Julia Neuberger wasn't having much luck as an archaeologist. While a student, she was barred from an excavation in Iraq on account of being Jewish and then from a dig in Turkey on account of being British (a British archaeologist had been accused of theft). It was towards the end of her third year at Cambridge that her supervisor, Nicholas de Lange, now Professor of Jewish Studies, came up with Plan B: why not become a rabbi?
"I thought he was completely barmy," Julia remembers. However, being Jewish and British was clearly no bar to being a rabbi. Nor was being a woman, apart from in the Orthodox sector of the Jewish faith. Having switched from Assyrian-with-Hebrew to Hebrew-with-Assyrian, she had stretched her course to a fourth year, during which she spent one day a week at Leo Baeck College in London, the Jewish equivalent of a C of E theological training college.
This convinced her to enter the college full-time after graduating. Jackie Tabick, two years ahead of her on the course, became the first woman rabbi and Julia Neuberger duly became the second. "'Rabbi' means 'my teacher' and you simply have the right to teach." You don't have to run a synagogue and, conversely, "you don't need a rabbi to conduct a service." However, part of the student rabbi course involved being a kind of curate and she found the pastoral side particularly engaging.
For 12 years she was the rabbi at the South London Liberal Synagogue. "I loved it." Although she and her husband (a civil servant, now an academic) bought their own house, she was offered living accommodation, just as a vicar has the use of a vicarage. As for the salary, synagogue mice turned out to be not quite as poor as church mice: "It didn't seem like much but it seemed a lot compared to Anglican clergy."
It was not a loss of faith which caused her to leave the Liberal Synagogue. (She still has the title of rabbi and still conducts services.) "I heard myself giving the same sermon. I think I was getting stale and I think I am best in the first five-to-seven years of a job." She stuck to that self-imposed quality-time limit when she became chief executive of the King's Fund and later when she chaired the Camden and Islington Community Health Trust.
Now Baroness Neuberger, she is one of two female ministers of religion in the Lords; she has been a working peer for two years, which, according to her own theory, gives her another half a decade at top gear. (She is also an author but that trade has no time-frame.) Have people been nicer to her since she became a rabbi? "No, but they are now I'm in the Lords."
'The Moral State We're In' by Julia Neuberger is out now in paperbackReuse content