This week, Rabbi Denise Eger became the first out lesbian rabbi to serve as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the Reform movement, the largest Jewish movement in America with 1.5 million adherents. With 2,000 members, CCAR is the largest rabbinic organization in North America. Founded in 1889, it’s also the oldest, and serves most liberal of the mainstream denominations.
But Eger’s sexual orientation is only part of the story. In fact, the new CCAR president may bring a new focus on progressive social justice activism to the Reform movement. In a way, she might be the Jewish Lesbian Pope Francis.
Eger’s first comment to The Daily Beast, when interviewed shortly after being elected? “It feels good to sit down.”
Usually, the 55-year-old Reform rabbi from Memphis, Tennessee, is more likely to be found standing up—in the pulpit of the progressive, LGBT-friendly Los Angeles synagogue she helped found, Congregation Kol Ami of West Hollywood, or organizing for economic equality or LGBT rights. Other times, she says, her work is about reaching “across race and class lines to work together to change the direction of this country.”
Still, the “firsts” are clear. “I became president 25 years after the convention, to the day, that CCAR first accepted the Resolution on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate,” Rabbi Eger said. It was “a powerful moment — you could feel it in the room.”
But Eger is quick to add, “I wasn’t elected because I’m a lesbian. That’s one part of my identity: I’ve been a rabbi for 27 years.”
To be sure, issues of sexuality and gender are still on the agenda – literally and figuratively. This year, the CCAR is set to adopt a new resolution on the “Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals.” But with 83 percent of American Jews in support of same-sex marriage—that’s almost all non-Orthodox Jews—they’ve come a long way since 25 years ago. That was when Rabbi Eber came out of the closet publicly in the Los Angeles Times, saying then that she “felt it is important for gay and lesbian Jews to have positive religious role models."
Indeed, Eger’s history with the movement goes back to a time in which women, let alone LGBT people, struggled to be visible in leadership. In a prayer service prior to her installation, Eger recalled meeting Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, now director of the Women's Rabbinic Network, at age 19, while they were working at a summer camp.
“I knew I wanted to do something Jewish, but I didn’t know that I could. We hadn’t had that many women rabbis in the South. Jackie was already in rabbinic school. Now, she’s retiring from a job where she’s been at the forefront of pushing for equality for women. She was one of the role models—that a woman can be a rabbi. For many people, that in itself is novel. How far we’ve all come,” she said. “That’s the blessing, to be part of the fabric.”
But Eger’s vision is broader and perhaps more challenging than a focus on gender and sexuality. “Rabbis are leaders of social change, within the Jewish community and have been, historically.” During her first speech as CCAR president, Rabbi Eber characterized Reform rabbis as “leaders in social justice issues dealing with the poor and impoverished, civil rights, LGBT rights, immigration reform and immigrant rights, reproductive justice, and so much more.”
And indeed, following her installation, the 560 attendees at CCAR’s 126th annual convention broke up into sessions to discuss human rights issues on the Reform agenda in 2015, from prison reform and reproductive justice to antisemitism in Europe, and textual traditions. Eger said she also wanted also wanted to take on “the growing wage gap, and stifle those who would dismantle the Voting Rights Act."
“When you look back at the history of the Reform movement in our conventions in particular,” Eger said, “you can see the passions rabbis bring – from helping the wave of Jewish immigrants, Reform Jews who helped get those Jews settled, to marching for Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act – both crafted in a Reform Judaism room. “
The emphasis on progressive politics comes at a time in which all mainstream Jewish denominations are losing members, and losing energy. In January another progressive rabbi known for driving forward progressive change, Jonah Pesner, assumed the top position at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the movement’s Washington, DC, advocacy arm, previously headed by Rabbi David Saperstein, now President Obama’s special ambassador for religious freedom issues.
Of course, it is too early to know whether Eger’s political focus re-energize the struggling movement – or alienate donors and others afraid of controversy. But the CCAR has taken a strong stand, installing not just a longtime out lesbian, but a longtime political progressive, as their leader.
“We all have something we can do to help to move our tradition forward for the 21st century,” Rabbi Eger says. “It can’t stay the same, because we’re not the same.”