In my work on non-heterosexual Jewish women’s lived experiences and practices in contemporary England and Israel, I have been struck by the many stories that have referenced involvement with NGOs and activism (especially feminist, LGBTQ+, and climate change groups). To understand how non-heterosexual Jewish women currently live, it was important to gain an understanding of recent historical developments, which tells a critical story of how Jewish women’s voices were not only relevant to the women’s movement but also to the LGBTQ+ movement.
The Women’s Liberation Movement
The 1970s brought women’s voices to the forefront of socio-political conversations on equality and equity. The Women’s Liberation Movement challenged, among other things, how women were perceived in society and the notion and structure of the nuclear family. Many notable feminists, such as Lynne Segal, Harriet Wistrich, Erica Burman, and Nira Yuval-Davis are Jewish. However, Jewish feminists in Britain were primarily involved with the larger women’s movement. The little explicitly Jewish involvement was primarily secular and did not extend into immediately transforming Jewish religious practices and rituals. British Jewish feminism was, instead, especially focused on responding to Zionism and was, at times, anti-religion, because it was viewed by some as being patriarchal and traditional. Indicatively, most British Jewish feminists who were involved with Jewish feminism focused more on developing a secular Jewish identity and responding to migration from England to Israel and Jews who married a non-Jewish partner [1, 2].
Jenny Bourne, a Jewish feminist, recalls: ‘During the 1960s and 1970s Jews formed the backbone of the women’s movement – certainly in the USA and UK. But we were not there as Jews. We were feminists who just happened to be Jews. Our Jewishness went unarticulated and unsung’ . Similarly, Gail Chester, another Jewish feminist, notes: ‘I kept bumping into other Jewish women around the movement who like, oh it doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant being Jewish’ . This was, in part, due to the structure of the movement. Elli Tikvah Sarah  claimed that the feminist sisterhood accepted white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and not Jewish women because there was antisemitism within the Movement. This became more evident in the 1980s, when the feminist magazine Spare Rib took a pro-Palestine and anti-Zionist position, and many Jewish feminists suggested that they found the magazine antisemitic .
In 1982, the first national Jewish feminist conference was held, which largely focused on what ‘being Jewish’ meant. This existential conversation continued the following year when the first national Jewish Lesbian Conference was held, where the two Jewish lesbian groups in England met. This created more Jewish feminist involvement in bigger cities including London, York, Nottingham, Liverpool, Leeds, and Cambridge. Around this time, the Jewish Women’s Aid helpline, which offered support to victims of intimate partner violence and domestic violence, emerged [2, 4]. At the same time, the magazine Shifra started, which discussed activism, politics, Jewish culture, Jewish history and heritage, what it meant to be a Jewish woman, and antisemitism. However, these publications were short-lived. Despite this, Jewish feminists brought important gender conversations and initiatives to the forefront.
The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement
The world’s first Jewish LGBTQ+ organisation, the Jewish LGBT+ Group1, was established in London in 1972. The group was primarily led by gay men. For example, Ed Teeger, a bisexual man, said that he did not always feel like he could participate in the group because he was married to a woman. Peggy Sherwood added that she was, for some time, the only lesbian attending the group. The group became more gender-inclusive in 1987 when it changed its name to The Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group . During this decade, it lobbied for ordaining LGB rabbis, which included Lionel Blue in 1981 and Sheila Shulman and Elli Tikvah Sarah in 1984, who experienced structural and cultural inequalities during and after their rabbinic training . Currently, it is estimated that 20 per cent of the Reform and Liberal rabbinate in Britain is openly LGBTQ+, which demonstrates enormous progress within a couple of decades .
In 1974, a short-lived small Jewish Lesbian Feminist group was formed in London. Notably, the first Jewish feminist group was for lesbians and not for all women regardless of their sexuality. Some non-Jews found them exclusionary and separatist due to the Jewish nature of the group, and some heterosexual Jews, such as Gail Chester, who wanted to be in a Jewish feminist space, did not feel welcome due to her sexuality. Nonetheless, due to a lack of a clear purpose or ideology, the group split after a couple of meetings .
From the 1980s there was an explicit Jewish presence at Lesbian and Gay Pride. Lesbian and Gay Pride Marches were growing in the UK, which gave LGBTQ+ Jews a chance to gain more visibility. JGG had a ‘bagel and cream cheese’ stall and a banner, and promoted the Jewish Lesbian and Gay helpline . The bagel stall always sold out, and some people joined because of the conversations they had while eating bagels. Towards the end of the 1980s, non-heterosexual Jews started to advocate more for the inclusion of non-heterosexual Jews in Jewish communities .
The 1990s were also significant for non-heterosexual Jewish women. The synagogue Beit Klal Yisrael, which is still active, was established by lesbian rabbi Sheila Shulman in 1990, which especially attracted LGBTQ+ Jews, Jewish feminists, patrilineal Jews and converts, and interfaith couples . Additionally, Elli’s covenant of love sermon on kol nidre in 1996, that discussed how they would ‘officiate at “Covenant of Love” for two women, caused uproar and led to Elli resigning from their congregation . It was, nonetheless, the beginning of the almost 20-year-long same-sex marriage campaign in progressive Judaism.
From invisibility within the women’s liberation movement to having openly gay and lesbian rabbis just a decade later, with more significant changes in the twenty first century, many Jewish women in England did and still do, indeed, eat a bagel and then set out to smash the patriarchy.
Mie Astrup Jensen (she/her) is a PhD Candidate in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Hebrew & Jewish Studies at UCL. She is supervised by Prof Sasha Roseneil and Dr Seth Anziska. Mie’s PhD research focuses on non-heterosexual Jewish women’s lived experiences and practices in contemporary England and Israel.
1. Beck, E. T., ed. 1982. Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology. Watertown: Persephone Press.
2. Thomlinson, N. 2016. Race, Ethnicity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1968-1993. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
3. Sarah, E. T. 2012. Trouble-Making Judaism. London: David Paul Books.
4. Taylor-Guthartz, L. 2016. Overlapping Worlds : The Religious Lives of Orthodox Jewish Women in Contemporary London. UCL.
5. Rainbow Jews. 2014. Jewish and Gay: Conflict or Comfort? Rainbow Jews.
6. Ridinger, R. B. 2017. Who Knew? Writing LGBT People in Judaism. Journal of Religious and Theological Information 16. Taylor & Francis: 98–110. https://doi.org/10.1080/10477845.2017.1317188.
7. Romain, J., and D. Mitchell. 2020. Inclusive Judaism: The Changing Face of an Ancient Faith. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
8. Rubin, D. 2014. Beit Klal Yisrael welcomes ALL into Jewish life. Jewish News. August 12.
Mie Astrup Jensen (she/her) is a PhD Candidate in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Hebrew & Jewish Studies at UCL. She is supervised by Prof Sasha Roseneil and Dr Seth Anziska. Mie’s research focuses on non-heterosexual Jewish women’s lived experiences and practices in contemporary England and Israel.