when I joined I made myself a kind of private, personal policy in my mind. I was so impressed with Shulamit. I didn’t want to turn her into some kind of guru or, you know, in some unquestioning way, but I made an agreement with myself that this was a really interesting, exciting new turn in my life. And that whatever she suggested to me, I would try to say yes to, unless I had a really good reason for knowing that the answer must be no. I decided I trusted her and I wanted to follow her.
“ And it was the South London liberal synagogue which really influenced my style of Judaism. In fact Lily Montagu had been the president of that community, but since she died, I think in 1963 I don’t remember her. But the thing about the South London Liberal synagogue was that it was a Jewish community, not in a particularly Jewish area, but it was a Jewish community, which understood that Judaism was about service to the community as a whole. And so once a month, I was dragged to the Nightingale home for aged Jews with my grandmother to serve in the shop as a volunteer. And then my father’s sisters would take me to what I now know to be a home for women. It was it was it was called Westcombe Lodge. And it was I understand a home for gentle women folk who fell on hard times of some sort or another. And I don’t know what that meant. It probably meant some of them had mild mental challenge, or they got pregnant or something. But all I remember about it was that we used to have to make them tea and give them cakes. …. But actually, it was the work of women in particular, and women without children, of which Lily Montagu was, of course, one, what I call pretty radical left wing, socially inclined women who understand their Judaism was about serving the community, both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. And that’s, in a sense, shaped my style of Judaism.
And it’s important that liberal Judaism was founded by a woman. I mean, it was, you know, Lily Montague, despite being from an orthodox home, she probably did have a mental breakdown in her early teenage years, which may have provoked her later activity, you know, it was her who said, The Judaism we have is not good enough particularly for women and children. It doesn’t have a spirit about it. It’s become a sort of empty repetition. And I want to do something about that. And the fact is, we were founded by a woman and what we didn’t have equality, you know, she wasn’t treated as equally as Mattuck and Montefiore I don’t expect and she didn’t see herself or was warranted as interesting enough. And sometimes she would say things which nowadays you would think hang on thats not politically correct, by our standards, but the fact of the matter is, I think very proudly, our two founders actually a man and what Well, our founder is a woman. Lily Montagu was the founder if you have to check that she was the founder. The fact that she managed and the fact is, if she had she not persuaded Montefiore to put his money behind the venture, it wouldn’t exist. And together they then selected Mattuck as their 3rd M.”
Rabbi Danny Rich
“And on the question of a woman taking the service when you think how, in the early 1900s that they must that the founders of liberal Judaism, all of them, were happy to accept that, says something about the strength of her personality and her religiosity.”
“ When Jackie Tabick became the first rabbi, I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. People sniffed. And I said, “Well, what’s wrong with a woman being able to read the Torah and stand up and…” I said, “She’s probably even more equipped than a man is in pastoral care.” I was very pleased, and then they all came along.”
“When I started at Birmingham, I didn’t feel there was any prejudice. I discovered later that one or two people I knew quite well had actually been really upset that the congregation had appointed a [woman] rabbi. But I just got on with it anyway and didn’t worry too much. I had one person walk out of a sermon once I gave about this idea of different images for God. And there’s a lovely sermon I quoted from by somebody, it’s still one of my favourites, about God as an old woman looking out at her children on Yom Kippur. And one congregant walked out. But most people didn’t. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that I’m more pastoral as a woman. But – and a stereotype as well – but I certainly very much enjoy the pastoral side of being a rabbi and that is a side that seems to be more associated with women. But I’m not sure how much that’s a stereotype, but I certainly l very much enjoy the pastoral side and the relationships and getting to know people. Particularly the older members, that’s one of the things I love most about the rabbinate. … I think every woman rabbi will tell you that. You meet people all the time from outside Judaism who say, “Ooh, I didn’t know there were women rabbis.” So we’re just used to people saying that now. I’m not sure when that will end, really.
For example, I’m the only woman on the Birmingham faith leaders’ group because, generally, the other faiths don’t recognise women leaders. I mean, there was a minister, a Christian minister for a while on the faith leaders’ group, but there was a three year term and then she left and there haven’t been any women since. And it’s difficult, you know, if you go to a mosque, sometimes I’m made a kind of honorary man, and sit with the men, and the women are all behind a screen, and that feels all wrong as well. So it’s very difficult in the interfaith setting, I think, often. Whether that can be an influence, I’d like to think so. I think, you know, you can offer other women, in other faiths, the possibility that women can be leaders. So I do hope it does have some sort of influence. ”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
“So I think it’s important to acknowledge that our movement first of all was founded by Lily Montagu, that Lily Montagu was a woman, a Victorian woman, it’s true. But a woman who it is said had deep spiritual aspirations, was an excellent organizer. But was committed to founding a Judaism which I think its values are as relevant today as they were there, namely that people be treated equally. ”
Rabbi Danny Rich
This podcast series of oral histories is part of the exhibition: Lily’s Legacy – Voices and Visions of Liberal Judaism, a project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
It was produced by Miri Lawrence and Lucia Scazzocchio, Sound editing and design by Lucia Scazzocchio, and special thanks to all the contributors who agreed to share their stories. For more information about what you’ve just heard, do visit the exhibition website, www.lilyslegacyproject.com