S.F. AIDS activist from Arkansas finds soul in Judaism

While there are not too many gay Irish Jews from Arkansas, at least one has made himself indispensible to gay and Jewish activism on the national level.

Mike Rankin, a psychiatrist and retired Navy captain now in San Francisco, has come a long way from his rural Christian childhood in Arkansas.

As an adviser to President Clinton, he helps shape national health care policies. In the Jewish world, he single-handedly changed the Reform movement's stance on homosexuality.

Rankin, 61, said his curious compound identity and lifelong efforts to reconnect with his Jewish roots are what fuel his quest for social justice.

"There are so many things Jewish that have moved me that it feels beshert [meant to be]. Since I first fell in love with Judaism, it's been a rocky marriage that has lasted," he said.

Though he was born Jewish, his childhood was a kind of interfaith potpourri. His Jewish mother had stronger spiritual leanings than his Irish Presbyterian father. So at first, Rankin's father left the religious upbringing of the children to her.

His mother taught the young Rankin to say the Sh'ma each night and to light Shabbat candles. But she died when he was 7, and his father's Presbyterian family took charge of the household religious training.

As a result, his formative years were shaped in Lake Village, Ark., by Catholic school during the week, Presbyterian religious training on Sundays, "but feeling like a Jew all the time," he said.

It would take much of Rankin's adult life to fortify the Jewish identity his mother had instilled.

Rankin and his siblings continued to celebrate Passover and the High Holy Days with his mother's family, who had come to America a generation earlier from a Lithuania-Poland border town. But those relatives decided to leave Arkansas when Rankin's Jewish uncle was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Rankin received long-distance Jewish religious training from his aunt after their move.

In Lake Village, Rankin was not fully accepted by either the Presbyterians at church or the Catholics at his school. While his classmates were serving as altar boys, he learned that unless he was baptized he could not.

A nun explained that even though he was learning the Latin responses to the priest's directives in school, he still couldn't serve Mass; he wasn't Catholic. As if to soothe the sting, the nun later gave Rankin a copy of Anne Frank's diary. Rankin knew that the book was on the Catholic Church's condemned book list and asked the nun about it. The nun snapped back — "That's nonsense. Read it."

Recalled Rankin, "In her way, she was a very sensitive woman."

Despite Rankin's Jewish leanings, his Presbyterian grandparents insisted he be baptized and signed him up for a group ritual with others of his age. Rankin, who was about 9 at the time, ditched the event. So they signed him up the next year. Again, he skipped out. By the third year, Grandma and Grandpa were hip to his game and escorted him to the holy waters themselves.

"I felt like a little Marrano," Rankin recalled, referring to Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. "I remember thinking in my head during the ceremony that I didn't really mean it."

During his college years in Tennessee, Rankin witnessed some of the events that made Arkansas one of the staging grounds for the civil rights movement. He couldn't help but notice when Jewish youths from the North came to Arkansas to assist Southern blacks in voter registration drives and other desegregation efforts.

"I thought [that] this is a living, engaged faith and I really felt like it was something I needed to know more about."

Rankin needed no further encouragement to join the civil rights cause, tutoring unregistered voters and marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala.

"It was a powerful thing to see [Abraham Joshua] Heschel there with King marching with a Torah," Rankin said.

Rankin also became active in Hillel during college. He continued his Jewish education in the Navy as spiritual leader for Jews in his unit.

"I became the Jewish lay leader because I was the senior Jewish officer. I had a little congregation of 12 to 15 sailors. Everyone knew more about Judaism than I did, but we all did it together."

Rankin moved to Southern California in 1969 and to San Francisco in the mid-1970s. He returned to Arkansas in 1978 for two years to work for then-Gov. Bill Clinton as the state's mental health commissioner.

Upon his return to San Francisco, he became interested in local affiliation and joined the city's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a gay-oriented Reform synagogue. The move was a crystallizing moment in his Jewish development. Within a year, he became both a bar mitzvah and president of the congregation.

In the early 1980s, a sequence of events transpired that effectively sealed Rankin's future in the Jewish community. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations released an updated commentary on the Torah, which included controversial views about homosexuals. The commentary proclaimed homosexuality to be a mental illness as well as a choice and indicated that some gay men are child molesters.

Incensed, Rankin traveled to UAHC's New York headquarters to personally address the vice president. The vice president, Rabbi Leonard Schoolman, acknowledged the error and asked Rankin, a professional psychiatrist, to rewrite the section. He returned to his congregation with the charge and carried it out together with a number of mental health professionals who were Sha'ar Zahav members. Schoolman was so pleased with the work that he asked Rankin to lead a workshop on Judaism and homosexuality at the next UAHC biennial convention.

Rankin accepted. Since then, he has been a trustee on several national UAHC commissions — social action, religious living and outreach — as well as a regional and national trustee of the UAHC board. Because of his experience working with AIDS patients, he also became active in the Reform movement's response to the epidemic.

In 1995, while working for the Oakland-based Veterans Administration Clinic, Rankin was appointed by President Clinton to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS.

Rankin said nearly half of the 35 members of the council are Jewish.

"We all kind of find it a nice thing. It's an affirmation to us about how Judaism has shaped our lives."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.