Jewish women playing a bigger role in European Jewry

sofia, bulgaria  |  Hanna Lorer, 80, a leading member of the small Jewish community in the Balkans, had never seen a women rabbi or cantor until this year.

But then several of them came to Sofia for a Bet Debora conference — a conference for and about European Jewish women — and Lorer met a few of them.

“It was the first time that I had any contact with women rabbis,” Lorer said. “It was surprising and interesting.”

Lorer said she was pleased to meet the rabbis. But in this traditional culture, many Jews still feel women rabbis are too radical an innovation.

Bonna Devora Haberman of Israel speaks to the Bet Debora conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. photo/jta/toby axelrod

In a rapidly changing Jewish Europe, however, the presence of Jewish women in leading communal roles is becoming more and more commonplace. Women rabbis have held positions in France, Poland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Holland and Belarus, according to Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of Berlin.

London’s Leo Baeck College has ordained eight liberal rabbis this summer, six of them women. The new Jewish Institute of Cantorial Arts in Potsdam, Germany, is directed by a woman, cantor Mimi Sheffer. And England saw the appointment of its first female senior rabbi in 2004: Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood, London.

There are even new educational opportunities for traditional Jewish women, such as the Lauder Midrasha in Berlin for intensive study and outreach programs.

Germany’s Charlotte Knobloch is an example of one of Europe’s female Jewish leaders. She started out as president of the Munich Jewish community 24 years ago and now heads the country’s main Jewish political organization, the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

When colleagues first urged her to run for office, Knobloch hesitated. “My answer was, ‘You’d better ask the rabbi if it’s OK,’ ” she said. It was the first and last time she sought such permission.

Today, Berlin’s Jewish community also has its first woman president: Lala Suesskind.

There might not be droves of Jewish women in leadership roles in Europe, but today “the women who want it can make it,” said Rabbi Elisa Klapheck, who co-founded Bet Debora 11 years ago in Berlin with Lara Daemmig and Rachel Herweg.

“Things have changed,” but not significantly, said Alice Shalvi, founding chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network. Other than Knobloch, she said, “I don’t know of anyone who has attained that kind of leadership position.”

Jewish women in Europe are still are playing catch-up: Many pioneers of Jewish egalitarianism fled Europe or were murdered during World War II, such as Regina Jonas of Berlin, who in 1935 became the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. She died at Auschwitz.

While women’s movements have thrived in the United States, Britain and Israel, shattering the glass ceiling of gender limitations, change has come more slowly to Europe, where rebuilding usually took precedence over innovation.

In recent years, however, the pace has picked up, in part because of a newfound confidence about Jewish life in Europe.

Barbara Lerner Spectre, founder of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, said there are many role models for European Jewish women. Increasingly, she said, women are moving away from the “doing it all at once” mindset — of juggling family life, career and Jewish activism — and taking a more consecutive approach.

Demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said “institutional interventions” are needed to ensure that women play an equitable role in Jewish society.

Behind the scenes, however, women wield greater influence than men, DellaPergola stated. By bearing and raising children, women “have the main role in transmitting Jewish identity to the next generation,” he said.

But they still don’t equal men in terms of recognition and power in communities.

Bet Debora might qualify as one such “institutional intervention.” The organization aims to empower Jewish women and to bridge gaps between tradition and the future, said Daemmig, the co-founder.

At the recent conference in Sofia, cantors like Yalda Rebling of Berlin mingled with women like Roza Berger, who runs a local Rosh Chodesh Ladino singing group for Jewish women in the heavily Sephardic Balkans.

Berger and Lorer spontaneously sang an old Ladino favorite — “Adio Querida” (Farewell My Love) — for attendees.

“It is necessary to preserve our traditions,” Lorer said afterward, “because if not, it is adio querida” — goodbye.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.