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Leo Baeck College praises Liberal attitudes to rabbinical life

The JC

27 August 2015

A career in the Progressive rabbinate is increasingly appealing, with "a real increase" in both the number and quality of applicants for the Leo Baeck College training scheme, says its principal, Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris.

The north London college this year received nine applications for its five-year training programme, for which a course in Hebrew is a starting requirement, as is a bachelor's degree at a 2:1 grade or higher.

Rabbi Kahn-Harris said the five students who were accepted all have "a strong background in their individual communities and movements", as well as "a diverse set of experiences, whether it's youth work, lay leadership or teaching". A striking feature of the new intake is its youthfulness, with three of the chosen five in their mid-20s.

Deborah Blausten, who will be 25 when she starts the course next month, said the appeal of the rabbinate was its variety.

"You're a teacher steeped in questions of social justice, music, ritual life and learning and you encounter people at all stages of life. I don't think there's another career that brings together my interests in such a variety of issues. I've had an inkling I wanted to do this since I was 17 and that came from my deep commitment to Jewish life, community, texts and experiences."

The North Western Reform Synagogue, Golders Green, member has degrees in medicine and education. Her master's was sandwiched between working for Jeneration - the Reform movement's student arm - and as Finchley Reform's young people's educator. She is also the programming chair for this year's Limmud.

Ms Blausten wanted to counter the notion that "religion is either not a force for good, or that it's stuck in the past and doesn't fit with modern life. I think that's profoundly untrue on both counts, and that we're uniquely placed in terms of our attitudes towards how religion should be in the modern world."

Another rabbinical student is Anna Posner, 26, who has been involved in the Progressive youth movement, LJY-Netzer, for 18 years. As a youngster, it "didn't really register that I could be a rabbi," she said. "Then when I was 14, one of my teachers mentioned that they wanted to do it and I thought: 'Hey, I could do that, too.'"

Raised in Nottingham, she recalled that "when you grow up as the only Jew in the village, you want to be really active in the community. Nottingham is a really nice small Jewish community and that helped me to grow my Jewish identity." When she told her parents of her career plans, "at first, they thought it was funny and a novelty, but everyone's really excited now. I'm very lucky."

Ms Posner has been working for the global Netzer Olami movement and is returning from Jerusalem - where she has been leading gap year students - to take the course. "At [Liverpool Hope] university I studied religion, but I'm very excited to focus on our traditions." She wanted to promote inclusion, making people "feel comfortable in communal and religious spaces".

A former religious studies teacher at Finchley Progressive and West London synagogues who, for the past two years, has been an editor at Polity Press in Cambridge, Elliott Karstadt looked forward to switching gears.

"I spent a long time teaching and leading and I wanted to make that into a full-time thing. Having a full-time job in publishing, I didn't feel that I was giving as much as I could to the community. I want to deeply understand Jewish texts and to lead communities."

With a PhD in intellectual history, Mr Karstadt has both the necessary academic and practical experience. But he pointed out that a rabbi's learning was never finished.

Although his eventual aim was to lead a synagogue, he was "a big fan" of rabbis involved in outreach work, finding ways of engaging younger, unaffiliated families.

Completing this year's student quintet are Southport native and former RSY movement worker Frankie Stubbs and Yaera Ratel, who grew up in eastern France and is changing career after 20 years as a sound editor on films. She has also directed a children's programme at a Parisian Reform synagogue.

Jessica Rosenfield - the daughter of Daily Mail City editor and former Board of Deputies presidential candidate Alex Brummer - has deferred her place on the course until next year.

Rabbi Kahn-Harris said the 2015 intake were "all very engaging people in different ways, which is great for us. We're really excited about what that means both for the college and the community in this country and in Europe. We are looking forward to being with them on their journey."