I tell people not what to think - but just to think

LONDON School of Jewish Studies head of education Maureen Kendler teaches a wide range of Jewish studies courses - yet she has had little formal Jewish education.

"I am self-taught which, I think, makes me a very empowering role model," said Maureen, who was born in 1956.

"Women of my generation did not go to seminaries unless they came from an ultra-religious background.

"I grew up in a very standard Anglo-Jewish family in Ilford. I didn't go to a Jewish school because there weren't any when I was growing up. The only formal qualification I have is the master's degree in Jewish education which I took two years ago."

She explained: "There's still an enduring idea that authority comes from a rabbi in a yeshiva, a man with a beard and of a certain age. By who I am, I challenge that.

"When you hear someone like Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, you think he's absolutely amazing and inspirational. It is very important to be inspired, but I don't think people think that they could be that person.

"He's too brilliant, too removed, too exceptional. It is very important you have people like him, but it is not an empowering model."

She said: "It's very important that individuals find their connection the way I did. I want people, particularly women, to think that they could be like me, someone who just read a few books, but is really not exceptional."

"I am all for looking at tradition, but I will also bring in my own studies in the secular world and try to mix up the two. I put my own ideas together. I think I am a very grounded model.

"My whole approach is not telling people what to think, but to tell them to think.

"I'm not in the outreach world of making people specifically more religious. I'm not into brainwashing at all."

The major influence on Maureen's young life was Jewish Youth Studies Group.

She described the now defunct youth movement which shaped her life as "very empowering".

She said: "It was peer-led. Participants had a lot of responsibility. We formed our own programmes and ran the show.

"There were a lot of wonderful social things going on and a lot of learning which was delivered in a non-judgmental and very tolerant way.

"It made Jewish living look like a lot of fun. I very much liked its relaxed, non-judgmental feel."

After graduating in English at Sussex University and training as a teacher Maureen settled in Brighton with her husband Hayden.

In the small, quite ageing Jewish community there, Maureen said: "I was a very big fish in a goldfish pond. It was quite easy to take on an active role.

"I did a lot of informal education teaching batmitzvah girls and I was very involved in Jewish radio.

"I also became very involved in running and teaching at Limmud."

Through Limmud Maureen not only continued her own Jewish education, but devised her own Jewish educational programmes.

Maureen and her family left Brighton for London when the youngest of her four children was born.

She said: "There was much more Jewish life and opportunities in London."

In the capital, Maureen first taught A-level Jewish studies to Jewish girls as well as English and religious studies in the non-Jewish North London Collegiate School.

She then became JCORE (the Jewish Council for Equality) education officer and subsequently UJIA Makor head of Jewish literacy.

She took up her present position at the London School of Jewish Studies in 2007 and is primarily responsible for adult education.

Maureen describes LSJS as a "welcoming place for people who haven't had a Jewish education or for people to the right who like a modern approach and for the more Progressive, non-Orthodox who like the rigour and tradition we offer".

LSJS staff all teach at Limmud from where they "pick up people who might not have felt comfortable in an Orthodox Institution", she says.

She added: "All sorts of people also turn up from the website which is amazing.

"We are totally open and inclusive as to who comes to us but we are modern Orthodox. I hope people are comfortable here.

"We wouldn't tell people what to wear. Women can dress as they please.

"Most men wear a yarmulke. But if a man wasn't wearing one, I wouldn't see it as my role to tell him. We have a box of kippot by the door."

Maureen said: "My teaching focus is on biblical women and how to empower women through that. There are many models.

"I like to talk about the culture that has formed a patriarchy and that that it is not necessarily the law and it can be challenged.

"I am also very interested in women's voices in the Bible.

"I also like to teach modern and ancient texts and the relationships between the two. I look at biblical and Yiddish literature and the literature of Jewish immigration."

LSJS also provide innovative courses like tours of London through Jewish eyes.

Maureen says: "I do walking tours on the history of Jewish London and Jewish tours of the National Gallery, looking at biblical art through Jewish eyes, of the British Museum and of the National Portrait Gallery.

"We took a group from Leeds on a tour."

They also have a book club which looks at non-Jewish books through Jewish eyes, looking for Jewish moral lessons.

Maureen Kendler speaks on 'Why we love Ruth - At last! A Biblical Book with a Happy Ending' on Wednesday (8pm) at Cheshire's Yeshurun Synagogue, to mark the shul's 50th anniversary.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph