What it’s like to train as a female rabbi

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    What it's like to train as a female rabbi
    (Picture: Deborah Blausten)

    Think of any religious leader and chances are, you probably automatically think of a greying bearded bloke.

    So it’s unsurprising that being a rabbi – and a female one at that – can provoke shock.

    A rabbi is a spiritual leader of a Jewish community and their roles can vary from counselling, catering to religious needs such as weddings and spiritual guidance.

    And for Deborah Blausten, a 25-year-old trainee rabbi from London, it’s not just her gender but her age that surprises people.

    So what motivated her to swap medical lectures to train as a rabbi? What are her biggest challenges? And do you have to be super religious to follow in her footsteps? She tells us all.

    Why I chose to train as a rabbi

    ‘I grew up in London in a non-religious family. We were members of the synagogue, but we didn’t regularly go.

    ‘And my synagogue had a great youth club which I used to go to and really liked.

    ‘I spent lots of time there, and through my involvement in youth group, I was exposed to a different reality.

    ‘I became engaged in anti-poverty, social justice work and interested in the world around me. It was compelling and a really nice antidote to a very individualistic culture.

    ‘I started teaching as a youth leader and was told by many people “have you ever thought about being a rabbi?” I hadn’t at the time as I was on my way to medical school.

    ‘The more people who spoke to me about it, the more emphatic I became about saying no because it started to circulate in my mind.

    What it's like to train as a female rabbi
    (Picture: Getty)

    ‘I was into science, but I was also into arts and was much more interested in not just saving lives, but in people’s experiences of life.

    ‘When I went to medical school and it became clearer to me that while I could learn more and more about the human body, I wasn’t learning what it meant to be human.

    ‘I felt like the work I was doing in the Jewish community such as teaching social justice and service leading was very enriching.

    ‘I did my third year of medicine and got my undergraduate degree in medical sciences and history of medicine. I left for one of the synagogues running a student programme.

    ‘I then did my masters in UCL in education technology and went on to train when I was 25.’

    ‘In short, I decided I wanted to spend my time serving a community and I felt the rabbinate was the best way to use my energy, interests and skills to make a difference in the world.

    ‘Religious communities can be powerful agents for positive social change, they change the lives of their members and enable their members to work to change the lives of others.

    ‘Being a rabbi is a multifaceted vocation and I wanted to do something with my life that I could bring my whole self to.

    ‘The training is for five years and I’m exactly two and a half years in.

    ‘I would describe myself as religious, but probably not in the conventional sense. To do this job, you certainly have to be engaged with the ongoing pursuit of meaning and be open to the idea of God or at least something beyond us.

    ‘You also have to be committed to the idea that spiritual practice in our community.’

    What does the training involve?

    ‘I’m in the classroom a lot. This was particularly so in the beginning as there was a lot of theory.

    ‘We learn Bible, learn lots of Aramaic (three different types) and study the Talmud (Jewish legal books from ancient Babylonia).

    ‘And we learn philosophy, history and a lot of harder vocational stuff, service leading and then a lot of placement work in congregations.

    ‘My placements vary from talking to Holocaust survivors, an older person’s day care in Stepney and I also have a placement in Leeds where I teach classes and give sermons whenever I’m there.’

    What it's like to train as a female rabbi
    (Picture: Deborah Blausten)

    My standard week

    ‘It goes something like this: Monday to Wednesday, I have classes, Thursday I volunteer with a social care organisation then travel to Leeds where I teach an introduction to Judaism class.

    ‘I can sometimes have a Friday off and then I lead Shabbat services. We have a big community dinner on Friday and then on Saturday, I lead a morning service.

    ‘In the service, I read from the Torah scroll using ancient cantillation (a special way to sing the words in the scroll). I can teach for a few hours in the afternoon and what I teach can be varied.

    ‘I can teach anything from the first world war and social responsibility to modern philosophy. It can really vary, and my Thursday class can be on anything.

    ‘Some weeks, I work with four-year-olds, 40-year-olds and people are who 100 years old.

