At San Francisco retreat, LGBT clergy survey progress from closets to bimah

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Nearly 30 years ago, a group of LGBT Jews who had formed a grassroots network called Ameinu gathered for a secret retreat in Southern California.

“We were given a telephone number to call when we landed in L.A., and then given instructions on where to go,” said Rabbi Deborah Brin, spiritual leader of Nahalat Shalom, a Renewal congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It was really very terrifying to gather.”

It was 1986, and many Jewish clergy and community professionals didn’t feel safe coming out in the Jewish world, Brin told a group of LGBT clergy who gathered at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco for a recent four-day retreat. Those days seemed like ancient history for many of the nearly 65 attendees at the retreat, organized last week by Nehirim, a Jewish LBGT organization.

Panel at Sha’ar Zahav includes (from left) maggid Andrew Ramer, Rabbi Jacob Staub and Rabbi Fern Feldman. photo/rivka gevurtz

In contrast to the secret Ameinu gatherings, Nehirim openly announced the event, the first exclusively for Jewish clergy, with a press release.

 “It was important to let people understand whose shoulders they were standing on,” said Brin, who gave a presentation on the history of gay and lesbian rabbis.

Nehirim is a 10-year-old national organization for LGBT Jews and their families and allies, and it organizes up to 10 retreats a year for members of the Jewish LGBT community. The retreat at Sha’ar Zahav was Nehirim’s first to focus on clergy, bringing together rabbis, cantors and students working toward ordination from the United States, Germany, Israel and Canada. The attendees networked, davened, studied Torah and attended workshops on ethics, queer theology, pastoral care and religious leadership.

“So often, I was sitting in that room utterly amazed that this gathering was happening,” said Andrew Ramer, a professor of Jewish studies and social justice at the University of San Francisco and an ordained maggid, or Jewish storyteller. Ramer, who is a member of Sha’ar Zahav, said he came close to applying to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative seminary, after he graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1973, but never did because he didn’t want to go back in the closet.

Brin did go back into the closet when she was admitted to rabbinical school in 1979, years after she had come out as a lesbian. By the time she was ordained as a Reconstruc-tionist rabbi in 1985, her school had changed its policy to admit openly gay and lesbian students.

Now Nehirim has more than 200 LGBT Jewish clergy on its email list, and the recent retreat brought together Jews from different denominations and practices, said Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Nehirim’s executive director.

“Reconstructionist Jews are often not hanging out with Conservative rabbis. We go to our own silos,” Kolodny said. “An unexpected outcome for me was the degree of collegiality and deep friendship that emerged across the religious spectrum.”

Only a few of the clergy at the Nehirim retreat work at LGBT synagogues or in specifically LGBT communities, Kolodny said (Sha’ar Zahav, where the retreat was held, is a historically LGBT synagogue).

“What’s most profound is we’re not functioning in a ghetto environment at all,” Kolodny said. “We’re serving all populations.”

As the Jewish community grows increasingly diverse, Ramer said, LGBT clergy can serve as important voices for tolerance.

“There is an amazing level of shared humanity that we bring, a level of commitment to dialogue and to inclusion,” he said. “When I look at the kids in our religious school at Sha’ar Zahav, many are adopted, they’re Asian, they’re Hispanic. There’s a whole new generation of Jews growing up who are incredibly diverse.”

As the retreat closed, participants planned their next steps, which could include publishing teachings from the gathering, reaching out to straight allies and follow-up conferences, Kolodny said.

“We built such an intimate community,” she said.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.