Rabbi Julia Neuberger: Highly unorthodox

There was a time when one could hardly turn on the TV or open a newspaper without encountering the distinctive face and controversial views of Rabbi Julia Neuberger. Then suddenly, she seemed to vanish from public life altogether. So what happened? And why, asks Peter Stanford, is she now back with such a ferocious critique of life in 21st-century Britain?

She was undeniably exotic, usually billed as Britain's first female rabbi, and in the 1980s and 1990s, the formidable figure of Rabbi Julia Neuberger enjoyed a very high profile indeed. She was pretty - her small, feline, delicate face topped by wonderfully baby-blonde curls - but she was also fiercely opinionated and articulate on every social, ethical and political problem that was thrown at her. And she was completely fearless about being controversial inside and outside her faith. She was as adept at taking middle England to task over its attitude to women as she was lambasting Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits for his suggestion that gays could be "cured".

She was undeniably exotic, usually billed as Britain's first female rabbi, and in the 1980s and 1990s, the formidable figure of Rabbi Julia Neuberger enjoyed a very high profile indeed. She was pretty - her small, feline, delicate face topped by wonderfully baby-blonde curls - but she was also fiercely opinionated and articulate on every social, ethical and political problem that was thrown at her. And she was completely fearless about being controversial inside and outside her faith. She was as adept at taking middle England to task over its attitude to women as she was lambasting Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits for his suggestion that gays could be "cured".

The broadcasters loved her. Not only did Neuberger tick all the requisite boxes for inclusion of minorities on the airwaves, she was compelling on screen. She even had her own chat show called Choices which ran for two series in the late 1980s. "What I learnt very soon after being ordained," she recalls, "was to let the media have its story about me as the first woman rabbi, but then to use that interest to get across my views on other issues. So I answered all the bloody silly questions about what a woman rabbi wears on her head and then switched the conversation to what I really wanted to talk about."

Then almost overnight she disappeared. Not literally, for she still sat on endless public bodies, from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to the committee reviewing funding of the BBC, but you no longer saw her face so often. She left her synagogue in Streatham, south London - "I heard myself giving the same sermon. I thought, I'm boring me. I must be boring them" - to chair a community health trust and then for six years ran the King's Fund, the health think tank. It was, by the standards of what had gone before, back room stuff and, she now admits, a "retreat" after she had been worn down and worn out in the front-line.

However, with the impending publication of her "moral manifesto for 21st-century Britain", 55-year-old Rabbi Julia Neuberger is back with a bang from self-imposed obscurity. Contained in a book with the provocative title The Moral State We're In, Neuberger's diagnosis of our national crisis is bleak. Margaret Thatcher's infamous and much-derided remark that there is no such thing as society is, the rabbi claims, in danger of becoming true.

To avoid social disintegration, she sets out a range of practical measures that need to be taken. They include free care for the elderly after those who can have paid their way for two years; legalisation of voluntary euthanasia; a new, more open regime in children's homes; a return to hands-on work for nurses; and a U-turn on prison policy. It's a comprehensive programme that has been shaped, she insists, more as a result of 30 years' experience than because of any political affiliation, though recently she took a peerage and sits in the House of Lords on the Liberal Democrat benches.

The lives of those she writes about so passionately - asylum seekers, the mentally ill and the homeless - seem a million away from the red and green, book-lined upstairs sitting room of Julia Neuberger's large end-of-terrace house near Regent's Park in central London. I've never been to a rabbi's house before and have in mind something akin to the bleak Catholic presbyteries of the type celebrated in Father Ted. All tea trollies and ancient, uncomfortable armchairs. Instead, I'm in an affluent family home, full of the debris of normal busy lives, and lined with pictures of Neuberger's husband, Anthony, and their grown-up children Harriet and Matthew.

