Female rabbi’s quandary over wearing her kippa

DIALOGUE: Rabbi Robyn Ashworth Steen and Rt Rev Libby Lane, who were in conversation at Manchester Jewish Museum on Wednesday

WHEN Rabbi Robyn Ashworth Steen was taking her son to school, she had to think very carefully about whether or not she would feel comfortable wearing her kippa.

As Greater Manchester’s first female rabbi — at Manchester Reform Synagogue (Jacksons Row) — this shouldn’t have been an issue.

But she told a 50-strong audience at the annual Council of Christians and Jew Maurice Brunner Memorial Lecture that it was.

She said: “I was walking into King David School with my husband Anthony and thought about taking my kippa off.

“I was terrified of going in and I didn’t know what to expect.

“I stopped in the street and thought, ‘Do I take it off and blend in or not?’.

“I didn’t want to be making a statement — I wear my kippa as I want to remember my connection to the Divine and make sure I remember to live a good life.

“I kept it on and walked in, as my husband told me to stop being ridiculous.

“I realise now that I was quite naive and I’m willing to use it to open dialogue and as a statement of possibilities.”

Rabbi Robyn was in conversation at the event with the first female bishop ordained by the Church of England, Rt Rev Libby Lane, the Bishop of Stockport.

It was hosted by Manchester’s Jewish Museum.

Topics ranged from how they are perceived by wider communities in their roles to how parental leave works for them.

Rabbi Robyn, who is also a human rights lawyer, continued: “I often find funerals very interesting situations for me.

“A very nice, elderly gentleman said to me, ‘You must be really nervous to do public speaking?’.

“After I officiated at the funeral, he said, ‘I see I didn’t need to worry’.

“He might as well have added ‘dear’ to the end of it.

“That kind of thing is not at all violent, or badly meant, but it is slightly destabilising.

“Funerals are the one time I’m not in my progressive bubble, so the entire community can engage with me.

“I’ve had people come up to me and say that they never believed in female rabbis and had actively campaigned against them.

“But then they see me in action and I’ve had experiences of people changing their mind and opinions about me for the better.”

CCJ co-chairman David Arnold gave a vote of thanks.

* Rabbi Robyn's induction ceremony will take place on Sunday, December 16, at Manchester Reform Synagogue (1pm).

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