Letter from London – Could a 61-year old woman rabbi become Britain’s leading Jew?
By Antony Lerman | 13/02/2011
Hard on the heels of the announcement that Jonathan Sacks is retiring as Chief Rabbi of Britain's mainstream orthodox denomination comes news of a new and surprising rabbinic appointment. Julia Neuberger, Peer of the Realm (like Sacks) and former enfant terrible of Liberal Judaism, was confirmed last week as the new senior rabbi of West London synagogue, the flagship congregation of the Reform movement. This was the pulpit of the much-loved and late-lamented Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who was still a youth when he survived the Holocaust and whose humanity, wisdom and humour did so much to define what Reform Judaism stood for in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Photo: Michael Yacobson
Julia—I declare an interest; she's a friend—is not lacking activities with which to fill her life and, at 61, I suspect that few would have predicted a return to the role of community rabbi after 22 years. She is one of British Jewry's highest profile figures. A leading campaigner and expert on ageing and palliative care, Julia was Chief Executive of the country's principal and most highly respected health think tank, the King's Fund, from 1997 to 2004, which had a staff of more than 100 when she took up her post. Appointed to the House of Lords as a Liberal-Democrat Peer in 2004, Julia showed her ‘ecumenical' side when she accepted an invitation from the then Labour prime minister Gordon Brown in 2007 to be the government's ‘champion of volunteering'. From the autumn, she will no longer sit in the House of Lords as a Lib-Dem peer but will become an independent member. She plans to continue using the House as a platform to express her views. As she said in a Jewish Chronicle interview last week, ‘There would be issues “which it will be really important to have a religious voice on”, for example, asylum and assisted suicide.'
The appointment has wide significance for British Jewry for at least three reasons. First, Julia could well alter the public perception of what it is to be a Jew today in the UK. Like Jonathan Sacks, Julia is an experienced and attractive media performer. But whereas Sacks confines his appearances to the 2-minute ‘Thought for the Day' slot on BBC Radio 4, one-on-one interviews and occasional one-off programmes in which he is the presenter, Julia appears on the most-watched and listened-to current affairs panel discussions and other news programmes, more than holding her own in what are often intense and difficult exchanges with other opinion-formers, politicians, star academics and celebrities. Until now, no other rabbinic figure has been able to match the orthodox Chief Rabbi's media popularity and public standing—Sacks is often spoken of as a better chief rabbi to the non-Jews than the Jews—much to the chagrin of the progressive Jewish groups, which feel that their more modern religious message is thus harder to convey, both to Jews and the wider society.
Since Rabbi Gryn died in 1996, Reform Judaism has had no equivalent to Sacks, who is widely credited with having had a major influence on public debate and has been listened to with more than just respect by Tory and Labour leaders alike. With her more popular touch, media-friendly visual demeanour and willingness to engage in public debate, without losing her dignity, Julia is well-placed to challenge for the role of Britain's leading Jewish figure, especially now that Sacks will no longer be spiritual head of the United Synagogue. While Julia would never publicly describe her role in this way, I'm sure that many progressive and secular Jews will be earnestly hoping that this is what she will strive for and achieve.
Second, although she will not be the formal head of Reform Judaism, she is well-placed to enhance the appeal of progressive Judaism among Britian's more than 300,000 Jews. Surveys show that a significant proportion of members of mainstream orthodox synagogues display Reform Jewish profiles when questioned about their identity, beliefs and practices. As senior rabbi at the movement's spiritual home in central London, Julia is ideally placed to help give Reform Jews confidence in the independent validity of their brand of Judaism and not feel that they need to be looking over their shoulders all the time in the vain hope that they might get the blessing of the orthodox. This could make Reform more attractive to unaffiliated Jews looking for a spiritual home and United Synagogue members troubled by the rightward shift of orthodoxy in the last 20 years. Also, having been a Liberal congregational rabbi for 12 years and president of the Liberal Jewish movement since 2007, she might want to bring the two progressive groups much closer together, providing an even stronger alternative to orthodoxy.
Finally, in her new role, perhaps Julia might also have a significant impact on the status of women in the British Jewish community. Women rabbis are now commonplace in Reform and Liberal synagogues, but they are still treated as second class citizens when it comes to any roles they might play in the cross-community leadership bodies such as the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council. With her experience of public life, her broadly progressive political stance and her commitment to women's equality she could do much to facilitate women taking positions of authority and responsibility and alter retrogressive attitudes in the process.
Julia was once something of a firebrand who would think nothing of cocking a snook at the establishment. She has mellowed considerably, but remains ready to speak out on matters she feels strongly about. In 2009 she signed a collective letter critical of Israel's Cast Lead operation, which was published in theObservernewspaper. My impression is that she is now trusted by the powers that be. While some might regret that she no longer appears so radical, my guess is that she would still like to bring about important changes and that she understands how much more effective she can be working from a strong position inside the tent.
Whatever she achieves, one thing is for certain: the politics of the community has suddenly become much more interesting.