Rabbi Sheila Shulman z”l

Our Founding Rabbi

Zekher tzadik livrakha – may the memory of this righteous one be a blessing.

From Janet, Varda and Laura on 25 October 2014

‘It was with great sorrow, poems and songs that we said goodbye to our beloved Sheila at four o’clock today. She was peaceful and surrounded by many friends whose lives she touched, and changed.’

Rabbi Sheila influenced many people – here are their tributes to her

From Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry: 

You can go home again … so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been”.
Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed

Friday afternoons I would arrive at Sheila’s flat, we would have lunch – and after eat a little dark chocolate, drink tea with lemon and honey, then lean back, let things settle – listen for awhile to life’s traffic passing below us, a cigarette would always be rolled, and then the conversation would begin.

Nothing new. This was an ongoing conversation, a conversation that we had been having for years, an unchanging conversation but one that was never approached in the same way twice. It was a conversation that would inevitably lead to me searching for books on her shelves, for poetry in boxes, for sermons and articles filed meticulously, and with every passing moment of this search memories and influences would fill her small front room.

We would revisit, decode her annotated notes, add some new thoughts, commentary, struggling all the while to articulate what it was that so puzzled and preoccupied us – and then quite often Sheila would pause, thumb through some pages to find the right passage, I would wait for a moment or two – and then listen –  to a complex thoughtful delivery of familiar words, read almost from memory, and hear something that spoke directly, powerfully, clearly – almost mysteriously  – to the questions that our conversation posed. Whether Rilke, or Proust, Buber or Heschel, Kafka, Brecht or Dostoevsky – Sheila’s profound and intimate knowledge of this literature took us across thresholds of learning that were rich in insight into our human condition. She was an extraordinary woman. Yes, irritated by stupidity, often cross, and sometimes difficult to approach – but always there with a sensitivity to, and compassion for all of our crushing weaknesses, for all those things that she knew made us who and what we are. She knew strength – but was intimate with frailty. That was her magnet.

As the years, and Friday afternoons passed – our conversation often turned to mothers and lovers, to women whose forte it was to change minds and worlds, who transgressed boundaries, broke the rules, and disturbed the peace. It turned to those: “who simply struggled to stay alive” (Sheila), to lesbian feminists who wrote and spoke without fear, challenging orthodoxies with poetic and political voices. Sheila placed her self in this radical collective of inconvenient truth tellers and then set out on a journey that few who knew her would have anticipated. Immersing herself in the literature of her ancestors she found in the rich tapestry of texts, not only the multiple anarchic voices of Talmudic tradition, but a thread of transgression, of stories that challenged, provoked and rooted her. From then on she fought and taught simultaneously – embodying the struggle to be taken seriously, to be heard, and accepted as a radical lesbian feminist, as a scholar and rabbi, as: equally part of – but crucially never the same as.

Sheila founded Beit Klal Yisrael, taught at Leo Baeck College, worked at Finchley Reform, was published, and sometimes applauded, followed but also derided. Incisive and intellectual she drew the margins into the centre and back out again. Hers was the wisdom of the liminal that only the truly exiled know. She inhabited the threshold, lived on the brink, but was made heartsick by the marginalisation of others and homesick for some thing better. She was angry: “that injustice had become so ubiquitous that to speak, or think, about anything else, felt like … a treacherous silence” (Sheila). This was the conversation then on those Friday afternoons – we talked and searched for a way forward and back, to that place that cannot be reached, for the signs that tell us where we need to arrive but can never be found. Our conversations sought the “better world” (Sheila), for that place that we might finally call home. This was Sheila’s conversation, her life and her legacy – and like the many others who knew and loved her, I am haunted by it. So with as much fidelity that I can muster, I will remember it, repeat it, and teach it whenever and to whoever I can.

From Rabbi Janet Burden:

Here, the sea strains to climb up on the land
and the wind blows dust in a single direction.  
The trees bend themselves all one way 
and volcanoes explode often  
Why is this?  Many years back 
a woman of strong purpose 
passed through this section 
and everything else tried to follow.

Judy Grahn, ‘A Geology Lesson’
The Work of a Common Woman 
London:  Onlywomen Press, 1985,  

I have spent over twenty years in the wake of this particular woman of strong purpose.  If we want to keep moving towards the vision of Jewish communities worthy of Sheila’s memory, we need the courage to build the paths as we walk them.  I wish us all the will and the strength to do so.

From Ella (given at the celebration of Rabbi Sheila’s life in May 2015):

15 years ago, I was asked to give a speech at BKY’s 10th anniversary party, as the sole member of BKY’s ‘youth group’, and I’ve been asked to say a few words today as the only member who actually grew up in BKY, about that experience.

