Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner was profiled by the Times last Saturday in a piece by Michael Freedland. Rabbi Laura will become Movement Rabbi in January.
‘I intend to be a voice that is clear and grounded and gritty’
There’s an old joke that asks an impossible question: is being a rabbi a job for a Jewish boy? At a time when rabbis were seen to have to work extremely hard for very little income, it had a certain resonance.
Things have changed over the years, however. Rabbis of big communities have assistants. They are, by most standards, well paid and now it is not at all unusual in certain sections of Anglo-Jewry to ask if the job is also good for a Jewish girl.
A number of impressive women have given a perfectly adequate answer to that. Baroness Neuberger has more than set the pattern by, in addition to all her other jobs, becoming senior rabbi of one of the most prestigious congregations in the country, the West London Synagogue, very much the flagship “cathedral” of the Reform movement. And now Rabbi Laura Janner- Klausner will tackle the job of being its movement rabbi, starting in January.
The job has never existed before and comes just as the Orthodox community has started a serious search for a successor to Lord Sacks as Chief Rabbi — and not at all unusually, members of Progressive synagogues are once more asking: “Whose Chief Rabbi is he?” And adding: “Not ours.” They see the job as simply head of the synagogues under his jurisdiction, which theirs are not.
So the question that came with the announcement of the appointment of the woman known as “Rabbi Laura” was direct: is she going to be a rival Chief Rabbi? It is a question that has received an unequivocal “no”.
It’s the answer the movement gives. It is the answer she gives. But I could not help thinking that they both had more to say on the subject.
And, after a little pressing on my part, the rabbi did not deny it, and went on to explain: “I really believe we need a pluralistic prism with which the community can present itself. We need a strong chief rabbinate in Britain. I need, as a Jew in Britain, a strong good Orthodox voice. I also think that it needs a strong progressive voice.”
If the message is not straightforward, so perhaps was the reasoning behind its message. There can’t be much argument that to most people, Lord Sacks, his predecessors and whoever succeeds him, stands alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster as one of the principal clerics in the country and the chief representative as well as the chief rabbi of the Jewish community.
“I don’t think the Chief Rabbi does represent the whole community,” Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner maintains. “I’m not a rival for the Chief Rabbi, but don’t you think he needs a partner? I am there as a strong voice. We are going to meet each other regularly. I need a strong Orthodox voice. I think it is very important to have a strong progressive voice in this world and I’ll be that.”
Janner-Klausner, 48, who is the mother of three children, is undoubtedly feisty as well as personable and was reportedly chosen as much as anything for her kindness, counselling skills and intelligence. There is a strong background of political debate in her family. Her father and grandfather were MPs who devoted much time to Jewish issues. Both were MPs for constituencies in Leicester. Both became members of the House of Lords.
Her father, Lord Janner of Braunstone, QC, is still chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust. He and his late wife were members of the Orthodox United Synagogue but left to join Laura’s Reform synagogue. She herself left the family praying tradition because she didn’t like the “hats and heels” worn by women sitting in the balconies of United Synagogues. She liked it that there was no segregation of the sexes in Reform synagogues — “like all teenagers I liked to sit in the back and schmooze — with chaps, too.”
It became a deeper commitment later on, although at 15 she told her great-uncle, Sir Israel Brodie, that she wanted to become a rabbi — a decision of which he approved. That in itself was quite remarkable because he had recently ceased to be Chief Rabbi and the idea of women rabbis then — as now — was anathema in the “established” Orthodox world.
When she leaves her present post as senior rabbi of the 3,000-member North West London Reform Synagogue, it will involve travelling among the 42 communities in Britain, speaking for the other members of the rabbinical assembly that she will be heading. “It is meant to be the voice of the movement. There will be no administrative work. We have a brilliant chief executive for this. What I will get to do is teaching, planning, talking.
It’s like someone saying: ‘Think of the things you love to do.’ I’m going to make that part of my job description. I want to work on community development and to link up the best and most inspirational practices among synagogues. There is a power balance. I am there as the rabbinic spokesperson — and therefore from the point of view of delivering policy I represent what other rabbis think.”
But, she also says, “Part of what I present to the public is not just Laura. Part of it is thinking, ‘OK. Something comes up about conversion.
My colleague is the expert on conversion. He knows it inside, outside, backwards. Inter-faith relations, give me Jonathan Romain. Israel? It’s my thing’.”
A recent rabbinic retreat focused on Israel, with eight statements made on the subject.
The Reform movement’s attitude to Israel and Zionism has not always been totally supportive. That is not the case now — although there is little about Binyamin Netanyahu that she or her movement supports.
“We support Israel, we are in favour of two states, we are for social justice, against the settlements. My concern is that people don’t switch off. My ideological thrust is to keep people engaged in Israel and to know that part of loving is it is to tell the truth. I want it to be better and better.”
She speaks as a woman with two passports. For 15 years she lived in the Jewish state and became a citizen. With dual nationality she has a love for both countries and is not afraid to criticise both when the occasion arises.
A totally fluent Hebrew speaker, she can talk to Israelis in what she believes is their language — including her brother-in-law, the left-wing Israeli author Amos Oz. “He is very lovely,” she says. “But not as lovely as his brother.” That’s her husband, David Klausner, who did not change his name as did Amos. David is an executive with the United Jewish and Israel Appeal charity in London.
But her job is to keep talking — as a regular on Thought for the Day on Radio 4 and ready to be available to the media. As she told me: “I intend to be a voice for non-Orthodox Judaism, a voice that is clear and grounded and a bit gritty.”
This piece by Michael Freedland was published in the Times on Saturday, 3rd December 2011.