The other rabbi

She’s not what you’d expect

You would be forgiven for thinking the stark office above the Temple Emmanuel synagogue in Sydney’s Woollahra is the home of a digital startup. Rows of Mac computers hum, and young things casually call out to each other whilst roving the aisles in jeans and jumpers. Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio’s softly strident voice punctuates the din. “I can’t believe there are no burial plots left at Macquarie Park! Unbelievable!”

I immediately notice her eyes: large, round and tawny-brown, like an owl’s. Her petite face is ghost-pale, with deep smile lines. Even based on her own description, she’s no typical Rabbi: “We have a more junior male rabbi now, and he looks like a rabbi. He’s got the beard and he’s got the wife and two kids…” While Ninio has a nuclear family, her femaleness sidelines her in the upper echelons of Judaism. “I think they will accept stuff from him that they won’t from me”, she notes dispassionately, like someone resigned to inevitability, as she settles herself on a faux-mod grey couch.

Though she has always believed in god, Christianity was her initial choice. Her Christian mother only converted to Judaism when she was seven. Her aunt, whom she idolised, was a devout Christian who taught Sunday school at the local church (“She was 18 when I was born, so she was pretty cool and fabulous, and I wanted to be like her.”) Her Egyptian father, on the other hand, came from a long line of originally Turkish Sephardic Jews. It was at Sunday school that everything changed. “One day I remember the priest calling all the kids down to the front of the church, and he was talking about Easter, and he asked, ‘Who killed Jesus?’ And I went, ‘The Romans’, cause that’s what I had been taught. Then they all said, ‘The Jews’, and I went, ‘Oh, this isn’t good’.” So, she committed to Judaism.

Leadership is in her blood. Her father was once the Lord Mayor of Adelaide. She carried his mantle from her late teens, hopping as leader from one Jewish youth organisation to the next, and then organising social functions as a law student at the University of Adelaide. It’s not her desire for influence, but her deep belief in causes, that propels her. “Maybe there’s an element of just wanting to get in there and do it?” she ventured, when I questioned her leadership aptitude. “I don’t imagine myself as a born leader.”

She started her professional life as a lawyer. “In the last year of law school, the rabbi of my congregation came to me and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about being a rabbi?’ And I said, ‘don’t be ridiculous. Why would I want to do that?” A mere few months later she quit her job at a family law firm and enrolled in rabbinic school in Israel. Her mother was critical, her father, supportive. “My mother was like, ‘I think this is a terrible idea. People are going to criticise you. I’m really worried about how you are going to cope with that public life.’”

Her fears weren’t entirely misplaced. When Ninio joined the synagogue in 1998, she was only the third Australian-born female rabbi. People liked her, but they didn’t admire her. Congregants gave a version of the insipid ‘no offence, but’ excuse: we think she’s nice, but we don’t want her officiating at the funeral/wedding/bar mitzvah. Despite this, and perhaps because she is now the second most senior rabbi at the synagogue, Ninio doesn’t underplay her femininity. She wears her russet hair natural and loose, and her chiffon blouse is hued in reds and purples. Though, as a woman of faith, she is minimally adorned. A delicate Magen David, the Star of David, hangs from a silver chain around her neck. It is a potent symbol that exemplifies Ninio’s paradoxes: delicate, yet strong. Feminine, yet understated. Third-wave feminism has eased her path to gaining equal respect. Yet unequal, she remains: she has vowed to never again Google herself.

