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Lesbian Rabbi Comes Out of Closet to Be Role Model

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Los Angeles Reform Rabbi Denise Eger had been considering for weeks whether to make public her sexual preference for women.

Her decision was made a little easier this week when the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Seattle overwhelmingly approved a report saying that gay and lesbian rabbis are welcome in the Reform rabbinate.

The rabbi at predominantly homosexual Beth Chayim Chadashim, Eger said she is now coming fully “out of the closet” for the sake of her growing, 360-member congregation and to be honest before the broader Jewish community. “I’m also doing it for my own personal growth,” she added.

“It just came to a point where I felt it is important for gay and lesbian Jews to have positive religious role models,” she said. “I feel I’m serving my community in a significant way by being a lesbian rabbi just as straight rabbis serve in straight congregations.”

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When she finished seminary two years ago and was interviewed at two synagogues, Eger did not mention that she was a lesbian. “I was the leading candidate, but was not offered either job because they did their homework, so to speak,” she said.

The synagogue committees presumably learned that Eger had confided her sexual preferences to some seminary professors and fellow students at the Los Angeles and New York campuses of Hebrew Union College.

Eger took the job of rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform-affiliated synagogue for homosexual Jews in Los Angeles. But she still avoided being publicly identified as an avowed lesbian.

After all, her predecessor in that pulpit was heterosexual and why, she thought, should she jeopardize her future with a public label?

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Although the new Reform report on homosexuality and the rabbinate did not endorse so-called gay weddings, Eger said she performs what she calls “affirmation” rites for committed relationships between same-sex couples in her congregation. She said she herself is not mated at present, “but I have a relationship.”

The report stated that “all Jews are religiously equal” and that “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, (should) be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation which they have chosen.”

Acknowledging that most homosexual rabbis are presently secretive about their sexual orientation, the 17-member committee that wrote the report did not encourage them to risk their careers because of the divisions such revelations could produce within a synagogue.

That may have happened in 1988 when Rabbi Stacy Offner said she was forced out of her post as associate rabbi of a St. Paul, Minn., Reform synagogue when it became known in the 850-family congregation that she is lesbian. She was hired a few months later by a new Reform congregation in that city.

Eger said that the newly approved statement is “a good first step to continue the educational process across the Reform movement.” But she added that dozens of gay or lesbian rabbis around the country who are “deeply in the closet” will probably remain there indefinitely since no Reform institution has authority to censure synagogues who dismiss or discriminate against openly homosexual rabbis.

Twelve years ago, Rabbi Allen Bennett of San Francisco became the first Reform rabbi to openly declare himself gay. He now serves as regional executive director for the American Jewish Congress.

The educational process toward acceptance of homosexual Jews has already begun with Reform Judaism structures.

Rabbi Janet Marder, who was part-time rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim for five years before Eger came there, has been compiling a speakers list of rabbis, cantors, educators and Jewish professionals who are avowed homosexuals.

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“I have five or six rabbis on the list,” said Marder, who is currently associate director of the Pacific Southwest region for Reform Judaism’s 71 congregations from Visalia, Calif., to El Paso, Tex..

“There are now some openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students,” she added. “I know at least three who are on the Los Angeles campus.”

Hebrew Union College has four campuses. Every candidate for Reform ordination must attend the Jerusalem branch in the first year and must study the final two years at either the Cincinnati or New York City campus.

Eger, 30, said she first sensed her feelings of affection for other women when she was a pre-adolescent growing up in Memphis. She first dreamed of being a cantor after being trained in classical voice, then thought of trying for the rabbinate as Reform Judaism ordained its first women rabbis in the 1970s.

She transferred to USC in her junior year and took the majority of her undergraduate courses at the nearby Hebrew Union College under the joint academic program of the two schools in Judaic studies.

“At USC, I started to realize that my relationship with the man I was dating and other men was not as significant as those with the women in my life,” she said.

During her first seminary year at the Jerusalem campus, “I really tried to handle it by running away from my identity,” she said. When she returned to the Los Angeles campus, however, she began to confide her feelings to others and tell her family members.

Hebrew Union College had no written policy on whether admitted gays or lesbians would be ordained once they finished their studies, Eger said, so conflicting opinions and stories made her and other homosexual seminarians fearful about the future.

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With the approval of gay and lesbian rabbis in the Reform movement, including a spelled-out seminary admissions policy that says homosexuality per se is not a bar to rabbinical study, the air has cleared, she said.

The congregation that Eger heads was the first of five Jewish outreach temples to the homosexual community that are now affiliated with Reform Judaism. Besides the Los Angeles and San Francisco synagogues, which have ordained rabbis as spiritual leaders, affiliated synagogues are also in Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia.

Beth Chayim Chadashim, located at 6000 W. Pico Boulevard, was founded in 1972 as a spinoff of the homosexual-oriented Metropolitan Community Church. Eger said the membership has grown 30% during her two years there.

“It’s a safe place where they can feel all of who they are--both their Jewish identity and their gay and lesbian identity,” she said. “It’s also a community in health crisis, the AIDS crisis.”

She is among seven persons, including Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd and Metropolitan Community Church pastor Nancy Wilson, who have to appear in court Tuesday on charges stemming from their disruption June 12 of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting. Their hymn-singing protest called for the board to increase budget allocations for AIDS services.


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