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NEW YORK – As a rabbinic student in 1980s New York, Denise Eger lived away from other seminarians. She quietly started a group for fellow gay and lesbian students, but held the meetings in another borough. By the time of her ordination, she wasn't formally out, but her sexuality was known, and no one would hire her. Later, she took the only job offered, with a synagogue formed expressly as a religious refuge for gays.
Since then, the Reform Jewish movement — Eger's spiritual home since childhood — has traveled a long road toward recognizing and embracing same-sex relationships. That journey has led this week to Philadelphia, where Eger will be installed Monday as the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism.
"It really shows an arc of LGBT civil rights," Eger said in a phone interview ahead of the convention where she will take office. "I smile a lot — with a smile of incredulousness."
Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles, isn't the first openly gay or lesbian clergyperson to lead an American rabbinic group. In 2007, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association chose Rabbi Toba Spitzer, a lesbian, as its national president. But Reform Jews, with 2,000 rabbis and 862 American congregations, comprise the largest movement in American Judaism and have a broader role in the Jewish world.
Reform Judaism was the earliest of the major Jewish movements to take formal steps toward recognizing same-sex relationships. In 1977, the Reform movement called for civil rights protections for gays. By 1996, Reform rabbis backed same-sex civil marriage. But as these positions developed, gays and lesbians had to grapple with the uncertainties of pursuing ordination at a time when they could easily be kicked out of seminary over their sexuality, or graduate without a congregation willing to hire them.
Eger, 55, began working in synagogues at age 12, in the mailroom of the Memphis, Tennessee, congregation her family attended. Around the same time, she realized she was a lesbian. By college, Eger knew she wanted to become a rabbi or cantor, even though she believed at the time that it meant she would have to sacrifice her hopes of having a spouse and children.
"It was impossible to reconcile being a rabbi and being a gay person or a lesbian person," she said.
During seminary, she had a girlfriend, and said some people treated them as a couple. Some Reform synagogues had started outreach programs to gays and lesbians and one congregation, in San Francisco, had an openly gay rabbi. Still, around that time, Minnesota Rabbi Stacy Offner announced she was a lesbian, and was forced out of leadership at her Reform congregation. After Eger was ordained in 1988, she had only the one job offer.
She started the position with Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles amid the AIDS crisis. She said "standing over the graves of 28-year-olds and schlepping to the hospital five or six times a day" intensified her activism for gay rights. In 1990, she came out in a Los Angeles Times story, telling the newspaper gay and lesbian Jews need positive role models.
"I took a great risk but I didn't feel I could be authentic anymore — watching young men all around me die and not tell," she said.
Over the next two decades, gay acceptance became the norm in most American Jewish groups. In 2006, the Conservative Jewish movement, which holds a middle ground between the liberal Reform and the strict Orthodox, lifted its ban on gay ordination. In 2012, Conservative Jewish scholars introduced a prayer service for same-sex weddings. Orthodox Jews have held to the teaching that same-sex relationships are forbidden; at the same time, more Orthodox gays and lesbians are coming out and seeking recognition.
Eger went on to hold several leadership positions within the Reform movement and in the Southern California Jewish community, and helped write the Reform Jewish prayer service for same-sex marriages.
And, it turns out, she didn't have to give up having a family. The mother of a 21-year-old son, she is now engaged to be married.
"It's about human rights and human dignity," Eger said. "If you can be a rabbi, if you can be a person of faith, if you can serve a community as their pastor, and you can have the opportunity to begin to reconcile all of those issues, it speaks volumes."