Categories
Books Inclusion LGBT

‘Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells’: A Project of Hope

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, was published by CCAR Press in the spring of 2020. In this post, Rabbi Eger shares how the book came to be.

Some rabbis collect their sermons and publish them. They are pearls of wisdom for the ages.

I may yet do that at some point.

But more urgently, I saw the need to center the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout my years of service as a rabbi, I had to create ceremonies and prayers for my community when there were no resources. I was ordained in the late 1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a time when our beloved HUC-JIR still wouldn’t ordain openly LGBTQ+ people as rabbis or cantors. We lived in fear and in the closet. Maybe that is hard to believe now for our many openly LGBTQ+ rabbis and seminarians, but it wasn’t that long ago when we gathered secretly at CCAR Conventions late at night in someone’s room to connect with other queer colleagues.

Over the years, I wrote prayers for Pride Month and National Coming Out Day. I would write invocations and blessings for interfaith gatherings affirming the worth and dignity

of LGBTQ+ people, their families, and people with HIV. I had to invent, create, and imagine an authentic queer Jewish life when there was little liturgy available.

Religion is so often used to shame and hurt LGBTQ+ people. Too much violence and hatred are directed at the LGBTQ+ community in the name of religion. I purposefully write from a different perspective.

I tried to create prayers in a genuine Jewish voice that uplifted, instilling hope and healing. I tried to combat homophobia through prayers and reflections that reinforced the theology that all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. I tried to convey what today we call audacious hospitality, writing naming ceremonies for those transitioning gender, wedding ceremonies before we had any templates, and rituals for coming out. I wrote my first ceremony to celebrate someone coming out as gay in 1986! It was centered around an aliyah to the Torah, as a riff on benching Gomel and a Mi Shebeirach for well-being.

But luckily, over these same three-plus decades, LGBTQ+ Jewish life has grown and blossomed. We have seen tectonic shifts in not just welcoming LGBTQ+ and non-binary Jews home, but embracing queer life and queer Jewish voices.

Often when Gay Pride Month would roll around, many of you, my colleagues, would call or email me to ask for materials for Pride Shabbat. I shared whatever I had created that year. Clearly there was a need for a collection of resources to help communities live out our commitment to be welcoming and embracing places of LGBTQ+ folx. Not one for sitting around, after my time in leadership of the Conference, I knew it was the right moment to collect not only some of own writings, but to invite others to share their poetry, prayer, and passion—centering the voices and experiences of our queer Jewish community.

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells was born out of this effort.

Mishkan Ga’avah represents some of the collected wisdom, voices, and experiences of Jewish LGBTQ+ people. It is a spiritual resource for both the individual and the community. I hope it inspires others to write creative liturgy and prayers using their own voices. And I hope it will offer comfort, solace, inspiration, and hope to LGBTQ+ people everywhere—a beautiful strand of pearls for all of our Jewish community to wear.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the editor of Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020) and a past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA.

Categories
Inclusion LGBT Social Justice

Transgender Day of Remembrance: An Opportunity for Safety and Visibility

Besides coronavirus, there is another epidemic raging in our communities: the ongoing scourge of violence targeting transgender people, particularly trans women of color. Transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people [ɪ] are more likely to be denied equal access to jobs, housing, and medical care, and they are frequent targets of violence—including murder. Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folx are afraid to go to the police for help; when they do seek out legal remedies or safe harbor, they often are further harassed by law enforcement, facing violence at the hands of the very people charged with protecting them.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), “In just seven months, the number of transgender people suspected of being murdered in 2020 has surpassed the total for all of 2019.” Black and Latinx transgender women have been particularly targeted. NCTE’s US Transgender Survey, which included more than 28,000 participants, found that nearly half (47 percent) of all Black respondents and 30 percent of all Latinx respondents reported being denied equal treatment, experiencing verbal harassment, or being physically attacked in the previous year due to their transgender identity. 

The Family Research Project has shown that nearly three out of four trans and gender-expansive youth have heard family members say negative remarks about LGBTQ people, and over half of transgender and gender-expansive youth have been openly mocked by their families for their identity.