As a child, I was bought up aware of and proud of the fact that I am Jewish, but my Jewish education was limited and my home life avowedly secular. My parents had always told me that if I wanted a bat mitzvah, they would support that, but it was entirely up to me, and it wouldn’t be accompanied by a party (they wanted to make sure the motivation was right). I was 14 when I realised it was important to me to have a bat mitzvah, and having said they’d support me, my parents weren’t sure where to turn. My grandmother suggested the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi Schmuley Boteach. A family friend suggested Janet Burden (well, Thornley, as she then was). I met both, and let’s say that the best choice for me was pretty obvious! Janet introduced me to BKY. I don’t know if she knew it at the time, but by 14, I had realised that I was more attracted to women than men, and was finding this rather hard to come to terms with. How fortuitous then, to land at BKY, where I could explore Judaism and what it meant to be gay at the same time and, most importantly, safely. At BKY, I felt that I belonged and that I was truly accepted for who I was (not something I was experiencing at school) and it was wonderful to meet and make friends with so many other gay people. It did, however, take another five years (until I went to university) to realise that not all lesbians are at least 20 years older than me and that some have long hair!

On the theme of friendships, I can’t stress enough how important and formative those I’ve made at BKY have been. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Janet. Ever since bringing me here as 18 years ago and preparing me for my bat mitzvah, you have been an extraordinary teacher, mentor and friend, an absolute rock for me, someone I could talk to about anything when I couldn’t talk to anyone else. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if we hadn’t met or if you weren’t in it. Thank you for everything. It would also be impossible to talk about growing up at BKY without mentioning Sheila, whose intellect, passion and humour was always an inspiration. What a role model!

I’ve never been in any doubt about how special a community BKY is. I love that everything here is questioned and discussed, be that liturgy or the nature of the community itself. It still strikes me as extraordinary, and wonderful, that our seder contains the passage ‘a contemplation for those who do not define their belief as a belief in God’. When we, as a community, discuss the nature of BKY, the word ‘challenging’ comes up often. I think that’s important and I wouldn’t feel as at home here if it weren’t for that. But there’s another characteristic of BKY which doesn’t seem to get mentioned as often, and which is just as crucial, and that’s a joyous exuberance. When I think about my favourite moments at BKY over the past 18 years, they all have that quality. Dancing to Klezmer Klub, feeling dazzled and inspired by Sheila and Judith’s sermons, Berta’s smile, Donal’s belting out of ‘oseh shalom’, the celebration of my bat mitzvah. I could go on.

As I think back on how far the community has come since I joined, I’m also excited about its future. There is a proper ‘youth’ element to BKY now, children who are growing up from the start in BKY. And even as the demographic expands, I’m glad to see that this community in still the natural home for the next generation of young lesbians exploring their Judaism.

I am so grateful for having grown up in BKY. I wouldn’t be the adult I am without it.

From Pamela:

I first met Sheila when she was training as a rabbi. The synagogue in Cambridge phoned me to say they had a visiting trainee rabbi and could I put her up for the night. I have no idea how or why they chose to ask me, but I have always been so glad they did. We sat up for what seemed like hours that night and Sheila told me how she came to be training as a rabbi. It felt close and special, and I am sure that most people who have known her will recognise that feeling. I was invited and attended her ordination which I found very moving. I joined BKY but only attended a few times as I then got ill. I have been unable to visit her because I am more or less housebound and I would have so liked to have seen her again. I shall always feel sadness that I couldn’t visit. I hope she is now at peace. 

From Vicky:

Sheila was a woman who taught me SO much over more than 20 years: about Judaism, about speaking up as a woman and about knowing what you will never give up. I once tried to persuade her to give up smoking – I never tried again!

She was a model of generosity and never wasted words.
I will hold her close in my mind as I grow older.

Sheila reading at Onlywomen event c1986

From Robert:

I have loved and respected Sheila as long as I have known her, which is for 30 years. Sheila transformed my whole approach to the religious life when she taught me that Judaism does not distinguish between the Letter and the Spirit. As I said in the Mi Shebeirach that I wrote for her farewell service when she retired from Finchley Reform Synagogue, another of Sheila’s great contributions was to remind us all that righteous indignation is a Divine attribute!


From Phil:

It was Janet Burden who put me in contact with Sheila in order to guide me through the process of converting to Judaism.

Initially I was rather taken aback by Sheila’s robust, outspoken and direct manner. Plus I left the first meeting high as a kite from all the cigarette smoke in the air!!

I soon realised I had met one of my closest friends…we chatted for hours on end. When she was initially diagnosed with cancer I spent the day holding her hand for biopsy and scan galore and loved her more for her unassuming vulnerability.

I have known and lost many friends but I really have never known a depth of grief that I feel on losing this principled, stubborn, argumentative, chain smoking, adorable friend.

