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Rabbinical group gets first-ever lesbian president
Extended for the online edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman
2015-04-08

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Denise L. Eger was active as a youth in her family's temple while growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, thus encouraged by family and rabbis to pursue a career in the rabbinical world.

"I felt a call to make the world more just and to heal society of racism and classism, poverty and many other modern day plagues," she said.

Eger earned her bachelor's degree in religion from the University of Southern California, received her master's degree in 1985 and was ordained in 1988 at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

She was awarded a doctor of divinity by HUC-JIR on the occasion of her 25th anniversary of ordination.

Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California—a Reform Jewish Synagogue and member of the Union For Reform Judaism. Kol Ami started with 35 members in 1992 and now has 300 households.

Eger also, in mid-March, was named president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the international organization of more than 2,300 Reform Rabbis, at the organization's 125th conference, held in Philadelphia. The CCAR is the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North America, and she is the organization's 60th president—and its first out lesbian.

"For the next two years, I will help frame the discussion of rabbinic leadership and reinvigorate the call to work on human rights and social justice, which has been at the core of my work," said Eger, who served four years on the CCAR national board and also served as regional President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis. Plus, she is the first woman and LGBT to serve as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, which is made up of over 400 rabbis from all Jewish denominations.

Eger replaces Rabbi Richard Block of Cleveland, Ohio, as the CCAR president.

"I am humbled and honored to have been chosen by my colleagues to serve and to lead," Eger said. "It is remarkable and ordinary at that same time. As the first [out] gay or lesbian, I am definitely breaking through the pink glass ceiling in terms of leadership. And so too being only the third woman [to hold the position].

"[This appointment] speaks to how far Reform Judaism has come in 25 years. I was elected not because I am a woman rabbi or an out rabbi, but [rather], because of my commitment, skills, leadership and ability. Many colleagues at our convention remarked that they wish the headlines did not read, 'Lesbian rabbi elected,' but [rather,] as one [suggested], 'Talented Rabbi Elected.'"

Shortly after stepping into the role of president, Eger was behind a statement from the CCAR on misusing religious freedom to justify discrimination, center on the controversy in the state of Indiana. The CCAR statement said:

"The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) supports full equality for LGBT individuals and families. The CCAR also vigorously defends American religious liberty.

"In a law recently adopted in Indiana and in legislation pending in Arkansas and elsewhere, so-called 'religious freedom restoration acts' and 'religious conscience acts' are motivated by animus against LGBT Americans. Religious liberty is being misused to justify discrimination against LGBT individuals and families.

"In Indiana, as a result of the legislation signed by Gov. Michael Pence, gay men and lesbians and those perceived to be LGBT have been already refused service in restaurants, department stores, and other businesses. Bigotry in the name of religion is bigotry. Recalling that religion was misused to justify American slavery—and later, Jim Crow—the CCAR insists that religion must not again be used as a state-sanctioned excuse for discrimination, against LGBT people or any person.

"The CCAR stands in solidarity, too, with all who are suffering as a result of these new laws and proposals. We are grateful that Reform rabbis in Indiana, Arkansas, and elsewhere are vigorously opposing these initiatives, often in cooperation with interfaith clergy. We are saddened that members of the CCAR and members of the communities we serve may be adversely affected by these laws."

The CCAR went on to urge Pence and the Indiana legislature to repeal this religious objections law.

"In its place, the CCAR urges Indiana lawmakers to craft legislation to protect all of Indiana citizens, including the state's LGBT citizens," the statement said. "We further call upon Gov. Pence to declare that Indiana will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation or perceived orientation, gender identity or expression or perceived gender identity or expression. We urge Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas to veto HB1228, the similar legislation pending in his state. We also urge the 20 other states with similar laws and the 9 states with pending legislation to make clear in law that there will be no discrimination against LGBT people in their state."

Eger, 55, who lives in Los Angles and is engaged to Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, said she is a rabbi who believes "that we human beings are created in the Divine image and we have the responsibility to act accordingly. To me that means, living as the prophet Micah asked, What does God Required of you O mortal? Only to do justice, love compassion and walk humbly with your God."

Eger has a passion for teaching both adults and children. After all, "rabbi means teacher," she said. "Judaism believes in asking questions and debating the meaning of the [answers]. Our tradition teaches us to study and learn and question. Any religion or spiritual practice that asks you to check your mind and intellect at the door is something I wouldn't want to be a part of."

A rabbi for 27 years, Eger said she recalls "the pain of the early years of the AIDS epidemic."

"Sadly, I've buried lots of people, but I also have officiated joyously at many weddings, including the first wedding in California pre-prop 8," she said. "I have had the privilege of working for our civil rights and helping to make real change for our community."

Eger admitted that, yes, she has had issues being an out rabbi, including death threats, harassment, and "I have lost positions by both overt and covert discrimination sometimes that even comes from within our own LGBT community, who are often hateful of religion, others because I am a woman."

Eger said her CCAR goals start with promoting the promoting the principles of Reform Judaism, increasing the rabbinic voice and fostering excellence in the Reform rabbinate. "To that end, we will be raising the standards of continuing education from voluntary to required," she said. "We will be refocusing on strengthening the historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community and strengthening our newer relationships with the Latino community to help uplift people from poverty and focus on issues of mass incarceration, the failed educational promise in this country, reproductive justice and casting a net of inclusion.

"We also will be trying to combat anti-Semitism by investing in oversees Jewish communities and trying to empower Reform congregations in Israel [that] face discrimination by the Orthodox-controlled chief rabbinate."

Eger is optimistic that her new international president role will give others hope, especially girls and those in the LGBT community.

"I think I am a role model, not just for young girls. I think that openly LGBT people and religious leaders have the opportunity to change hearts and minds not only of young people but all people, gay and straight alike," she said. "My election serves to counteract the lies, venom and hatred that is too often focused on our community. I pray I will have the strength to continue to shine a light on the truth of our queer holiness."

Eger has no direct, personal ties to Chicago, though she has visited several ties—and she praised some local restaurants and the fact there are two major league baseball teams.

"Chicago has an important, historical Jewish community," Eger said. "There are many members of the CCAR who serve their communities throughout Chicago [area] and [the] outlying suburbs. The CCAR provides learning and leadership training and opportunities for these colleagues, placement services for the rabbis and congregations and leadership for the Jewish community and social justice leadership. Chicagoland Reform Rabbis and area synagogues welcome LGBT community members completely and fully and worked to bring marriage equality to Illinois."

One of the first resolutions passed in mid-March by the CCAR was about transgender rights, "and urging to put denominational infrastructure to welcome, include and educate for gender identity and gender expression and calling for our Placement Commission that matches rabbis and their pulpits and community jobs to enforce non-discrimination clauses in hiring," she said.

In the fall, the CCAR will publish a new prayer book for the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, respectively.

"This new [prayer book] is groundbreaking," she said. "Taking ancient prayers and bring them into the 21st century with extraordinary poetry, transliteration of the Hebrew for non-Hebrew speakers. It includes the voices of queer people, women and those with disabilities. It even changes some of the prayers so that those who don't identify as male or female, and present as gender queer will fill comfortable being called to bless the reading of the Torah, which traditionally is done via binary gender roles. This is revolutionary.

"The title is Mishkan HaNefesh, Sanctuary of the soul, and will completely transform the most spiritual time of year for the Jewish community. Rabbi Edwin Goldberg of Temple Sholom in Chicago is one of the new book's editors."


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