The United States’ Jewish community is well-known as one of the most progressive in the world. But that Leviticus quote anti-gay activists like to throw around: It’s totally from the Old Testament. With that in mind, we got in touch with Rabbi Denise Eger, an openly gay Jewish leader who heads Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles, for some answers.
PW: What was the reaction when you decided to open a gay-and-lesbian-oriented reform synagogue in the first place?
Eger: Our congregation was founded in 1992 — so times were very different then—but gay and lesbian synagogues had been organized throughout the U.S. including Philadelphia. But Kol Ami was founded to be a community not only of LGBT folks but our family, friends, neighbors and allies. We reflected the makeup of West Hollywood, which was one of America’s gayest cities!
What would you say are the biggest challenges for LGBT rights within the Jewish community?
After years of hard work, gay men and lesbians are welcomed in most places in the Jewish community—Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative communities welcome and ordain openly gay and lesbian people as rabbis. The orthodox world is struggling with LGBTQ issues. Some modern Orthodox communities are trying to become safer places for discussion and welcome while some other Orthodox and Haredi groups are incredibly hostile. Although Reform Judaism has ordained transgender people as rabbis, there is still a lot of education on trans issues that must happen in Judaism.
How have those challenges changed over the last 20-plus years?
Conservative Judaism only recently began to welcome LGBT people to become rabbis and cantors. Twenty years ago, AIDS was a huge agenda item, and teaching about HIV/AIDS today we focus more on our young people, creating safe places for questioning and coming out and educating the whole community about the dangers of bullying.
What’s the most beautiful or memorable LGBT wedding you’ve ever attended, whether as the officiant or just as a guest? What made it so?
I would have to say the first legal wedding I officiated at here in California in 2008. I had the honor of officiating at the very first wedding on June 16, 2008, on the courthouse steps of Beverly Hills. Robin Tyler and Diane Olsen, the original plaintiffs in the California case that eventually established the right to marry were given the opportunity to marry the day prior to when all the weddings would begin. Surrounded by thousands of well-wishers, and media from around the world I were able to say, “In the sight of God and all who are gathered here, and by the power vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life!” I trembled with joy at the moment.
Are you seeing any new sorts of wedding or marriage traditions begin to arise in the LGBT community that aren’t necessarily grounded in the most familiar American hetero traditions?
I have seen adaptations of wedding customs including exchanging something other than rings, using rainbow colors as a theme, walking down an aisle together rather than be given away, and at a Jewish wedding both smashing glasses!
How has the LGBT community informed your work and philosophy as a rabbi?
I have served the LGBTQ community in Los Angeles for 25 years. I was the only rabbi in the early years of the AIDS crisis in Los Angeles, and I watched as we began having more and more children, and I have watched us come more politically active working for our equality. I have tried to bring to my work the Jewish values of the ancient prophets who carried a message of God’s love and God’s demand for justice and compassion to my work as an activist and a rabbi. My mission statement is taken from the words of the prophet Micah. What does God require of you? To do justice, love compassion and walk humbly with your God. I try every day as a rabbi and activist to do justice and show compassion and walk humbly with my God.
In 2009, you became the first woman and first openly lesbian woman to lead the Board of Rabbis in Southern California. What do you feel your own journey to becoming a nationally known leader says about the progression of the Jewish community in the United States?
It truly has been a blessing to be able to contribute to the life of Jewish people a message of inclusion and hope. And to show my LGBTQ community that we can get toward equality even when you think it might be impossible. All religion isn’t the enemy of LGBTQ people. Rather the longing for spirituality is a human hunger, and we don’t have to deny that to ourselves as LGBTQ people in our religious communities. Demand inclusion and make it happen. In 2015, I will become the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the international organization of Reform Rabbis worldwide. And the largest single organization of over 2000 rabbis. It symbolizes full inclusion of LGBTQ people back into the life of the Jewish people. And while our journey is never complete—there is always more education to do—we have really come a long way.
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