LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Rabbi Don Goor on Opening Doors

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]

When I was ordained in 1987, all I could see in my future were doors that were closed to me.  

When I applied to Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), I hid the fact that I was gay. I feared that being discovered would bar me from any opportunity to be ordained, let alone allow me to find a position upon ordination. While the seminary accepted me, the door to true acceptance was locked shut. 

When Evan and I first met, we hid our relationship. We did not communicate with each other at HUC-JIR for fear of discovery. Instead of speaking at school, we left messages on each other’s voicemails so that we could meet (always clandestinely), away from eyes that might lead to the door of ordination being shut in our faces.  

I went into placement confident that I could only ever find a position in a synagogue as a closeted “single” man. When I did accept a position in the New York area (this was so Evan and I could be close; he had one more year before being ordained as a cantor), the senior rabbi asked if I was gay. (At the time, the CCAR had a task force on accepting gay rabbis, so it seemed like an innocent question.) With a quivering voice, I answered, “Yes”! He then told me he couldn’t have me on his staff. He didn’t want a rabbi who would be lying about his identity to the congregation and, at the same time, wasn’t willing to hire an “out” rabbi. The door that I feared would be slammed shut in my face did in fact close, in an emotionally devastating moment.  

In follow-up interviews, I was careful to keep the door completely shut and avoid the question of sexual orientation at all costs. As an act of self-preservation, I was complicit in keeping that door closed tightly.  

At Temple Judea in Tarzana, California, I spent many years as assistant/associate rabbi, sharing a home with Evan—my “roommate”! We were careful to build an impenetrable barrier between our professional and personal lives.   

When the senior rabbi position at Judea became available, I knew it was up to me to open the door so I could serve the congregation with a sense of wholeness and integrity. Over the period of a few months, I met with congregational leaders—past, present, and future—to share my story and to come out to them individually and in person. None of them were surprised; all were supportive. Doors began to open. 

Rather than go through an open search, the congregation hired consultants to help them understand what they were looking for in their next senior rabbi. While they quickly reached the consensus that I would be a great match, I’m told that the more senior members of the congregation expressed concern that younger members would be uncomfortable, while younger members were nervous that older members might object. Over several months my personal life was discussed openly by hundreds of congregants. Would Evan and I kiss on the bimah? Would we dance together at synagogue events? It was more than uncomfortable and not at all an easy process. And yet, the door slowly creaked open.   

At the time, it seemed that I was the first openly gay rabbi to be appointed senior rabbi at a mainstream congregation, a story interesting enough for The New York Times to cover. While the synagogue celebrated, protestors attended my installation, and a famous radio personality spoke about abomination on his nationally syndicated program. I’m forever grateful to my teachers and mentors, Rabbi David Ellenson and Rabbi Richard Levy, z”l, for supporting me quite publicly. While the door was slowly opening, there were those trying to slam it shut again.  

A number of years later, as same-gender marriage became legal, Evan and I, at long last, celebrated a chuppah surrounded by friends, family, and congregants. The Shabbat before our ceremony, we were blessed on the bimah at Temple Judea, after which one family resigned. It turns out it was okay to have an out, gay rabbi, but they didn’t want it “shoved in their face”!   

Eventually, despite facing hurdles, I was welcomed for twenty-six years as the rabbi—not as the gay rabbi. I was blessed to share fully in the life of the congregation. 

While the journey to full acceptance and welcome within the community wasn’t an easy one, I never imagined during my time as an HUC-JIR student, hidden deep within the closet, that my career would be so fulfilling and so meaningful. While doors were closed to me along the journey, I’m pleased and proud that, over the years, more and more of those doors swung open. The seminary that wouldn’t have ordained me had I been out invited me to teach and mentor students. The world of synagogue life that was originally closed to me embraced me, and Evan, in the end. They opened doors and hearts, allowing me to serve as their rabbi with complete openness and integrity. I feel privileged to have shared my professional journey with a loving partner, caring friends and family, and a supportive community. Together we forced open the doors so that future generations of rabbis could walk through them with their heads held high. 

Rabbi Donald Goor was ordained in 1987 at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. In 1996, Rabbi Goor was appointed the first out, gay rabbi to serve a mainstream congregation. Rabbi Goor served on the faculty of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles for many years and is rabbi emeritus at Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA. He made aliyah in 2013 and now serves as the rabbinic liaison at J2 Adventures—planning trips to Israel for rabbis and synagogues—and on the boards of the Israel Religious Action Center, Shutaf—a program for special needs kids—and the David Forman Foundation. Rabbi Goor is married to Cantor Evan Kent, his life partner of over thirty-five years. 

2 replies on “LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Rabbi Don Goor on Opening Doors”

I want to thank Don Goor and Deborah Hirsch for their powerful statements. To my best recollection, in interviewing for assistant rabbis or for cantors, I never had to demonstrate the courage of recommending an LGBTQ colleague to serve our congregation. I hope that I would have done the right thing, but I can never be sure. l am immensely grateful to our colleagues who have shown the way and to those who have shared their life experiences, all of which bring us light and understanding. My pride extends to the CCAR which I know from personal leadership experience has responded, in recent decades, in ways that can make us proud. Of course, I understand that the work is not done. But we have come a long, long way.

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