Britain’s first female orthodox rabbi: ‘I wouldn’t want my kids going out looking visibly Jewish’

Miriam Lorie, Britain's first Orthodox female rabbi
Miriam Lorie recently celebrated her graduation from New York's pioneering Yeshivat Maharat - Heathcliff O'Malley

“The first time I heard a woman’s voice leading a service, I didn’t like it,” confesses Rabbi Miriam Lorie with a smile. “Then you hear it again and slowly you change.”

At 36, this mother of two young sons, aged nine and six, is dressed casually when we meet in her north London home in a knee-length blue dress, silver trainers and her long hair tied back with a scarf. Not quite the look associated with the rabbinate, but this month she has broken both tradition and the glass ceiling in mainstream Orthodox Judaism to become its first ever female rabbi working with a congregation in this country.

Three other women from Britain have been ordained as rabbis after studying like her at the Yeshivat Maharat seminary in New York, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women in North America, but none has taken on what Lorie refers to as a “pulpit” role

So how big a change does she represent in Judaism and the status of women within it?  Growing up in Borehamwood as one of two sisters and one brother in an Orthodox home with her optometrist mother and lawyer father, Lorie recalls that there were plenty of “brilliant, funny, learned” women teachers at her local Orthodox synagogue. “But they were never called rabbi.”

Most Orthodox Jews in Britain are part of United Synagogue, a 40,000-strong union headed by the Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis. It continues, like its equivalent in the United States the Orthodox Union, to regard women’s ordination as contrary to Jewish law.

As did Lorie until she was in her teens and went to a service at a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem? The Reform and Liberal traditions together make up the more progressive wings of Judaism in Britain, accounting for around 30 per cent of the total of those who affiliated to UK synagogues. They have allowed women to be rabbis since 1975, and last year joined forces as the Movement for Reform Judaism.

It was at that service that she saw for the first time that female ordination was possible. It would have been a logical and less controversial step to have followed in the footsteps of the likes of Rabbi Julia Neuberger and sought ordination in this branch.

Miriam Lorie photographed recently
'There are certain prayers I can't lead as a woman,' says Lorie

“But Orthodoxy is my home,” she answers. “There are all the little nuances, but it is the tunes I am familiar with, the commitment to Jewish law that I am familiar with. Why should I have to go elsewhere if I feel I can stay within and make it better?”

Even if what she wanted was against that same Jewish law? “Law does matter but the law in question wasn’t a hard and fast Jewish law in the same way as we won’t eat pork. It was more of a debate and tradition that had always gone with a certain view, but there was space to go with this other approach [and ordain women]. But no-one was talking about it because it has never been done this way.”

Though Lorie is a rabbi, there are still some things that only a male rabbi can do.  “There are certain prayers I can’t lead as a woman.”

These are central to services so that restriction must be frustrating?  “In the world I am in, we have made such huge strides that it is something I can live with. It might not be where Jewish law finishes. It is evolving.”

Does she regard herself as a role model, as the first of many female rabbis in Orthodoxy?  She prefers, she says, to talk of “stepping stones”.

“I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but the best messages I’ve had in the last few weeks have been from my bar mitzvah students. I teach a lot of 10- and 11-year-old girls. Although I am doing this job for myself and it is absolutely my dream job, I am hopefully paving the path to make it easier than it was for me if they want to be a rabbi.”

And she has an eye too on the wider image in society of Orthodox Judaism and how it treats women. “I’m really conscious that your average Brit has never met a Jew and might have all these misconceptions.”

The Jewish community in England and Wales numbered around 287,000 in the 2021 census, or 0.5 per cent of the population.  Within its ranks reactions to her ordination have been, she says, overwhelmingly positive. “It’s not that I’ve done something radical and people are booing. My house has been a flower shop since I came home from my ordination. I’m still on a high.”

Did she get a bunch from the Chief Rabbi? “I’ve met him and he has been very friendly to me, as have other rabbis who have said congratulations and wished me luck, but they won’t recognise the training I’ve done.” No such equivalent Orthodox seminary exists here which is why Lorie had to cross the Atlantic in her determination to become a rabbi.

The fight for equality is not yet won, with progress incremental in Orthodox Judaism as it has been in other faith traditions. “The Church of England is ahead of us,” she reflects.

“Women priests and now women bishops have become part of the official structure, but I’m unofficial. I’m just doing what we sometimes call Jews in the pews, and people are coming along to see me doing it.”

“Fight” is perhaps the wrong word, since there have been, she is keen to emphasise, no rude letters, no threats, just a cold shoulder at the institutional level. Save among Ultra-Orthodox who “try to conserve the life of hundreds of years ago”, there is, she insists, a widespread willingness in the Jewish community to evolve attitudes to Jewish law. The differences are about the pace of change, “slow” in Orthodoxy, and “smoother” in the Liberal/Reform wing.