There are snowflakes swirling outside the big sash windows and the rabbi is wrapped up against the cold in a huge golden embroidered wrap that all but swamps her tiny figure. Her face seems hardly a line older than last time I saw her on TV and remains just as compelling as it ever was in its ceaseless animation. "I'm not a theologian," she tells me, leaning forward to make eye contact, "and I'm not a philosopher. My book is the work of a generalist social policy person who happens to be a rabbi and it is addressed not just to Jews but to the same wide, popular audience that reads the Daily Mail."

It is that combination of rabbi and campaigner that she hopes will get her the sort of attention denied to others speaking out on the same issues. Her ordination may have been three decades ago but being the only woman rabbi we've still ever heard of gives her a certain moral authority and an enduring celebrity.

"I've been worrying away about all these issues individually for years," she says, her voice high, but clear and precise. "The more I have seen, the more detail I've gone into through my work about how we treat people who are vulnerable, the more I have realised the links. That is what my manifesto is about - making the links, putting all these questions together. It is about saying that asylum seekers, the elderly, the mentally ill, children in care, are distinct groups, but how we treat them in terms of public policy is connected."

Those links boil down to several key points in the manifesto. First, that the welfare state in all these areas has become too punitive, too geared to means tests and Government targets, too little concerned with individual needs and anxieties. "This Government promised to sort out so much and has ended up fudging most things or making them worse." Second, that public caring institutions such as children's homes have become so risk-averse that they exclude the public from their corridors and so stop the rest of society feeling any tangible responsibility for the vulnerable in our midst. And third - and this is where her unique background as a pastor and a politician allows her to move seamlessly from analysis to something more touchy-feely - that we need to be kinder.

"We place all sorts of institutional obstacles in the way of people being kinder, especially those who are doing the caring on our behalf for the vulnerable. It has become quite hard to * be kind. You'll probably be done for assault." She leaves a pause for effect, and takes another gulp of the tea that she is drinking out of what looks like a pub tankard. "Why is it that homeless, mentally ill people say they get more kindness from café owners and people in the library than they do from outreach workers? What does that tell us? It's not because the outreach workers are unkind people. It's that the system militates against them being kind. They've got goals they must meet and befriending isn't targetable."

Part policy, part anecdotal observation, Neuberger's manifesto lacks just one thing in its broad sweep - anything explicitly religious. To an extent that reflects how Neuberger is in person. She affects no air - usually beloved of Christian men of the cloth - of carrying God in her shadow. She dresses like a professional woman and doesn't even have her own synagogue, though she is honorary president of a small one in Fitzrovia.

"I may no longer have my own congregation," she counters, "but I will never stop being a rabbi. That is what I am." It is all, she explains, a question of perception - or rather misconception in our still nominally Christian country. "Christians tend to think of rabbis as clergy, but we are not. A rabbi is a teacher. I do think I have got a vocation but not as a priest, for instance, would understand it."

For Neuberger that enduring vocation is worldly and practical rather than spiritual and prayerful. She is now aiming to redirect her teaching mission to show the rest of us what is wrong with our society. "I come out of that broad Jewish social-justice tradition which teaches us that we do have an obligation as human beings to even things up. There's a Jewish phrase - tikkun olam - to make the world better. If you had to find a logic that explains everything I have done and the many turns in my career that otherwise seem very odd, that phrase would do it."

Neuberger was born in Hampstead, the clever only child of a mother who escaped Germany in 1937 and a father whose German banking family had tried to make him into an English gentleman. She presented her decision to become a rabbi in her 1995 book, On Being Jewish, as something that she just stumbled into by accident. She'd gone up to Cambridge to read Assyriology and was heading for a glittering academic career when one of her teachers, a rabbi, suggested that she should follow his example. "I was not very religious," she wrote, "also female, and not sure that being a rabbi was sufficiently academically rigorous for me."

She did, however, allow her arm to be twisted and in 1975 was ordained. She was actually Britain's second woman rabbi - but the first, Jackie Tabick, would have nothing to do with the media. Neuberger had no such qualms.

