Every October, in honor of LGBT History Month, the nonprofit Equality Forum names 31 LGBT “icons” — one for each day of the month. This year, a local rabbi made the list.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, will be honored as an icon on Oct. 30. She is the first woman and first lesbian to lead both a major Jewish denomination and a rabbinical seminary.
Although there were women rabbis and gay rabbis who came before her, she didn’t have many role models when she chose her path. She grew up in the Conservative movement, which did not start ordaining women rabbis until the ’80s.
However, the nurturing, supportive environment allowed her to imagine that there would be space for her in leadership, and she didn’t think that being a woman would disqualify her from becoming a rabbi.
She eventually decided to attend the Reconstructionist seminary because she believed it would help her become the best rabbi and best human being she could be. It also became a safe space for her to come out later in her 20s as she wrestled with her sexuality.
“If I hadn’t been in a community that was really encouraging me to bring my core self and to develop fully, I might not only have been in the closet, I might have just kind of cut off the idea of relationships,” she said.
She said her journey to leadership was shaped by male allies and mentors who helped her grow.
“Advancement happens because there are allies who champion, and who open doors, who don’t just say, ‘Oh, it would be nice …’ but actually extend themselves to allow women, queer people, people of color and people with disabilities to rise up, who mentor and create opportunities and network on their behalf.”
One of her own mentors, Rabbi David Teutsch, hired her to do grant writing for her rabbinical school when she was still a student.
“I reached out to Deborah because she’s a talented, thoughtful person of great creativity and insight, and it would have been a loss to the Jewish people and to the world in general had we not brought her into leadership,” he said.
She was ordained in 1999 and taught at RRC for several years before assuming her role as president of her organizations in 2014. Under Waxman’s leadership, Reconstructing Judaism has adopted a framework of resilience in the face of strong communal anxiety about climate change, anti-Semitism, politics and the pandemic.
“We really bring that understanding that Judaism writ large is about resilience, that our ancestors have faced catastrophe again and again and they found ways, both on the individual and on the collective level, to renew themselves,” she said.
Her podcast, “Hashivenu: Jewish Teachings on Resilience,” has addressed this topic for the past three years and featured conversations with Jewish leaders, teachers and activists about resilience in the Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Joshua Lesser, who entered rabbinical school at the same time as Waxman and leads Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, said one of her talents as a leader is bringing people of different backgrounds together.
“Her ability to do that as well as she does has created an avenue for so many people, not only people who are becoming rabbis but Jews across the board, who can see themselves as part of a Jewish community without necessarily having to fight for it,” he said.
Waxman was honored and humbled to be in the company of this year’s icon lineup, which includes actor and comedian Kate McKinnon and first out federal judge Deborah Batts. She said the poets on the list — Sappho, Emily Dickinson and especially Mary Oliver — had a strong influence on her.
“I would say that I consider poetry a kind of liturgy. I incorporate a lot of poetry into when I lead services,” she said. “They helped me to create space and to express my pain and my hopes.”
Her favorite Oliver poem is “When Death Comes.”
“It’s a primer in how to live a life fully and beautifully and open-heartedly,” she said.