NEW YORK — As a rabbinic student in 1980s New York, Denise Eger lived away from other seminarians. She quietly started a group for fellow gay and lesbian students, but held the meetings in another borough. By the time of her ordination, she wasn’t formally out, but her sexuality was known, and no one would hire her. Later, she took the only job offered, with a synagogue formed expressly as a religious refuge for gays.
Since then, the Reform Jewish movement – Eger’s spiritual home since childhood – has traveled a long road toward recognizing and embracing same-sex relationships. That journey has led this week to Philadelphia, where Eger will be installed Monday as the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism.
“It really shows an arc of LGBT civil rights,” Eger said in a phone interview ahead of the convention where she will take office. “I smile a lot – with a smile of incredulousness.”
Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles, isn’t the first openly gay or lesbian clergyperson to lead an American rabbinic group. In 2007, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association chose Rabbi Toba Spitzer, a lesbian, as its national president. But Reform Jews, with 2,000 rabbis and 862 American congregations, comprise the largest movement in American Judaism and have a broader role in the Jewish world.
Reform Judaism was the earliest of the major Jewish movements to take formal steps toward recognizing same-sex relationships. In 1977, the Reform movement called for civil rights protections for gays.
Article continues belowBy 1996, Reform rabbis backed same-sex civil marriage. But as these positions developed, gays and lesbians had to grapple with the uncertainties of pursuing ordination at a time when they could easily be kicked out of seminary over their sexuality, or graduate without a congregation willing to hire them.
Eger, 55, began working in synagogues at age 12, in the mailroom of the Memphis, Tennessee, congregation her family attended. Around the same time, she realized she was a lesbian. By college, Eger knew she wanted to become a rabbi or cantor, even though she believed at the time that it meant she would have to sacrifice her hopes of having a spouse and children.
“It was impossible to reconcile being a rabbi and being a gay person or a lesbian person,” she said.