Her parents, she recalls, were simply amazed at her decision. "My mother had been a communist in her youth and had little time for religion. My father had more, but wasn't quite sure what he thought about women rabbis. He got better about it with a little bit of bullying from his friends. At first, he used to sit at the back of synagogue where I was preaching and say, 'load of rubbish'."

Despite her laugh, this description makes his behaviour sound unkind and she backtracks not entirely convincingly to stress that he was simply winding her up. The two were close. Her drive, she believes, comes from him. She was clearly never someone who would have been content staying at home stirring the chicken soup - even if she knew how to make it. In her early years as a rabbi, one of the many sacrileges she committed in the eyes of Orthodox Jews was to debunk dietary laws, stating "what you eat doesn't make you Jewish".

She may have taken a sabbatical from the limelight, but for many in her faith she will always be unwelcome simply on account of her gender rather than her national profile and independent views. Some prejudices though, she reports, are now slowly abating, with Jewish charities which previously had refused to have anything to do with her, working with her on plans for a London Jewish centre. She has even, she admits, been forced to rethink - or at least adjust - some of her previous controversial positions. "I'm a convert, for instance, to having Holocaust Memorial Day. I didn't like the idea at the beginning, but I can see now that it serves a better purpose that I thought it might." She's unable to leave it there, though. "I still wonder," she adds, "if we shouldn't be marking genocide more widely."

Arguably more mellow, Julia Neuberger remains at heart the same maverick. It's key to her appeal. Any club she's in, she can't quite keep the rules. So as we talk she lists Liberal Democrat policies that she disagrees with. And though she has been, over the years, appointed to sit on numerous establishment bodies such as the General Medical Council, the trustees of the Imperial War Museum and the Committee for Standards in Public Life, she has never, she says, stopped thinking of herself as an outsider. So there may be invitations with the Royal coat of arms on the noticeboard outside her kitchen that we pass as she walks me down to face the blizzard outside her front door, but part of her will always remain, she asserts, a second-generation refugee.

The passage of time, then, has not essentially changed Rabbi Julia Neuberger. It has simply given her new perspectives. "I've realised," she reflects, "that you have to play it both ways if you are really going to change things. You have to be sufficiently trusted by the insiders that they don't think you're a complete nutcase, and you have to be enough of an outsider to be able to see the bigger picture." Whether she has got the balance right, she is about to find out.

RABBI JULIA NEUBERGER SPEAKS OUT ON THE STATE OF 21ST-CENTURY BRITAIN

Troubled teenagers "We want anti-social behaviour orders for unruly teenagers, taking power away from parents and leaving them feeling inadequate and unsupported, yet we still relish the thought of the family - if it is the two-parent conventional model, of course. At the same time many of us are loathe to have children and increasingly see [them] as a nuisance."

Prisons "We have a prison system that brutalises prisoners, and society in general is allowed to ignore what goes on."

Children "When photographs of children at nursery school cannot be taken without parental consent, for fear of pornographic use, we have a problem."

Asylum seekers "Abuse of asylum seekers and refugees should be seen for what it is: ugly, racist and a cowardly targeting of the vulnerable. It should be regarded as unacceptable - and prosecuted."

Old people "There is clearly a need for an older people's movement above and beyond what Help The Aged and Age Concern now do, a movement that fights hard and dirty and that makes government wake up to what older people are feeling."

Suicide "[If] one were suffering unbearable pain, or extreme depression, there is a strong case for saying such suicides are not sinful. I say this despite the teachings of almost all the religious groupings."

The mentally ill "What kind of society is it that locks up those with mental illness in prisons, rather than placing them where they can get help, that fills them up with drugs but shows them little kindness?"

Trust "Unless we rethink our social obligations and reassess the issue of trust, we will become even more cynical, even more atomistic, even more individualistic - and there will then really be no such thing as society."

From 'The Moral State We're In' by Julia Neuberger, published by HarperCollins on March 14, priced £16.99

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