CCAR’s 1st Openly Lesbian Leader

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami has been getting a lot of press for being chosen by US Reform Jewish Rabbis as the 1st openly lesbian leader. Congratulations, Rabbi Eger!

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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.

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