Rabbi Denise L. Eger's installation as first openly gay rabbi to head the Central Conference of American Rabbis is not surprising though it is symbolic, say rabbis.
The Los Angeles Times printed a story about 25 years ago with the headline, “Lesbian Rabbi Comes Out of Closet to Be Role Model.”
On Monday, the Central Conference of American Rabbis installed the subject of that story, Denise Eger, as the first openly gay president of the Reform group at its convention in Philadelphia.
“It made headlines because it was rare and unusual,” Eger said of her coming out publicly, which occurred after the Reform movement had passed a resolution to accept gay and lesbian rabbis. “It was a positive story at that time, rather than the story of rabbis who had been outed and ousted from their pulpits.”
The speech drew a standing ovation from the 600 some rabbis gathered this week at the Loews Hotel in Center City. But in perhaps the most telling sign of the changing times, some at the conference said the fact that the new president of the conference is a lesbian was no longer such a big deal.
“In a way, I think it’s almost not news for the Reform movement because it seems that it’s so accepted, that it’s not surprising, but symbolically, I think it’s really important,” said Rabbi Robyn Frisch, the director of InterfaithFamily/ Philadelphia.
The installation of Eger as president occurred 25 years after the conference passed a resolution accepting gay and lesbian rabbis.
“Who would have dreamed that 25 years later, after the onslaught and devastation of AIDS, the ‘gaby boom’ and the push for marriage equality and transgender rights, that our conference would have its first openly lesbian president? We have come a long way,” said Eger.
The installation also coincided with the Reform movement’s release of a new High Holiday prayerbook, which among other changes, contains more inclusive language. Several rabbis made the connection between the two happenings at the conference.
Rabbi Eger “exemplifies our commitment to human rights,” said CCAR chief executive Rabbi Steven Fox. “Much of that commitment to human rights and social justice is also found in the pages of the Machzor, and you’ll see those traditions when you read the pages. We’re so excited about this because Denise represents” not just the LGBT community “but she represents all rabbis who are committed to equal rights for all people.”
Eger, who leads Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles, which describes itself as GLBTQI, said in an interview with the Jewish Exponent that one of the items that made the installation — and events to commemorate the 25th anniversary — special was being among others who had also been closeted as they had gone through rabbinical school in New York.
“It was hard. Not everybody knew, and we lived in a different” part of the city from their classmates “because we didn’t want to risk not being ordained,” she said of their time at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the movement’s seminary.
But much has changed since then.
“I think it’s wonderful on the 25-year anniversary of the resolution to have an openly LGBT person at the head of movement,” said Frisch.
At the conference, rabbis were also preordering the Machzor, the third released since 1892, so that they would have it in time for the High Holidays. The Reform movement had published a new prayer book in 2007, and as such, rabbis felt the need for a new Machzor as well, said Rabbi Hara Person, the publisher and director of the CCAR Press.
Among other changes, the blessing for those called to the Torah now contains language for males and females and a third option, which is not gendered.
“It’s inclusive for trans-people, for people who are non-gender conforming, and I think that’s a big deal because that speaks a lot to our values of inclusivity and openness,” said Person, who was the executive editor of the book.
Of Eger’s installation and the new prayer book, Person said, “I think it’s all of a piece in terms of the values of the Reform movement and how we’ve evolved over the last 25 years.”
“In some ways, her becoming president is a huge deal historically, but on the other hand, it’s so not a big deal, because if she’s a great leader, why wouldn’t she be our next president?