Not that this aggrieves her. Her quickness to smile, to laugh, is endearing. When we began the interview, she kindly teased me about my old-school dictaphone, “I haven’t seen one of those for ages, except there’s no cassette, so it’s not that old.” Perhaps this, combined with her determination, is the key to her soft power. It’s her vulnerability, too, that charms. She spoke frankly of her past miscarriage, her soothing, velvety tone unchanged. How she immersed herself in the ocean — a kind of mikvah — Jewish ceremonial cleansing bath — at Bondi Beach, following the loss of her unborn child. “I was so devastated, and I just couldn’t let go. I’m like, ‘you stupid girl’”. The ritual worked. She now performs this ceremony for other grief-stricken almost-mothers, tailoring it to their preferences. Some want to expunge their anger, others, their grief. Sometimes they submerge themselves in water, other times, they plant saplings: “it’s about having something grow from death.” She offers her bespoke, healing sacraments to just transitioned, formerly transsexual people, too (“these are not things that are typically in the Jewish prayer book.”) Currently, she’s preparing a ceremony for a woman’s unfertilised IVF embryos. Practising Reform Judaism, the religion’s least orthodox iteration, gives her the flexibility to create her own rites. Yet she extends universal empathy to others by choice. If she alone dictated Temple policy, she’d be more critical of, for instance, offshore detention of asylum seekers. Yet she and the synagogue are inextricably enmeshed, so, the consummate professional, she practises restraint.

She is passionately unleashed, however, come each February. If you’ve ever watched Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade, you might’ve spotted Ninio, enthusiastically waving the Israeli and gay pride flags, as part of Dayenu’s, the Jewish LGBTQI group’s contingent. Perhaps she practised her Israeli dance moves as she shimmied down Oxford Street. That’s the only hobby she barely has time for: rabbis don’t exactly get days off. “Someone said to my daughter the other day, ‘It must be really great having your mum as a rabbi’, and she said, ‘No, not so much, I never see her’”, she reflected. I recalled the Old Testament fable, when Abraham almost sacrificed his son, Isaac, on god’s command. Ninio is a modern Abraham, a doting mother equally devoted to a higher power.

Between performing rituals, counselling congregants, naming newborns, converting agnostics and burying elders, Ninio devotes much energy to social justice causes. I’m her four o’clock appointment. Her five o’clock is delivering bags of second-hand clothes to a refugee charity. Though when we hear a knock at the door at ten past five, she hesitates before answering it and then requests they wait a few more minutes.

Her compassion extends to the Jews’ perceived foes: Muslims. For centuries, especially during the Ottoman Empire, the groups peacefully coexisted. Only recently has there been bitterness and bloodshed. Ninio, through her continual dialogue with imams, wants to remind people of this. Though it’s also a numbers game. Like many, she fears the rise of the far right: “I think it frightening, and I never thought that I would see it in my lifetime, and here it is. Look at France. Jews there are taking their kids out of regular schools and putting them in Jewish schools because of the anti-Semitism they’re facing.” She felt proud when Jews joined Muslims to decry an EU court ruling that allows companies to ban visible religious symbols.

Bucking secularist trends, her congregation has swelled. The foreground of the synagogue is currently being excavated to make way for a new sanctuary. One soggy Friday evening, I attended the 6.15 pm service. Congregants, young and old, shuffled in, all soft smiles and relaxed shoulders. Some eyed me curiously. A newbie. Ninio held court at the bimah — the ceremonial podium, in a flowing black gown. Like a Judeo-Wiccan priestess, she led the eighty-strong crowd in song, her serene voice pitch-perfect. A long-haired twenty something man accompanied her on the guitar. Context aside, I could’ve been at a nouveau-folk concert. It was easy to see how people could be entranced. She spotted me; sitting alone, and immediately introduced me to Wendy, a fellow, solitary worshipper. “Not a great turn out tonight — the rain”, she apologised.

Her hospitality accords with the Temple’s philosophy. “We’re not a default synagogue”, she explained. People are as attracted to it for its hymns as they are its warmth and humanist undertones: atheists, which Ninio thinks constitute half of her congregation, are as welcome as god-fearers. This atmosphere pervades its atrium, where, on the day of our interview, a mess of tallises, Jewish prayer shawls, hung nonchalantly on a rail, and children from the onsite preschool darted in and out of its open doors.

We walked through them, big oak paneled things from 1938: even in progressive Judaism, some things remain traditional. The rabbi greeted a curious, incoming three-year-old with a compliment: “Look at your awesome sparkly shoes!” She turned to me. “My husband says that of all the people he’s ever met, I am the job. It’s who I am; it’s what I have to do.” Then she was off; to do as she must. To be herself.