When Denise Eger was in rabbinic school in the mid-1980s, she couldn’t talk about being a lesbian because that might have gotten her thrown out of the seminary.
When Jocee Hudson was at the same rabbinic school two decades later, she also didn’t talk much about being a lesbian — because it was such a nonissue. Everyone knew, and it was no big deal.
What a difference a couple of decades make.
Eger and Hudson, along with rabbis Zachary Shapiro, Lisa Edwards and J.B. Sacks, shared the stage at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills last week at “Out on the Bimah,” a panel of gay and lesbian rabbis sponsored by Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary and The Jewish Journal. Susan Freudenheim, managing editor of The Journal, moderated.
The panel offered a personal lens into the sea changes in the gay community over the last 25 years, from the move out of the closet to the fight for marriage equality and the milestones in between.
Hudson, religious school director and a rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood and the youngest rabbi on the panel, acknowledged that she owed her experience of complete acceptance and openness to pioneers like Eger, founding rabbi of Kol Ami Congregation in West Hollywood, and Edwards, rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) on Pico Boulevard. The latter is the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue.
When Eger was at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), she started an underground movement of gay and lesbian students to convince the Reform movement to ordain homosexuals — a decision it madein 1990, two years after Eger was ordained.
Shapiro, the rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, was an early beneficiary of that ruling when he was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1997. But while his sexual orientation was not an issue at school, acceptance had not yet filtered through the ranks of the Reform world.
During his job search, Shapiro applied to 15 congregations that initially expressed interest in him. He told only eight of those synagogues he was gay. He got four offers — all from synagogues he hadn’t told.
He was hired as associate rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood and, with his senior rabbi’s guidance, found the right time to tell the board he was gay. University Synagogue and now Temple Akiba have been welcoming and supportive, Shapiro said.
Being a gay rabbi hasn’t been as simple for Sacks, a faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1986. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Conservative movement resolved to be welcoming to gays in congregations, and not until 2006 that it allowed ordination of gay rabbis and sanctioned same-sex commitment ceremonies.
When Sacks was in school, he had to be extremely cautious about whom he let into his life.
“There was discussion about whether or not to ordain me up until the ceremony,” Sacks said. “With my family out there, people were still taking me aside to say they weren’t sure if they were going to ordain me because they had a feeling I might be gay.”
But he said it was worth it for him to stay in the Conservative movement.
“I didn’t feel I should define myself based on other people’s homophobia,” he said.
That was affirmed when traditional Jews began to reach out to him for help.
“I realized there was a lot of pain and a lot of need. I didn’t want to be a pioneer — I wanted to be a rabbi. But I felt like I couldn’t leave people alone,” he said.
Sacks also has made a career out of interpreting texts that have traditionally been used to subjugate gays and lesbians, including the text in Leviticus that calls male-male sex an abomination. Sacks is working toward two doctorates at Claremont Graduate University, in philosophy of the Hebrew Bible and ministry. His thesis delves into the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God and are, therefore, equally worthy of godly and human respect and love.
“God not only doesn’t make mistakes, God doesn’t create in vain. If God created you, God needs you and loves you and wants you to be you,” he said.
Sacks explained that the Hebrew in the Leviticus text uses terms that refer to sexual assault in its prohibition of homosexuality but does not refer to consensual sex between loving adults.
Shapiro offered a broader approach to dealing with difficult texts.
“All of our biblical ancestors argued with God, and if they thought God was wrong they would talk back to God and say, ‘God, you’re wrong. Let’s change the law.’ I think if we come to a difficult text, it’s OK to say it’s wrong,” he said.
Edwards said grappling with the texts is a favorite pastime at BCC.
“There is nothing in Judaism we should be afraid of. They are our texts as much as anyone else’s, and this is our tradition as much as anyone else’s. This tradition has taught us how to engage the texts and how to engage with each other and create community around what we learn from them,” Edwards said.
A woman from the audience who works at a hotline for gay and lesbian youth wanted advice on what to say when kids call saying their parents or pastor told them God didn’t love them and they would go to hell.
“What we have to do with them is affirm their humanity and their own holiness as a counter-message to that, and to get them to a ... community to surround these young people to help them detox from the spiritual violence that has been inflicted on them,” Eger said.
The rabbis agreed that first being marginalized and then empowered set the foundation for their rabbinates to be marked by a broader fight for social justice and the desire to create more welcoming communities.
“The idea of embracing everybody is not just saying everyone is welcome, but really trying to take what we all have to offer and incorporate that into the Jewish lives we are building and living together,” Edwards said.
Shapiro emphasized the need for the liberal religious community to unite around issues that have been hijacked by the religious right. He pointed out that he was married by a rabbi and cantor before he was married by the state.
The rabbis on the panel — all of whom are in long-term relationships — spoke of the battle for marriage equality as the current civil rights frontier, one that needs support from the straight community.
Hudson described feeling “scared to death” before she stepped onto the bimah at her Orange County congregation to deliver a Yom Kippur sermon on marriage equality.
“I spoke more about my own life and my family than I ever had before. I spoke about issues of justice in a way they were not normally spoken about in the congregation,” she said. She was stunned, she said, when the congregation broke into applause. “That moment changed who I was as a rabbi, and it changed my relationship to the congregation.”
Shapiro said he has gotten letters from congregants who saw him as a role model during their difficult adolescent years.
“I saw that we had a gay rabbi who was a role model, and that helped me live, because there were times in my life when I was considering not living,” Shapiro said, paraphrasing the letters.
That, Shapiro said, affirms his commitment to being a proud role model.
“We may not know it, but we have saved many lives.”