Who is Lily Montagu?


Lily Montagu – Post by Jessica

One of the nice things about being back in school, particularly in grad school, is that there is often the thrill of discovery. With the Non-Profit Management side of my degree, it’s often about some new technique or approach that I’m putting in my “bag of tricks” for later use. In the Jewish Studies program, it’s generally more intellectual, the kind of thing that’s like “wow, the world is more interesting than I thought.”

Those moments make all the late nights worth it. Because I was taking a LOT of Jewish Studies last semester, I needed paper topics. I was floundering for one in particular, until I asked a friend what he thought. He suggested someone named Lily Montagu. I needed to analyze a primary source, and apparently, she had written a memoir. As it turned out, she had written a lot of things.

Born in 1873 to a very wealthy Orthodox family, Lily decided early on that Orthodox Judaism as it currently stood had very little to offer her as a woman. With little access to religious texts, yet still with an interest in a personal religious experience, she began to create religious services that spoke to her, first in the form of a religious service ostensibly for children (although often attended by women), and then through services held by the Jewish Religious Union, who held additional services on Shabbat afternoon. For a long time, she continued to try to work within the system, but eventually, it became clear that they were outside the realm of Orthodoxy, and began, in earnest, to try to create a movement. Through her alliance with Claude Montefiore, they began to form congregations.

This was a very painful break for her personally, since her father rejected the idea of reform, and in his will, forbade her from using the money towards the cause. As the movement grew, however, she remained heavily involved, helping to create the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and even housing their headquarters in her home for many years, until they were moved to New York. She also regularly led services and spoke from the pulpit, with her address at the WUPJ conference in Berlin in 1928 the first time a woman had spoken from the pulpit in Germany. To this day, Liberal Judaism, the new name of the Jewish Religious Union, is still housed in The Montagu Center.

I found her story fascinating in general – but there were two aspects that made it even more interesting. First, the reasons she left Orthodoxy, and second, that her story is largely unknown and unstudied. Lily was given a secular education comparable to the non-Jews around her, while at the same time being denied access to Jewish texts. She saw the difference in what was offered to her brothers, and felt the injustice. This not only meant that she felt isolated from Judaism, but that her ways of thinking about religion were shaped by secular study rather than Jewish knowledge. Her language when discussing religion uses secular imagery more often than not; religion was used as a tool for personalizing secular values. That many women and men found this vision compelling speaks to the fact that this kind of education was common. But it also meant that, aside from her personal feelings of connection to Judaism, she was preaching a version of Judaism that was not compatible with Orthodoxy. It’s impossible to know what Lily would have done with a more rigorous Jewish education.

Still, why her story is largely unknown, even among liberal and progressive branches of Judaism? Ellen Umansky, until recently the only scholar who had studied her in depth, thinks that it might largely be the “fault” of Lily herself. Certain of her activities, such as preaching, were public. But many others, like her efforts to start the JRU and WUPJ were behind the scenes, and Lily deliberately described her own participation as non-essential. Umansky’s research, however, has unearthed evidence that she was often entirely instrumental in these efforts, both doing ground work and providing or gaining access to funding. That Lily’s attitude played better for the historians of the time is debatable – how would they have reacted if she had taken credit where the credit was due? Would there have been greater pushback? Or would it have just made it easier for historians of our time to understand where she fit in? The fact remains that, having grown up in a community connected to hers (both in South Africa and in Illinois), I had heard of Leo Baeck and of Samuel Montefiore, but not of Lily Montagu.

The little hidden gems of history. And hopefully, with a new book coming out about her, she’ll be a little less hidden than before.


The (Evil) Rotem Bill

Ok, so I am sure that some of you are surprised at the lack of commentary on this blog about The “Rotem Bill” which has been all over the Jewish news lately.  For those of you who live under a rock (ok, maybe that was too harsh) and haven’t heard about it,  in short the bill began as a way to ease the conversion process and questions, especially in regards to the relatively recent immigration of Jews from the Former Soviet Union.  However, over time the bill evolved to the point in which it grants all authority over conversion to the Charedi Chief Rabbinate, including retroactively saying conversions are not Kosher.

