LGBT News Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Persevering on the Road to Acceptance, by Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch, DMin

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 forLGBTQ+ 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]

I was ordained in 1982 from the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR, a decade after the ordination of the first woman rabbi, Sally Priesand. In 1982, as congregations struggled with the concept of women rabbis, the term lesbian rabbi was not in their vocabulary. When I applied to rabbinical school, the psychologist who barraged every applicant with psychological testing on behalf of the College–Institute, happily informed me after reviewing my test results that ‟at least we know you aren’t gay.” I dodged a targeted bullet and terror followed me throughout my time at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, knowing in New York, one professor refused to sign the ordination certificate of any gay or lesbian student. While in Cincinnati, I only came out to a few close friends and one professor. 

After ordination, I moved to New York (to be with my then-partner) and served as the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck. Although the senior rabbi was male, the president, cantor, and I were female. One past-president and major donor expressed concern when the senior rabbi was away and only women were on the bimah. When I became the rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan, there was a woman president my entire tenure and we had many female cantorial students. B-Mitzvah guests often inquired if East End Temple was a women’s synagogue. One member quit the temple when she realized I was a lesbian and another threatened to quit if I went public.   

Rabbi Hirsch in the 1990s.
Rabbi Hirsch (far right) was amongst several women leaders honored by Elizabeth Holtzman, then the Comptroller of New York City, during Women’s History Month in the 1990s.

Although, in time, I did confide in more and more people, I remained closeted until 2000 when I became the then-UAHC regional director of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues. In the eighteen years prior to my being “out,” I attended CCAR Conventions (for six of those years I was the CCAR financial secretary—the first woman to be a CCAR officer) and stood next to colleagues who voiced opposition to gay marriage being considered k’dushin (Jewish marriage) and rabbis officiating at gay marriages. In the early years, some women colleagues distanced themselves from lesbian rabbis, after a few of us ‟came out” at a WRN Convention in the late 1980s. As women rabbis were still struggling to be as equally accepted as their male counterparts, any deviation from the normal path of full-time solo rabbi or climbing the ladder from assistant to senior rabbi, was frowned upon. Adding a ‟lesbian” component posed an even greater threat for acceptance.

While at East End Temple, I came out to the then-UAHC regional director and friend, and he urged me not to go public. In the 1990s, I applied for and was a finalist for two rabbinic positions. My then-partner, in speaking to a colleague who did not know of our relationship, mentioned that his wife was on the congregation’s search committee. When she mentioned she knew I was a candidate, he responded, “oh, the gay rabbi.” I didn’t get the position.

When I was in my final interview for a CCAR senior executive position, I was asked to explain how I was a staunch supporter of family values, yet didn’t have children of my own. I responded that I had to be satisfied with raising up generations of Jews. I am not presuming both positions weren’t offered to me because I was a lesbian, rather, the fact that I was considered “other” was palpable. Little did I know that fifteen years later, I would find a wife who had four grown children, and that she and I now have the immense privilege and pleasure of being savta and savta (grandmother) to thirteen amazing grandchildren and are blessed with a warm, supportive, and loving family.  

As I look back on my forty-one years in the rabbinate, I am amazed at how much has changed for the positive. I returned to the congregational rabbinate in 2010 and served three congregations until retirement. Not once was concern expressed about my being a lesbian, and Carole and I were warmly welcomed into each congregation.

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch, DMin, and wife Carole Rivel.

I also realize I spent my entire rabbinate in New York and that other LGBTQ colleagues encountered prejudice throughout their journeys. For me, the path to acceptance was a very rocky road, and I persevered. I learned that I had to live my life fully embracing every part of me. The tipping point for me to openly be a lesbian rabbi came when I realized that bifurcating my life became untenable. Despite the struggle, I never once regretted my decision to become a rabbi. It has been a richly spiritual and meaningful calling. I am confident as a Jew, rabbi, and lesbian; I have served as a positive role model, inspiring, teaching, and comforting generations.   

Rabbi Hirsch and Carole Rivel’s commitment ceremony at Debbie Friedman’s on December 31, 2003.
Rabbi Hirsch and Carole Rivel’s legal wedding in Massachusetts on August 23, 2005. Gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004.

Although the LGBTQ community has much to celebrate, the struggle is far from over. We are experiencing a growing, dangerous wave of xenophobia targeting the LGBTQ community, people of color, Jews, and many other minorities here and abroad. We are B’nei Yisrael—the children of Israel, literally those who wrestle with God. Each Jewish LGBTQ generation must remember the struggles of past generations, celebrate the victories, and be a shofar—a piercing call for justice, equality, and acceptance for all of God’s children.