Leading Combatant in Gay Marriage Fight To Head Southern California Rabbis

By Rebecca Spence

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Denise Eger assumes the leadership of this region’s local rabbinic association, she’ll be making history — twice over.

On May 11, Eger will become not only the first woman to lead the Board of Rabbis of Southern California — one of the nation’s largest rabbinic boards — but also the board’s first openly gay or lesbian president.

Eger: Rabbi Denise Eger will lead Southern California’s board of rabbis.
courtesy of kol ami
Eger: Rabbi Denise Eger will lead Southern California’s board of rabbis.

Eger, 49, serves as the rabbi of West Hollywood’s gay-and-lesbian-oriented Reform synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami, and has been active on the local board of rabbis for more than a decade. She also has been outspoken on issues of gay and lesbian rights in the Jewish community and beyond — most recently fighting against Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage ballot initiative.

Eger’s ascension to the presidency is a milestone for the 72-year-old association, whose members include Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis.

“It’s a remarkable development,” said longtime Jewish communal observer Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion. “It shows everybody’s maturity in the process that a person who happens to be a woman and happens to be a lesbian would become president.”

The board’s presidency rotates every two years between the movements. Having served as a vice president for the Reform movement for the past six years, Eger is next in line to lead the professional association. A past president of the board, Yosef Kanefsky — a left-leaning Modern Orthodox rabbi — served as chair of the nominating committee. Eger’s election was secured March 17, when the board’s membership vetted her nomination.

Eger is not the first gay or lesbian leader of a North American board of rabbis. The Board of Rabbis of Northern California, which includes San Francisco, has an openly gay president, Allen Bennett.

In an interview with the Forward, Eger said that her ascension to the presidency has profound personal significance. Back in 1992, she explained, when she founded Congregation Kol Ami, an Orthodox rabbi who then served as president of the rabbinic board made disparaging comments about her in a local Jewish newspaper. In the intervening years, Eger has worked to forge better relationships between colleagues from the different movements — despite sharp ideological differences — and has committed herself to interfaith outreach work.

“I’ve really just tried to do my work and serve the Jewish community,” she said. “Now, to be able to be president of the board of rabbis, I think, speaks to the work I’ve done building bridges.”

While rabbinic boards are meant to promote collegiality among rabbis from the different movements, Orthodox participation has waned in recent decades. Southern California’s board of rabbis today counts fewer than two-dozen Orthodox members, out of a total membership of more than 300, according to the board’s executive vice president, Mark Diamond. Of the major urban Jewish population centers, only New York’s 800-member board of rabbis has maintained equal representation among Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Observers say that the shift can be attributed to the rightward drift of Orthodoxy, as well as to the increasingly leftward leanings of the Reform and Conservative movements.Orthodox Judaism forbids homosexual behavior as well as female rabbinic ordination.

Still, some leaders of Southern California’s board of rabbis said they did not think that Eger’s presidency would deter more Orthodox rabbis from joining. “The Orthodox rabbis who have not joined have sadly voted with their feet, and I don’t think the first female or first lesbian president of our board is going to change anything,” Diamond said.

For their part, Orthodox rabbis who do count themselves as members of their local rabbinic associations said that they participate because promoting unity is more important than agreeing on matters of Jewish law. “For me, the klal yisrael piece trumps the ideological factor,” said Michael Balinsky, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, referring to the notion of unity between all Jews.

The Chicago Board of Rabbis, which counts roughly 200 members, first had a woman president dating back at least six years, according to Balinsky.

Daniel Bouskila, rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a Los Angeles Modern Orthodox synagogue, noted that an Orthodox rabbi would have just as many ideological differences with a male heterosexual rabbi from the Reconstructionist or Reform movement as with a lesbian rabbi. “This is not a red line that’s being crossed,” said Bouskila, who also serves as a vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

If anything, the board’s Orthodox representation will only increase under Eger’s watch, according to Diamond. “I cannot think of a colleague at the board more committed to other rabbis, and more committed to the klal yisrael work we do,” he said of the incoming president.

Contact Rebecca Spence at spence@forward.com.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.