The reason I have neglected to say anything on it is not because it has not been on my mind, but the exact opposite.  It has been such a heated part of my life, I could not think of how to express myself in words suitable for public consumption.  In fact I still cannot, however I also cannot go another day without mentioning it.  So instead, I will share links to many other prominent organizations and leaders who have written and spoken about the topic. This is by no means a complete list – merely a list of what I have seen and found interesting so please feel free to share more.*

Organizational Statements:

Masorti.org (link)

USCJ.org (link)

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) (link)

Professional Statements:

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and Executive Vice President of USCJ (link)

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President, Rabbinical Assembly (link)

Rabbi Marc Angel, Founder/Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel (link)

Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) (link)


“Are you Jewish Enough?” – Jewish Journal – 07.13 (link)

“The Diaspora Need Not Apply” – New York Times – 07.15 (link)

“Rotem’s Bill Promises but Doesn’t Deliver” – The Jewish Week – 07.20 (link)

“Editors Notes: Unconverted” – JPost  – 07.23 (link)

*As much as I am open to different viewpoints, sometimes I have to hold my ground and this is one of those times.  If you do not agree that this is bad for world Jewry, kindly keep your opinions to yourself or share them on your own blog.  This is something neither Jessica nor I are distant from and we ask you to respect that.

Future of Women in Judaism

As mentioned on our Facebook Fan Page, I was recently asked to write a piece about the future of Judaism as it relates to women’s involvement.  I took it on in a true Melissa form and am both proud of the result and humbled at its inclusion.  To see my byline alongside Anita Diamant (Author and Found of Mayyim Hayyim) and Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Founder of Uri L’Tzedek) is one of the greatest honors in my life.

Since I am spending today in the car with my parents, headed to celebrate my niece’s 6th birthday I leave you with a few links to peruse in my absence.

My piece for the Future of Judaism Series at Patheos: An Ever-Evolving Judaism: Women Meeting the Needs of Community

The entire “Future of Judaism” series at Patheos.

A brief blog post about the series which acknowledged my piece from MyJewishLearning.com

I’d love to hear your feedback!

The women who inspire me….

Post by Melissa (Photo Copyright realphotography.com)

Into each of our lives, come people who inspire us and who we look to for advice and mentorship.  I am lucky to have had a few Rebbetzins as these people in my life, who I can only hope to emulate in some small way when my time comes.  I want to take a moment to talk about the three Rebbetzin mentors I have had to date, and the strongest lessons I have learned from them.

The first Rebbetzin who really made a positive impact on my life and serves as my mental inspiration, is Debbie.  Debbie was always happy to welcome new and familiar faces to both the synagogue and her home.  I will never forget the first time I had lunch at her home and she said the following when I asked if I could help: “This is your first time here, you are a guest.  Next time you come, don’t wait this long. Just make yourself comfortable and do what needs to be done.” Granted, it has been a few years so my recollection may have slightly changed her words, but definitely not the thought behind them.  Debbie also had four children underfoot, so having friendly visitors who could be useful was a great asset.  She was sure to find a balance between making new people feel welcomed and appreciated and treated as guests, and also making sure everything happened and people felt comfortable in her home.

The second Rebbetzin who has strongly impacted my life is Tammy (pictured happily dancing with me at my wedding).  Tammy may be the wife of a Rabbi and the mother of four wonderful teenagers, but her knowledge and wisdom goes far beyond that.  I was recently engaged in a conversation about who our Rabbi’s were, and I had to admit that honestly, mine is not anyone with smicha (Rabbinic ordination), but rather – Tammy.  She is the person I approach with my questions and the one I trust to give me a truthful and halachic answer, that is also relevant to life as a Jewish woman.  Tammy takes the time to get to know the people in her community and to find ways to get people involved.  She is always happy to help connect people to each other and the greater Jewish community.  I know that I can not attempt to count the ways in which she has enriched my life,  including and most importantly – introducing D to our synagogue’s young adult community.

Last, but certainly not least – and certainly not the last Rebbetzin who will inspire me, is Melanie.  Melanie is not only a Rebbetzin in my community, but a very dear friend.  On a regular basis she reminds me, and others, that it is but one of many hats she wears.  While her husband is a Rabbi, she too has a professional and personal life.  She is an amazing mother to her three young children, and is never afraid to get down on the floor and just be a mom.  Her children already love being Jewish and have a sense of giving and tzedakah, which is greater than many of my peers.  Melanie inspires me daily and this is but one small and very special part of that.

Not ironically, all of these women are well educated in Judaism and have social work backgrounds.   Each of them shines a light on what it means to be an educated lay leader and an observant Conservative woman.  If I can take just one thing from each of them, it would be their welcoming spirits and eagerness to meet new people.  They truly will always be a part of me and I cannot thank them for that enough.

Guest Post: What Do You Call the Male Rabbi’s Male Spouse, or Do You?

