LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Rabbi Denise Eger: ‘Speak Loud, Fight Harder, Be Proud’

This Pride Month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is lifting up an important community within the Reform rabbinate: the groundbreaking LGTBQ+ rabbis who were amongst the first rabbis to express themselves openly, who paved the way—and often fought for—LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion in the Reform rabbinate and in the Jewish community.

Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have lived closeted lives because of outright discrimination and more subtle forms of bias and rejection that have dominated much of Jewish history, including the history of our Reform Movement and the CCAR itself. We are committed to continuing to learn how to rectify the erasures of the past and to embrace all of our colleagues.

While the Reform Movement has advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion for decades, for many queer rabbis, the personal experience of navigating sexuality in rabbinical school, or being the first out rabbi at a synagogue, in an organization, or even in their city or community, was a fraught, sometimes painful experience, often marked with judgment, shame, or even overt discrimination. 

We share these moments of truth, and we also share important moments of joy and hard-won milestones. We honor the experiences of queer Reform rabbis, their meaningful contributions, and above all else, we thank them for showing up as their authentic selves and bringing diversity and wholeness to the rabbinate and to their communities.

“Neitzei hasadeh—Let us go forth and let our message ring out, that God loves us all, that we love us all, and that love conquers all.” [Based on Song of Songs 7:12]

As we observe Pride in 2023, I am reflecting on many aspects of my LGBTQ+ rabbinic journey. I am particularly nostalgic as I am retiring from my pulpit soon. My entire rabbinic career has been serving the Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Jewish community.  

When I was ordained a rabbi in 1988 by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, it was still a time when you could not be openly gay or lesbian and rabbi. (There was not even a discussion that transgender people could be part of this equation at that time!) The College–Institute did not ordain openly gay or lesbian people as rabbis.   

This was a burning question and issue in the mid- to late 1980s within Reform Judaism. What was the place of LGBTQ+ Jews in the community? Could LGBTQ+ Jews be religious leaders? And all of this against a backdrop of a horrible AIDS pandemic that was killing gay men in droves in this country. And in the midst of a political scene where the U.S. government did nothing to help. Ronald Reagan’s administration’s inaction and lack of truth telling about AIDS/HIV contributed to the number of deaths. The right wing of the Republican Party and the religious homophobes they courted called for concentration camps for gay men, and they blocked civil rights for LGBTQ+ people. 

My rabbinate unfolded against this backdrop, fueling me to become an advocate and activist for LGBTQ+ rights in society and LGBTQ+ rites in our Jewish world. There were many closeted LGBTQ+ people who were already ordained, but only a handful who were openly gay. As the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion were actively debating the ordination of gay and lesbian colleagues as rabbis, there was to be a resolution at the 1990 CCAR Convention in Seattle. In advance of the Convention, my coming out story ran in the Los Angeles Times, helping to give a face and name to the cause.  

There was no turning back.

From left: Rabbi Ross Z. Levy, Rabbi Denise Eger, Cantor Patti Linsky during High Holy Days 2022 at Congregation Kol Ami.

I stood at the bedsides of countless young men dying of HIV, feeding them and visiting them when they had no one, when their families still rejected them.   

I advocated for gay youth who were often thrown out of their homes.

I did training for Jewish professionals, social workers, and other community leaders about how to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. We made connections with the Israeli LGBTQ+ community supporting their efforts and worked with the first openly lesbian Tel Aviv city council woman, Michal Eden, who opened the LGBTQ youth shelter, Beit Dror, in Tel Aviv. We raised money for Beit Dror, as well as provided resources to train their social workers in Israel on LGBTQ+ issues for youth.  

These are but some examples of my rabbinate. 

Rabbi Denise Eger, right, with Reverend Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California in 2008, when the California Supreme Court ruled that provisions in the state’s marriage statutes banning same-sex marriages violated the California Constitution.

Over the course of the next thirty-five years, I would push the boundaries of inclusion for marriage equality both in our Reform Movement and the larger Jewish world and in society at large. I performed the first legal same-sex marriage in California in 2008 when the California Supreme Court found same-sex marriage to be legal in the Constitution. I would do over sixty weddings during that summer of love, before voters in November 2008 took away the right to marry until the federal government granted it again in 2015.  

I worked on many other issues of concern for LGBTQ+ people, including advocating for transgender rights and for the expanding understanding of gender expression alongside sexual orientation.  

There are many moments of memory, including becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ person to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2015. One story from that moment that most people don’t know, is that even with all the progress on LGBTQ+ civil rights in society and in the liberal Jewish world by 2015, the day I was to be installed as CCAR President, a credible death threat was made against me. At the Convention, I had a bodyguard. My colleagues kept asking who the guy was that was trailing me everywhere. We couldn’t actually say as we didn’t want to draw too much extra attention to the situation, but there was an abundance of caution. I didn’t leave the hotel except once to go to dinner, where the bodyguard sat at the next table with a clear sight line to the door. It was frightening for me and for my family as my son was with me from college.  

The world had changed and yet not so much. There still was an expression of hatred and violence against me as an out lesbian, as an out Jewish lesbian. 

This wasn’t the first death threat I received. There have been many. 

And what worries me most today, is the climate of hatred and harassment and rolling back of civil rights for our LGBTQ+ community. The particular focus on the dehumanization of transgender people and trans children and their families in many states; the threat to marriage equality; the rolling back of hate crime laws; the attack on women’s reproductive health, hearkens back to the time when I became a rabbi.  

Our Reform Movement will need to stand strong and tall for LGBTQ+ rabbis and their families. Our Reform Movement will need to stand strong and tall for our LGBTQ+ congregants and members and in the larger society and use its power and voice and moral suasion to be the advocates we need.  

May this Pride Season inspire us to speak louder, fight harder for justice, and be proud of our queer rabbis, family, friends, and community. 

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California. In March 2015 she became the 60th President of the CCAR, becoming the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi to hold that position. She served from 2015-2017. Rabbi Eger is also past President of the Southern California Board of Rabbis (the first woman and openly gay person to do so) and a past President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis.

In 2020, she released Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of Jewish Life and Ritual (CCAR Press), a groundbreaking collection of LGBTQ+ prayers, poems, liturgy, and rituals. Her latest book is Seven Principles for Living Bravely: Ageless Wisdom and Comforting Faith for Weathering Life’s Most Difficult Times.

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