Welcome to our fifth 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. Here, we interview Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell.
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 four posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Rabbi Denise Eger, and Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell has worked as a rabbi for over three decades, serving congregations in California, New Jersey, and Virginia, and taught at a number of universities across the country. She was on the editorial board for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and was one of the editors of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. She was the Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and has worked for the Union of Reform Judaism since 1996.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I see my queer identity as a mirror and a reflection of my identity as an engaged, committed Jew and as a rabbi. For both LGBT folks and Jews are other, subversive, challenging, counter-cultural. This is a source of great strength and creativity. I hope that my work as a rabbi is a reflection of my continuing growth and learning to be present, compassionate and deliberate as I work for greater justice in each of the communities each of us inhabits. Continue reading
Nobody prepares you for those odd, out-of-the-way problems life presents every once in a while. I grapple with one such issue rather often – something I never thought I’d have to deal with. But then I grew up, fell in love with a (female) rabbi, and everything got complicated.
That’s when I took on the dreaded “r” word. You know — the word that describes a rabbi’s partner. A rabbi’s female partner. Because, you know, once you know that someone’s a rabbi’s partner, what else do you really need to know? There are so many rights (and rites) denied to me as a lesbian, in the world in general as well as in Judaism. This one word, which frankly somewhat offends my feminist sensibilities with what I believe are the implications it carries about the appropriateness of defining a woman (or anyone) through her partner’s profession, has not been one of them. It’s a word my partner’s congregants sometimes use, though most of them aren’t familiar with the term. It’s something tossed out with a grin by Jewish professionals, as though it’s somehow extra-cute to call me a rebbetzin when the rabbi I’m partnered to is female.
Maybe one day this can be a term I embrace, but clearly, I’m definitely not there yet.