These harrowing statistics don’t have to be the norm. There is an urgent need for education and awareness-raising about transgender issues, both in our Jewish communities and in the cities and towns in which we live. As rabbis, we can make our synagogues places of safe harbor and support for transgender and gender non-conforming people, whether they are Jewish or not! Just as we build coalitions with interfaith partners, our congregations can build important bridges, becoming advocates for our Jewish transgender and non-binary members while providing connection, safety, and partnership for the larger transgender and non-binary community. One way we might do so is by reaching out to local LGBTQ organizations to sponsor and host ceremonies for Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Every year, November 20 is designated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). The week prior is known as Transgender Awareness Week, with the goal of increasing visibility of transgender people and addressing the painful issues their community faces. TDOR was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered the previous year. The vigil commemorated all of the transgender people lost to violence since Hester’s death, beginning an important annual tradition.

This year, TDOR is on a Friday. Perhaps at your Shabbat evening service, you will invite a transgender activist to speak and educate your community. Perhaps during the Kaddish, you will read aloud the names of transgender victims of murder from this past year. Or in the week before TDOR, perhaps you will schedule a program to help raise visibility and acceptance of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.

In my book, Mishkan Gaavah: Where Pride Dwells, published this year by CCAR Press, there are several powerful prayers and readings for TDOR. Here’s one to consider using:

A Prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance

Rabbi: We praise You, Holy One, for the gift of life, precious, stubborn, fragile and beautiful; we are grateful for the time we have to live upon the earth, to love, to grow, to be.

Congregation: We give thanks for the will to live and for our capacity to live fully all of the days that we are given;

Rabbi: And for those who have been taken by the devastation of violence used against them. We remember them and claim the opportunity to build lives of wholeness in their honor.

Congregation: We give you thanks for the partners, friends, allies and families who have been steadfast in their love; for the people who have devoted their lifes work to the prevention of violence, support and making transitioning from one gender to another possible with passion and commitment,

Rabbi: For the diligent science, brilliant ideas, and insights that have led to new life-giving procedures, for those in leadership who have acted to provide health care for people who are in transition.

Congregation: We give thanks for those whose prejudice and judgment have yielded to understanding, for those who have overcome fear, indifference, or burnout to embrace a life of caring compassion.

Rabbi: We praise You, Eternal One, for those who have loved enough that their hearts have broken, who cherish the memories of those we have lost, and for those who console the grieving.

Congregation: God, grant us the love, courage, tenacity, and will to continue to make a difference in a world even with the violence aimed towards our community;

Rabbi: Inspire us to challenge and stand strong against the forces that allow needless harm and violence to continue—prejudice, unjust laws, repression, stigma, and fear.

Congregation: Into Your care, we trust and lift up the hundreds of souls who have been tortured and murdered.

Rabbi: We lift up to You our dreams of a world where all are cared for,

Congregation: Our dreams of wholeness,

Rabbi: Our dreams of a world where all are accepted and respected,

Congregation: A dream we know You share.


[ɪ] The Human Rights Campaign has a useful glossary for anyone unfamiliar with these terms.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the editor of Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020) and a past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA.

Categories
Books Prayer

Accessing the World of Meaningful Prayer

The tension between keva and kavanah in our worship is always there.  The fixed texts of our liturgy guide us through our daily moments of reflection and prayer.  They contain our history, our theology, and our deep bond with the Holy One through the millennia. There is a comfort for me in chanting the words that my parents and grandparents knew. Even when praying in English or some other mother tongue those too can have the same force that binds us to our covenant.

The kavanah, the inspirational or extemporaneous moments of prayer take me in a different direction. The words and music I craft at any given moment pour out of my lips in an effort to capture my spiritual longings of a specific moment or situation.  I am drawn increasingly to these interpretative poems and prayers to express my soul’s longing in the complex world we live in.  I search for material that will enhance the keva and at times liberate me from the keva as well.

As the one who is responsible for crafting meaningful worship for others, we rabbis and cantors are often caught in the bind between these two points.  We have a sacred duty, on the one hand, to our received tradition and to engage the worshipper for whom the fixed text is foreign, and who may only occasionally enter into moments of conversation with God. And we who long to create different kinds of spiritual connection through prayer and meditation that is still authentically Jewish but soars beyond the keva need material that can reframe and revitalize our Jewish prayer voice. This dialectic between the written texts and the inspirational texts, and impromptu prayers will always challenge us and hopefully propel us to deepen our thoughtfulness in preparing meaningful worship experiences.

