Chief Rabbi Mirvis

Chief Rabbi Mirvis

by Jenni Frazer

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has launched a groundbreaking and ambitious programme aimed at getting highly qualified Jewish women to serve their communities.

The programme, details of which were revealed to the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue on Monday, is called the “Ma’ayan” course. The name means “spring” or “fountain” and the 18-month long course, due to begin in September, will consist of three components.

One aspect will concentrate on halacha and the laws of Jewish family purity. It will be taught by Dayan Shmuel Simons of the London Beth Din, together with other senior rabbis. Dovetailing with this section will be an academic course focusing on women’s health and related medical issues, to be taught by senior academics from University College London. On the syllabus will be issues ranging from genetic testing to sexual health, infertility and IVF.

And the third component, community education, some of which will be taught by Chief Rabbi Mirvis himself, will ask the Ma’ayan graduates to devise innovative adult education projects for United Synagogue communities.

Stephen Pack, president of the US, warmly welcomed the scheme. He said: “This exciting initiative is a great credit to the Chief Rabbi. I am sure that many of our women members will greatly benefit from having a qualified Ma’ayan in their community. It is a truly significant development for the United Synagogue and for the future of UK Jewry”.

One of Chief Rabbi Mirvis’s last tasks before leaving Finchley Synagogue to become chief rabbi in 2013, was to appoint Lauren Levin as the congregation’s female halachic adviser. But officials at the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR) were anxious to stress this week that the aims of the Ma’ayan course went further than the parameters of this post. 

“The chief rabbi is well aware that there is a pool of talent, represented by Jewish women in the UK, which is not currently being harnessed”, one official said. The course, a year in the planning, offers the opportunity to create highly qualified and knowledgeable Jewish women who will be able to give Jewish and academic advice to women who may not feel comfortable discussing some intimate issues with their rabbis.

Some of the rabbis, said the OCR official, had been “crying out” for such a qualification to help them in their communities. It is hoped that more women will want to observe the laws of family purity if there is an empathetic and informed woman to explain things to them.

The third component of the course, community education, is thought to be he chief rabbi’s pet project within the scheme. He wants to transform adult education within the US and hopes that the new “Ma’ayanot” will lead the way.

A very stringent application process is in place for the first cohort of students, anticipated to be between five and 10 women. After graduation the idea will be that each woman will be assigned to a cluster of synagogues and designated the “Ma’ayan” of, for example, Hertfordshire.

OCR officials said they were “thrilled” to be involved with the launch of the course, which is unique in the diaspora. Its success, they said, could transform modern Orthodoxy in the UK.