Reform greeting for the new Chief Rabbi

Doreen Wachmann finds female leader of Reform so charming

REFORM Movement head Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is a strong supporter of the Orthodox United Synagogue and is looking forward to working closely with newly-appointed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, whom she describes as a "lovely man".

As the US was this week appointing its next Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Janner-Klausner, who was the great-niece of the late Chief Rabbi Sir Israel Brodie, put out an olive branch to Orthodoxy.

She said: "I love being Reform but I very strongly believe in a strong United Synagogue.

"I am not territorial in that way. I believe in us working together and that you need a spectrum of types of Jews."

The daughter of former MP and Jewish communal leader Lord Janner, she grew up in the Orthodox Hampstead Garden Suburb.

It was her "very unsatisfying" Sunday bat chayil ceremony, which she shared with eight other girls, which put her off Orthodoxy.

Laura recalled: "I got to say something in English. This was quite a shocking comparison with my brother who had a barmitzvah in Hebrew on Shabbat. It was very unsatisfying for a girl."

She now added: "I know the United Synagogue is realising that more and more and is changing the format in order to bring it on Shabbat to honour the girls much more.

"But at the time I went with a friend to the youth club at Alyth Gardens Reform synagogue.

"Through that, I went to the service. I walked in and realised I could be very involved in all the things that I loved.

"It was very welcoming. Men and women sat together. I understood what was going on. It was a completely revelatory epiphany of an experience."

At the age of 16, Laura told her great uncle, the former chief rabbi who - not having any children himself - was more like a grandfather to her, that she wanted to be a rabbi.

To which he replied: "That's lovely, Laura."

Many years on, Rabbi Janner-Klausner told me: "I don't know if he really meant it or if he was being a generally lovely, supportive, quasi-grandpa."

Rabbi Janner-Klausner told me that both her father and great uncle were really inspiring models of public service to her.

She said: "Sir Israel Brodie was my mother's uncle. He was very much like a grandfather to us because he didn't have kids.

"My mum was the last baby so she kind of got taken in. My dad was not just a role model. I learned from my dad to live my life ideologically according to my values."

She described as "amazing" growing up partly in Leicester - her father's constituency.

She said: "He was an amazing constituency MP. I learned a lot from him. He used to go up to Leicester three times a week.

"Most weekends I went with him to surgeries and I would hang out with him in working men's clubs, schools, old age and residential homes and mental hospitals.

"I saw what he did and how much he completely and utterly cared for people.

"I learned from my father that if you love something and are passionate about it you should kick in, lead and volunteer. I was very passionate - and still am.

"I am pretty much the same as I was then. I was very passionate about being Jewish and about being socialist. I have very strong ideological roots which, of course, come from my dad.

"We were taught that if you love something in the Jewish community you should become responsible for it."

Laura began by becoming extremely involved in RSY, Reform Synagogue Youth, from a young age. She said: "It is still my complete love."

She spent her gap year at the Israeli Machon, the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad.

At 18 she decided she wanted to live in Israel and made aliyah at 22 after studying Christian theology at Cambridge University.

Why Christianity if she was so passionate about being Jewish?

She replied: "I knew that for the rest of my life I'd be doing Jewish things. I thought I should balance what I do and understand other religions.

"Christianity is a completely different being in so many ways. It is a faith-based religion, based on theology, completely different from ours.

"I was comparing the two religions all the time. The lecturers thought it was objectivity but, of course, it was subjectivity. I had much more insight because when you know the Jewish context it enables you to answer completely differently questions as to what was going on at a particular time."

Unsurprisingly for dynamic Laura, she was on the UJS executive and ran the university's Israel Society and Progressive Jewish Society - and still doing youth work for RSY-Netzer.

She said: "I was hyperactive."

And she still is!

As soon as she graduated, Laura got on a plane to Israel and worked for Jewish education "pretty much from the minute I arrived".

Her first position was with the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad, teaching 18-year-olds leadership skills, history, Judaism and politics.

She described it as "the best job in the whole wide world - I absolutely adored it."

For a year she ran a centre which enabled Christians to have a total - not a purely Christian - view of Israel, also visiting Jewish sites and meeting Israeli Jews.

She also co-ran with a Palestinian partner the Oslo People's Peace, under the auspices of the EU, which was parallel to the political peace process and helped West Bank Palestinian and Jewish Israeli professionals engage in dialogue in Ramallah, Jericho and Bethlehem.

It was in Israel that Laura was introduced to David, who was to become her husband. And after nearly 25 years of marriage, she still describes him as "a really wonderful chap".

She said: "We were introduced by the same person who introduced my parents - my aunt Lady Morris. Isn't that cute?"

And she added proudly: "We have three children. That's the most important thing of all."

Tali, 21, is studying history at University College London. Natan, 18, is following in his mother's footsteps on the RSY-Netzer gap year programme.

Rabbi Janner-Klausner interrupted our conversation to speak in Ivrit on her other line to Natan to make sure he keeps up his language, even though he is back in England on holiday from his year in Israel.

She also interrupted our interview, which was accompanied by the background noises of her preparing shnitzels in her kitchen to speak to younger daughter Ella, 16.

She said: "I love being at home with my family. People need to eat proper good food.

"Whoever is around does the cooking, whether it's my husband, me or the children. Whatever is needed to keep our household happy and healthy, we share it."

Despite their Zionist passion, the Janner-Klausners - husband David, who now runs UJIA programmes and worked in Israel for the Joint Distribution Fund, adopted the double-barrelled name, too - returned to Britain in 1999 because of their frustrations with the peace process.

Rabbi Janner-Klausner said: "I think that if we would have lived in Tel Aviv and not in Jerusalem, we might still be in Israel.

"Being in Jerusalem at that time was incredibly stressful after the assassination of Rabin. The situation didn't look solvable.

"I didn't want my children growing up with that."

Back in the UK, Laura reverted to her original ambition and studied for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College, which like most other of her life experiences, she thoroughly enjoyed.

After her rabbinic ordination, she ministered to North Western Reform Synagogue for eight years - "a shidduch which worked very well," she says.

Laura continued: "I have been blessed with really amazing jobs.

"I loved working with 18 year-olds and adored being a communal rabbi. It was a most wonderful honour to accompany people through their transitional moments, to see the possibility of healing."

Her present position as Movement Rabbi, which she took up last year, was a new post.

She spends time visiting Reform communities, having just returned from Southport.

Laura will be in Leeds on January 4 and is going to Liverpool for the second night seder for congregants from Merseyside, Blackpool and Southport.

She says: "I really love coming up north. My position gives me the rare privilege of working in something I really believe in.

"It's really an honour. Lots of people do that as their hobby. I am so lucky to do it as my work."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph