Reform rabbis get first gay prez

More than a quarter century ago, Yoel Kahn addressed Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, asking his colleagues, “Can we affirm the place of the homosexual Jew in the synagogue and [among] the Jewish people?”

At that point, plenty of people — including some Reform movement leaders — would have replied with a resounding “no.” But since that day in 1989, time and social change have answered the question in the affirmative.

This week, Kahn, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, again addressed the annual convention of the CCAR, but this time he was not pleading. He was beaming, because the CCAR had just installed its first gay or lesbian president, Rabbi Denise Eger of Los Angeles.

“What was once controversial or difficult has become an increasingly important value for our conference and our movement,” Kahn said in his March 16 address in Phil-adelphia, referencing the 25th anniversary of the Reform movement’s historic decision to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis.

“Those of our members who long felt invisible, endangered or marginalized are now not just offered a seat at the table but today can even sit at its head.”

Kahn was speaking during a session celebrating the CCAR’s groundbreaking 1990

Rabbi Yoel Kahn of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El speaks at the CCAR convention March 16 in Philadelphia. photo/todd photography

Resolution on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate.

Eger, the founding rabbi of Congrega-tion Kol Ami in West Hollywood, is the first openly gay person to lead the CCAR, which is composed of more than 2,000 rabbis affiliated with America’s largest Jewish denomination.

“I never intended to be a gay activist or to be ‘the lesbian rabbi’ — which is ironic because I know that’s the only thing the headlines will say — because I’m more than that,” Eger, 55, told JTA during the four-day conference that concluded March 18 and was attended by some 550 rabbis. “Maybe they’re shocked to find at the beginning that she’s a lesbian president and that I’m breaking some ceiling, but I was elected because I’ve been a dedicated pastor and rabbi for more than 25 years.”

Eger succeeds Rabbi Richard Block of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, Ohio.

Eger, who has led Kol Ami since 1992, previously was the rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. It was the only congregation that would hire her after her 1988 ordination, she said.

Part of the CCAR Board of Trustees for four years, Eger was the first female and first openly gay president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and was a founding member of the Religion Council, an advisory panel of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights organization.

Eger came out publicly in 1990, shortly after the CCAR resolution and the first year that the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion began accepting openly gay students. Eger is engaged to Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, a rabbi and educator in the L.A. area.

Although Eger’s appointment is a first for the Reform movement, the smaller Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association has had two openly gay presidents since 2007.

During her two-year term as president, Eger wants to introduce new and continuing education requirements for Reform rabbis and increase partnerships with Reform communities in Europe and Israel. The CCAR is set to release its new High Holy Days prayerbook, or machzor, in time for Rosh Hashanah; titled “Mishkan HaNefesh,” it will include many feminist and LGBT voices.

In his address, Kahn looked back on the fear and prejudice he experienced as a rabbinical student 30 years ago. At the time, the door was closed to openly gay applicants at Hebrew Union College, so he kept his sexual orientation a secret.

“I spent five miserable years at HUC, living in constant fear of exposure and expulsion,” Kahn recounted. “I concealed my relationships and social life.”

He also encountered anti-gay prejudice after ordination, with one Reform movement job placement director urging him not to accept a position at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the San Francisco synagogue that serves a large LGBT population. “Whoever takes this position will have the shmutz of homosexuality on his resume and will never get another job,” Kahn remembered the director saying.

Kahn took the job anyway, and his career thrived.

After his address, Kahn spoke to J. by phone, saying that such prejudice still exists, even though the Reform movement officially has torn down all barriers to a full life for LGBT Jews, including sanctioning same-sex marriage.

Rabbi Denise Eger (center) reads Torah during her March 16 installation as president of CCAR. photo/jta-david a.m. wilensky

“I’m sure there are Reform rabbis out there who would prefer not to officiate at same-sex marriages,” Kahn said, but added, “I’m very proud of the CCAR and our movement as well. There’s the internal Jewish conversation about how we make space to recognize and honor the diversity of Jewish people in our communities. That’s the fundamental switch for us — that we moved from ‘these acts are wrong’ to ‘this person is made in God’s image. How do we honor the holiness of the person?’ ”

Speaking to a reporter at the convention, Eger said, “I hope that the larger Jewish community will come to know me in the next two years and learn that about me — that I’m devoted to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel, and I want it to be a place that’s truly a place of justice for all the peoples that live there, a place where any Jew is welcome, no matter how they daven, to be a place truly of welcome. We don’t have any Jews to waste. That’s what I’ve learned.”

Additionally, the convention included sessions on human rights and the Israeli election, and rabbis were also preordering the new machzor, the third released since 1892, so that they would have it in time for the High Holy Days.

The Reform movement’s last new prayerbook was published in 2007, so many rabbis felt a need for a new one, said Rabbi Hara Person, the publisher and director of the CCAR Press.

In the new prayerbook, one of the changes is that the blessing for those called to the Torah now contains language for males and females and a third option, which is not gendered.

“It’s inclusive for trans-people, for people who are non-gender conforming, and I think that’s a big deal because that speaks a lot to our values of inclusivity and openness,” Person, the executive editor of the book, told Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent.

Of Eger’s installation and the new machzor, Person told the newspaper, “I think it’s all of a piece in terms of the values of the Reform movement and how we’ve evolved over the last 25 years. In some ways, her becoming president is a huge deal historically, but on the other hand, it’s so not a big deal, because if she’s a great leader, why wouldn’t she be our next president?

JTA’s David A.M. Wilensky contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.