Meet the Rabbi – Rabbi Oliver Joseph
By Rabbi Oliver Joseph
People ask: ‘Why did you become a rabbi?’ My path to being a rabbi in this world was exceptional and also entirely expected. There are those who joke that the role of rabbi is not a suitable profession for a nice Jewish boy! So I will share a little of the why and how I got here!
I have adoration for the movement in which I grew up. Noam, our youth movement, is a space in which I was nurtured and shown a way to claim my identity as a communal leader and as a Jewish man. I believe that the highest ideal that Noam continues to hold is a belief in the personal fulfilment of each individual.
In the years of my journey through Noam I battled through my own cancer and mourned the passing of my mother, Linda (z”l). At these stages the leadership that makes up the Masorti movement held me and cared for me in my journey forward. The communities in the UK, Israel and the United States have remained a steadfast presence in my life and enabled me to stay inside the Jewish community.
The story goes that Rabbi Wittenberg came to my father in the year that I had returned to London to work for Noam full time and asked if he could approach me to suggest that I consider training to be a rabbi. My dad said: “Sure, sounds odd, but why not”. I did not have to think for too long: I wanted to know more of my tradition and in my year working for Masorti Judaism I had become distinctly aware of the limitations of my Jewish knowledge. In my calculation, all that I committed to was the journey to Jerusalem and to begin a year at the Conservative Yeshiva. The rest would unfold.
Well it did unfold; I fell in love with full-time study, with the secrets of our tradition, with Jerusalem, with my life as an educator and activist. In those seven years of study there were few limitations. I travelled, I learnt Hebrew and I got involved in life in Israel. I was a student with itchy feet and some months I absconded from the place of my study, the beit midrash. I could be found in the West Bank with Encounter, an educational programme which brings Jewish community leaders to meet the Palestinian community or in South Tel Aviv working on events with Eritrean and Sundanese refugees. You could also find me hiking, biking and training for races.
In all I spent two years at the Conservative Yeshiva, then studied for two years concurrently at the Hartman Institute, where I received my Certificate of Education, and at Tel Aviv University where I received a Master’s in Jewish Philosophy. I then returned to the Yeshiva for one year and started formally on a rabbinic track with the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. The next year I moved to Los Angeles for two years to complete my studies and to be ordained as a rabbi. I cherished my years of study and whilst I often struggled sitting in study all day, every day my rabbis and teachers were the people who kept me going. Formal study served me well and I learned so much from the people around me who gave me profound inspiration – I cannot name each of my teachers but many of their stories and teachings are the essence of who I am as a rabbi.
These last years of study have been particularly hard as I both pushed through the programme at Ziegler and travelled across the world to New Zealand and to the UK trying to support my sister Betsy (z”l) in her fight with cancer. As I started working for Masorti Judaism I also spent my last weeks with Betsy in this world. Betsy passed in August and is one of my foremost teachers. She taught me of the centrality of the individual spiritual quest and the sanctity of each individual’s capacity to make their own decisions.
Re-starting my life back in the UK has not been straightforward but I am excited to be in a job that is everything I could have dreamed of. I am working with new communities across the UK and will get to see the breadth of Jewish community life across the country. I work with Marom on university campuses and with the young adults learning what drives the inspired community leadership of this generation of Masorti community. I also have a community to call home: Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti Community with whom I look forward to really investing in an intimate spiritual growth and expansion. Finally, I am doing regular learning with our amazing Noam movement workers and in our leadership programmes Meltam and Masa – I am finding my space inside Noam to raise the level of Torah learning and make my contribution to the future of this inspired movement.
I write this reflection as I journey south along the Mediterranean coast passing Haifa and the Carmel mountain range. I travel as someone intimately connected to Israel, its history and its future. I travel as a Rabbi, pained by the violence, sadness and grief that rest on this region. I travel with dreams of what this land could be. In my journey as a rabbi so far I have been privileged to see so much of this beautiful world. If I know anything about the Jewish community in this generation, it is our potential as agitators for change, as holders of ancient wisdom which which bring the possibility of a better world more in touch with the sanctity of life, its holiness and a profound regard for human dignity. As a rabbi I hope and pray that I can be a vessel through which such learning and holiness can be brought to fruition.
Rabbi Oliver Joseph is a community rabbi working with Elstree & Borehamwood Masorti Community, as well as Noam, Marom and new Masorti communities across the UK.