From David:

Sheila’s long-range wedding speech

Rabbi Sheila lead me through the conversion process at FRS, and then married me and Abigail there in 1992. At the wedding, the intensity of her presence with us on the bimah, and the power of her passionate address, was moving for everyone. I smile most, though, at the memory of Sheila’s impact on the wedding reception, where she – I think inadvertently – put the non-Jewish, somewhat irreligious contingent from my side of the family completely at ease: they totally identified with her deep yearning to be outside the function room smoking cigarettes, rather than inside listening to the speeches. I was flattered when my uncle asked for a printed copy of what Sheila had said in the synagogue that day – but later, when Abigail and I went to my cousin’s church wedding in Yorkshire a few weeks afterwards, we were horrified when my uncle – as the father of the bride, announced that he had been to a ‘proper wedding’ a few weeks previously, and had been so moved at what he heard that he wanted to repeat – word for word – what Sheila had said. And he read out Sheila’s speech, which was full of the most specific details of my relationship with Abigail, stuff that really was exclusive to us, including references to the Bund and bits of Yiddish which Abigail had to stand up and translate as best she could. It was the most embarrassing, and the most marvellous tribute to the power of Sheila’s shockingly honest, gutsy, truthful voice, that the echoes of what she had said – partly to our wedding guests, but mostly to us, the newly-weds, in front of our loved ones – were still so powerful for a group of strangers, distant in very many ways from their intended audience. Twenty two years later our daughter leads an egalitarian minyan at her university; in many ways, Abigail and I have spent the intervening time trying to be the people Sheila described on the bimah at our wedding. I wonder if she knew how far her strength and wisdom extended. I think she did.

From Anna Wilson: (given at the celebration of Rabbi Sheila’s life in May 2015):

We are a few of Sheila’s friends—“feminist friends” on your programme. You may ask what that means, or if you don’t, we’re going to tell you anyway. If there’s one thing that being around Sheila should have taught you, it’s that not saying will get us nowhere except ignored, side-lined, stepped over.

When Sheila first talked about becoming a rabbi, we asked why? Often rather less politely. It wasn’t that we didn’t get the importance of a Jewish identity to many lesbian feminists—but that structure? Really?

So she explained.:

  • What did we do, when we fought our way to a lesbian identity? We created a community for ourselves, so that we could survive.
  • What did we do, when we took on the women’s movement? We changed it, we made it take account of us, we moved feminism on, just as we changed the world around us.
  • And that’s what I’m going to do now, Sheila said. I’m making a Jewish community. Because if you don’t do it for yourself, it won’t exist.

So in celebrating Sheila, let us celebrate the drive that united all her endeavours, the passion that made what she achieved possible as well as necessary. Understand that Sheila’s earlier modes of being, her earlier histories as a lesbian feminist activist, printer, poet, friend and lover were at one with her later incarnations. Different expressions of a single, integral impetus to make a community—many communities–in which she could participate fully.

From Susan Sutcliffe (talking about the early days of BKY at the celebration of Rabbi Sheila’s life in May 2015):

From quite early on, BKY started putting on a variety of after-service events, roughly once a month on Friday evenings, identity panels being one of the formats for these varied evenings.

An ID panel was a talk given by a group or 4 or 5 BKY members with something in common;  each person in turn spoke, often very personally, about his or her experience in relation to the in-common factor.  

The panels I have been able to establish as having been held ( organised over many years by Lesley Urbach) are:

  • Being Jewish and Lesbian
  • Being Jewish and  gay
  • People from an Orthodox Jewish background
  • People whose parents came from Nazi Europe
  • Patrilineal Jews  (that is –  Jewish father, non-J mother)
  • Jews by Choice  (that is – people who had chosen to convert to Judaism)
  • People in the community who came from America
  • People in the community who came from South Africa
  • Members with non-Jewish partners
  • Members from Jewish families but who had not been brought up Jewishly

These panels were very interesting, because people’s individual experiences and their styles of presentation were always so very different.  Also, there were always questions from the audience and often very fascinating ensuing discussions.

The ID panel I most vividly remember was, unsurprisingly, the one I was on – People from South Africa (there are a surprising number of us at BKY… ).

The thing I remember most clearly was the contribution from Zelda Alexander, a longstanding member of BKY who died only a few months ago.  

Zelda talked very impressively and movingly about her family’s involvement in the struggle against the apartheid regime, and in particular about an aunt of hers who had been one of the heroes of the struggle (significantly many of whom were Jews).  This aunt of Zelda’s had been one of those who had spoken out bravely against a vicious government, putting themselves in real danger of arrest, solitary confinement and even torture.  

I think the list of Identity Panels we have held over the years brings out vividly what an amazingly varied community BKY has always been, something Rabbi Sheila fostered and relished.  Long may it continue to thrive as a community in which a huge variety of kinds of people can feel at home.

Links to other tributes to Rabbi Sheila Shulman:

Tribute from Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah: http://www.rabbiellisarah.com/tribute-to-rabbi-sheila-shulman-zl/

Rainbow Jews’ in depth interview with Sheila: http://www.rainbowjews.com/rabbi-sheila-shulman-a-true-pioneer/

Collected tributes from colleagues at Leo Baeck: http://www.lbc.ac.uk/201411101901/News/rabbi-sheila-shulman-zql.html