Rabbi Denise Eger has broken a lot of ground since her ordination from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1988.
In March 2015, Eger became the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi to be president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in North America.
She was also the first woman and openly gay person to serve as the president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis; she was the founding president of the Lesbian, Gay, & Bisexual Interfaith Clergy Association; and she officiated at the first legal wedding in California for a lesbian couple.
Eger not only is the founder of Kol Ami synagogue in Los Angeles — a leader in the LGBTQ community—but also helped organize the Southern California Gay and Lesbian Jewish Professionals Group, which brings together gay and lesbian rabbis, cantors, Jewish communal workers and educators in the L.A. area.
Eger was at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill last Shabbat for a joint program with Rodef Shalom Congregation, where she delivered a sermon on Friday night and led a workshop on Saturday afternoon with the congregations’ LGBTQ contingent.
“October is Gay History Month,” Eger noted in an interview prior to her arrival in Pittsburgh. During this month various LGBTQ persons in history are honored.
Eger planned to base her Pittsburgh workshop around Gay History Month, she said.
“I want to talk about what we can learn from the past and help the [LGBTQ] group shape its future,” she said. “I want to help them shape their vision and their role within their congregation.”
Many mainstream congregations, including several in Pittsburgh, are making deliberate efforts to be more inclusive of LGBTQ Jews, a practice that was not as common when Eger founded Kol Ami in West Hollywood in 1992, two years after she came out as a lesbian in a story published in The Los Angeles Times.
“Kol Ami was founded in an era when that was necessary,” she said of the origin of the LGBTQ–friendly congregation.
That congregation has evolved, she said, and now just 60 percent of its members identify as LGBTQ, and 40 percent are straight.
Eger noted the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the Jewish world.
“Across America, especially in Reform and Conservative settings, they are welcome, and there is acceptance,” she said. “And the congregations are working on issues of gay rights. This acceptance has allowed LGBTQ people to remain in the synagogues they grew up in. They can feel at home there now and not have to go somewhere else.”
As president of the CCAR, Eger will be examining the current state of Jewish engagement and how it can be improved, she said.
“The Jewish people are not dying,” according to Eger, “but we have to take a hard look at our institutions.”
Elements such as style of worship, openness to new ideas and the high financial cost of living a Jewish life need to be studied, she said, adding that families today face a “different calculus” than did the Jewish families of post-war, mid-20th-century America.
“When your school loans are as much as your mortgage, it’s a problem,” she said. “Our assumptions about trends that we thought would continue have been challenged. We have to ask why those in their 20s and 30s are not joining congregations. It’s about the cost, but it is also about what kind of depth is missing.”
Eger is critical of “pediatric Judaism,” in which a congregation’s main focus is on its religious school’s students’ participation in services to the exclusion of anything deeper.
“If you are only focused on pediatric Judaism,” she said, “there is nothing for anyone else. That’s not a sustainable Judaism. The challenge is to build a sustainable Judaism. What’s there to develop the faith of empty-nesters or a 30-year-old trying to manage a work/life balance?”
She is a proponent, she said, of encouraging Jewish federations to work better with their local congregations to help facilitate Jewish life.
During her tenure as CCAR president, Eger intends to implement mandatory ethics education for all Reform rabbis, with re-training every three years. A task force has been created to work on this initiative, she said.
“A rabbi cannot be an effective teacher if he is not an effective learner,” she said.
Eger was born in 1960 in New Kensington, outside Pittsburgh, but moved with her family at a young age to Memphis, where she was raised. She still has family in the Pittsburgh area, she said, and was hoping to see some cousins while she was in town.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.