“Integrating all of the disparate parts”
Welcome to our fourth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first three posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Rabbi Denise Eger was one of the first out gay rabbis ordained, receiving her ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1988. Since 1992, she has served as rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami, a community she helped found, which is dedicated to serving the LGBT and wider Jewish community in West Hollywood, CA. She is a founding member of the Religion and Faith Council of the Human Rights Campaign. In 2009, Rabbi Eger became both the first woman and the first gay rabbi to be president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. We caught up with Rabbi Eger about her work, her inspiration, and an exciting new role for her.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I have served as a rabbi for 25 years of the LGBT community in Los Angeles. I was among one of the very first openly lesbian or gay rabbis in our country and serving in our community. I have had the privilege of being part of shaping the LGBTQ Jewish community in Los Angeles, the U.S., and with my friends in Israel.
What should we, as members of the LGBT Jewish community, be focusing on now?
I believe that we ought to be working not just in big cities but helping LGBTQ Jews in smaller communities and towns strengthen their Jewish LGBTQ networks. I believe we ought to be creating Jewish more opportunities for our young Jewish LGBTQ teens to have safe venues whether at Jewish summer camp or through USY, NFTY, BBG, and AZA. I think NCSY too needs help and resources to be a safer place for our LGBTQ teens.
Favorite queer Jewish figure?
Rabbi Allen Bennett – who was Harvey Milk’s rabbi and who was really the first openly gay rabbi. He worked tirelessly to help defeat passage of the Briggs initiative in the ‘70s in California, which would have banned gay teachers in public schools. He helped create the positive dialogue in the Reform movement on opening up and welcoming LGBT Jews back into the fold and served as rabbi of Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco in the early years. He just retired as a rabbi of the Reform synagogue in Alameda, CA and is serving a progressive congregation in Europe! It took so much courage to be openly gay. He is a friend and inspires me to this day.
What’s next for you? A project, a sermon—what are you working on that’s queer and Jewish?
My current and next project is that I am nominated to be President Elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the largest rabbinic organization in the world. It is the International organization of Reform and Progressive rabbis worldwide. Luckily I have come to a place in my own life where I can integrate all the disparate parts of my identity, as a mom, as a rabbi, as a partner, as Jew, as a baseball fan, as a lesbian! Isn’t that the goal?