My first month at SWESRS has been a whirlwind introduction to the community, kicking off with a 13 hour first day of meetings topped off with my first Council meeting, followed by a bar mitzvah, a Communal Seder, lots of Pesach, crossing the Red Sea, 2 funerals and a choir rehearsal - not necessarily in that order! Best of all, I have already had the chance to meet many of you – the members of SWESRS, the warp and weft of this community. I have been touched by the very warm welcome I have received and the positive feedback you have been kind enough to share. I feel very much at home already – which probably explains why it feels like I’ve been here for 4 months already, not 4 weeks!
To give you an opportunity to get to know me better, I’d like to share some of the journey that has brought me to SWESRS.
I was born in Manchester in 1963. My Jewish background is perhaps not what you might typically expect for a rabbi. My late father z’l was Jewish and my mother, who is Swedish and was raised Lutheran, chose not to convert when my parents got married. Luckily, my Grandma welcomed my mum into the family with open arms and taught her how to make chopped liver and chicken soup with kneidlach. Just as fortunate, Jackson´s Row in Manchester welcomed me and my two sisters into their cheder, where I soon became the best Hebrew reader in the class, even though I had never stepped foot in a shul, and we kept absolutely nothing in terms of Jewish tradition at home. (Seder night at my auntie’s house was a highlight of my year.)
Despite our mixed-faith upbringing, I always felt Jewish and always loved being Jewish. This probably explains a life-long fascination with the question of identity, and my passionate feelings around conversion and creating inclusive community.
When I was 11 we joined Menorah. My mum went through something of a life evaluation process, spoke to Rabbi Mickey Boyden, went away to read some books, and then decided it was time for her to join the Jewish people. The whole family got very involved in shul life whilst my parents attended the conversion classes over the next 18 months.
After my mum was approved by the Beth Din, convened by Rabbi Lionel Blue, my parents got married at Menorah, and my sisters and I were all bridesmaids at their chuppah. All three of us had batmitzvahs, and sitting in Shabbat morning services at Menorah as a 14 year old was when I first envisioned becoming a rabbi. My teenage years were spent on the committee at Totem, Menorah’s brilliantly successful Youth Group, attending YASGB (Youth Association of the Synagogues of Great Britain, RSY’s predecessor) national weekends, and making life-long friends at Shemesh.
Next begins another major thread in the pattern of my life story - Israel. My FZY gap year in Israel had a profound impact; it shaped my religious journey, my connection to the Jewish people and my decision to become an Israeli citizen. In the summer of 95 I made Aliyah. What timing! The euphoria of Peres’ Israel-Arab, pan-Middle East vision still swept the nation. The Arafat/ Rabin/ Clinton handshake on the Washington lawn stood freshly etched on our hopes. Just a few short months later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and Israel plunged into chaos and despair. In Israel life is lived more intensely, as if the veil that protects us from too much reality has been lifted. Pain is shared as a nation.
And joy too. Like most Israelis, I have trekked the length and breadth of the land and love passionately the Tel-Aviv beach, where I used to do my Tai Chi every afternoon at sunset, and Jerusalem’s overwhelming holiness. The importance of a vibrant connection between Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora, which mutually nourishes and enriches both, is a fundamental aspect of my experience as a Jew now living in Britain.
Education is another main theme in my story. I’ve taught English at places as far-flung as JFS, Paris and Tokyo. One of my favourite positions was at the Tabeetha School in Jaffa; a multicultural school run by the Church of Scotland with 2/3rds local Christian Arabs; Moslem Israelis, Jewish Israelis and students of 42 different nationalities from around the world! This was where another major interest – Interfaith work – developed.
In 2000 I decided to come back to England. The plan was to stay for 12 months to train as a Complementary Therapist and then return to Israel, taking the opportunity to spend time with my new niece, and with my father, who wasn’t in the best of health. But, as it does, Life happened. My father died unexpectedly of a heart attack 10 days before I was due back in England. I ended up staying on in Manchester for the next five years. I made the move from teaching English into Jewish education, teaching Hebrew and Jewish studies at North Cheshire Jewish Primary School and becoming Head of Education at the Menorah cheder. Another thread weaves itself into the pattern here - healing. I did retrain as a Complementary Therapist – specialising in CranioSacral Therapy, Reflexology, Aromatherapy and Thai massage. It was while working with bereaved carers at St Anne´s Hospice and with cancer patients at the Neil Cliffe Cancer Care Centre that my deep appreciation of pastoral care developed.
Turning 40, mid-life crisis struck! I decided the time had come to integrate my life skills in education and healing in service of the Jewish People. Returning almost 30 years and two careers later to that youthful dream sitting in Shabbat morning services at Menorah, I applied to Rabbinical School. (So, whatever unfulfilled ambition you are harbouring – it’s never too late!)
For my first three years of rabbinical training I studied at Hebrew College in Boston in the States: a pluralist, trans-denominational programme unaffiliated to any one Jewish denomination, founded by Jewish theologian Arthur Green. In Boston I experienced the richness and diversity of American Jewish life and, at Hebrew College, the inspirational training of a programme in which creativity and imagination engender deep respect for tradition, love of learning and a vibrant optimism for the future of the Jewish people. I completed my rabbinic training at Leo Baeck College and received smicha (rabbinic ordination) in 2011. The next three years I taught Jewish Education at JCoSS, and served as rabbi at Middlesex New Synagogue, Glasgow Reform, Temple Israel in Cape Town and North Herts Liberal Jewish Community in Stevenage. Before coming to SWESRS, I served full-time as Assistant Rabbi to Rabbi Steven Katz at Hendon Reform in Danescroft. A perfect apprenticeship to arriving at SWESRS, which shares a similar profile to Hendon in many essential ways.
What have I learned from such a rich and diverse life experience? I hope to share the fruits of my life’s journey with you in every aspect of my service at SWESRS – directing loving attention to every encounter, every situation, every challenge, every celebration. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I have perfect conviction that it is bashert that we have found each other.
Looking forward to a long and loving partnership ahead!