Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Allen Bennett: 50 Years of Joys and Rewards of Chaplaincy, Pulpit, and Interfaith Work

I graduated in the largest ordination class in HUC-JIR’s history.

I was one of the very few graduates that year, if not the only graduate, who intentionally chose not to seek work in a pulpit setting. I elected to enter a one-year residency program in Clinical Pastoral Education (hospital chaplaincy) in Rochester, Minnesota, after which I remained as the Jewish chaplain at the Mayo Clinic-affiliated hospitals for the next two years. Unbeknownst to me when I went to Rochester, I was also expected to serve as the rabbi of B’nai Israel Synagogue there, something no one thought to mention to me during the application process.

I loved my chaplaincy work and learned a great deal from the synagogue work. But when I had an opportunity to enter a doctoral program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I jumped at it and moved west. Realizing that I needed to support myself while a graduate student, I took jobs as the Director of Adult Programs at a Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, a clerk in a Jewish book store, a clerk in a Jewish-owned insurance brokerage, the rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco’s first LGBTQ+ synagogue), the Associate—and then Executive—Director at the San Francisco office of the American Jewish Congress, the Executive Director of the JCRC of the Greater East Bay and, finally, as the rabbi of Temple Israel of Alameda. I retired from Temple Israel in 2012.

Throughout my rabbinate, I was drawn to hospital chaplaincy. I became the (volunteer) chair of the Chaplaincy Advisory Board of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, and served in that position for ten years. I now serve on the chaplaincy committee of Kaiser Hospital in San Leandro because I still enjoy the world of chaplaincy so much.

Relatively early on in my time in the San Francisco Bay Area, I got to know an Orthodox rabbi who was the unpaid President of the Board of Rabbis here. He was a wonderful character who was a role model in the way he tried to support and care for local rabbis regardless of their denominational affiliations. It was because of him that I became intimately involved with our Board of Rabbis, eventually serving at various times as both President and Executive Director, and even now in retirement, I continue my affiliation and strong support of the organization.

As far back as my earliest days in Minnesota, I became involved in interfaith work, initially with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition of Minnesota, and then with the local interfaith councils. Once I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, my involvement in civic affairs has always been based in interfaith work. I was, and remain, involved in several interfaith and interreligious organizations in the area, working on immigrant rights, reproductive rights, homelessness issues, LGBTQ+ issues, and other social justice issues.

At this point in my life, my greatest joys involve volunteering in chaplaincy-related programs, supporting local rabbis, and interfaith social justice work.

Rabbi Allen Bennett is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Rabbi Allen Bennett on Finding Identity, Authenticity, and Freedom

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]

Although I had begun the coming-out process in my senior year of high school (1964), for all intents and purposes, I remained essentially closeted until four years after ordination in 1978. This meant applying to seminary under false pretenses because being truthful about being gay would have meant not being admitted to the school. 

There was no support system of any kind throughout this time, and although I was not consciously thinking about it all the time, in the back of my mind there was always the fear of discovery and the stress and pressure of evolving into the persona of a rabbi while at the same time living a lie. 

I was the first openly gay rabbi, at least in the U.S. As one might expect, the organized Jewish community was not receptive to the news of my coming out. While it was never stated directly, it was strongly implied that it would be nigh impossible to find a (congregational) job if people knew that I was gay. Fortunately, I had never wanted to work in congregational life, so my job search took me in different directions, e.g., hospital chaplaincy, that was much more to my liking. As it turned out, the chaplaincy job was only part-time, and to make a full-time living, I ended up becoming the rabbi of the small congregation in the community, but did not disclose my gayness, and thus avoided the challenge that my being out would have posed. 

By the time I left that position, I had decided to enter academia and was able to avoid the issues that would have been associated at that point in time with congregational work. 

One of the hardest things about being a/the first gay rabbi was that in the minds of the people I encountered, I was perceived as gay first and a rabbi second. That was the wrong order of things, and it was an unnecessary burden. Also, there were no peers, there was no support system of any kind, extremely few colleagues to whom I could speak about my personal life, and this resulted in my living a pretty lonely existence for a good part of this time. 

One of the biggest rewards since coming out was that I was free of the burden of deceit, lies, and duplicity. That freedom meant that I could be a role model, a “symbolic exemplar,” and not experience ongoing guilt about being inauthentic. It meant that I could use my own experience to help inform other LGBTQIA+ clergy about the differences between being out, honest, and free, and being closeted, dishonest (with oneself and others), and restricted. 

I would not wish coming out the way I did on anyone. The world seemed completely unready to accept LGBTQIA+ clergy in the 1960s and 1970s, and even now there continue to be risks associated with our authenticity and honesty. Yet despite the risks, I look back with some disbelief at how far we have come, while understanding that we still have so far to go to achieve the unconditional acceptance that we all deserve. For the most part things have changed for the better with non-Orthodox Jewish seminaries accepting, admitting, and ordaining LGBTQIA+ students. Today same-sex marriage is accepted law throughout the land, something many of us in my generation thought we would never live to see. And we have created liturgies and rituals to sanctify these relationships, thus expanding the welcome of our communities in ways many of us never experienced in our early years.

Whatever one’s gender identity or orientation, it is extremely challenging to be a rabbi, cantor, educator, etc., in these times, perhaps even more so than in my generation. Fortunately, in most cases today being LGBTQIA+ is not a major risk factor in our professional lives. For better or for worse, our real challenge is to find ways to keep Judaism and Jewish community relevant to those who are or wish to be Jewish. And our own individual identity is only one part of the totality we bring to our work. 

Rabbi Allen Bennett was ordained in 1974.