Rabbi Sheila Shulman was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1936 into a largely
Yiddish-speaking environment, though many folk in her parents’ generation were
so anxious to become "American" that they ended up in a cultural vacuum. Sheila
discovered books early on. Her formal primary and secondary education was
lamentable, but there was always the library. There was also a summer camp, to
which she was sent for six or seven years because her mother was a working widow
and there were scholarships available. There she discovered the countryside,
left-wing idealism, folk and classical music.
Through the good offices of a counselor at that camp, Shulman was encouraged
to apply to Bard, a remarkable small residential college in the Hudson River
Valley. She was able to go only because "they took a chance on me and awarded me
a full scholarship." Shulman found the four years at Bard to be
revelatory, if often painful. Culturally speaking, she had made a quantum leap.
There were great teachers, she found good friends, a whole world of books, and
incredible natural beauty. She notes her reflection that she was the only
student in her class who wept at graduation--she never wanted to leave.
Shulman earned an MA degree in English and Comparative Literature in the
1960’s at the City University of New York and did most of the work toward a
Ph.D. She traveled to England in the first instance on a fellowship in 1967,
went back to America for two years to teach at a college not unlike Bard, then
returned to England and has been in London ever since. She spent the 1970’s and
early 80’s as an activist in the Women’s Liberation Movement, supporting herself
with exiguous part-time work.
Shulman's turn toward the Rabbinate was the result of a number of factors: a
mid-life reappraisal of who she was and where she was going, intellectual
curiosity, metaphysical longings, religious questions, political
dissatisfaction, a real love of being a Jew, a desire to work to some real
purpose at the top of her bent as all of who she was. She was encouraged by an
unlikely trio of Rabbis Jonathan Magonet, Lionel Blue, and Albert Friedlander.
She began to train at Leo Baeck College in 1984 where she and Elizabeth Tikvah
Sarah were the first openly lesbian rabbinical students. She notes that she did
not for a moment believe she would ever be ordained until she was standing on
the bimah on the day in July, 1989. Since ordination she has served with
Finchley Reform Synagogue--initially part-time, then for a number of years as
half-time Associate Rabbi, then part-time again. She has also been teaching at
Leo Baeck College-Centre for Jewish Education, as a part-time Lecturer in Jewish
Soon after ordination, following a conversation with Rabbi Lionel Blue
regarding the perplexities about finding work as a Lesbian Rabbi, Shulman and a
group of friends founded Beit Klal Yisrael in 1990. A box on the back of their
newsletter describes them as follows: "BKY welcomes everybody, but especially
Lesbian Jews and gay Jews; Jewish women who want to work out an independent and
challenging relationship, as women, to Judaism and being Jewish; Jewish men and
women who may not think of themselves as formally religious, but who do have
Jewish issues, questions and concerns; Jewish women and men whose partners,
though not Jewish, wish to be supportive and to participate in the life of the
congregation; Patrilineal Jews; people on their own, whose presence is truly
valued." BKY has been a small but lively community where many people have found
a real Jewish home. Five Rabbis currently serving other communities and one
student Rabbi have come out of this community.
(This biographical statement provided by Rabbi Sheila
Biography Date: December, 2005
Jewish | Blue, Lionel | Sarah, Elizabeth Tikvah | Author/editor | Clergy Activist | Women and Religion | United Kingdom
Know Sheila Shulman? Tell us your experience.
(All entries are reviewed by the LGBT-RAN office before posting.)