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Interview

UK Jewry must engage ‘demi-semi-Jews,’ says trailblazing Reform rabbi

Raised in a passionate and observant Reform Jewish home, Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger feels strongly about stereotypes, feminism and anti-Semitism in Britain

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger in 2005. (Courtesy/ Association of Jewish Women's Organisations in the UK)
Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger in 2005. (Courtesy/ Association of Jewish Women's Organisations in the UK)

JERUSALEM — It was like watching a kid in a candy shop as Rabbi Julia Neuberger, deep in the bowels of the archives of The National Library of Israel, was shown a letter written by a British general during Napoleon’s campaign on the Nile.

Peering over the archivist’s shoulder, Neuberger gasped with glee and read aloud from the floridly handwritten page, drinking in each word with a scholar’s joy. Her cheeks ruddy and her eyes sparkling, the wannabe-archaeologist was excited to be in the presence of a piece of history.

Interestingly, the Baroness Neuberger of Primrose Hill was much more affected by this historical document than when shown Lord Lionel de Rothschild’s request to swear on a Hebrew Bible in taking his oath of office as the first Jew in the British parliament. Also, shown a letter in Neuberger’s own handwriting to preeminent Jewish mysticism scholar Gershom Scholem, she brushed off its significance saying he was a friend of her husband’s family.

As one of Britain’s first female pulpit rabbis and an avid human rights crusader who is outspoken on the need for equal rights for everyone, including Arabs in Israel and gays who want to marry, Neuberger doesn’t exactly conform to Downton Abbey-esque notions of a British peer.

In the library’s basement cafeteria, empty today while the library’s first Global Forum, a closed conference on October 20-21, is taking place, we talk about her road to the rabbinate, rising anti-Semitism in Britain, and the need for increased Muslim-Jewish efforts.

The senior rabbi at West London Synagogue (established 1840), Neuberger is among the 70 Jewish who’s whos — businessmen, scholars and politicians from around the globe — convening to “strengthen the ties between the People of the Book and its cultural assets.”

Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger (Hadrien Daudet)
Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger at the National Library conference, October 2014. (Hadrien Daudet)

Neuberger comes by her nonconformist worldview honestly. Her father, Walter Schwab, was born in the UK into a well-bred German Jewish Orthodox family, but “rebelled” while a young man. As part of the HaBonim youth movement he made aliya to Palestine, much to his family’s dismay. There he performed a stint as an Egged bus driver — and ate his first nonkosher food.

Eventually returning to Britain, he met and married her mother Alice, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1937.

Born in 1950, Neuberger grew up in a house filled with rare Hebrew books. Her father was a “passionate and observant Reform Jew,” says Neuberger, who finished his nights by reading a Bible chapter in Hebrew.

As a young woman Neuberger wanted to become an archaeologist and sought to dig in ancient hot spots Iraq and Turkey. In 1969, however, she was refused entry to Iraq as a Jew, and to Turkey as a Brit, so she turned to the ivory tower.

“I was the kind of academic sort of library fanatic,” she says.

She studied Hebrew language and Assyriology at the University of Cambridge where she was advised by Professor Nicholas de Lange (also a Reform rabbi) to consider pursuing her education at the Leo Baeck College under famed Masort Judaism thinker Louis Jacobs.

Neuberger hadn’t aimed to become a rabbi when she began studying there. Only one British woman had preceded Neuberger in the rabbinate, and it was not an accepted destination for a woman at that time in the Jewish community.

‘There’s nothing like saying no to me to make me want to do it’

“There’s nothing like saying no to me to make me want to do it,” jokes Neuberger.

She says that although she was originally drawn to Leo Baeck due to its scholarship, while delving into congregational pastoral care as a student rabbi she realized she’d found her calling.

The marked female domination in Liberal Judaism leadership today is — as is the case of medicine in Britain — a natural result of the position playing to women’s strengths, says Neuberger.

Neuberger says the numbers are the result of a confluence of older women who are still “catching up on not having been able to do it” and younger women who prefer their scholarship to be combined with pastoral care, which especially suits women.

When asked if this isn’t a bit of a sexist stereotype, Neuberger says she’s “quite good at busting stereotypes,” but sometimes it’s important to say “let’s leave that one and move on to the next one.”

The dearth of the middle ground in British Jewry

Gradual inclusion of women in British Modern Orthodoxy lay leadership, Neuberger feels, is a result of Liberal Judaism’s egalitarian example. In the growing UK ultra-Orthodox community however, she would like the girls to get more of an education to ensure more opportunities later in life.

“I’d like them to be respected for more than having lots of children,” she says.

British Jewry is at a crossroads and the two extremes of observance — secular and ultra-Orthodox — are growing.

The challenge of UK Liberal Jewish leadership is to “strengthen the Jewish identity of a people without faith,” says Neuberger. She says these secular “demi-semi-Jews” want to identify, but don’t connect with an Israel- or synagogue-based Judaism.

‘I’d like them to be respected for more than having lots of children’

There are several new initiatives for this growing group, and she cites the annual Jewish film festival, Jewish book week, and the unexpectedly resounding success of JW3, the year-old Jewish community center in London. What they all have in common is an element of fun, says Neuberger, unlike the normative formative UK experience of suffering through religious school.

West London Synagogue’s congregation experiences, she hopes, a positive, yet serious Judaism, in which they personally contribute with their own two hands and time, not just their wallets.

She and her rabbinic assistants are continually exploring ways to create services that reflect the community’s needs, from “tots services” for young families to interfaith Sukkot events.

All’s well in ‘Little Lebanon’

Noting the upswing of “vile” online anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, “some of which morphed into anti-Semitism” during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, Neuberger says that while the issue is serious, there are those “who like to ramp it up a bit.”

‘The Muslims are worried about the radicalization of their young’

At the height of the Gaza conflict, Muslim neighbors in her synagogue’s “Little Lebanon” area of London paid visits, checking to see how her congregation was faring amid the media storm.

“The Muslims are worried about the radicalization of their young. A lot of imams are speaking out against anti-Semitism,” she says.

There are a growing number of young Muslim professionals who are interested in participating in interfaith partnerships, she says. “The more we can do with Muslim communities, the better.”

“We don’t have horns, but neither do they,” she says.

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