Brussels sprouting: Belgium gets its first female rabbi

brussels | Floriane Chinsky is attracting a lot of attention as Belgium’s first female rabbi, but she’s doesn’t mind.

“I am very happy there are positive and nice things being said in the media,” says the Paris-born Chinsky. “My appointment is a good thing, and at the same time it’s strange. So because I am a woman, which in a way is a bad reason, I get to talk about good things.”

Ordained in December 2004 at the Conservative movement’s Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, Chinsky began as the rabbi at Beth Hillel, Brussels’ Reform congregation, late last year.

“As a woman you cannot learn to be a rabbi in Paris,” she said.

“I had felt very close to Israel for a long time and I wanted to live there, so I said, ‘Yallah'” — Arabic for “let’s go” — “and I went to Israel to study.”

The Conservative movement — or Masorti, as it’s called in Belgium — is growing, but most Western European Jews define themselves as secular.

That’s particularly true in Brussels, home to the only avowedly secular Jewish community center on the continent.

But Chinsky doesn’t see that as an issue.

“The word ‘religion’ is not a Jewish word. I feel very much that Judaism is a civilization, not a religion,” she says.

Chinsky, 31, was in her 20s when she began thinking about becoming a rabbi.

She earned a doctorate in the sociology of law before starting her rabbinical work.

Female rabbis are still rare in Europe, and the community that appointed Chinsky went through a long process before selecting a woman. But she says ordaining women is a necessity.

“It’s very simple: Half of the population are women. Do you want to leave half of the Jewish population, of the talent, on the side?” she asks.

“It’s clear that Judaism needs everyone to be involved. I do not want to lose even one girl who could have grown so much in celebrating her bat mitzvah. It’s so enriching both for people and for Judaism.”

Asked how she will gauge her performance, she says, “I think anything that brings people closer to tradition and helps them find a relationship with tradition reinforces Judaism.”