    ‘There aren’t many careers which are both interfaith and inter-generational.

    ‘But I get to move in between these spaces freely and you get to meet people at every stage of their life.’

    People get surprised that women can be rabbis

    What it's like to train as a female rabbi
    (Picture: Deborah Blausten)

    ‘Especially Uber drivers. Although saying that, people in London have usually heard of female rabbis.

    ‘People who make comments are surprised and usually more intrigued.

    ‘Even so, the role of a rabbi was invented by and designed for men and there’s still work to do.

    ‘I think a lot more women are going to go into this. Women are becoming more empowered and more women are taking on leadership in traditional synagogues.

    ‘I think that’s one of the most exciting areas for change and that could only be a good thing.

    ‘Just like any industry issues of sexism, my experience is not any different to politicians putting themselves in public space.

    ‘Women in these kinds of roles are more likely to change public perceptions.

    ‘More women taking on leadership roles across the board changes the culture.’

    About the role

    ‘I’m given a stipend (much like a PhD student) by the Reform and Liberal movements. This covers basic living costs and then I work to make up the difference.

    ‘The congregational work I do on placement is paid. I also take projects on the side e.g. information technology, app work, design work and an educational consultancy.

    ‘The role is full-time but it’s not solitary. In fact, it’s the opposite – I’m constantly working with people.

    ‘My classmates are amazing. The way the community works you always know someone.

    ‘It’s really special because it’s my job to connect people together.

    How young is too young?

    ‘It’s quite normal for people my age to be rabbis. In the UK, it’s relatively normal.

    ‘I was the youngest in my college when I started but I’ll be 30 when I’m ordained.

    ‘There are some people who started the first year at 22. I think people are more interested in what you bring to the table than your age.

    ‘If you’ve been following the conversation about the Church of England, you’ll know that the big challenge religious places are finding is the question of millennials and identity.

    ‘As a millennial, I think I can bring something different to the table because there’s something important about being able to relate to your peers.

    What it's like to train as a female rabbi
    (Picture: Deborah Blausten)

    ‘I’m a normal person and I can relate to them, maybe more than a traditional religious figure.

    ‘It makes me more relatable than a traditional religious figure.

    ‘People think religious figures have white beards, but the modern face of the clergy doesn’t look that anymore.

    ‘My generation of Rabbinic students are younger. We have LGBT students and students with only one Jewish parent. The diversity is great for our community.’

    Advice to anyone considering it

    ‘You need diversity in leadership and especially if you’re younger and female – as you may not look like the generation before you.

    ‘I guess I would say people should think to think about what they can offer and not their preconceived ideas about who a rabbi is.

    ‘There’s a variety of people putting themselves forward.

    ‘A rabbi is not something you can call yourself – it’s ordained. Someone else calls you a rabbi. You can’t rock up one and say I’m a rabbi. You have to earn it through your work.

    ‘The misconception I’d most like to clear up about being a trainee rabbi is the second I mention anything about religion, people are going to assume they’re going to be judged.

    ‘Just because someone’s attached to a religion, they don’t necessarily have a set idea of how someone should behave.’

    My goals

    ‘Building a community where people find the energy and relationships to go out in the world to become effective agents for social change.

    ‘I’m most excited by synagogues where there are homeless shelters or where people have responsibility to take care of others and they find the comfort and motivation to do so in their spiritual life.’

    What it's like to train as a female rabbi
    (Picture: Deborah Blausten)

    What are the challenges?

    ‘Finding time for self-care as the job involves doing so much for others.

    ‘I write my sermons quite often in the rooftop cafes of department stores on Oxford Street because I feel very far from austere world of books when studying than can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.

    ‘The biggest challenge is staying grounded and making time for things that others might dismiss as frivolous like pop culture. I want to stay engaged in the world around me.

    ‘It’s as important to have listened to Kendrick Lamar’s album or Stormzy’s new release as it is to read other academic article in a journal.

    ‘That’s because my job is to connect ancient and modern and it has to be relatable.’

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