Israeli rabbi defies ban, performs same-sex unions

Rabbi David Lazar leads a Conservative congregation in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Aviv. But he has a second congregation that he administers to, sometimes by telephone, sometimes in cafes. Because of his association with Jerusalem’s Open House, or LGBT community center, the happily married father of five daughters is often sought out by members of Israel’s gay community.

There’s reason for them to seek him out. At present, he is the only rabbi in Israel ordained by the Conservative movement who will perform a same-sex wedding.

He was in the Bay Area recently not only to talk to his Conservative colleagues here about this issue, but to visit his daughter, who lives in San Francisco.

Lazar is a rabbi who defies labels. He grew up in a liberal Conservative home in Los Angeles, but rebelled by becoming Orthodox in his teens. He finished high school at a yeshiva and at age 18 moved to Israel.

But gay rights is where his heart is.

This was not always so. In the 1980s, while he was Orthodox in practice, his Conservative background propelled him to study Bible at Hebrew University. His “short stint” at university, he jokes, lasted 11 years, after which he decided to obtain a rabbinical degree with the Conservative movement. He then took a pulpit in Jerusalem.

Lazar’s activism began around 1993, after he met a gay man — an immigrant from France — at the day-care center his daughter attended. The man had AIDS, though at the time Lazar didn’t know it. The two became friendly, and a few months later, the man got a job at another day-care center in Tel Aviv. But when it was discovered he had AIDS, he was given a desk job.

“I got in contact with him and said, ‘Whatever I can do to help.’ I didn’t know anybody with AIDS, it was still abstract,” Lazar said.

Slowly, he began working with AIDS patients in hospice, which led him to become involved with the Israel AIDS Task Force.

“Even when I was in my Orthodox days, homosexuality wasn’t something that made me terribly upset,” he said. “Women rabbis didn’t make me terribly upset, even though I wasn’t egalitarian.”

Lazar soon developed a reputation as the “gay-friendly” rabbi, and served on the board of Jerusalem’s Open House.

When he no longer had his Jerusalem pulpit, and realized he didn’t have to worry what his congregation would think, Lazar was ready to perform a same-sex union. But he had to wait to be asked. That finally came in 2000.

Noting that even Israeli Reform rabbis don’t agree with their American counterparts on gay unions, which are banned in Israel, Lazar said it was an unpopular position to take, but a necessary one. “I know of only three rabbis in Israel who each have done one ceremony, and they are all Reform.”

Lazar was determined to make his ceremony the same as a straight one, just by changing a bit of the language where appropriate. In the midst of that ceremony, which the women did not want made public, his cell phone vibrated in his pocket.

It was a reporter from the Forward, who’d learned that he was about to perform such a ceremony, and that the Conservative movement was already backing away from him. The Conservative movement still frowns on its rabbis performing gay unions, but some — particularly in California — do so without any sanctions.

While Lazar doesn’t think he has suffered career-wise as a result of his officiating gay unions, he did say that he felt that others tended to think of him as a one-issue guy. Nevertheless, he said, there is no going back.

“Sometimes civil disobedience is needed and this is a form of it,” he explained.

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."