How Britain's Only Female Head Of Faith Took On The Religious Establishment, And Won

'When I Said I Wanted To Be A Rabbi, It Was Like Saying 'I Want To Be An Astronaut'

Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is running its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.

Before an interview with one of Britain's foremost religious leaders, I pictured a vast oak-panelled office, shelves creaking with self-authored books, and aides speaking in hushed tones as they admit you to an inner sanctum.

That is not Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner’s style. Instead, we are in a coffee shop, with trucks screeching down the Finchley High Road. Sat opposite, with a plate of eggs on toast, is the woman who is fast becoming the most high-profile Jewish leader in the country, and the only British head of faith of her gender. And one of the first things she tells me, with a whoop of excitement is all about her daughter’s friends who were pulled onstage last night with Lady Gaga.

“These two boys are in this YouTube video with Lady Gaga,” she cries, “I just wept, it was so wonderful. That’s feminism, that’s female leadership. It is sharing the stage.”

Janner-Klausner is the ‘senior rabbi’ of Reform Judaism, the progressive arm of the Jewish community. The title is a bit too hierarchical for her, “we tried Movement rabbi but no one in the press knew what it meant and kept calling me Chief Rabbi,” she sighs.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner - Britain's only female head of faith

She is not a “rival Chief rabbi”, she states plainly, but she was frustrated that the media had only ever called on the Chief Rabbi, currently Ephraim Mirvis, as a spokesman for Jews. He does not represent her, or a growing number of Jews in Britain.

Now, Janner-Klausner is in far greater demand for media than her counterpart. She gets calls from the BBC in the hour we are together, which is partly down to her persona: wildly likeable, emphatic, intense, and outspoken. “If I was boring it would last one interview,” she concedes, but adds that the media are “starting to understand the Chief Rabbi does not reflect all Jews.

“Rabbi Mirvis is a sweet, good man. But he is just one important voice, not the only voice,” she says.

Reform Jews, who have egalitarian congregations where men and women pray, learn and preach together, where gay marriage is celebrated and serious converts welcomed, is a stark contrast to modern Orthodox Judaism, the home of around 60% of British Jews. There, men and women are separated, women tend to sit in a raised gallery above the main prayer space in the synagogue. Gay marriage is rejected and women barred from reading from the Torah.

Janner-Klausner says her more high-profile role as leader of the progressive movement, and as a woman at that, means that progressive Jews should no longer feel they are upstarts challenging the establishment, or that they are a lesser brand of Judaism.

“I am a Talmud scholar, I am a fluent Hebrew speaker, I know Israel inside out, my background is very much from the establishment. So, I think it’s very hard to marginalise me, though people try. I have no chip on my shoulder that I am ‘not as good’ as them,” she says.

Rabbi Janner-Klausner, laughing with Archbishop Justin Welby, alongside the Islamic Society of Britain's Julie Siddiqi and Mitzvah Day founder Laura Marks

Janner-Klausner can pinpoint the moment she had her “epiphany”. She is cut from (and she cringes when I use the term) orthodox Jewish aristocracy. Her uncle, Rabbi Israel Brodie, was the Chief Rabbi of orthodox synagogues. Her father, Lord Janner, had chaired the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She grew up in the very bastion of conventional, north west London orthodox Judaism, attending Hampstead Garden Suburb synagogue.

And, she says, she had to get out.

She was 12 when she had her 'Bat Chayil', a diluted version of a ‘Bar Mitzvah’, which is the coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys. Aged 13, boys stand up in front of the whole synagogue and read from the Torah in Hebrew and are lavished with gifts and thrown enormous parties. The pre-teen Laura's ceremony involved eight other girls “read one Psalm in English, standing in the separate women’s section, partially obscured from view, as the rabbi said some “nice things about ‘the girls’.”

“It was so meaningless for me. I was peeking over the bar in the raised ‘women’s gallery’.” She left the orthodox world almost immediately, and found herself at a Reform synagogue through friends at a youth group. “I thought, we can raise the bar, literally. The bar that was in front of my face in the women’s section of the Orthodox synagogue. I could get more involved, I could be myself.”

She remembers telling her uncle Israel Brodie she wanted to be a rabbi. The same uncle who, as Chief Rabbi, was head of the Orthodox movement that until recently barred women from chairing synagogues, let alone being rabbis.

“He said, ‘oh that’s very nice Laura’. I’m not sure it was exactly condescending. It was more like, ‘you’re 14’. It was like saying ‘I wanted to be an astronaut’.”

Her family were not angry, she said, but she had to put up with a lot of derision and insinuation that Reform Jews are not “proper”. Though, she says, when they visit her in a Reform synagogue now, they are pleased to be able to sit together.

"We might have come from a very traditional orthodox synagogue, but we were a family with progressive values," her elder sister, Marion Janner, tells me. "Our dad was a Labour MP, we were brought up seeing his constituency in Leicester, witnessing the most unacceptable inequality, and being told that when we see in injustice, we actually have the capacity to change that."

Laura Janner-Klausner is the youngest child of former Labour MP Greville Janner

"I have stopped looking over my shoulder now,” Janne-Klausner says of her leap into a more progressive version of the faith. “We’re Jewish, we love it, it’s a nurturing, wonderful way of life which is expressed in many ways by different people. I don’t define myself ‘as opposed’ to Orthodoxy.

“United Synagogue rabbis [modern Orthodox Jews represented by the Chief Rabbi] are actually not allowed, forbidden by the Chief Rabbi, to sit with Reform rabbis. It is counter-productive and the Jewish community as a whole do not want that.

"When Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis [the new Chief Rabbi who was appointed in September last year] took office, he made some very positive noises about inclusivity and working together and it was really well received. It’s not playing out in reality, unfortunately.”

Though she insists she has good relationships with some of the orthodox community, the resistance to egalitarianism baffles her. “How can your gender impact on the ability to chair a synagogue? That is changing now, and well done to them. But that was never actually about gender, it was about power.

"People with power will do anything to hold onto it. Gender barriers are there to uphold the patriarchy.”

I point her to a line in Foreskin’s Lament, the darkly comic polemic written by American Jewish author Shalom Auslander about his departure from the Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox world, where he quips that he cannot join Reform, even though he has rejected Orthodoxy because he has, “theologically speaking, more in common with a Christian”. Janner-Klausner says it is something she has felt insinuated many times, but it is “twaddle.” And she should know. The 51-year-old is a Christian theologian, studying Divinity at Cambridge University, including under one Dr Rowan Williams, who would become the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The faculty at the time did not suit her. “It was really awful at Cambridge, at the time,” she admits. “I got a lot of ‘Judaism is morally invalid’.” One of her modules was taught by a man whose mentor had been one of the architects of the Nazi manifesto in Germany. But it was a place she learned to be “courageous”, according to her friend and fellow student, Linda Woodhead, now a professor of Lancaster University and one of the world’s leading experts on religion.

“She stood out, obviously, because she was a Jewish person studying Christianity. That's Laura, so full of energy and always a little bit different. Everything she did, she launched into it feet first,” Woodhead says.

The rabbinate was still calling, but Janner-Klausner was also feeling the pull of living in Israel, where she had spent a gap year. She moved there straight after Cambridge, and remained in youth work in Jerusalem for 14 years, marrying her husband David, brother of progressive Israeli author Amos Oz, and raising three children, Tali, Natan and Ella.

The Janner-Klausner wedding in 1988

The personality of the country suits her, she said “forthright, chatty, opinionated, extremely Jewish, I am in my natural habit there.” But politics got in the way. Working with Palestinians living in the occupied territories, promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue for the European Union, had a profound effect.

“I saw what occupation looks like, how untenable it is," she says. "You can’t mentally go back from that place. In our hometown of Jerusalem, people were being stabbed, buses were being blown up, we were worried for our children. I didn’t want to bring my kids up there anymore.”

In 1999, the family moved back to Britain. She considers herself very fortunate to have had that option, but still visits Israel many times a year. “Britain is a wonderful place for Jews. On the whole, it is diverse, stable, tolerant country, thank God. But it was a difficult transition.”

That was the moment to make good on the ambition she had told her uncle. The niece of a conservative, Orthodox Chief Rabbi would eventually build the role to rival that office, though Janner-Klausner hates the idea of “competing”.

“It is a very different model to the ‘Chief Rabbi’ role. He tells them ‘don’t do certain things’. I wouldn’t tell my rabbis not to do anything.”

Her new role can be "lonely" she admits, away from the buzz of being a community rabbi. Her sister Marion, who received an OBE for her work in mental health, says that Janner-Klausner is a much-missed pastoral presence in her former synagogue, and in the community in general. "I suffer from a severe mental illness, one that leaves me prone to self-harming and suicidal thoughts. And Laura, more than anyone, understands, she is magnificent. She has always been so generous, both emotionally and practically. She was the most phenomenal pastoral rabbi, she made such a difference for her community, I think she misses that terribly."

Others believe that the role Janner-Klausner is in now was made for her. “She is reshaping what it means to be a religious leader,” Woodhead says of her university friend. “I was once organising a talk with Dr [Rowan] Williams, and we wanted to play 'Cockney Rebel' at the end, and all his aides were horrified. They said 'that wouldn't be proper, you can't do that'. Laura would never, never feel like that.

“I was at her house recently and she was tweeting a friend about the kind of mascara she had worn on TV. And I said to her, 'Laura, do you think people will think it's odd a person in your position is tweeting about mascara?' And she said that's the way she wanted it to be.”

“Millennials, in particular, don’t have a deferential approach to leadership and they shouldn’t, apart from because the other person is a person and has feelings, not because they have some title,” Janner-Klausner says. The organisation she heads, the Movement for Reform Judaism, is “flatter, non-hierarchical” which means people take risks. And she credits this to her feminism.

“Obviously I believe in the ideology of feminism, and of course, there’s no going back. But I also believe it produces better results," she says.

“There is still sexism everywhere,” she adds, but says that much of the flak was taken by her predecessors. The first women rabbis were three decades ago. “But sometimes I come out of meetings, even now, and think ‘they would never speak to a man like that’. I am an emotional person, in public, so that can be taken the wrong way.”

Rabbi Janner-Klausner holds up an Israeli voting card, urging citizens there to vote for progressive change, at a rally in London

Woodhead says that emotion is one of her friend’s strengths. “Of course, she has days where she cries with frustration but actually she never covers it up. Women are so much better at that. If things are getting her wound up, she lets it show. “Women leaders are so much better at saying, ‘yes, we are people, we are fallible, we're not higher beings’.”

Janner-Klausner initially tries to play down her role as the only female leader of a faith in Britain, but it is clear how proud she is to carry that torch, and to be the only faith leader to be not just accepting, but actively championing equal marriage. “It is historic, I suppose. It is a real privilege and it is amazing. I go to so many places where I am actually the only woman, and that feels wonderful.

“I think most of my male colleagues are happy for me to be there, and I think they do because I am very, very down-to-earth. So they might think ‘woman’ for a millisecond, but then I become just Laura.” She acknowledges one, very stereotypically feminine, trait, of taking things too personally, and struggling with the “anger” that is projected onto her as a public figure.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner regularly discusses the role of religion on national TV

This summer has brought two crises, one political, as Israel launched its devastating offensive in Gaza, and one personal, the re-surfacing of child abuse allegations about her father, Lord Greville Janner, though police have never interviewed him.

“It has been dire,” she says, giving a hint of the toll the allegations have taken. “The Janner family has experienced the most putrid, toxic anti-Semitism. It is extreme stuff. It is beyond comprehension. Vile, vile fascist anti-Semitism. This is full on lunacy. And it reminds you that it is there.”

On Israel, she finds she is often between a rock and a hard place. “This summer it was, ‘you’re not speaking out enough on Israel, you’re speaking out too much on Israel, you’re too left-wing, too right-wing.’ All this projection is about what they want ‘Mama’ to be, not what you actually said.

“But there is the expression, ‘never waste a good crisis’. The summer was a crisis, and it’s an opportunity for Jews and Muslims to start talking to each other about this stuff. “Not the nice stuff about, ‘oooh, aren’t we similar deep down?’ and have it all cozy. Talk to your enemies, you can’t only talk to your friends.”

It is her steadfastness and passion as a left-wing Zionist which is where her sister believes Janner-Klausner will actually make her mark on the world. "She will kill me for saying this, but I seriously think Laura has a lot more to offer beyond this role," Marion Janner says. "Her leadership in the UK Jewish community is incredibly important but she is so passionate about Israel and a two-state solution that I think that might be where she ultimately makes her make. i genuinely believe she can help make some serious inroads towards a more peaceful Middle East, she is compassionate, well-respected, knowledgable and influential, and that's my real ambition for her."

For all her talk of a “non-hierarchical” role, Janner-Klausner cites Archbishop Justin Welby, for his work on women bishops, and Pope Francis, for his pronouncements of inclusion of gay people and on sex trafficking, as proof that “leadership works”.

Woodhead says that Janner-Klausner herself is similarly evidence of that. “Even in her short term, she has made Reform Judaism such a presence in the landscape. It used to be that the Chief Rabbi, who represents Orthodox Jews, was the only spokesman for the religion. The person who was supposed to speak for all Jews. And now Laura's even more in demand to be on radio and TV. She's the one they prefer. That's amazing,” Woodhead says.

Janner-Klausner is in no doubt, still, that went judgment day comes, she will have got some of the most important things right, even if she still worries about the smaller things. “You have to think ‘have I got it wrong?’ all the time and if you don’t, you are arrogant. But I am not wrong about the [Israeli] occupation, about gender equality, about LGBT rights.

“I never think, actually, maybe the Orthodox dogma might have been right all along. Dogma is a load of twaddle. The middle verse of Torah is “V’ahavta l’reyacha ka’mocha” which is ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself”. So I do know there’s truth there in Torah.”

As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.


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