Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

A guest post – by Elisheva Mason

Reflections of a modern Orthodox Jewish woman, Rebbetzin and a bit of Feminist

Growing up in Poland, I didn’t know how orthodox life really looked like. I didn’t know that there were different ways to express oneself within the orthodox world. When my family started going to shul, we were surrounded by a minyan of men – all Holocaust survivors in their 70’s and 80’s – ‘the last Jews of Poland’. I remember them all very fondly – remembering their davening by heart, singing the tunes of the pre- was Chassidic Poland, still wanting to celebrate the festivals. None of them were religious and they were slightly sceptical about the new generation of young religious people like myself.

My first encounter with orthodoxy was the Lauder Foundation Educational Camp with ‘real’ orthodox guests and educators who taught and lived religious life.  All of us- young people- were trying to emulate and be like them. It was easy to do so at the camp itself. It was a really uplifting experience. In reality however, it was really hard to maintain this in day to day life in our communities. There were no facilities for kosher food, no educational opportunities. Polish people were not ready to accept a new generation of Jewish youth that was trying to exist on both levels – as Poles and Jews.

One summer I had an opportunity to go and learn in Israel. I went to a Women’s Seminary in a more religious neighbourhood of Jerusalem – which was the first time that I was living a day to day orthodox life. I learnt there a lot- I started to understand the halachic path and process of thinking and where a lot of laws came from and how. I grew in great respect and awe for Halacha and all the Sages before us.  My passion was always in analysing the Torah text. I had a fantastic time, made a lot of friends who ended up in various path of orthodox life (yes- orthodoxy has various paths!). But I never took things blindly – already then I needed to find my own path and struggle within the laws to find a way I could feel comfortable with. (Not many people would know that I don’t like to fit into a mould and I think about what I’m doing!)

At one point I decided to move on, but I’m very thankful for the time I spent learning- It really gave me my basis for understanding the orthodox life and its ways.

I moved to Bar Ilan University and I was living amongst different kinds of people- less, more or even not religious. I really appreciated being in this environment as it gave me a broader perspective on Israeli society and religious- secular relations.  At that point I also felt more comfortable with a life that combines ‘secular’ life with my Judaism.

Slowly I also realised that my connection and commitment to Halacha (Jewish Law) and its process is an essential part of my life and still shaping who I am. Although I felt already then, that there is a need to value different halachic opinions, it is important to question things because that allows room to learn and find out where different laws are coming from.

Getting married meant that I didn’t have to shape my future alone. David is a fantastic person to talk about ideas to. I knew already that I value my own engagement in the world and workplace and I, as a woman, can contribute to the world I live in as well. I studied, worked professionally, and was involved in Torah learning.

When I came to Britain I had to become someone else- a Rebbetzin! This can mean fitting into a specific mould and fulfilling certain expectations.  This was not what I really wanted. Again- I wanted to find my own way within as well.  For me a Rebbetzin is someone who has unique personalities, wants to connect with people in the community, and is friendly, engaging and hospitable.  But she is her own individual, with life commitments and career. I decided to be who I am and shape my own path within the communal life. I like being my own individual.

My individuality also expresses itself within my observance. I’m committed to orthodox way of life- most authentic in my mind, with its chain of tradition-this is so important to me. But it is actually more than that- its powerful to think that that tradition goes back to the times of the Torah. The Sages that took the tradition on and passed it down further had to constantly adapt the original though into new cases and situations – hence the name Halacha- coming from the world- ‘halicha’- walking, path, development. I have a great respect for all those before me (whose knowledge is beyond mine) who are able to connect and develop the Torah to today’s world.

Yet I don’t think that questioning and finding new ideas within is wrong- quite the opposite- for me it only shows a commitment to engage in the Torah and Halacha, it shows that we are dedicated to learn it and apply to our own life as well. It shows intelligence and engagement.  The key, I believe, is learning, because only through learning can one know where the ideas are coming from, what is their source and where is there a flexibility and how can I express it.

As a woman I do want to feel valued and appreciated. I want to engage with my Judaism and express it. But for me, this needs to be done out of commitment to my Judaism and all its laws.

For me it’s been a journey of personal development.