THE Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK has just welcomed its first Orthodox woman rabbi to London.
Rabbi Eryn London took up her position as JOFA UK scholar-in-residence just before Rosh Hashana.
I put it to her that her surname was prophetic of her present position.
Rabbi Eryn, who was born into a modern Orthodox family in New Jersey, told me that as far as she knew, her ancestors’ surname had been London way back in eastern Europe.
At Kushner High School, which she attended, Eryn was taught Talmud in the sixth grade, at exactly the same time as the boys in her class.
She said: “Honestly, I’m not sure what it was that drew me in, but there was something that just sucked me into those pages.
“I wanted to read every line. I wanted to make sense of the page that looked so organised, so beautiful, yet so different from every other page I had ever read.
“I wanted to continue learning and exploring. I would argue with my teachers and classmates, wanting to prove a new point or just not accepting what was being said.
“Studying was no longer a passive activity, where I was being told information; I was made into an active participant, encouraged to think, encouraged to disagree, encouraged to find connections.”
After school, Eryn spent a year in Israel, part-time doing national service, working in a children’s hospital and training to be a medical clown and studying Torah.
But she was shocked to discover that she was the only girl on her course who wanted to study Talmud.
Back in America, she studied theatre and Judaic studies at Goucher College, Baltimore, at a time when there was no rabbi on campus.
She told me: “Somehow I became the de facto rabbi. People across the Jewish spectrum would come to me with questions about halacha, about God and about their lives.
“I became very involved in Hillel, the Jewish students organisation on campus, and was part of the student committee. I helped to create a Shabbat atmosphere as well as learning and volunteer programmes.
“I was doing all the teaching. Everyone said I should become a rabbi. At the time it was not a possibility in an Orthodox community. I said I couldn’t.”
For her Master’s, Eryn chose to study at London’s Goldsmiths College.
“A lot of the research into intergenerational theatre and drama therapy was happening in the UK,” she explained. “It was cheaper to do a Master’s here than in America and I had an adventurous streak.”
Living in Golders Green’s Hillel House, the future rabbi created a space where people came for Shabbat meals and to learn Torah.
She wrote her dissertation on the use of ritual in community building, looking at community-based drama programming and Jewish ritual.
She said: “I found a way to sneak in the Jewish stuff even though I was doing a drama degree.”
After returning to America, Eryn made aliya in 2010.
Meanwhile, two years earlier, Eryn’s father had sent her an article by president and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat Rabba Sara Hurwitz.
The New York yeshiva had been set up with the aim of granting semicha to women.
Mr London told his daughter that he could he see her doing that.
Eryn said: “He was extremely supportive.”
Eryn, who began her semicha studies in Israel, added: “Not everyone was totally OK with a woman rabbi.
“In the national religious community they were very varied about how they would accept women as rabbis and less varied about accepting women as advanced Torah teachers.”
Eventually, she transferred to New York’s Yeshivat Maharat, from where she gained semicha in 2017.
Female graduates can choose their title — either Maharat, Rabba, Rabbanit or Rabbi.
JOFA UK founder Dina Brawer and last year’s JOFA UK scholar-in-residence Ramie Smith chose Rabba. Eryn chose Rabbi.
She told me: “I am most comfortable with the title Rabbi. That is the job I’m doing. I am a rabbi, a teacher, leader and adviser of Jewish communal life.”
After completing her semicha course, Eryn spent some time as a scholar-in-residence in Canberra, Australia, then as a chaplain-in-residence in a New York hospital.
One of the reasons she decided to return to the UK is her London-born fiancé Michael Gilmont, an academic and researcher in Oxford. They are to marry in January.
Arriving just before Rosh Hashana, Eryn said: “It’s been yomtov every other day. Right now I’m busy planning and organising JOFA events.”
Because of her chaplaincy experience working in hospitals, Eryn’s first series of classes, entitled, ‘Caring with Presence’, will deal with death anxiety and the Talmud and how we relate to that anxiety, bikkur cholim (visiting the sick), how the rabbis talk about it and how we do that today and nichum avelim (comforting mourners).
She said: “These are topics very close to my heart.”
She added: “My JOFA role is to initiate and be part of communal conversations.
“I want to go to other communities or other people’s homes to create spaces where nothing has started yet.
“In my other life, I answer halachic questions and pastoral questions, working with the spiritual aspects of Jewish life.”
Although she says she is still “shul-shopping”, Eryn had “lovely experiences” in Finchley and Woodside Park synagogues over the recent yomim tovim.
She said: “Most women were excited to meet an Orthodox woman rabbi.”
At Finchley Synagogue she experienced “one of the most beautiful Simchat Torah dancing I have been to in a number of years.
“Women had hakafot with sifrei Torah in a really beautiful loving space. The women loved the Torah and were excited to celebrate.
“Women and girls of all ages experienced joy and awe when they got to hold the Torah, dance, touch and kiss it. The whole room was filled with a sense of joy and love.”
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