U.S. Reform Jewish rabbis to install first openly lesbian leader

Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Denise Eger Nick Ut, AP

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During seminary, she had a girlfriend, and said some people treated them as a couple. Some Reform synagogues had started outreach programs to gays and lesbians and one congregation, in San Francisco, had an openly gay rabbi. Still, around that time, Minnesota Rabbi Stacy Offner announced she was a lesbian, and was forced out of leadership at her Reform congregation. After Eger was ordained in 1988, she had only the one job offer.

She started the position with Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles amid the AIDS crisis. She said “standing over the graves of 28-year-olds and schlepping to the hospital five or six times a day” intensified her activism for gay rights. In 1990, she came out in a Los Angeles Times story, telling the newspaper gay and lesbian Jews need positive role models.

“I took a great risk but I didn’t feel I could be authentic anymore – watching young men all around me die and not tell,” she said.

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Over the next two decades, gay acceptance became the norm in most American Jewish groups. In 2006, the Conservative Jewish movement, which holds a middle ground between the liberal Reform and the strict Orthodox, lifted its ban on gay ordination. In 2012, Conservative Jewish scholars introduced a prayer service for same-sex weddings. Orthodox Jews have held to the teaching that same-sex relationships are forbidden; at the same time, more Orthodox gays and lesbians are coming out and seeking recognition.

Eger went on to hold several leadership positions within the Reform movement and in the Southern California Jewish community, and helped write the Reform Jewish prayer service for same-sex marriages.

And, it turns out, she didn’t have to give up having a family. The mother of a 21-year-old son, she is now engaged to be married.

“It’s about human rights and human dignity,” Eger said. “If you can be a rabbi, if you can be a person of faith, if you can serve a community as their pastor, and you can have the opportunity to begin to reconcile all of those issues, it speaks volumes.”

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