Elli has been a rabbi for twenty five years! How fantastic! Mazel Tov. Well done.
But it so nearly didn’t happen. 30 years ago, when Elli entered Leo Baeck College, discrimination and prejudice against women, but more especially against lesbian and gay people was rife. Elli had to fight to stake her claim to be part of Jewish life at all, yet alone the rabbinate.
Luckily she was not alone. Sheila Shulman and she were the first lesbians to go through the rabbinic training programme together at Leo Baeck College. Before that, there was only one gay Rabbi in Britain: the wonderful Lionel Blue but he was ordained at a time when being gay was a criminal offence so he had no option but to remain very private. Sheila and Elli were out and the Establishment had to make a decision: were they going to include them or not. Many voices were doubtful. What a struggle they had and how unfairly they were treated.
Unlike their peers, they were given two psychological assessments apiece, not one, and unlike their peers who were on probation for their first year only, Elli and Sheila were put on probation for the entire five years of their training. They were told that we could be asked to leave at any time if there was a ‘problem’. When they asked about what sort of ‘problem’, they were told that no one knew because the situation was ‘unprecedented’. It is hard for us to appreciate the level of pressure this put on both of them, let alone the incredible discrimination, this represented.
They had to be twice as good to be given half the chance. Both of them – of course – did brilliantly – both academically and vocationally – and there were some wonderful rabbis and laypeople, who supported them. Nevertheless, even after receiving ordination/s’mikhah, the Reform Assembly of Rabbis held a day-long meeting to discuss whether or not to admit them as members – usually an automatic process for any rabbi taking a position in a Reform congregation. Fortunately, the vote went their way.
When I look back, it is shocking to me that these esteemed rabbis, two of the most creative of their generation – were treated so disrespectfully.
Elli and Sheila blazed this trail. They walked through fire so that future generations would not. Since that time, a further twelve LGBT Rabbis have received ordination from LBC, and four others have become part of the progressive movement, who were ordained elsewhere. So, that’s 19 so far – over 20% of the combined Liberal and Reform rabbinate! So I think both Elli and Sheila would say it was all so worthwhile.
Elli became Rabbi of the mainstream Reform congregation. The persecution did not cease. A small group of congregants tried to get rid of her, but the majority won the fight to keep her. Although she’d only been a rabbi for 5 years, Elli was invited to become the Director was Director of Programmes for RSGB. She was forced to resign from this post because she delivered a Kol Nidrey sermon in which she used as an example of covenant, a forthcoming ‘Covenant of Love’ ceremony for two women. All hell broke loose, Elli received hate mail. The papers got hold of it. Somehow, two women, loving each other, and wanting to formalise that love, was seen to be scandalous and Elli’s endorsement of it, a travesty.
But it ended happily because resigning from RSGB led Elli to Liberal Judaism, and ultimately to us!!
Not without a struggle. There were doubters here too – nobody ever doubted Elli’s immense talents and abilities – for sure, she was the very best of rabbis but who wanted a … lesbian… Isn’t it strange that something that has nothing to do with your profession can nevertheless ruin your career and life?
So, on December 1, 2000 Elli started at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue. She says: I quote: The reality is that most of the congregants I have encountered over the years have been open – and many of those who were initially sceptical and fearful changed their attitudes.
BHPS stuck to its guns and those people that opposed the appointment of a lesbian rabbi left and others came around to the idea. Her rabbinate here has flourished because BHPS is home for us but also for the most extraordinary collective of unusual, interesting and dynamic individuals you will ever see in one room anywhere in the world! BHPS is full of characters, but not just wacky eccentric one – characters with values, and deep, powerful allegiances to all that is good and beautiful and true and none of those three qualities can breathe without the oxygen of a fourth value: justice.
If I was to sum up Elli’s teaching, I could do it in one phrase from our Torah: justice, justice you shall pursue.
Our community is totally inclusive and welcoming of everyone. One of the high moments of our lives was celebrating our chuppah with you all and the lovely comments we receive from young and old. Our partnership has been valued and celebrated and we are incredibly proud of our congregation.
Of course, being lesbians is not what makes us special or even interesting. But the struggle to be who we are has carved out dimensions that would otherwise not be there.
So now I would like to ask: what is it that makes Elli such a brilliant rabbi all these 25 years?
As her wife the best judge of this? I am sure, I am not!
For me, I watch again and again how Elli always finds a way to help each of us with all our differences to be part of this community and Jewish life. She is the mistress of opening doors. She sees doors where other people see walls. She shows us the way forward wherever we are stuck, and teaches us to wrestle with whatever it is that is sticking us. She brings people in. She helps them to find a place to be themselves in all their complexity, but also be part of a community in all its singularity.
Elli’s energy is legendary. She had a dream for BHPS and in this wonderful congregation she has found willing partners, and when reflecting on her qualities, I can see how the relationship between Elli and the congregation is one of mirrors and amplifications. Her intense individuality catches our mood and I look around and I see loads and loads of gutsy, real people who stick to their guns and are resolutely themselves. Elli is committed to being all of herself, and she enables us to be all of ourselves, not just our best bits but all the difficult entangled bits too: she is with us on our happy days but also in our misery; she leads our celebrations, but also our mourning. We argue, like all good Jews, but then we make up. There is nothing pious or pretentious about Elli or us. It is all very real and real things last and are strong.
Greatness is never about being perfect but how we manage our own imperfections and tolerate the imperfections of others. In the rabbi, that largeness of heart models not superficial, mock sanctity but a profound sanity.
But none of this really matters when I think of Elli’s greatest gifts to us: her pastoral work – how Elli is when she meets people in their suffering and loss; her teaching – her brilliant thought provoking sermons, her genius in presenting our traditions back to us in new and highly imaginative and relevant ways – only can take unpromising passages in the Torah about spilling seed and menstrual blood, and make it interesting, even vital to our everyday life!
Elli has the most beautiful voice and brings the most extraordinary depth of spirituality when she delivers our festival and Shabbat services. In all my years I have never met anyone who can combine fun and comic humour with solemnity in quite the easy way that Elli does.
To sum up: Elli’s rabbinate manages to span so many aspects of life. She brings so much to our lives – makes our lives so much more meaningful and enriches us in so many ways, that I want to end by thanking Elli for all that she has given to so many people in the 25 years of her rabbinate and also to thank you BHPS for being such great soul mates to her.
Jess Wood Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue
12th July 2014 / 14th Tammuz 5774