Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

Feminism and Zionism – a work in progress

Lea Mühlstein
Print this

Published: 27 August 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

LEA MÜHLSTEIN: My work has taught me the power of naming gender injustice and of doing it especially in organisations that see themselves as egalitarian

I HATE HAVING to introduce myself with my pronouns. I have no problem with people wanting to be able to choose their own pronouns, but when asked who I am, there are other aspects of my identity that matter more to me: I am a rabbi, thinker, liturgist, social activist and politician. In the first few years of my rabbinate, this is probably where my list of identity markers would have stopped.

While the ordination of women is no longer something rare, becoming a rabbi was barely imaginable in the community in which I was raised. Four rabbis were present at my Bat Mitzvah in June 1997 in the small Liberal Jewish community, Beth Shalom, in Munich, Germany, and not a woman was among them – what is more, none of us noticed.

Jewish women had been at the forefront of many European women’s movements in the late 19th and 20th century and the first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Germany in 1935 (and killed in Auschwitz in 1944) but, as the French sociologist Beatrice De Gasquet observed, the Holocaust was a major break:

“Unlike the United States, where feminism and a ‘return to one’s roots’ went hand in hand, in Europe religious revitalisation was accompanied by conservative discourses on gender, for the collapse of liberal German Judaism led to the expansion of Orthodox Judaism.”

When I grew up in the 1980s, women were represented in leadership positions in Munich’s Jewish community and posters of the early Zionist pioneers prominently displayed in the Jewish community centre showed young men and women working side-by-side as equals.

And yet, religious leadership in Central Europe, even in Progressive congregations, remained until recently the exclusive domain of men.

During the first years of my rabbinate, I often avoided getting involved with women’s topics. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a woman rabbi. This worked well for our rabbinic team as I am fortunate to be working alongside a wonderful male colleague who is much better than me in what became the female areas of the rabbinate - services for children and pastoral work.

Perhaps because my own movement, Liberal Judaism in the UK, is at the forefront of egalitarianism, it took my work in the international Zionist movement to kindle my feminist activism.

My Zionist work taught me the importance of naming gender injustice, especially in organisations that consider themselves egalitarian.

I inherited from my father a passionate interest in communal politics and followed in his footsteps in advocating for religious pluralism - in his case in Germany, in my case in Israel. Remembering the posters of my childhood, I expected to find the Zionist movement to be fully egalitarian.

But as the American author, journalist, and social activist Loretta “Letty” Cottin Pogrebin put it: “The fact is: the Zionist dream has not delivered for women.” Just as the Zionist dream did not fully deliver for Israeli women, I discovered that it similarly had not delivered for women in the organised Zionist establishment.

When I first become active in the World Zionist Organization, the absence of women in leadership and speaking roles was astounding to me and even our Reform delegation included many more men than women.

When I was elected to be the international chair of Arzenu, the political voice of Reform, Progressive and Liberal Religious Zionists within the World Zionist Organisation, in 2017, I became the first woman rabbi to serve on the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel since its founding in 1929.

I realised there were additional aspects of my identity that I had to contribute to my Zionist work - I am a woman and a radical feminist.

While at first my efforts were largely met with annoyance and ignorance – “what’s the point of counting how many men and women spoke and who was and wasn’t interrupted?” - I was astonished how quickly others began to take notice.

Right at the start of my tenure as Arzenu chair, I remember rejecting a search process that produced an all-male shortlist. I asked us to reflect on the criteria by which we assessed suitability and qualification. For example, were we too focused on prior positional power and experience and thereby simply entrenching the patriarchy?

I was lucky to find wonderful female and male partners willing to join me in bringing about change. We decided to make targeted investments into women’s leadership and attract talented women. In less than four years, we have almost doubled the number of women engaged in our work. And our efforts have caught on well beyond the Progressive movement.

My Zionist work taught me the power of naming gender injustice, not just defying gender stereotyping and the importance of doing this work even, or maybe especially, in organisations that consider themselves egalitarian.

It has inspired me to be more conscious of elevating women’s voices in all my rabbinic work: in my sermons and articles, in my theological thinking and in my work on liturgy. I follow a self-imposed rule that each of my written or spoken works which includes a quote must contain at least one quote by a woman.

And it has taught me the value of being the annoying person who points out that there is more work to be done.

And so, my request to anyone inviting me to speak is, please don’t ask me to introduce myself with my pronouns, but rather with what truly defines who I am so that I can respond instead: “I am Rabbi Lea Mühlstein and I am unapologetic about wanting to dismantle the patriarchy.”

About the author

Lea Mühlstein

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein is Senior Rabbi at The Ark Synagogue, London

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site