This is why I appreciate deeply the poetry and prayers of Alden Solovy.  In his newest collection of prayer/poems, This Joyous Soul, soon to be published by the CCAR Press, Alden gives us some tools that will help us navigate this tension between the traditional rubrics of the service and inspired language of kavanah, specifically around Shabbat morning.

I had the opportunity to utilize some of Alden’s newest prayers as part of Shabbat morning worship with my community and in other settings.  The collection of prayer/poems accompany the keva, the fixed liturgy, in a complementary way deepening the experience for the congregation.  The themes of the morning service are woven into every line and stanza in the book.  Let’s take but one example from this new collection:

God’s Morning

Calm or wind.
Cloud or sun.
Warm or cool.
It’s God’s morning.
A gift.
A promise.
A bird gliding on a breeze,
Singing ancient songs,
That need no translation.
A ray of secret light
Stored for this very moment
Since the beginning of time.

Let us rejoice.
Let us sing.
Let us tremble with love,
While the Artist paints
The sky and the hills,
The seas and the plains,
In the colors of majesty.

It’s God’s morning.
Sent as a reminder
To love and to hope.
Sent as a reminder
To celebrate
The glory of Creation.

For me this is the Shabbat Morning Yotzer prayer filled with hints of light and God’s creation.  It refocuses me on God as the artisan who paints all of creation and the world. This refreshes my understanding of the idea of renewing creation daily and transitions me into that wide expanse of love that follows in Ahavah Rabbah.

I have shared this piece several times with different members of my community. Read in worship and in study to a person, they have each smiled to themselves as they bathe in the beauty of the painted words.  While the Hebrew of our prayers provide ancient connection for my congregation, through Alden’s words they access the world of meaningful prayer through an authentic Jewish voice.  It is not replacement for the keva, but instead a kavanah that primes me and my community for the keva.  And perhaps a way into the keva now that the table has been set.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger  serves Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is the immediate past-president of the CCAR.  This Joyous Soul is now available to order! 

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Preparing Ourselves

In these times of turmoil we rabbis bring a sense of comfort and steadiness to the communities we serve.  In the storm tossed waters that seem to shake the world these days, our congregants, students, and communities look to us to help them make sense of it all.  They look to our tradition, our prophets, our Torah for soothing, healing, and that most important quality, hope.

These coming High Holy Days will challenge us to bring that spiritual nourishment to the Jewish people like never before. In the aftermath of Charlottesville our people will need a true message of consolation.  How to forgive in the face of such vile bigotry?

We, too, are not immune to these same feelings as those we serve.  Our own outrage and concern as we have to respond to the hatemongers among us affects our well-being too.  I have heard from many friends and colleagues about their own worries and concerns for the U.S. as the racists and white supremacists, Nazis and Klan have come out from their hoods into the light of day and the light of their tiki torches.  I have heard about the fatigue that grips us as we are constantly called upon to march and comfort, speak up and show up.

So how can we in these days and weeks of preparation for the Yamim Noraim prepare ourselves to lead? How can we bring a sense of shalom to our own souls so that we in turn my guide and uplift our communities in prayer and reflection? How can we prepare to lead the Jewish people toward t’shuvah in the weeks ahead?

If we turn to Yoma 2ab we find the discussion of the sequestration of the High Priest. Seven days prior to the start of Yom Kippur the High Priest was removed from his home.  This was done according to tradition to ensure the High Priest’s spiritual purity for the sacred day and sacred service.  The High Priest lived in a special chamber at the Temple during this time and his team went to great lengths to ensure that his spiritual purity could be guarded and protected. During the Avodah service on Yom Kippur the atonement of the people depended upon his spiritual purity.  But our tradition also teaches that the High Priest was sequestered to also search his own soul. This time allowed him to pray and reflect and meditate on the awe-some task that would soon come.

While we are not priests like in the days of the Temple, I believe we have to find the time even as Religious school starts up again, and there are sermons to be written, music to be chosen and our people return from their summer vacations, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the Days of Awe.  Rabbis may not be able to take seven days prior to Yom Kippur to sequester ourselves  but this text does provide us with a reminder that even the High Priest needed to prepare  for his task.  We too have to prepare our spiritual selves for our task. Our spiritual purity and sensibilities do need some time and attention.  Self-care in these times of political disruption and assault will help each of us steer our people’s prayers toward heaven.

I am inspired by the High Priest’s preparation and I am inspired to ensure that my own soul is ready to do the heavy lifting of t’shuvah.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is the immediate Past President of the CCAR. 

Categories
Convention

Atlanta Here We Come!

Atlanta here we come! In just a few weeks we will gather for our annual convention. I can’t believe that it has been two years since my installation in Philadelphia.  The months have literally flown by as I have traveled not only across the U.S. but also visiting our colleagues in South America, Europe and Israel! The CCAR is truly a global organization.  What an incredible privilege it has been to serve our Conference and all of you.  I am looking forward to greeting you in the Peach State and to celebrating the accomplishments of our CCAR and welcoming and installing our new President, David Stern.

Our annual convention is the highlight of every year and this year will be no different. I know that our Program Committee under the leadership of Wendi Geffen and our local Atlanta colleagues alongside CCAR Program Manager, Victor Appell, have worked to ensure that this gathering will be memorable. I am very excited about the emphasis on civil rights and social justice that awaits us in Atlanta; touring The Center for Civil and Human Rights; hearing from the President of the Southern Poverty Law Center and NAACP; meeting with pastors from the historic Ebenezer Church and of course a visit to The Temple! Our convention will help us frame and reframe for our rabbinates the call of our prophetic tradition to speak truth to power and to lift up the dignity of every person.

Click to register for Convention.

But even more than the workshops, tours, and professional development that will be offered this year I think there is one more component that will be more needed than ever: Chevruta.

I know that since the November U.S. election you all have worked tirelessly to support your many congregants who have so many questions. You have held their disappointments and anger. You have been torn between often speaking up about our Jewish moral tradition and worry that your more politically conservative members and donors will be alienated or that political incivility will tear apart the congregational bonds.  Many of you have written to me of your own personal worries and difficulties during this time.  I have received emails and phone calls about some colleague’s sense of isolation from their communities as if they are the lone voice in the wilderness. I know that Steve Fox and our staff have also received calls and emails about this and talked with many of you.

View the Convention Snapshot.

That is why our convention gathering will be so important. Because together in Atlanta we will comfort each other, lift each other up, inspire each other, teach each other, laugh with each other, breathe with each other and renew one another spirits. More than ever we need to be together.

So if you are hesitating about whether or not to come, just do it! Register and join us for a celebration of everything that is so good and holy about being rabbis.  Join us so we can strengthen our resolve to engage in our holy work of Torah that includes lifting up the souls and strengthening the moral fiber of the Jewish people!

I have been asked what I liked best about being President of the CCAR. And I always have the same answer.  I like rabbis.  I have met so many of you that I didn’t know before.  I have seen how you toil for God, Torah and Israel. I have deep admiration for the holy work you do, wherever you do so.  Whether in the hospital, or military, college campus, day school, congregation or organization, you, my colleagues have inspired me to see that the Jewish people lives and is strong and will be not just survive but continues to thrive.  I hope you will come to Atlanta so we can share in that communal strength with one another.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is President of the CCAR. 

Categories
Books High Holy Days Machzor

Pulling Out an Old Friend Before the New Year

With the New Year set to begin shortly, I know most of my rabbinical friends are working very hard to craft their sermons and iyunim.  I know I spend time thinking about each and every word and story to shape a meaningful message to my community.

But each year before I begin to write, I engage in my own process of preparation.  I turn to the original Shaarei Teshuvah—Gates of Repentance.  Not our previous machzor-but Rabbi Jonah of Gerona’s book. I use my now well- worn text as my way into preparing myself for the High Holy Day Season. My copy is written in and has dog –eared and paper clipped pages. It still has some of the original book cover. This is a text that I have studied alone in some years and with a chavruta in others depending on the year.

I love re-reading this powerful text on repentance each year.  I deeply hearken to the way it highlights the practical steps to teshuvah.  The text outlines Twenty Principles that help one move from acknowledging the transgressions one has committed to keeping others far from sin.  Many of the principles would be recognizable from anyone who has worked the 12 steps of an Alcoholic Anonymous Program. But Rabbi Jonah goes deeper into each principle helping to lift up the essence of teshuvah with a focus on keeping the person far from sin.

I love reading and re-reading this text as a spark to prepare my heart, my soul, and as a reflection on the process I need for myself at this time of year.  I have found that the preparation I do spiritually-feeding my own soul matters perhaps more than the messages I will deliver from the bima.  Not in some selfish way but rather as a process to lift my intentions higher. The text study and reflection builds in me the spiritual reserve to frame my messages to my community.

