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What a feminist rabbi can teach us about behaviour change campaigns

Rabbi Dina is the first female British Orthodox rabbi [credit: Yakir Brawer]

Rabbi Dina is the first female British Orthodox rabbi [credit: Yakir Brawer]

Rabba Dina Brawer is the most respectful and respectable activist I’ve ever met. But her astute and measured demeanour along with her steely determination are exactly what is needed to take on the established way of doing things within Britain’s highly conservative Orthodox Jewish community.

It’s easy to underestimate quite how seismic it is for a British Orthodox woman to become a rabbi (or rabba) in a community whose religious institutions stick to rigid gender norms. Dina is is also responsible for spearheading a grassroots movement of committed Orthodox Jews, men and women of all ages, who are engaging with religious texts and involving women in prayer and ritual in a proactive and norm-challenging way. When I was introduced to Dina recently I was surprised at the extent to which her decision to take this intellectually gruelling and culturally brave career path was more about inspiring other women than about her own sense of personal fulfilment. She believes that change is possible and that women’s deeper engagement with their heritage will enrich the religion for everyone.

In 2013, just before embarking on her rabbinic studies, Dina set up the UK branch of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. JOFA UK aims to generate a vibrant, relevant Orthodox Judaism for members of both genders. I was struck by what we can all learn from Dina about changing attitudes and practices in the face of entrenched societal norms – and it’s hard to get more dyed in the wool than the world’s first monotheistic religion! She kindly allowed me to share some words of advice from a speech she gave to JOFA supporters at a London dinner to celebrate her semicha (rabbinic ordination). The text is edited for brevity.

1.   Stop using superlatives.

 My decision to study for semicha may have been bold, the journey long and intense. It was both hard and exhilarating work. But I ask you not to use the superlative when speaking of my achievement. It is not helpful. It puts becoming a rabbi on a pedestal. It creates distance and turns it into a goal attainable by only the very few. It is hard work, but it is attainable.

It is within reach for those who want to work for it. Let’s keep it within reach so that many more follow.

2. Talk it up.

Do not say, it’s impossible, it will never happen. Or it will never happen here.

Use positive language, build on the small and large advances we have experienced over the last five years. Using positive language to describe the change you envisage, you can invent a future that offers greater engagement in Torah study and leadership for women. Positive language creates a positive reality in which everything becomes possible.

3. Don’t ask permission.

Often we know what needs to change, we know how to enact change, but we are afraid to act without permission, from the establishment, from authority figures.

This form of paralysis is particularly problematic in this country where hierarchy is entrenched. But institutions rarely change of their own volition. Institutions protect the status quo. Waiting for the establishment to act or grant permission is futile. Positive change usually happens from the bottom up. Let’s remember- Leaders and institutions are there to serve the needs of the people. If you are not finding the spiritual and intellectual nourishment -don’t wait for top-down change.
— Rabba Dina Brawer

What campaign wouldn’t benefit from this simple approach?

You can read some recently published news articles about Rabba Dina Brawer inThe Timesinews and this excellent interview by Jumoke Fashola on BBC London (at 2’18’’30).

Julie Kangisser