By Abigail Pickus
Deborah Blausten is one of the most inspiring young leaders for the Reform Movement in the United Kingdom.
Yet, the 23-year-old traces her earliest pull towards progressive Judaism to – of all places – her Church of England School.
Growing up in northwest London (Hamstead Garden Suburb), she attended the highly regarded school (popular among families of all religions) where attending church services were an integral part of school life.
At times, she even helped arrange church services, and under the guidance of a vicar with Marxist leanings, she chose all texts written by Jewish poets. “It was subversive,” said Blausten. “I was beginning to understand the Jewish tradition.”
It would take a few years, however, for her to begin to define her life in terms of her Judaism.
It wasn’t until her teens that she became active in her synagogue’s youth club where she started to feel the power of the youth movement model.
“In the British Jewish youth model, it’s a very traditional Zionist youth model where everything is peer led,” she said. What this means is that young people train other young people. And young people are the ones running the show. UK summer camps, for example, are run by people who are no older than 20.
“I was immersed in that environment. I spent a summer in Israel in 2006 when I was 15 and I came back to England involved in youth leadership,” Blausten recalled, about Reform Synagogue Youth (RSY).
What she discovered were values, like egalitarianism, that really resonated with her. But there was something deeper going on, as well.
“I began to understand that these values were not accidental. There was something behind what was going on, the reason this place was like this, and I began to understand that this was Judaism. It wasn’t by accident. We had been educated a certain way to encounter text in a certain way and it was really compelling. The more I got involved with youth group, the more I realized that this was my passion and interest,” she said. “I fell in love with learning for the sake of learning.”
Then she went even deeper. While studying with a group of frum boys from other youth movements, she realized that while she was very involved in the Reform youth movement itself, she wasn’t able to defend why her Judaism was valid. Why shouldn’t women lead tfillot? “I had no idea why. I had never heard of the Talmud. My teacher said to me, ‘so do something about that!’” said Blausten.
She decided to spend her gap year in Israel on Machon L’Madrichei Chutz L’aretz, a Jewish Agency for Israel program for Jewish educators and future leaders of Zionist youth movements.
Returning to England, Blausten attended University College London and began studying medicine while continuing her work in the youth movement, a mega-load that included writing a siddur, leading weekend retreats and events and teaching. She even took on a job at a synagogue running their b’nai mitzvah program.
“I knew I loved this stuff,” said Blausten in retrospect. “I felt short-changed by my own experience that I had to wait until I was 18 to discover the good stuff. Why didn’t I know about the Hascalah (Jewish enlightenment) or the golden age of Jewry or the beauty of the Mishnah? I was incredibly sad also for my friends who were disengaged.”
She found herself discovering and creating as she went along.
“I was in this position where I could design a curriculum for a three-hour class on a Sunday morning and I could teach what I liked. I had no idea what I was doing so I just did it. I took the content and made something out of it and they loved it,” she said, adding that she’s still teaching these same kids (they’re now 15).
Sunday, in fact, became the highlight of her week. “I didn’t enjoy medical school,” she said. “I enjoyed teaching.”
Soon people started asking her to teach other places until Blausten realized that she has a skill.
“I went down the medical path because I was good at science and good with people,” she said, “but I realized that I wanted to make a life out of the way I creatively interact with people.”
In 2012, Blausten officially began working for the Movement for Reform Judaism as its Jeneration Fieldworker, which included overseeing activities and engagement for youth ages 16-23. Her scope encompassed 42 member synagogues and 11 university campuses throughout the UK, Scotland and Wales.
What she found especially exciting was their work on campuses.
In contrast to some of the Jewish spaces in the UK that can be more traditional therefore unwelcoming to outsiders, the university offered Jewish youth a whole new array of options for Jewish life.
“There is a great progressive Jewish life on campus,” said Blausten. “Here 50 Reform Jews will show up to pray and participate in workshops (all student run) and it’s just demystifying to [students].”
When she did her job well, Blausten said she was “invisible,” since it’s up to the students to build relationships and decide what their community needs.
“I acted somewhere between a community organizer and a madricha,” she said.
Campus work is also vital because it shows young people that Judaism isn’t just something they did as kids, according to Blausten.
“For me it’s lovely to see so many student leaders on campus gain their skills in the youth movement. This allows for the transition of Judaism as something they did at home as a child to something they can do with their peer group,” she said, adding that she has watched these students grow up from being her chanichim (campers) to leading activities for their peers. (It should be noted that Blausten is no senior citizen herself. She’s often only a few years older than some of her charges.)
“Now the first group of students I worked with have graduated from university and they are asking, ‘what is next?’ There are so many drop-off points of Jewish engagement, like after bar mitzvah or after university, and it is helpful to show young people that Judaism is a stage; it’s a journey. It’s the start of a conversation,” she continued.
What Blausten hopes her work will do is to “create ways for people to mature their Judaism from something they did on Friday night with their parents or over summer to a regular fixture that is spiritually and physically nurturing and done on their terms,” she said.
“This generation, my generation, we need to work out how we balance these things in a meaningful way for ourselves. When we feel ownership over it, it is much more powerful.”
While Blausten hopes to become a Reform Rabbi in the future, she recently stepped down from her Jeneration position to become a full-time master’s student in education and technology at the Institute of Education, University of London.