I met Joe Hample in the summer of 2005 at Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform synagogue with mostly gay and lesbian members in Los Angeles. He was back from his first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.  He was 48 and I was 55. We were going together by December of ‘05. In the fall of 2007,  Joe became BCC’s  student rabbi. Everyone joked that I was the student rebbitzin.  I reminded him of people’s names and what he was supposed to know about them. I also fended off people who had a project for Joe, even the rabbi.
We talked about where Joe would go when he was ordained, and I understood that we would be likely to leave Los Angeles. I agreed that we could live wherever he got a job.
Joe took an internship in New York City in the summer of 2008, the summer when all the long-term same-gender couples were deliriously getting married. I didn’t think we would do it. Then Joe asked me. After a two-hour discussion, I said “Yes.”.  Rabbi Lisa Edwards from BCC performed the ceremony on November 1. There was a tremendous energy to the wedding, everyone knowing our rights could be taken away the following Tuesday.  Our marriage has remained valid in California.
Our real problem came with placement in the spring of 2009. Only two Reform congregations asked Joe to visit, one in northeastern Tennessee, and one in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I visited both congregations with him. Neither hired him, and the Pennsylvania congregation told him they objected to his “lifestyle.” They had pledged not to discriminate based on sexual orientation. I know my presence hindered him. People can ignore that you are gay if they choose, but not when you bring your partner.
Joe  worked a few part-time, underpaid jobs in L.A.  after ordination, and taught some classes. He took over a monthly student pulpit in  California’s Central Valley.  His “stipend”  just about paid for  gas to drive there. I went with him a few times.
Joe had applied to work in the California prison system. Last November, he was interviewed at Pelican Bay Prison, in the northwest corner of California. We moved to Crescent City this past January. There are only a handful of Jews in the area, and a congregation so small they couldn’t scare up a minyan for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. A rabbi comes from Arcata, 75 miles away, one Friday monthly. The other Fridays, Joe is happy to lead the service. The few people there have become our friends.
The prison didn’t ask  Joe about his spouse.  His congregants are all incarcerated, most for life. No one in the prison administration  socializes with us.  I’m happy to not  have “rebbitzin” duties.
It’s a  small  town. When people ask why I moved here, I say “The rabbi at Pelican Bay is my husband.” It took some time for me to be able to say that, but now I do.

Barry Wendell was born and raised in suburban Baltimore. He lived in Los Angeles for twenty-five years until moving to Crescent City,CA in January with his spouse, Rabbi Joseph B. Hample. Barry retired after more than eighteen years as a substitute teacher in 2004, and also worked as a cantorial soloist and bar/bat mitzvah tutor. His writings include a piece in “Jewish Currents” about his marriage to Rabbi Hample, and numerous angry letters-to-the-editor of a variety of publications. He was the balloon vendor in the first episode of “Flash Forward” last year on ABC.

Jessica’s Story – I’ve Always Been Jewish

My life has always been so Jewish that I find it funny that I really am a baalat teshuva. Isn’t that reserved for those dear friends of mine who grew up never setting foot inside a synagogue?

One of my first baby pictures attests to the fact that my family always went to synagogue. My dad, with a satin kippah given to him by my grandfather perched on his head, holding me after my naming ceremony at our synagogue. Granted, the ceremony took place in a Progressive synagogue in South Africa, but still. They took me to have the ceremony.

My dad grew up Methodist, and my mom says that she found the only non-Jewish guy in the room when they met. My dad, a student at the local medical school, proposed to my mom in a letter while he was on a rotation in London, miserable from missing her. My mother’s parents, Orthodox themselves although my mother had become Reform a few years before, were only concerned that he would convert, which he did.

Throughout our time in South Africa, we were active in the Jewish community. I went to a Jewish preschool, and my mom ran the religious school. However, things in South Africa were precarious, and when I was seven years old, my parents made the decision to immigrate to a small town in Canada. The only problem was the total lack of Jewish community. We did the best we could, and managed pretty well. My mom came to my class at school to talk about the Jewish holidays. In fact, she was legendary for bringing matzah with chocolate frosting to school the first year we were there. I have no idea where she got the matzah from, nor the Hebrew books she taught me with for those three years. We made a diorama sukkah, since it was already snowing and freezing by the time Sukkot came around, and we have a videotape of me reading the four questions in preparation for Passover. By the time we left, we had a family that we would always invite to celebrate with us.

After three years in Canada, we moved to a small town in Illinois so that my dad could get his American medical license. At the time, with a Reform synagogue of 60 families, it seemed like a veritable Jewish metropolis. Once we lived there, however, I faced the reality of being one of only two Jewish kids in my school until I graduated high school.

Synagogue was my lifeline. I went to services, taught religious school, had a Bat Mitzvah and was Confirmed. Then, at the beginning of my junior year, I tried out NFTY, and it was like drinking water for the first time in years. Almost all my Jewish friends in high school were through NFTY, and I learned so much about being Jewish. My friends and I wept at the last NFTY event we would attend as participants. Needless to say, my experience with NFTY and my experience with my synagogue pushed me to want to be involved in the on campus Jewish community, but what I found there was nothing like I expected.

Coming on Monday: Why do I feel like a stranger in a strange religion?