“The biggest question of all in the rabbinical studies I have done is how do you take something ancient in Jewish law, and work with it when it comes up against parts of modern life that make it feel at best antiquated and at worst harmful”.

Miriam Lorie
'Orthodoxy is my home. There are all the little nuances, but it is the tunes I am familiar with, the commitment to Jewish law that I am familiar with' - Heathcliff O'Malley

In her childhood, Lorie’s parents – who have fully supported her plans – were “very committed to all three of us having a broad education”. She went to a secular secondary school.

“It was a mixed upbringing. I’d miss school for Jewish festivals, but I managed to keep a foot in both worlds. I was always asking questions of my teachers in synagogue about how my Hindu, Christian and Muslim friends at school had different truths from me.”

That interest in religion translated into her going to Cambridge to read theology after a gap year in Jerusalem “where I got a lot more intensely religious”.  University was a shock to the system.

“The Torah [containing Jewish law] had always been put on a pedestal as a holy book and the word of God, but at Cambridge it was put under a microscope and dissected. It felt like heresy for me at first, but eventually I relaxed as I realised it didn’t have to be one thing or the other.”

At university, she met her husband, Harris, now a management consultant in health care, and they married soon after graduating. He is Jewish and that mattered for her. “It was really important for me to find someone who would have the same Jewish life as me”.

There was no exact moment when she felt called to become a rabbi. “I don’t feel as if God has called me. The word we use in Hebrew is kli kodesh, which means you are a holy vessel, there to do God’s work. I always thought growing up that it was a cool job, holding people’s happy and sad occasions.”

For seven years after graduating, she stayed on at Cambridge, working in the inter-faith programme at the Faculty of Divinity.  “I felt I wasn’t done with my Jewish studies.”

Miriam Lorie
'My house has been a flower shop since I came home from my ordination. I'm still on a high' - Heathcliff O'Malley

Now she is the rabbi at what she calls a “pop-up” synagogue in Borehamwood. Formally known as Kehillat Nishira, her short-hand description links it with half-a-dozen similar experiments established in England in recent years as places where Orthodox men and women could lead services together.

It meets at the moment in a school hall but has ambitions to get its own building soon. “We have a proper board, an administrator and I’m paid. It feels established.”

And it is thriving. “People come from further afield. The slight complication is that Orthodox don’t drive on Shabba[which runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday] but we have people who walk over an hour to get here. That shows the need for it.”

On an average Saturday there are around 50 adults and 30 children in the congregation. “It’s quite a young community, not more women than men.” She has her first wedding coming up.

“I work with the community, give sermons and do a lot of teaching, pastoral work, answering questions on Jewish law. We were taught in seminary to answer the questioner not the question.” She describes herself as socially liberal. Same-sex couples are welcome in her synagogue.

Her ordination has coincided with a time, she reflects, when the Jewish people worldwide are experiencing “a sense of collective trauma” over Hamas’ deadly massacre on October 7 of more than 1000 Jews with hundreds more taken hostage.

“We are all one or two degrees removed in the Jewish community so everyone knows someone who has had a cousin or friend killed. My husband worked with a teacher who died in the attack. These people were the most liberal, the peace-makers.”

She hasn’t felt threatened in the upswing in anti-Semitism since the attack and Israel’s subsequent military operation in Gaza, either when going about her work in Borehamwood, or on occasional forays into central London where regular pro-Palestinian marches have caused some tensions. “My husband wears a kippah walking around and maintains that he still has more positive encounters as a result than negative ones, which is heart-warming”

But there have been, she acknowledges, negatives impacts too on her family life. “I wouldn’t want my kids to look visibly Jewish if they were going out now. They don’t understand why anyone would want to hurt them, why there is security outside their school, why we have to have radios in the synagogue [to summon police].”

Within her community, she reports, “there is a feeling that we have had a horrible knock and a lot of people were hoping for a massive hug from their [non-Jewish] friends and neighbours. In some cases that hug didn’t come and in some cases it was very quickly followed by, ‘well, they deserved it’, ‘it was legitimate resistance’, that kind of thing. The pendulum of sympathy has swung to the Palestinian cause.”

With her own background in interfaith dialogue, as well as the time she spent in a Palestinian refugee camp and with her Palestinian friends, she can see beyond the “lack of nuance” surrounding the issue of Gaza at the moment.  “There are two people in one space, they need to work together because no-one is leaving, but where are the partners for peace on either side at the moment.”

Her sister and brother both live in Israel now and are active in anti-government protests. “I genuinely feel I can’t say much from over here but I can say everyone is surprised Netanyahu is still in power.”

The Telegraph’s photographer has arrived. “I’ve got to put on some make-up first,” Rabbi Miriam says as she goes to open the door. “My grandma, who is 93, keeps saying to me, ‘I see the rabbi is still wearing her jeans.’ She loves what I have done. I come from a family of strong women.”