But as much as I study and review the Twenty Principles, I love the notes that I have written alongside the text in my book. The sparks of sermon ideas and questions it raised in me through the years are a good review.  My scribbled notes on grammar or vocabulary in Hebrew, my jotted shorthand mentioning another book I may have been reading at the time bring the various years together in one place; the comment of a chavruta partner; all these notes to myself help me to prepare.   And most of all it is a record of my spiritual journey of years when I felt my sins weighed heavy against me or the years when I felt wronged by others.

My preparation for the New Year is not complete without studying with my friend Rabbi Jonah of Geronah.  In these days before the New Year arrives I hope that you feel that you have filled your spiritual reserve enough to share with your family and friends and the communities you lead.

With every good wish for a sweet and fulfilling 5777.

— 

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the current President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.  

Categories
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

At the Start of the Journey

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is partnering with the Religious Action Center, the NAACP and other African American civil rights groups to call attention to the systemic racism in our society.  America’s Journey for Justice is focusing on restoring the Voting Act, jobs and education, the scourge of mass incarceration, police brutality and equality and liberty for all Americans.  I was profoundly moved by my participation and that of my colleagues on the first day. I was honored to hold the Torah scroll brought from Chicago Sinai by my colleague, Rabbi Seth Limmer.  Holding it in my arms as we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge of Bloody Sunday infamy brought a welling up of tears at the holy work of bringing full equality that still lies before us.

These are the words I shared at the rally that started the Journey for Justice.  I was honored to speak on behalf of our CCAR:

Good morning. I am here on our holiest day of the week, the Sabbath, representing the over 2,300 Reform Rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  As President of the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North America, we who have come to pray and walk alongside our brothers and sisters, and commit not only to talking the talk of justice and righteousness, but walking the walk. More than 150 rabbis from all over our country will join in this journey. We will be carrying with us a sacred scroll of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, that inspires our Jewish commitment to justice and equality and liberty.

As Rabbis of the CCAR, we pledge this day to stand with and work with and learn from you; to renew the historic Jewish – African American relationships and coalition that once worked together with ease. This is a new beginning.

We, rabbis and the Reform Jewish Movement, pledge to work with you to end the culture of racism in our country. We pledge to work wholeheartedly to end mass incarceration in our country. We pledge to work tirelessly with you to give every child the education she deserves. We pledge to work to root out gun violence in every neighborhood, to fight for economic justice for every person, and to secure voting rights for every American citizens.

God of All, bless those who march today and for the next 40 days.  May our feet be swift, our dedication to Your ideals of Tzedek u’mishpat, righteousness and justice, be strong. And lift us on eagles wings as You once did for the Children of Israel; so that we can bring about the glorious day when all shall eat at the table of liberty and the true Promise of America.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s Blog.

Categories
General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Marriage Equality and a Vision of Wholeness

We shout mazel tov for marriage equality!

The dream has come true, but there is work to do! The United States has taken one more step toward fulfilling the dream of a country where people can live their own lives without fear; but as we celebrate the SCOTUS decision that gives every person the right to marry their beloved, we know the right to live in peace is still a far off dream for too many people.

This victory is a milestone on the road to justice and freedom. Even as we celebrate, we hold the people of Charleston and the entire country in our prayers. The poignancy of our celebration is huge because our joy is so great and our grief for our African American brothers and sisters is so deep. We know now more than ever that none of us are free until all of us are free.

IMG_0835At the core of my religious faith is the eternal promise of justice for all. Not for some but a vision that one day all people of good will shall sing in one voice an anthem of peace and liberty. In Jewish tradition, we teach that the Sabbath is a foretaste of the world to come. The Sabbath is a model of how the world might be. It is a world without work obsessions, a world where poverty and violence are gone, a world where children go to bed at night with warm full bellies. The Sabbath is the taste of the ideal where we rest from our labors to enjoy the true gift of freedom and taste God’s bounty at a table set for all.

We know the right to marry will face great resistance. We know the violence against transgender people is rampant. We know the need for an employment non-discrimination law is great. We know the need to work against racism is urgent, but today, TODAY, we celebrate as if all is complete, the Shalom, the peace and wholeness of God’s creation is with us.

