Gay and lesbian rabbis grapple with lifecycle issues, aging

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When Camille Angel was in rabbinical school, she had no gay or lesbian rabbi to look up to as a role model. She even postponed rabbinical school for a while, because it was unclear how to reconcile her sexuality with her desire to become a rabbi.

Now, she said, it is not uncommon for teenagers she works with to say they think they may be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

But it's one thing for a congregant who is questioning his or her sexuality to seek advice from a rabbi like Angel; as spiritual leader of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, which bills itself as a queer-friendly synagogue, naturally, its rabbi will be comfortable discussing the issue. But how can the same congregant be assured that a straight rabbi will be as receptive, and more importantly, supportive?

"Put some books on your shelf," was one answer Angel offered, remarking that the gay and lesbian section in a bookstore was a relatively new phenomenon. "It will allow that person to know they are in a safe space."

That was one of the questions asked of Angel and other gay and lesbian rabbis on a panel last month at the Central Conference of American Rabbis gathering in Monterey.

Moderated by Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, the panel was made up of two gays and two lesbians — including Weiss and Angel — all of them Reform rabbis. To an audience of their mostly heterosexual colleagues, they discussed ways to tend to the lifecycle events of gay men and lesbians.

Denise Eger, a Los Angeles-based rabbi who is chair of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the CCAR, spoke about commitment ceremonies. "Marriage may seem like it's been done to death in the CCAR, but it hasn't," she said. While many Reform rabbis will gladly perform a commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple, "it's still new turf for many people," she said. "For heterosexuals, there is still great angst in American culture over the definition of marriage."

Eger spoke of the difficulties gays and lesbians have in being seen as couples by "the mainstream," often by their own family members.

"How do you determine what their status is, when they haven't had a ceremony?" she asked.

Helping parents and siblings to accept the couple as a family is crucial, she said.

"A lot of times, parents can deal with their child coming out," she said. "But dealing with their child's partner is another matter. It's like coming out all over again."

Angel pointed out that some couples choose not to have a commitment ceremony because they believe some family members will be offended. And those who do have a ceremony often do so with some relatives noticeably absent.

Rabbi Allen Bennett, who Weiss introduced as "a role model" for being the first openly gay rabbi in the world — as well as the first openly gay rabbi who was awarded a lifetime contract — spoke about issues that older gay and lesbians face.

Bennett, who is 55, said "being gay in the '70s meant never imagining death or illness, and always being pretty."

But in the '80s, of course, all that changed with the onset of the AIDS epidemic. There was a period of about five years where the spiritual leader of Alameda's Temple Israel lost one friend or acquaintance a week, he said. What both decades had in common though, was that no one thought about getting old.

But in a community still often fixated on aesthetics, the gay elderly population can often be overlooked, he said.

Bennett spoke of the problems gay and lesbian Jews face as they age, because often "no one will take care of us."

Issues can arise especially when it comes to nursing home care, where gay men and lesbians are more likely to be discriminated against.

That the rabbis in attendance found the session helpful was evident by their thoughtful questions: "Does premarital counseling differ for a gay and lesbian couple?" asked one. Answer: Yes. Angel said she meets several more times with a same-sex couple because there are more issues to deal with.

"What do you do when someone wants to come out, but knows their family won't be supportive?" asked another.

Bennett, who has the distinction of having come out in the New York Times, called staying in the closet "an emotional death sentence," and said, "You can do it one person at a time."

Angel, too, spoke of being the one to whom teenagers come out, as well as a grandfather "who felt he didn't have to hide anymore. What a blessing that is," she said.

Other questions varied. How can a rabbi explain to his or her board that he considers a same-sex union the equivalent of a marriage? What help can be given to the heterosexual spouse of someone who has come out, who is having tremendous problems with trust and forgiveness?

Eger did not make light of any of these issues, but toward the conclusion, had this to say: "When a parent comes to me and says, 'Rabbi, my child just told me he is gay, what do I say?'"

Her answer: "Mazel tov."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."