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.  

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.


LGBT Pride Month: Hungry for Justice

It was quite a scene on the fourth day of Pesach in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbis from around the state (including several CCAR colleagues) had gathered in the State Legislative Building for a press conference denouncing H.B. 2 and calling upon the Legislature to repeal it. Following the press conference, we reassembled in the chapel for what we all assume was the first kriat hallel to be proclaimed in that space. Six rabbis each introduced a psalm with a reflection and then led an overflowing chapel in song and prayer.

I had the privilege of framing the service, and shared these words:

One of the things that makes the recitation of the Hallel come alive for me is the frequent and easy alternating between person. Like the psalms as a whole, there’s no pinning Hallel down as about either the individual or the collective. One moment we’re singing out as Israel, or even more expansively as “all who revere the Eternal One;” the next, we’re lamenting on our own, bringing forth our private pain. Psalm by psalm, and even verse by verse, the shift occurs.

What I learn from that shift is this: it’s for each of us to locate our own story within the larger story of a People, and all people. Standing on the Bicentennial Mall yesterday afternoon in that fusion coalition of black, brown and white, straight and queer, diverse in gender identity and expression, in means, in political views, I felt keenly who I was (a privileged, white, cisgender male, a Jew, a rabbi) and also with whom I stood. Standing here now, I feel my place no less keenly. Praying the Hallel today I am a small but not insignificant part of my people, of God’s people gone forth from Egypt, crossing the Jordan, marching to the Promised Land.

But I am also present with my own personal story of liberation. And my story is bound up with my son’s story. H.B. 2 seeks to use him as a wedge in a cynical political ploy for votes and power. In doing so, it makes him, and all transgender people in North Carolina, less safe. And while I’d be here with my colleagues today standing against H.B. 2 were I still the father of three daughters, as I pray this Hallel I will give thanks for the personal redemption that’s come to my family since my son learned more fully who he is, and began teaching the rest of us.

Pride Month is about celebrating newly-won rights and standing up where those rights are under attack. As a Reform Rabbi in North Carolina, and the father of a transgender son, I enter this month determined, and hungry for justice.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.

LGBT Social Justice

LGBT Pride Month: In The Wilderness We All Count

My high school years were spent in the desert of Southern California, but to me it felt more like a wilderness, vast and empty. During the summer it was so quiet that many shops and restaurants would close from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

But my mother had a different view. She knew that each person counts, especially in a wilderness, and so she would “collect strays,” people who didn’t quite fit in, who felt like they didn’t count.

Among the “strays” was Don. Don was tall, good looking and really funny. And he was a a 30 something gay man struggling against the challenges of not having family support, His joy and humor made an impression on me, a 14 year old kid, still in the closet.

My mom regularly brought in people who were on the outside; people whose family or community didn’t or wouldn’t support them. As a high school student in the 1970’s I saw how difficult life was for, people like Don, like me The discrimination of lesbians and gays, deprived them of even the most basic rights. So many battles for things we take for granted today, were yet to be fought. To be openly gay or lesbian came with so many risks, personally and professionally, against which there were no legal protections. To be accepted for who you were, to be in a safe place was a treasured gift. For Don and the others my mother welcomed at her work and into our lives, our home was an oasis. By modeling inclusion and hospitality, especially for these young men, I learned a lesson in acceptance and the value of each individual person.

Many decades have passed I am now at the opposite end of the continent, I live in Maine. Maine too is a wilderness for many people, after all it is a state reputedly with more moose than people. Here in this beautiful, sparsely populated place there are those who know the value of every person, every marriage, and every community. And they are willing to stand up and fight for the rights of others.

The best example of this valuing was demonstrated in the work done in 2011-12 to bring marriage equality to Maine. The marriage equality campaign understood the best way to educate our neighbors on the value of equality was to treat everyone as if they mattered. This meant walking door to door and meeting face to face. The goal was to meet and to educate, to share and to listen. The message of the campaign was about the value of marriage and marriage equality. Every marriage should count; every family be valued.

Today in Maine the conversation has shifted to ensuring the rights of transgender people. However, the message is the same, we all count, we all deserve to be safe in our communities, our state, and our country. There have been successes and yet there is much work to do.

Nearly every year, the LGBT pride month coincides with the reading of the Book of Numbers/B’midbar. The Book begins not only with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness traveling toward the Promised Land but also with a census of those on the trip. The dual titling of this book of the Torah teaches us an important lesson: In the Wilderness/B’midbar — Everyone Counts. Each one of us matters as we make our way to our common future. In fact that is is the only way we can reach the “promised land”. We are still wandering, though we are closer, and by joining in with your voice, you can help take us a step closer. Until every person matters we will always be wandering in a wilderness.

Rabbi Darah R. Lerner serves Congregation Beth El in Bangor, Maine