This week Rabbi Danny Rich, senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism, selects the movement’s co-founder Lily Montagu
Lilian Helen Montagu was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1873. Her family was traditional and she received religious instruction from a prominent Orthodox minister.
In her late teens Lily was troubled by religious matters, including the absence of spiritual feeling and the lack of opportunities for women in the traditional Judaism of her upbringing.
This discomfort was to result in her founding, along with others, the Jewish Religious Union – what is now Liberal Judaism – at the beginning of the 20th century.
Lily Montagu’s concern for the welfare of women, both religiously and otherwise, led to her also establishing, with her sister Marian, the West Central Girls’ Club.
Its purpose was to develop the intellectual, spiritual, and social skills of working girls via classes, outings and religious services, which she herself led.
Her involvement with the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, the National Union of Women Workers, the Women’s Industrial Council and the National Association of Girls Clubs was an attempt to ameliorate the worst of the conditions in the sweatshops, to give women confidence to challenge harassment, and to teach them the basics of the Factory Acts, by which their workplaces were supposed to be governed.
Her keen interest in young women also led to her being appointed as one of England’s first female magistrates, when she was in her 30s. Lily Montagu’s influence on the role of women within Progressive Judaism is undeniable.
When, in 1962, our movement was discussing the appointment of women rabbis, it was “generally agreed that, with Lily Montagu as a role model, there was no reason why not”. It is written that Lily “felt that Judaism had to be lived and practised, and so her work was an expression of her Judaism”.
It is this message that is so important for Liberal Jews today.