First openly gay president of Reform Judaism rabbi group to be installed

When Denise L. Eger was ordained in 1988, one could not be openly gay and a Reform rabbi.

"I was very quiet about it," said Eger, a native of Memphis, Tenn. "My fellow classmates [at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York] knew, and some of my professors, but I didn't wave the rainbow flag."

On Monday, Eger, 55, will become the third woman and first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinical arm of the Reform Judaism movement, which is holding is 126th convention at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel in Center City.

The installation of Eger, rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Calif., is a major event of the four-day conference, which also marks 25 years since the organization passed a resolution calling for the ordination of gay Reform rabbis.

"On a basic level, she is the first openly gay president, and that's a big deal historically," said Rabbi Hara E. Person, publisher and director of the CCAR Press. "But Denise brings so much more, including her commitment to Reform Judaism and our values, human rights, basic human dignity, and social activism."

Rabbi Steven Fox, CCAR's chief executive officer, said Eger "brings a wealth of experience" linked to the long tradition of the Reform movement's commitment "to a fair and just society."

Eger's "deep Southern roots and California" experience will help the CCAR fulfill its goal of giving voice to the needs of city and small-town congregations, Fox said.

In addition, the central conference will release a new, more inclusive Mishkan HaNefesh, the siddur, or prayer book, for the High Holidays - when, Eger said, most American Jews attend services.

"It is the first revision in 30 years, Eger said in an interview, "and takes us further into contemporary language, practice, and modern thought."

Person, who oversaw the revisions, said the two-volume prayer book "recognizes who our communities are - the people in the pews - and is a change in our assumptions about Jewish family members and partners."

The prayer book is "fully transliterative," Person said, meaning people who do not know Hebrew can participate fully in worship.

Eger said the changes "add to the richness of the language and to personal spirituality, making it more inclusive and welcoming."

When she became a rabbi, however, the first synagogue at which she sought a position wouldn't hire her because of her sexual orientation, Eger said.

Instead, "my first job was LGBT outreach" as full-time rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the first gay and lesbian synagogue recognized by Reform Judaism.

Eger worked on "issues of human rights and reproductive justice, as well as peace in the Middle East," she said.

Twenty-five years later, "the Reform movement is celebrating a change in its policy that welcomed LBGT people," said Eger, whose West Hollywood synagogue has gay and nongay members.

"It is an amazing arc of history," she said, "and speaks to the way Reform Judaism has encouraged the discernment and education that has made it possible to make the movement more inclusive."

Eger said there were many sources in Scripture that support such inclusiveness, none more important than that "God created all human beings in his image - and not just one kind of person."

"Just look to the diversity of the planet, and that variety that God created comes alive," said Eger, whom Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York's Congregation Beit Simchat Torah described recently as "a rabbi's rabbi."

For Reform Jews, "loving your neighbor as yourself remains an overriding moral value and reminds us that we engage with another from a place of love and kindness, which are antidotes to the hate and exclusiveness of this world," Eger said.

As North America grows increasingly secular, Eger sees the role of religion in general and Reform Judaism in particular "to help us frame the most difficult questions that will help us search for meaning."

"The Jewish tradition of study helps us search for answers to ethical and moral issues by asking the deep questions," she said.

"The Reform movement speaks in the contemporary language of the day and helps us shape those answers," Eger said.

"These things run in seasons," Eger said of secularization, "so I am optimistic about the future" of religion in America."

 


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