I've always had to prove myself - Rabbi Barbara

AT WORK: Rabbi Barbara Borts discusses an issue with a congregant

RABBI Barbara Borts has witnessed first-hand a sea-change in the acceptance of women clergy since being the joint third woman ordained in England and Europe almost three decades ago.

Mass media coverage marked the occasion in 1981.

And during the intervening years, Rabbi Borts - appointed Newcastle Reform Synagogue part-time minister two years ago - has earned respect from peers and congregants alike.

Born in Los Angeles, she was a member of a Reform synagogue before moving to northern California with her family where they joined another Reform shul.

But in her mid-to-late teens she started attending Conservative synagogues.

"Conservative synagogues are generally more traditional and akin to Masorti here in the United Kingdom," Rabbi Borts said.

Her interest in Judaism grew in her teens. She studied as a "major" in religious studies with an emphasis in Judaism at the University of California, Berkeley, and took a "minor" in music.

"I've always been interested in music," she said.

"I play the violin and sing, mostly classical but also Yiddish.

"I'm also training to be a cantor."

Jewish Studies has formed a central part of her life.

"I'm fascinated by religion in general and the phenomenon of it," she said.

"I became very interested in being a better, more knowledgeable and observant Jew."

Following university, she had a gap year in Holland in 1975, where she taught children for the first time.

"I wanted a year off and to do it in another language," Rabbi Borts recalled.

Deciding to become a rabbi, five years' study followed at England's Leo Baeck College, where she was ordained.

"I just happened to be one of the first," she said.

"I wasn't aware of it as being 'a something' except that at our ordination reporters from all over the world were only interested in the two women - myself and Sybil Sheridan, who is now at Wimbledon Reform Synagogue.

"At some points, I actually found the attention a nuisance."

Posts as a pulpit minister at Hampstead Jewish Reform Synagogue, Mill Hill Reform Synagogue and Radlett Reform Synagogue followed.

"I felt that as a woman I always had to prove myself," Rabbi Borts said.

"Some battles one had to fight as a woman were tiring. There were people's prejudices about women in leadership roles and women as rabbis in particularly.

"It's changed quite a bit, not enormously, although certain aspects have improved. Now women are able to get jobs they could not get before.

"There are synagogues that employed women that were so anti-women, it's almost a miracle it's happened."

Regarding her views on the role of women in Judaism, she said: "Women have every role they want to have. I don't see any difference.

"The only thing most women and some men can't do is hagbah - but that is only a lifting issue.

"I have men that light candles and women who do kiddush.

"Some men think it is only a woman's mitzvah to light candles, but that is not true.

"Then there is the subject of women wearing tallit and head covering. They are reluctant to do so in Newcastle, but it is common in other Reform synagogues.

"A reluctance to explore is sad as it keeps people back from what it means to be a fully practising Jew."

Away from these posts, Rabbi Borts ran the homeless volunteer scheme of the Community Service Volunteers (CSV), was founder and chairman of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (RSGB) Social Action Group, wrote on women's issues and was involved in interfaith and women's dialogue groups.

Returning to North America in 1990, she worked as a Jewish studies educator leading to an MA from McGill University, Montreal in culture and values in education.

This was followed by an interim "rabbinicalship" in New Hampshire. She has also had published articles in books and pamphlets on Jewish feminism and Judaism and social issues.

Since returning to the UK in 2004, Rabbi Borts has worked as a rabbinical consultant and educator.

Currently, she is pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Durham.

Her views on the Orthodox and Reform movements are insightful.

"As long as there are options, live and let live," she said.

"There are certain aspects of the Orthodox world I don't like, but I'm critical of aspects of my world as well.

"In America, a number of Reform and Conservative shuls have merged successfully.

"Most American Reform Jews prefer Friday night services and Conservative Jews prefer Saturday morning ones so you can have a Friday night Reform and Saturday morning Conservative shul.

"They share resources and the building can accommodate different things."

In Newcastle, the Reform and Orthodox congregations are separate but live in harmony.

"We do our best and things work on different levels," she said. "The chairman of my synagogue is co-president of the Newcastle Jewish Representative Council, which is good.

"Relations are much better than in other communities but not as good as in some places I've seen in North America where the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis meet monthly around a table."

Rabbi Borts added: "It's important that Reform principles and values do not have to give way to a default Orthodox position.

"Greater acceptance from the Orthodox world of the legitimacy of the Reform movement would be a start.

"There are good and bad Jews in the world, just as there are less and more observant Jews."

Regarding her views on the dangers to Judaism today, she cites a lack of interest, which is why her synagogue offer as wide a range of activities as possible.

"We have around 200 people and hold services every Shabbat and festival," she explained.

"We run different educational programmes weekly and monthly to accommodate the groups that we have.

"Parents are very involved and we have community members who are voluntary teachers in our cheder

"We are also planning a trip to Israel next September so are slowly but surely making it a vibrant community."

Rabbi Borts believes time will see society become more tolerant.

"One of my adult education programmes was a discussion on Judaism and homosexuality," she said.

"It was well-received and that is encouraging, but there will sadly be people with prejudices."

Regarding Israel and the Middle East conflict, she noted: "I support all organisations in Israel working towards peace and religious pluralism. "I hope there will be peace one day."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph