Pictures from the last day of a gap year…

The last day of the past year is made both easier and harder by the same factor – it was so darn good. As I look back, here are some of the images that will stay with me. Things that I so appreciated. Things that I’ll so miss.

Trees and plants. Particularly if they hang next to Jerusalem stone. Particularly when they grow amazing fruit that you could just pick off and eat. We’ve seen almonds, olives, prickly pears, pomegranates, figs, oranges, lemons, dates and grapes. Maybe their owners are watering them, but there’s something about the land that gives and gives.

This country does roundabouts really well. Here’s one with an olive tree centrepiece.


Shuli and David. I have no idea who you are, but I’ve passed this monument to your relationship every day. I’ll miss you.


The religion here. OK there’s plenty of manifestations of religion that I won’t miss. But I love how Judaism – and Islam and Christianity and others too – runs through the veins of country. Streets are named after prophets. Religious garb (of all stripes) is unremarkable. The mural on the exit of a carpark is – humorously – Moses leading the people out of slavery through the split Red Sea.


There’s this man by the minimarket on the way to nursery. Most mornings he’s rushing back and forward in the same few meters square, shouting innocuous things at passers by. He usually says something to me that sounds like “hello Ima (mum)”. I might have been alarmed by this, but for the fact that the shop keepers on that stretch are fantastic to him, and this sets a tone. They clap him around the shoulders, and give him high-fives, and sometimes give him light work in their shops. I’ll miss this quiet but beautiful display of community care.


The seasonality. It was frustrating going to the supermarket in the winter and finding nothing in the fruit aisle but apples, but come summertime, the joy of every week’s new fruit is worth the wait. It feels right to eat locally grown things in their season. When there are cherries there really are cherries, but blink and they’re gone. At the moment it’s peaches and nectarines. Here are mangoes from last year:


My family and friends here. You need no commentary, and will be missed more than anything else.

Last, Pardes. A place where even the hinges in the Beit Midrash look like Torah scrolls. A place filled with wise, open minded and hearted teachers, always ready for a conversation about things that really matter. An institution that is ready to learn from its students as much as it teaches them. An emotionally and intellectually honest place, where Judaism is real and in the world. A place whose students illustrate a Talmud lesson with cartoons, and who pray together on the beach.

There’s plenty that I’m looking forward to about England too. Mostly being close to friends and family back home. Also the temperate, reliable nature of both the weather and the people (funny how these two go hand in hand). Lots of material things – Tesco online (never thought I’d miss that), a nice soothing bit of M&S Simply Food branding, reassuringly ordered aesthetics in homes and shops, blueberries all year round. Orli’s challah (for goodness sake, why can’t a Jewish State make half-decent Jewish bread?!) Most importantly, I’m looking forward to new challenges ahead and finding opportunities to grow, both of which are in the UK as much as an adventure abroad. And in this sense, maybe normal life in Borehamwood is not so different after all to a Gap Year in Jerusalem.

On prayer

I’ve been putting off writing this one. Having cheerfully committed to putting time and energy into prayer this year in my first blog post, and having admitted to taking a course on prayer in my second blog, here I am ten months later feeling like I should have arrived at a beautiful set of answers to share with you. So here they are people. In the paragraphs below you’ll discover what prayer is about, what its purpose is and how to do it well.

Or not. I’ll spoil the punchline now and tell you that I don’t have answers. But maybe that’s the point. … maybe all these things are lifelong journeys of exploration. What I have had this year is a variety of experiences that have made me think about why we pray at all, why Jews do prayer in the way we do, and how we as human beings, pray-ers, and community leaders can make prayer as meaningful as possible. Here they are:

For the first time in my life this year, I went to weekday services regularly – morning and afternoon, several days a week. Now, I’m no morning person, and rocking up anywhere at 7:10am isn’t my idea of fun, but I came to love my early starts in the Beit Midrash. Being part of this group was an altogether different experience to mumbling prayers to myself at home alone. Our small group of people became a community. We were across the spectrum of proficiency in the liturgy, all learners on some level. None of us had gorgeous voices. Yet we came together to create something meditative, binding, uplifting yet grounding, holy.

I’ll try to always hold with me certain memories from these mornings: chanting the first line of the Shema together in sync; getting lost in the view of a hazy Jerusalem cityscape; the ability of a small handful of people with very standard voices to create spiritual song; the joy of seeing friends leining (reading) from the Torah, especially first-timers; the almost-surety of being offered some kind of role in the service given how small the community was (this was a community where women participated in running services); and enjoying a breakfast of poor-excuse-for-branflakes together afterwards – with immense gratitude whenever someone brought in treats to supplement that.

Photos taken from the window after weekday morning services throughout the year


Praying weekday services has meant that I’ve got a lot more familiar with the siddur (prayer book). I now know what Tahanun is! (And while some others see it as a tedious bit of the davening, I quite enjoy the permission to be mournful and channel desperation for a couple of minutes of the service.) I’ve come to discover other beautiful new prayers, which have fast become favourites. Here is an excerpt from one of them, from just before Shema in Shacharit (the morning service):

Our Father,
Compassionate Father,
Ever compassionate,
Have compassion on us.
Instill in our hearts the desire to understand and discern,
To listen, learn and teach,
To observe, perform and fulfil,
All the teachings of your Torah
In Love.

On a couple of occasions, the weekday minyan became a community of shared feeling and experience. Most memorable for me was the morning Trump was voted in. Most of my fellow students were liberal Americans, and so the atmosphere was heavy from the start of Shacharit, when the early results looked too close for comfort. Phones were out next to siddurim (prayer books) and faces were pale and strained. The volume in the service jerked between heavy silence and the occasional choked song. I remember tears, hands held up high in supplication, and a beautiful d’var Torah (message of Torah) from one of the students at the end. That morning, lessons were devoted to processing. The atmosphere in Pardes wasn’t the same for weeks, but it was in Shacharit that Judaism – prayers, psalms and the community took on real weight and import in relation to the unfolding political situation.

Beyond the weekday prayer experience, Harris and I have done our best to explore what is probably the richest square mile of Jewish prayer options anywhere in the world. We’ve loved seeing how different communities approach what is largely the same liturgy. Spirituality here feels freer and heartfelt – people close eyes, open arms and sway without a care in the world about what others think. Friday night singing will often waft down a street, tantalising punters at another shul. We’ve witnessed some truly creative communities, one where just a line is taken from a psalm and sung intensively for ten minutes, one where a just-picked sprig of sage is passed round for the scent of Jerusalem to enhance prayer. We’ve experienced a couple of communities where musical instruments are played on Friday night (observers of orthodox halacha can slip away before the time Shabbat begins). If you want a sense of the environment created, check out this awesome song from Nava Tehila (this was filmed in one of the pre-Shabbat events that the Jerusalem Municipality puts on during the summer – the actual Nava Tehila service is less concert-like, with about 200 people sitting in concentric circles, musicians in the inner circle… but you get the impression). 

I’ve felt hugely fortunate that in all but a small handful of cases, my prayer experiences this year have been in places where women have some kind of role beyond being observers of a drama with an all-male cast. In some shuls this simply meant women giving a d’var Torah or reading announcements at the end, in others they participated in a more equal way as the men. Our toddler has met as many female Rabbis as male this year, and thinks this is completely standard.

On one memorable occasion, I was the tenth woman to arrive at Shira Hadasha, the partnership minyan which we’ve frequented most Shabbat mornings. Shira Hadasha has a policy of waiting for ten women in addition to the ten men needed according to orthodox halacha before starting their service, as a mark of the equal importance they place on men and women in the community. ‘Making the minyan’ was an unforgettable experience. To quote a haredi Rabbi I heard speak earlier this year about the census described in the Torah, “in Judaism, those who are counted, count”. His message was intended to be inclusive, saying that Jews of all ranks were included in the Biblical census, but he was completely unaware of the fact that because the census only included men (and Jews, and adults…!) he was excluding a big section of his audience. Nevertheless, the sentiment was spot on, and being counted as the 10th woman at Shira Hadasha, and enabling the service to start, really did make me feel counted in the community.

Our morning partnership minyan community at Pardes enabled me not only to experience but also facilitate uplifting experiences for others, in my role as a Gabbait (a non-rabbi role in running Jewish prayer services). As well as calling people to the Torah for their first time, we had the amazing privilege of giving two women an adult “batmitzvah” in which they leined what would have been their batmitzvah sedra all those years ago. Now both in their 20’s, the experience was a deeply significant and moving one for the women and the entire community.

In my first blog I set out to use this year to work on my relationship with God. I suggested that this isn’t exactly the same as investing energy in prayer, although there can be overlap. My experiences this year have affirmed this instinct because the Jewish prayer that I’ve been impressed by this year is just as much about people-consciousness as God-consciousness. Praying together, being part of a community of prayer, is about feeling connected with Judaism and other people, living one another’s triumphs and tragedies together, affirming others and inviting them to feel included, striving together for a better future.

Yes, of course prayer can and ideally should be even more than this. It can enable people to feel connected with God, to air their hopes and fears with the aim of being heard and effecting change… but when this spiritual connection isn’t happening, and it often doesn’t at different stages in life or for different people, what we’re left with is a community which has the potential to embrace, inspire and elevate us. And that’s quite something in itself.

Spiritual prayer is hard to do. Prayer full stop is hard to do. Traditional Jewish prayer with its demands for thrice daily reciting of pages of dense text, is really hard to do. The concept of prayer is riddled with theological and metaphysical questions (one for another blog). Eliezer Berkovits says that “prayer is religion’s most problematic child”. And yet, he continues, “religion without prayer is like music without melody, like dark clouds over the sun-parched earth yielding no rain.”

For me, the driving force for anyone who considers themselves a pray-er, and particularly anyone involved in religious and community leadership must be, to use Berkovits’ metaphor, for prayer to bring rain to parched earth… in the sense of creating a community which does more than religion by wrote. It should embrace those who are present, help them to feel included, connected, embraced, supported and lifted up. And well-watered earth produces wonderful growth.


A Poem for Shavuot

This is a special guest post from my talented Batmitzvah student Tammy Berman. Tammy has always been a lover of writing, so in our sessions we look at poetry, as well as art, music, and most importantly, the original texts – in this case the book of Ruth. I’m very proud of Tammy’s achievements, and was chuffed when she agreed to let me publish this poem as a guest blog.

Chag Shavuot sameach – happy Shavuot!

That Girl I Saw Last Night

Tammy Berman

Her beauty was unmistakable,

Though her hunched figure didn’t do her any good,

Having to forage for scraps in the corners of my field.

That poor girl I saw last night.


The woman who was with her,

Older but not unlike her,

Had a look of desperation or was it sorrow upon her face,

With that girl I saw last night.


As I watched from afar,

I saw her take a glance in my direction.

It was subtle and swift but evident and I’m sure she blushed as our eyes met,

That girl I saw last night.


I went home to think things over,

Her life had seemed a wreck:

No food, nor graceful clothing and, seemingly, no man to be her cover

That girl I saw last night.


I lay there unknowingly of what the girl was about to do,

To rest right by my feet, as I tried to think things through.

No strong man by her side, yet I had this tingling feeling that it was to be

Me, the one who loved and cared for that girl I saw last night.

Falling behind and bursting bubbles

This is a post about the feeling of falling behind in life. But I should also acknowledge falling behind with this blog. I’m going to blame Pesach (Passover), as any Jewish homemaker or Jewish educator probably would. Here’s a bit of a description. Scroll down for the actual blog if you’re in the category of really not wanting to think about Pesach until March 2018.

Pesach, the ultimate experiential education festival, demands intensive preparation. First there’s the cleaning – we did a lot. Every possible trace of leaven needs to be ousted. To make sure there isn’t even microscopic contamination, the kitchen is turned into a spacecraft, with surfaces covered in tin foil. It sounds bonkers, looks bonkers and probably is, but hey, it’s strangely satisfying and we try to understand it as a spiritual process of clearing that which is “puffed up”, leaven, within ourselves.

Here in Israel , most neighbourhoods arrange for massive vats of boiling water to be set up in the approach to Pesach, so that metal cooking equipment can be dunked, making it kosher for Pesach. Here’s a photo of one of our pots getting the treatment:


Most important for me this year was our Seder, the immersive service / symbol-laden meal where we tell the Pesach story – the Israelites leaving slavery in ancient Egypt. This year, Harris and I were leading our seder jointly, and we were excited to prepare thoroughly and make it an enriching experience for our guests.

The prep was worth it and our Seder – complete with costumes, a rushed “Exodus” from one room to another through a (blue tinsel) Red Sea, a Greek Symposium style story-telling discussion reclining on sofas and mattresses, and contributions from each of our guests – felt just as we hoped it would: a meeting point between the Seder traditions we all love, and fun new ways of experiencing the messages of the festival.

So that was Pesach. Oh and since my last blog I was also a bit caught up running this series, a 5-part webinar course bringing some of my fabulous Pardes teachers to a UK audience.

Excuses out the way, onto my actual blog. Pardes students are invited to take a five minute slot to share whatever they like with their colleagues. A version of this post was presented to my Pardes cohort recently…

bwood houses 2

This is a picture of average housing in Borehamwood, my home town, where I grew up, where I’ve lived as an independent adult, where I’m heading back in July. Mostly two or three bed terraced houses, little gardens, post-war architecture… Borehamwood is humble, suburban, not the most aesthetically inspiring town in the world. And yet it is probably the most desirable destination for people in my demographic – Jewish “young marrieds” in our 20’s and 30’s. Borehamwood is home to the UK’s fastest growing Jewish community outside the Charedi world. It’s a place which is a bit more affordable than the classic Jewish areas, meaning that a couple starting out with their first property can afford a little house rather than an apartment, and a little garden of their own. It’s on a commuter train line to Central London. It has an eruv (custom built boundary lines around a place which allow observant Jews to carry or push a buggy in that place on Shabbat). It has a selection of shuls (synagogues) and Jewish schools.

Why am I telling you all this? I’m trying to paint a picture of a place where people start out on married life, buy their first home, put down roots, work hard, buy stuff, maintain a certain standard of living, have a baby, have more babies. Cohorts of young couples graduate through each of these stages together.

The demographics in this community can feel quite homogenous, so differences between where peers are up to in their progression appear very stark. The couple who live in a flat when all their friends have moved into houses; the couple in the early stages of divorce while everyone else seemed to be happily nesting… and then there was us – the couple who couldn’t have a baby when all their friends were having babies.

Our fertility journey started back in 2011 and went on for three very slow years before Noam was conceived through IVF (in vitro fertilisation), after two failed IVF cycles and a year prior to these of “lighter” medication. Along with the physically demanding treatment, it was a painful time emotionally and socially. Going to shul became totally off-putting. Shul was full of new babies and it seemed to me that everyone was sporting a bump or holding a small child. Shabbat table conversations always seemed to return to milk and nappies and the best model of buggy to buy.

I felt left behind in my community, stuck in a rut that I was incapable of getting out of and let down by a body that couldn’t do one of its most essential functions. Harris and I were ready to become parents but couldn’t and our busy lives felt eerily quiet.

My identity as a person who has experienced infertility still goes as deep as, if not deeper than, my very happy 2.5 year old identity as a mum. I will never leave that journey totally behind, and I will always be conscious of the experiences of others in the community going through something similar.

During that time, my mentor said to me: “Miriam, you live in a suburban bubble. There’s a big wide world out there where people your age aren’t even thinking about kids yet. They’re travelling and studying and doing all kinds of varied things”. It was the best thing anybody said to me in that difficult time. Without minimising my pain or telling my that my life plan should be different, my mentor helped me realise that my context was affecting the urgency I felt to have a baby; that a bubble where people are expected to move from one life stage to the next could only add to the pressure on those who didn’t quite conform to the script.

Whatever world we’re in, we probably all feel some level of pressure to conform to a script, to move onto the next step and “keep up” with our peers in one way or other. Wanting to be a mum is just one example personal to me and I can think of many ways in which someone would feel they’re not conforming to family, community, workplace or peer expectations.

Among the many wonderful gifts that my year at Pardes has given me, I’ll always treasure being in a space which holds people from different worlds, who are at different stages of life to one another, make different choices and have different paths ahead. 

One of my goals (there are so many more and I promise to write about them soon) as my year at Pardes draws to a close, is to carry a piece of this place back to Borehamwood with me. This doesn’t just mean treasuring the memory of a place outside the bubble, where people are living their lives in a myriad of wonderful ways, but also to try to bring a flavour of “non-bubble” back with me. There are people in Borehamwood who don’t fit the cliched description of “happy young family with 2.5 children”, whether by choice or not by choice. So my task is to work for Borehamwood to be a place where everyone can shine, a place where there’s less cause to feel left behind or at the peripheries.

I invite us all to to look out for others who, whatever context we’re in, might be feeling left behind or like they don’t fit the mould. Let’s challenge expectations, burst bubbles and make the world a less predictable place.

What’s it all about anyway?

“Thank you” I said to the man in the flat tweed cap holding the park gate open for me. “That’s absolutely alright” he replied, as I walked through. He crossed the other way into the park, with a dog on a lead, and went on his way.

It was such a brief, passing interaction, but it brought a nostalgic sense of the quiet, pleasant way of British living that I’d missed flooding over me.

Being back in the UK, even for just a week, has triggered all sorts of thoughts about cultural differences between the corner of Jerusalem I’m calling home this year, and the corner of greater London I call home in general. And it has taken me right back to my ‘first’ gap year 12 years ago, and my perception then of the differences between the same two cultures.

If you’ll forgive the barrage of sweeping generalisation that is inevitable with this kind of cultural comparison, I’ll go on. Without a doubt, every thing that I’m about to characterise as particular to one of my two worlds, could be said of parts of the other. Nevertheless I really feel a certain difference, so, I’ll go on.

Life here in Jerusalem, whether you’re religious or secular, seems to be lived at 100 volts. It’s intense. Even meetings in cafes like the one in which I’m writing this blog, are passionate affairs. People fling their arms around one another, cackle loudly, argue, wave their hands in the air. Back in my England home, encounters are more measured, restrained, even flavoured with a degree of nihilism.

If this is true of relationships between people who know one another, it certainly is between strangers. The cliches about avoiding eye contact on the tube are accurate. People retain an affable distance physically and emotionally. Not so in Israel. Here, you’re part of one big family, like it or not. Like your family, strangers will look after you when you’re in need. Like your family, they will also offer unsolicited advice on what you’re wearing, what’s healthy, how to parent, what to order on a menu, what your family planning decisions should be, how to spend money… Actually, thinking about it, even close family in the UK wouldn’t be this intrusive. I secretly love it. But it’s so different.

This brings me to politeness. I’ve missed the sense of  ever-present British politeness here. But the non-politeness goes beyond a cultural difference; I think it’s more of an ideology. My Israeli relatives tease me for saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ so much. For them politeness is a facade, a false barrier covering true feelings. I think they might also see it as a bit of a social indulgence – a silly game to be played between people who know the rules.

There are other differences I’ve felt too. The standard of living is generally higher in the UK. People are more into ‘things’. Body image is of central importance. Less so here I feel, where women’s clothes, in the religious world but also beyond, are draped more loosely and aren’t designed to show off the body beneath. Maybe more of this in another blog, but for now suffice to say that life here feels characterised and motivated by passionate, feeling-fuelled encounters with others, and a far cry from the more restrained, respectful mode that orders British society.

Back in 2004, I felt a different set of tensions. Aged 18 and fired up by religious passion after a year studying in an orthodox all-girls seminary, every small move in life in Jerusalem seemed imbued with a sense of great import. Every moment was to be used wisely because time was short. There was so much Torah to be studied. My actions and speech could make a real difference to others so every word was weighed, every activity considered carefully. A mundane everyday errand to buy milk in Jerusalem was an act of building the State of Israel. My prayers could really affect the world. Even my choice of boyfriend had a potential impact on the future shape of the Jewish people.  

I’m painting a bit of a caricature here, and ignoring the cynical streak that was quietly present throughout my whole year at seminary, but nevertheless, coming back to England in 2005 after a year immersed in that world, was a shock. Back in England, I was horrified by the many ways people found to distract themselves from what I considered to be “actually important”. Parties where drinking obliterated all memory of the night, watching banal TV programmes, fashions whose aim was to show off as much as possible. I found middle class distractions distasteful too: luxury products, social posturing, wasting time intricately decorating a cakes…

Am I sounding like a self-righteous brat? Well reader, I changed. I can now think of little better than wasting time intricately decorating a cake. And while getting drunk and forgetting the night before still isn’t my thing, my entire approach to what is “actually important” has shifted. Back in England a fortnight ago, I was delighted to come across a whole article on the best way to make vegetable crisps from scratch at home. I sighed a deep sigh of relief to see neat rows of houses with well-tended, keep-up-with-the-neighbours front gardens. And I silently brimmed over with happiness when a man with a tweed hat held a park gate open for me.

Because while life is about using our time wisely, and while I still believe that Judaism calls upon me make a difference in the world, I believe that life is also about slowing things down, savouring those experiences where infinity seems captured in a moment, being kind to one another and kind to ourselves, training ourselves in the mindfulness that comes from paying close attention to an intricate task, and enjoying the sights, experiences and bounty of the world we get to live in.

There you go – the meaning of life. Now ignore all of this and go make some root vegetable crisps.

Partnership minyanim, banning and front pages… moving forwards

Since publishing the blog below, the situation I described has developed, I hope and believe for the best. While what I wrote below remains an accurate description of the past few months, and a true reflection of my thoughts on it, it feels right to add a note here to explain the recent change, and as I will explain, it also feels right to change the title of the blog, and not to publish the 15 or so comments submitted. To those who submitted these, thank you, and I hope you will understand my reasoning.

On Friday morning, a mere few hours after my blog was published, this letter was sent to the BES community by Rabbi Chaim Kanterovitz. It sets out in no uncertain terms that Rabbi Kanterovitz holds no truck with the halachic arguments behind partnership minyanim, and it states that in his view, his congregants should not attend one. It rules that people, or to be more accurate, men, involved with a PM cannot lead prayers at his shul on the high holidays, a role with halachic import. Then, significantly for me and other educators involved in our minyan, it raises the question of teaching Torah. On this Rabbi Kanterovitz says:

“… in the interest of communal harmony and togetherness I am not placing a limitation on this. I urge the various Minyanim and groups to ensure that any Divrei Torah and talks they arrange are in line with the principles of BES. If in doubt consult me and I shall make a decision on a case by case basis depending on many different considerations and factors.”

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that there is no mention of, or expression of regret for, the ban that has been in place for at least eight months (I was stood down from teaching at BES back in March) this means that the ban has been removed. That’s good news. Really good and astonishing news! I am genuinely impressed that BES has reconsidered their position – something that is not easy to do under the glare of the public gaze, and I commend anyone who was involved. I also hold out hope that the “case by case basis” clause does not become a cover for further exclusions and that it is indeed as it is expressed – an offer for shul education coordinators to consult with the Rabbi if they are in doubt about BES principles.

It has been a difficult few months for many of us, and for those who hoped to lead services on the high holidays at BES, the feeling of alienation will continue. While issues like this remain unresolved, and while we still differ, it is my hope that we – Borehamwood shul and Kehillat Nashira – can move forward now. I echo Rabbi Kanterovitz’s encouragement to pursue togetherness and friendship. In that vein, I’ve decided not to publish the comments submitted on this blog, because some were more critical of BES than I have been, and I don’t think these sentiments are helpful now. Others were critical of my position, and that’s OK. Most expressed support, or shared interesting comparisons with other religious communities. It seemed fairest not to pick and choose. I’ve also changed the title of the blog, because I hope I’m no longer on my shul’s blacklist, and I’m trying to move beyond the hurt…


Blog originally published on 17/11/16 under the title: “I’m on my shul’s blacklist. And it hurts”

I had hoped not to have to write about this on my blog, but given that today’s Jewish Chronicle is covering Borehamwood and Elstree Shul’s (synagogue) ban on Partnership Minyan leaders speaking, here is my commentary on the short statement I gave there. If you’re not interested in Jewish community politics, look away now. You’ll probably be happier that way anyway.


So here’s what happened. Arrangements had been made for me to talk to a group of bat mitzvah students at Borehamwood and Elstree shul. To give some context, I’ve taught at BES over the years, including at tikkun leil and for the youth. I was chair of the education committee for a year. I’ve taught bat mitzvah students for years. So this gig didn’t feel out of the ordinary… until I received a phone call saying that the Rabbi has decided that I was to be disinvited from speaking.

The reason – my involvement with the wonderful Borehamwood Partnership Minyan, Kehillat Nashira, a community which has brought meaning and connection to hundreds of Jews since it began three years ago. Because of my role with this minyan, I am an “inappropriate” speaker and shouldn’t be allowed to teach.

This was a number of months ago. We – fellow team members and I – have had countless conversations with the Rabbi and lay leaders of the shul, and have worked hard to resolve this through quiet diplomacy. With no result.

On the contrary, what we hoped would be a brief moment of madness rumbled on, with several more other incidents where educators and daveners were banned, and vague warnings were issued to people who attend the minyan. BES is in the process of developing a statement which publicly limits their ban to organisers and leaders of the minyan, but nevertheless, a United Synagogue shul has banned some of its most devoted and engaged members. What on earth is going on here?

Here’s the rub. The BES vision statement, published on their website, says the following:

“It is our goal to create wide ranging educational programmes and to encourage all our members – men and women – not just to study, but to teach Torah as well.”

That’s all our members. Everyone. Not just to study Torah, but to teach it. Everyone, with all our varied levels of practice and adherence to mitzvot. With our many, many things we don’t do right. It’s an amazing goal, and one that reflects the broad church that the United Synagogue sets out to be. But unfortunately BES has chosen not to live up to their goal, because it’s everyone except some of us. Our sin? Choosing to pray in a way that we understand to be halachically valid, in which we feel more connected to God and Judaism than ever before.

If we are the worst threat to our shul, then in my view their leadership needs to take a serious look at their priorities. We have never attempted to impose this model on others or to evangelise about it. On the contrary, we have worked extremely hard to respectfully cooperate with the local US shul, to be complementary rather than competitive.

I’m writing from Jerusalem, where what has happened seems all the more astounding. Here, in the heart of the Jewish world, partnership minyanim are seen as a very ordinary part of the wider orthodox landscape. While there is legitimate disagreement on the halachic basis for them, it’s recognised that they are here to stay. Nobody is attempting to topple them, or even to draw lines in the sand around them.

I was recently told that the head teachers of two of the the centrist orthodox high schools for girls and boys here, respectively attended students’ bar and batmitzvahs at Shira Hadasha, the flagship partnership minyan in Jerusalem. They didn’t boycott these simchas (celebrations) or worry about their reputation, or mumble apologies. They went to celebrate with their students’ families as they would in any other student’s shul.

Here, people really don’t mind what shul you daven in. It isn’t a hot topic of conversation at Shabbat tables. And there are certainly no bans on who can speak where. On the contrary, educators in yeshivas, seminaries and on gap year programmes here represent a range of religious opinions and choices of shul. Including partnership minyanim. And including non-observance. If someone has Torah to teach, that speaks for itself. This range is represented in my teachers this year, and they’re the best.

My take on what is behind this? What is essentially a religious issue (take a look at Benedict Roth’s excellent piece) has become politicised. This is of course in the context of a wider political backdrop around the developing role of women in the Jewish world. Change is difficult and we’re at the cutting edge of it. Many opponents of partnership minyanim will openly call their reasons ‘meta-halachic’, rather than halachic. In other words, this might technically be halachically OK, but we’re not ready for it. This is too much too soon.

But I’m not sure the people behind the BES ban have really thought through the ramifications of drawing lines in the sand. Partnership minyanim are not going anywhere. In fact, from what I can see from trends in Israel and the USA, they are only going to grow. Not only this, but the change they are bringing, acceptable change according to some of the best halachic minds, is having a seriously positive impact. Our minyan in Borehamwood has brought in Jews who haven’t been to shul in years. Many of our regulars – men and women – go to other shuls because of the nice social life there, but only feel really connected to prayer at the partnership minyan. These people are returning to their US shuls more inspired and able to give more.

I’ve been told that teachers at Pelech (one of the best religious girls’ high schools in Jerusalem) began to note, shortly after Shira Hadasha was founded, that there was a great surge in kavannah (intention) in the girls’ tefila (prayer); they also noted that the catalysts were those young women who were davening at Shira Hadasha. What are the dangers of not allowing change to take place within your wider community?

Consider the flip-side too. What exactly are these bans intended to achieve? Is the idea to push these minyanim outside orthodoxy? To force a split through a barrage of banning, threatening, and lashon hara (gossip)? And if so does the orthodox world really want to lose these many engaged, passionate, Torah-literate people?

So where do we go from here? We Jews have a long tradition of genuine, legitimate halachic debate, and of “elu ve-elu” (“both / and”). Throughout our history, many difficult questions have produced conflicting halakhic decisions. All bonafide opinions were afforded respect and were considered part of “God’s living words”. Call me a dreamer, but I would like to see increased mutual respect on halachic positions in the orthodox world. I would love to see increased willingness to treat diversity of practice not as a threat, but as something to be celebrated.

After receiving the call to say that I was no longer allowed to teach Torah at BES, I cried for two days. BES is the shul I grew up in, the shul where I am still a member. As you know from this blog, I’m spending this year studying Torah. That’s a year’s worth of new Torah learning and enthusiasm that I won’t be able to share with my home community, not to mention the feeling of hurt and humiliation. There is a personal cost to building ever higher and tighter walls, as well as a hefty spiritual, communal, and now educational cost.

I believe that we are at a crossroads in the orthodox world, and have the choice, right now, to take a deep breath, and think creatively and halachically about how to meet the change demanded by the world we live in. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen all at once. And we won’t all agree. And that’s OK. But we can be respectful. We can make space for diversity of belief and practice. And come on, we can certainly do better than banning.

Of honey, horns and bamboo roofs

The past month in Jerusalem has been quite an experience. It has been the month of Tishrei, in which Judaism’s major festivals (chagim) fall. Think a cross between the summer holidays (country-wide) and Christmas with all it’s traditions and cheer, throw in some extra religious fervour, excellent weather and even more food, and you’re starting to get a picture of what it is like. Everybody is off work for much of the month, so even for Israel’s secular majority, it’s a holiday time. A cultural wave sweeps the country, with street fairs, public concerts and children’s festivals. Even for those working, not much gets done, and the phrase ‘acharei hachagim’ – ‘after the festivals’ is a common refrain.

A band strikes up at a pre-Rosh Hashana street festival

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is a time for both celebration and introspection. We celebrate with, you’ve guessed it, food. And particularly sweet foods which are to augur a sweet year ahead. Nursery kids sing songs about bumble bees, apples and honey and N came home with a plastic set of ‘ah-pol’ and ‘hah-nee’, and a plastic version of a shofar, the ram’s horn which is blown at this time of year. (I posted a video of the shofar being blown here at Pardes on my Facebook wall. If you’ve never heard a shofar, check it out – the sound is completely unique: hairs-standing-on-end, self-reflection-inducing stuff.) There are so many rich religious themes associated with this time of year, and I won’t attempt to go into them here, but you might be interested to check out the kinds of thing I’m learning at Pardes.

Tallitot, prayer shawls, freshly washed in preparation for the festivals
A moment of everyday cultural appreciation: a Muslim woman fills her trolley with a stack of special offer Rosh Hashana honey cakes

Shul (synagogue) over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, on which we fast and asked for good fates to be sealed for the coming year) has an intensity here which I haven’t encountered elsewhere . The atmosphere was serious and focused, with a real sense that these days were aiming to set in place what is to come. “How has your Yom Kippur been?” I asked one friend. She answered: “I’ll answer that this time next year”. In Jerusalem nearly everyone takes seriously the tradition to dress in white on Yom Kippur, as if to take on a sin-free, angelic persona before God. The effect of hundreds of people in white, singing haunting tunes and swaying in prayer, certainly moved me.

One extraordinary thing about Yom Kippur in Israel is that secular Jews treat the day differently to any other holiday. Nobody, but nobody, drives (I heard mixed reports on whether it is actually illegal to drive here on Yom Kippur but either way, the effect is the same). The street lights are turned to a special Yom Kippur mode, with the amber lights flashing constantly – an eerie, end-of-days sight. Most bizarre of all, for secular Jews Yom Kippur is chag ha ofanayim “the bicycle festival”. The car-free streets are filled with flocks of children cycling. What cheered me most of all was the sight of a couple of wheelchair-users zipping down the middle of the street at top speed, relishing the feeling of moving unrestricted by the usual pavements full of people and lamp posts.

Sukkot, the festival in which we build temporary huts to remember the Children of Israel’s wandering in the dessert after the Exodus, is a whole new experience here. It was an amazing time for a holiday with our parents and siblings, and featured N’s first trip to the beach. Sukkahs pop up everywhere here with their breezy cotton walls (so different to the heavy-duty rain-proof kind we get in the UK) and bamboo roofs. Here are some I came across…

Sukkahs everywhere
Cat on a hot sukkah roof
They’re up there on every balcony
The prize for the most enterprising sukkah goes to… this one on the entrance gangway to a block of flats

Inside my sister’s lovely sukkah

There is a real feeling of Jews of every stripe coming together at Sukkot. It’s a custom that many secular Jews adopt and when you’re outside sitting in the sukkah, you can hear your neighbours close by. It’s almost as if you’re in one big sukkah, an idea the Talmud suggests too: “all of Israel are able to fit in one sukkah (an interpretation of an unusual spelling of the word sukkat – the singular form of the construct for you grammar fans).

Without wanting to rub it in the faces of those celebrating in cooler, wetter climes this year, Sukkot is simply designed for this country’s weather in October. We learnt a lovely Mishna in which a downpour of rain on Sukkot is compared with a master throwing a jug of water in his servant’s face. Thankfully the rain here started just after Sukkot, days after the annual prayer for rain… and it really did feel welcome after months of heat and dryness.

Something else that has struck me about the chagim here is the extent to which they can be an equally participative experience for women, something I know many feel lacking back home. It is standard for religious women to own their own lulav and etrog set here (these are the plants and fruit we gather together on Sukkot – more on trusty Wikipedia). In the shul I went to, just as many women did the Hoshanot circuits as men, on our own side of the mechitza (divide between men and women). The passionate singing and dancing on Simchat Torah would have sent Samuel Pepys into a frenzy of horror. But most poignant of all for me was witnessing the woman sitting next to me on Simchat Torah receive her first aliyah (call-up) to the Torah. (Traditionally on this festival every man is called up the the Torah, and increasing numbers of shuls offer women the same option). The woman read the blessings tremulously, and returned to her seat with tears silently streaming. She was Israeli and seemed to be from a secular background. I longed to know her story.

The chagim in Jerusalem – wow, what an experience. On one level the overriding thing that strikes me is the ease, the naturalness of celebrating here. There is a day off work to prepare for each festival; there are Sukkah stores every few hundred meters; the religious fervour is genuine and unembarrassed; a creche in shul means parents can be in the most important services of the year; religious fluency in packed synagogues results in gorgeous singing and prayer which cannot but inspire the occasional shul-goers… It was such an uplifting, right-feeling experience.

But perhaps, just perhaps, something is lost in the ease. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss the rain drops plopping into plates of food in a chilly British sukkah. Not for a moment. But celebrating in the UK demands more of you – the telescoped work weeks, singing extra loud in shul to keep the atmosphere up, shuffling out to the garden holding plates of food in gloved hands. There is without a doubt more self sacrifice required. And maybe there’s something in that.

Getting started with the studies

The teacher holds up a roll of masking tape. “I want you each”, he says, “to map out what your journey as a person who prays, your journey as a pray-er, has looked like so far”. He raises the masking tape higher in the air and adds, “using masking tape”. The classroom is filled with bemused faces and the sound of tittering voices. I feel incredulous that this is what orientation looks like, anxious that I won’t possibly be able to articulate my experiences of praying at all, let alone through the medium of masking tape… but on a certain level I feel quietly grateful that I’ve been asked to answer this question, because when does anyone ever ask how our prayer is going? It’s something you just do, right? It’s very personal and therefore something that isn’t talked about. It’s between you and God so you can get on with it on your own. Right?

The masking tape exercise proved wonderful. We quietly worked away on our masking tape masterpieces, using tables and walls as our canvasses, then in small groups enjoyed a ‘private gallery tour’ of the creations, offering reflections on what we saw, giving reflections on what was in our minds as we had worked. I’m including a photo of one of the pieces that I found particularly compelling – it’s shared with the permission of my course mate who made it. I found it visually striking, and in conversation with him, we begun to unpack what was going on – why the siddur (prayer book) was included, what page it was open to, what direction the tape was going in, why some pieces headed upwards and others down, the orientation of the table… you get the idea. This was the introductory session to a course which addresses how we pray. Since then there has been a lot more text study and a lot more conversation (and a lamentable lack of masking tape). It has been fascinating, inspiring and challenging; I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this class in future.

The majority of the orientation time has been less blog-worthy, but equally good. Introductions to courses and introductions to people. Missions, visions, expectations, practicalities. Study sessions with the title “Torah Study – what’s it all about?” Reflecting on Jewish literary texts on the theme of “arrival”. For the first time in over a decade, I have a highlighted timetable stuck to the fridge. I’ve agonised over which courses to take and wished I had Hermione’s time turner to do them all. I surprised myself by electing to take a Biblical Hebrew Grammar course, and surprised myself even more by enjoying it. So far.

Almost three weeks in, I’m getting into the rhythm of my new life as a student of Torah. It’s wonderful but hard graft. The majority of time is spent in the beit midrash, the study hall, which looks like this:


Learning pairs, called chavrutot, sit together and work through Jewish texts. Initially they’re working out the meaning of the words, and then what they might teach us. We’re working with Medieval Hebrew at the easy end of the spectrum, Aramaic at the harder end. The pairs are equipped with dictionaries, concordances, lexicons and translations apps on our phones. Teachers circulate to help with tricky bits, and the pair-learning structure is amazingly effective, but we’re basically on our own inching through these age-old texts. Sometimes we amaze ourselves at what we’ve managed to understand. Sometimes we’re left in a fog of unfamiliar conjugations and cryptic vocabulary. After an hour or so the teacher will call us back to class and unpack what we’ve learnt, usually bringing it all together with impressive grace and clarity.

It’s not a model that yields daily lightbulb moments about life, God or even the texts we’re studying. But it’s a deeply empowering model where the students are absolutely invested in the learning process rather than being passive recipients. It’s big-picture learning, where you look back at the end of a fortnight and can see an improvement in study skills. It’s learning which is designed to equip us learn independently, even to teach. And when the occasional lightbulb comes, it feels very well earned.