This vision of wholeness, of Shalom, reminds us that when the celebration ends, and the Sabbath prayers are complete, justice and equality will only be fulfilled by going back to work to bring everyone to the table in all our glorious diversity.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA. She currently serves as President of the CCAR

Categories
omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Counting the Days toward Equality

This blog is the fourth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

As we count the Omer this year in anticipation of receiving Torah, I am also counting the days in anticipation of a Supreme Court hearing on Marriage Equality to take place on April 28, 2015 and then sometime in June when the Supreme Court will likely rule on whether or not there is a right to marry in many of the states that have objected such as Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee and others.  As a long time Marriage Equality advocate I remember the happy summer of love in 2008 in California when I officiated at over 60 Jewish weddings between June 16, 2008 including the first legal wedding between plaintiffs in our California case, Robin Tyler and Diane Olsen.   But on November 4, 2008 it was over as a majority of Californians had gone to the polls to elect Barack Obama on the one hand but pass the notorious Proposition 8 which took away the equal right to marry from Californians.  As I stood on a stage in Hollywood that night at an election rally bubbling from Obama’s big California win, I had to comfort a community that had been sucker punched by an unholy alliance between the Catholic Bishops and Mormon Bishops in Utah and California.  More than 40 million dollars had been spent to demonize LGBTQ people and their families once again. It was the most expensive proposition race ever.

The next days and weeks were spent at rallies and protest marches.  I worked vigorously both in front and behind the scenes.  On the night after the election during a big rally in the city where I serve as rabbi, we began passing buckets to raise money to take this back to the courts. My congregation turned out in droves as did many in the Reform Jewish community who were stunned by the results.  I climbed on to the back of a truck that led the protesters through West Hollywood and back down Sunset Blvd. as my fellow activists and I took turns at the bullhorn.

The next night of protests one of the gay community leaders suggested a march on the Mormon Temple the next day.  I knew this would be bad from the start. As she led the marchers the next day down Santa Monica Blvd from West Hollywood to Los Angeles’ Mormon Temple you could feel the tension in the crowd and in the LAPD.  Traffic was completely snarled during rush hour-never a good thing in Los Angeles and those caught in the standstill were angry that they couldn’t get where they were going. That’s when scuffles began between drivers who got out of their cars and protesters.  More than one bloody fight took place. As the marchers turned toward the Mormon temple, my good friend and interfaith partner, Rev. Neil Thomas and I ended up guarding the Mormon Stake behind their Temple. The protesters were beginning to rush the doors.  It was Rev. Thomas and I that stood between the protesters and the Mormons. Luckily the protestors listened to us, kept to the sidewalk, remained calm and kept moving.

There are so many more stories to tell of that time.  But now this many years later I give thanks that marriage equality is legal in more than 33 states.  And so I am counting down the days-not only to receiving Torah at Sinai once again but toward Tuesday, April 28 when the case for marriage equality heads back to the Supreme Court.  Hopefully, it will be a positive resolution nationwide where marriage equality will be the law of the land everywhere.

The work of justice will not be done though. As long as you can still be fired for being married to someone of the same gender, as long as there are no protections in housing or education for LGBTQ individuals the work of equality and justice is not done.  And so I will still be counting in anticipation of that day and counting on all of you to help make that a reality.

———

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
Rabbis

Reflections on the Rabbiner Regina Jonas Mission

I  never  knew.  I didn’t know about Regina Jonas.  That is until this summer. Regina Jonas was the first woman rabbi.  Ordained in Germany in 1935 she was a graduate of the famous Hochshule fuer die Wiesenschaft de Judentums.

I had the privilege of traveling on a special study mission arranged by our teacher and colleague Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola in his capacity as a member of the United States Commission on America’s Heritage Abroad.  This mission cosponsored by American Jewish Archives and the Jewish Women’s Archive brought together the first women rabbis ordained in each of the American denominations. We were joined by lay leaders of our Reform Movement, women colleagues and Jewish women scholars  and some of our European women colleagues for a week of travel dedicated to re-discovering the life of Rabbiner Regina Jonas.

I was so honored and deeply spiritually moved to be a part of this special trip. Traveling with our own Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by the Reform Movement, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first Conservative woman rabbi and Rabbah Sara Hurwitz the first woman ordained as part of the Open Orthodox movement and Rabbi Jackie Tabick the first woman ordained in England in 1975 by Leo Baeck College.  These pioneers brought their wisdom and experiences and together with colleagues, Rabbis Laura Geller, Dena Feingold, Lucy Dinner, Kineret Shiryon, and Alina Treiger (the first woman ordained in Germany since Jonas) and several others including Rabbi Gesa Eiderberg of Berlin and Rabbi Antje Yael Deuser of Bamberg.

