Interview With Lesbian Rabbi Denise Eger
By: Brandy Black
With our theme being “Religion” in the month of April, I made a call to Rabbi Denise Eger whom I saw at the Human Rights Campaign Gala this year. We were able to talk a bit about how her influence as a lesbian Rabbi has helped the Jewish community and LGBT folks.
Rabbi: I’ve been a rabbi for the gay and lesbian community for almost 25 years in Los Angeles. During that time I’ve had to bury our people from HIV AIDS, but have also been blessed to welcome numerous children into our community. I’ve had an opportunity to advocate on civil rights, and the work I do every day is an expression of my spirituality and my faith as a Jewish person and I’m blessed enough to have been born into a time when woman were able to be ordained.
B: When you became a Rabbi were you “out”?
Rabbi: Well I don’t think that’s the way to phrase it. I never hid my sexual orientation, but in those years you couldn’t be sexually open and be ordained as a Rabbi anywhere. I never hid who I was, but I was ordained and came to serve in the gay and lesbian community immediately and then worked from the inside to change my denomination stance on that. This was an awfully long time ago; I feel it’s not really relevant, to be honest. I helped start an underground student rabbinic gay and lesbian group…but that was thirty years ago.
B: How could that not be relevant? That’s your story; it’s pretty incredible I think.
Rabbi: I’ve served the gay and lesbian community longer than any rabbi and continuously in North America and around the world. I’ve been active in changing my denominations and other parts of Judaism to be more welcoming and inclusive of gay and lesbian bisexual and transgender people. Today gays and lesbians in reformed Judaism are not only ordained as rabbis and cantors but my denomination is completely committed to advocacy on behalf of gay and lesbian bisexual and transgender people. It is working on educating our youth and teens to not bully and encouraging our kids to be part of gay-straight alliances. I have worked hard to be instrumental in helping to transform the culture of Judaism on gay and lesbian issues.
B: Obviously your following is primarily LGBT. What percentage of your following is heterosexual?
Rabbi: Our congregation is West Hollywood’s reform synagogue and more than 30% of our congregation is not gay. We represent the city and we have a lot of families headed by straight people who are progressive and want their kids and their families to share a part of their lives with gay people. That’s an important message, and always has been for our congregation, Kol Ami.
B: Do you have any opposition from the community?
None. I’m President of all the rabbis in Southern California. I’m the first woman and the first openly gay person to ascend to that to become the President of the Southern California rabbis, in part because I’ve been able to change the culture. People have gotten to know me as a rabbi and as a human being and I was able to break down a lot of their myths. I’ve been able to help people come out; I’ve done a lot of work with people with HIV and AIDS throughout the years. At our temple we still run the only Jewish HIV support group in the country. The sad story that no one wants to tell is that there are still people becoming HIV positive and they need support.
B: How have the issues for the LGBT community changed over the years –or have they?
Rabbi: Human beings haven’t changed. Maybe the times have. There are still relationship issues. When do I come out? To whom do I come out? How do I decide to have kids? Where can I find a healthcare provider that is going to be supportive to me as a lesbian? I do a lot of referrals. The times may have changed; we see more gay people on TV… but I think people are still people and I don’t know that the issues have changed so much.
B: What percentage of your congregation has kids?
Rabbi: I would say probably 40% has children. My kid is almost out of high school now…it’s a very exciting time. One of the things I’ve seen is the impact of the recession; it takes so many extra financial resources in our community –it’s limited, it’s become a class [issue]…but nobody in the LGBT community wants to talk about it in many ways. There are many foster kids out there and foster-to-adopt is such an important thing one can do. But I think it’s challenging, especially in the face of the economic issues over the last number of years, for many gay couples to think about spending the financial resources.
B: Any advice for families?
Rabbi: Find a safe community for you and your family. There are so many welcoming communities of every faith and every stripe and every spirituality. Don’t short-change the spiritual life of your family because you might think there isn’t an accepting community. A spiritual life in one’s family where you are teaching ethics and values and handing down traditions creates a beautiful framework for the expression of love…and isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?
So my advice is to find a spiritual community to be a part of, especially in a big metropolitan area where life can be pulled in so many directions. It will increase the blessings in one’s family.
I invite your readers in the LA area to come hang out with us at Kol Ami. We have a religious school for our kids and programs for families and we are a pretty welcoming place.
Congregation Kol Ami is located in West Hollywood and from what I hear is a pretty special place. Thanks Rabbi Eger for taking the time to speak with us.