Finding our feet

Picture the three of us. We look like we’re off on a high-maintenance camping holiday, or triumphantly leaving an all-you-can-grab shopping spree. Harris is carrying a laundry airer under one arm and a train set under the other. He’s wearing an enormous rucksack and hasn’t yet noticed that the bottle of floor cleaner within is slowly leaking onto his T-shirt. I’m pulling an old lady shopping trolly. Everyone here uses them, and we like to think we’re being ironic having chosen one with a leopard print design. I’m also pushing the buggy, the basket of which is overflowing with groceries. The hood is up and on top are balanced a washing up bowl, a broom and a laundry basket.

We rocked this look twice a day for our first week here, shuttling back and forth from our local mall (thankfully minutes away) loaded with everything needed to make an flat livable and, as the week progressed and the essentials were in, comfortable.

Besides starting my programme at Pardes (more on this in my next blog), finding our feet has been a largely practical process, but also a cultural one. We are slowly learning to navigate a culture where someone will give you their shopping trolley because you don’t have the right change for your own, and in the same shop the staff will point blank refuse to help you find something. Where a stranger will call down from their balcony with helpful directions before you’ve asked for them, and a beggar will kiss your hands and shower you with Shabbat blessings in exchange for a coin. Then there are the mundane, everyday things to adapt to. I now know only to pick tomatoes from the top of the mountain for sale (having experienced a tomato avalanche earlier this week). And we now know that nurseries here don’t provide you with a blow by blow account of everything the toddler has eaten, drunk (and details of the results of these), toys played with and time slept. You do however get lots of smiles and a homemade challah on Fridays.

It’s a vibrant, passionate, outdoor culture. Walk out at any time of the day and night and you’ll see full cafes, friends sitting and chatting on the grass, buskers, people studying Torah together and hoards of children in the playgrounds. Teenagers here go hiking as a social activity with their friends without being seen as remotely geeky.

I’ve been struck by how culturally creative Jerusalem is. No doubt this can be found in every major world city, but I guess not so much quirky collective pop-up art has made its way to Borehamwood. Below are just a few examples (you can hover over the pictures for descriptions). I haven’t yet managed to take a photo of the craft-bombed curvy bollards on a street near us, each bollard now enhanced with a different feminine hairdo and matching clothes… but when I do you’ll be the first to know.

So we’re getting really well settled and enjoying the new cultural experiences. I’ll post in the coming week about getting started with studying at Pardes.

Ooh, some more good news to share with you – our spare room is open for business. Taking bookings now 🙂


So why are we actually doing this?

It’s a question we’ve been asked a lot recently. And having spent most of the last week packing our lives into endless boxes to be stored in nine different locations (there’s a spreadsheet to keep track of it all) it’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves too. So why are we leaving our jobs, our lovely home and our incredibly family and friends for 13 months in another country?

Well, it’s something we’ve been hoping to do for years, pretty much since we got married. And while our lives have changed since then, and more years have passed than we expected, the vision stuck.

Here are some of my hopes for the year ahead.

  • I’ve always loved studying Jewish texts, and it feels like there is an unending amount to learn. They are my heritage and shape my day to day Jewish practice. I’ve longed for the opportunity to study properly, to make it my main focus, and now I’m fortunate enough to be doing this with some of the best teachers in the world. I’ve been teaching for a few years now, and feel that teaching and learning go hand in hand. I hope that by being more of a student, I’ll be a better teacher.
  • There’s a flip side to this. There are Jewish texts I struggle with. I have big questions. My grandma claims that she can find something objectionable in every sedra (weekly portion) of the Torah, and sometimes I know what she means. But Pardes is a place where every question is encouraged, where blind faith and uncritical reading are anathemas. It’s a good place for me to study.
  • God. We don’t talk about God very much in my part of the Jewish world. We get on with living the life that we are taught God wants us to live. But I know there is more to my tradition than this. And it’s something I’m yearning to explore. In our most important prayer, the Shema, we are asked to “love the Lord your God” and I want to know what this means. Some will tell you that its about following commandments, but then there are approaches like this verse from Yedid Nefesh, which we sing every Friday night:

    Beloved of the soul,  Father of compassion,
    Draw Your servant close to Your will…

    Glorious,  beautiful, radiance of the world,
    My soul is sick with love for You.

    In short (and this is something that is really quite awkward to say in the Anglo Jewish world… we need to do something about this) I’d like to grow my relationship with God. I’m looking forward to being in a place where spirituality is not something to feel embarrassed about, where it’s cool to attempt to think about, talk about, relate to God – or not to – but that the mindset and discourse are there to nurture this should somebody want.

  • I’m looking forward to putting more time and energy into prayer (connected to God of course, but not quite in the same bullet point – it’s complicated!) Pardes asks that I am part of a student-led minyan (prayer gathering) every day. Yes, every single day. Since N was born I haven’t done all that much daily davening (prayer) so it’s going to be a big change and probably a challenge in more than one way. I’m sure you’ll be hearing about this at some point… watch this space. I’m going to miss my home community, Kehillat Nashira, hugely, but hope that I can use my time in Israel to explore different communities and come back with ideas and skills to offer.

  • Israel. I fell in love with the country when I was a teen and over the years that has both deepened and grown more complex and nuanced. It is passionate, alive, intense. This year I hope to immerse myself in the bits I love and challenge myself not to ignore the other bits. I don’t want avoid discomfort. But I also look forward to seeing new sites, hiking, seeing friends and family, eating fruit straight from the trees and getting stuck in to the best that Israel has to offer.

  • Last but perhaps most importantly, we’re both looking forward to a year of family time in a different place – challenging ourselves to see and learn new things, meet new people, have adventures. It’s a big privilege to be able to press the pause button in our everyday lives, and a bit of a scary one. But bring on the year ahead, and bring on the unknowness of what next…