September 26, 2022

Overseas Report: Experiencing Orthodox Feminism at University of Cambridge

By Ranana Dine

Before I arrived here, I was warned that I might be disappointed by the state of Jewish Orthodox feminism in England. Sure, there’s JOFA UK and a small partnership minyan in London, but the great strides that have been taken recently in the U.S. just haven’t made it across the pond, I was told. There’s no Yeshivat Hadar or Drisha Institute, nor Yeshivat Maharat ordaining women to be female religious authorities in the Orthodox community. I assumed that for the six months that I would be spending in England, studying at Cambridge, I would survive in a more traditional setting, if gritting my teeth at times when I felt that women were undervalued in the Jewish community.

When I first stepped into the synagogue in Cambridge, I thought I should try and keep my feminist leanings a bit under wraps. Stay quiet for a little while; abstain from mentioning my experiences gabbaying or reading Torah. This plan worked for maybe a grand total of 24 hours, if that. My cover was quickly grown blown as I discussed Ethan Tucker’s teshuva on Egalitarian services over coffee at The Buttery, and made jokes about being the tenth person in shul for daily shacharit. My concerns about not being accepted because of my views regarding a woman’s place in the synagogue and within religious Judaism were unfounded, I quickly discovered. Even though not all my friends in the Cambridge Jewish community agree with me about whether a woman can get an aliyah or should count for a minyan, all treated my opinions with respect, understanding and a good dose of humor as well.

During my time in Cambridge, I swapped books with friends about Jewish feminism, the pages getting dog-eared as they passed through many hands and filling up with coffee stains as we argued about the merits of Susannah Heschel, Judith Plaskow, and Tova Hartman over kosher dinners and mugs of hot chocolate. Together, we read about the Belz ban on women driving; expressed our anger over the decision; and, then moved on with humor and laughter.

This is not to say that at points in my six-month stay in England my feminist instincts were not troubled. Coming from a college in the U.S. where I am expected to layn and lead services regularly, I have found myself missing the chance to read directly from the Torah and play a role in synagogue ritual. Over Shavuot and Passover, I did not get to layn Megillat Ruth and Shir HaShirim, two books I have taken much pleasure in reading for others over the last few years. Although there is a vibrant egalitarian service on Friday nights (which I must honestly admit I did not regularly attend in favor of praying with the traditional Orthodox service), opportunities for women to read Torah and lead services during the week and on Shabbat mornings were limited. At times, the conversation regarding women’s issues in Judaism took on a less than pleasant tone – like when I was told by someone who attends shul far less frequently than I do that women cannot call for access to leadership roles without expecting to take on the other “masculine” mitzvot, like coming to shul regularly. And, I vividly remember the parting of a large group of black-clad Haredi men as my friend and I walked by them in London over Passover, as if we bore some contagious disease.

But, overall my experience in England as a Jewish feminist has been quite different than what I expected when I arrived. I’ve been impressed with people’s knowledge and caring. I’ve felt respected, acknowledged and appreciated while in services, even if I cannot count for the minyan itself. I was given the chance to study Talmud in both female only and mixed settings without anyone batting an eyelid. I’ve enjoyed the humor people bring to this important subject, that matches their thoughtfulness and desire to learn more. My friends, here, are quick to point out that not all of English Jewry is like the community in Cambridge and that the Jewish community in this small college town is more knowledgeable and thoughtful on this subject than in other parts of the UK. Although this may very well be true, I cannot help but think that the Cambridge community must, in some small way, be representative of larger trends in English Jewry.

When I arrived in England, I learned quickly that I could not hide my feminist instincts, even for a short while. At the same time, I also learned that I had no need to. The conversations about women’s place in Orthodox Judaism are happening here too, and cannot be avoided. I am glad to report that in Cambridge, at least, just like in Jewish college communities in the U.S., the conversation is taking place with grace, respect, knowledge and quite a healthy amount of humor.

Ranana Dine is a former HBI intern and a rising senior at Williams College. She recently spent a semester abroad at the University of Cambridge.

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