I learned of Rabbiner Jonas’ courage, light, and strength. While in Berlin, we saw what was left of her letters and notes, a small stack.  We read her ordination letter written by Rabbi Max Dienemann who was the head of the Liberal Reform Rabbinical Association because she was denied ordination when her own teacher and in charge of ordination at the Hochschule,  Eduard Baneth died and his successor Hanoch Albeck refused to ordain her.  I was struck as we read the words conferring her smicha.  She was an outstanding student, writing her thesis on “Can A Woman Be a Rabbi?”.  But more than her academic credentials and her teaching abilities, she was described as “having the heart of a rabbi”.

In those dark hours leading to the Shoah, Rabbiner Jonas taught and comforted the community.  She led worship and visited hospitals and particularly cared for the elderly left behind as their children emigrated to Palestine, England or the US.  She gave lectures until she and her mother were deported to Terezin in 1942.

There she continued to serve the Jewish people.  When we as a group visited Terezin to dedicate a plaque in her memory we saw a list of the classes and sermons she gave while imprisoned there.  Classes that we all have taught: “Women in the Bible”, “Women in the Talmud”, “Shabbat and its Meaning”, “Observing Mitzvot”. She continued to bring hope and tried to use Judaism to sustain the faith of the people. According to records she worked closely with Vicktor Frankel while in Terezin.

Pioneering women rabbis on the Rabbiner Regina Jonas mission
Pioneering women rabbis on the Rabbiner Regina Jonas mission

At the dedication ceremony in the Columbarium at Terezin Sally, Sandy, Amy and Sara read Regina’s words.  Music was played by the child and grandchild of a survivor of Terezin brought us all to tears as we realized the generations lost and the generations who survived. Rabbi Eilberg chanted El Maleh Rachamim and again our group, her spiritual heirs, realized it might have been one of the first times anyone had done so for Regina Jonas.  Chills enveloped me in that space of memorial. Rabbi Zola worked so hard to make this a moment of true memorial for Regina Jonas and helped each one of us pay tribute to this holy rabbi who served with such dignity.

We went on to Prague as part of the mission.  The second spiritual highlight of this mission took place in the Spanish Synagogue in the Old Jewish Ghetto.  On Shabbat Morning, Sally and Amy led us in prayer.  In this ornate and beautiful synagogue, which reminded all of us Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, we prayed and studied together. Looking up into the second floor was the original pipe organ reminding me of the history of liberal Judaism in this part of the world.

But most moving to me was the use of Mishkan T’filah in our worship.  To me this was a true “l’dor vador” moment.  Here we were the inheritors of Reform Judaism, born in Germany, returned despite the Shoah, despite the loss of so many, even as we rediscovered a true hero of our people, Rabbiner Regina Jonas, and we were using the siddur of our people in this holy space.  We were helping to bring alive in a space that is hardly used at all for worship, a Reform Judaism of the 21st century.  Sally led us in prayer and gave a beautiful sermon that touched each one of us.  Again I had chills to realize how far we all have come.  We stood on Regina’s shoulders and we still stand on Sally’s shoulders and the many women lay leaders who helped pave the way for all of us both men and women.

I was so moved to be a part of this mission.  I was deeply spiritually affected to honor our Jewish history this way and to ponder how each of us who as rabbis serve the Jewish people in some unique.  Each of us whether through synagogue service, organizational work, chaplaincy, writing, or teaching contributes to the sustaining Jewish life. Rabbiner Regina Jonas did it in her way and we in ours.

That is why we went to honor her life, to acknowledge her contributions, to make connections to our European colleagues, and to lift up Jewish life both in Europe and North America.

A project I wish to suggest is that we as a Conference find a way to observe her yarzeit annually.  Although we don’t know her exact date of death, she arrived in Aushwitz in October, 1944, she was another quiet heroine of our people.  Perhaps we can simply observe Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan.  In 1944 Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan was 5 days after she arrived at Aushwitz.  Cheshvan is a bittersweet month of no holy days.  And in the same way, although we mourn her death bitterly, we celebrate her historic life and the dedication as the first woman rabbi.  May her memory live as a blessing.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and president-elect of the Conference.