What a feminist rabbi can teach us about behaviour change campaigns
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.