Reform Rabbis Mark 25+ Years of Standing for LGBT Equality
The year was 1990, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ ad hoc committee on “Homosexuality and the Rabbinate” released a report affirming the decision of the Reform Jewish seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), to admit openly gay and lesbian students earlier that year. Twenty five years later – on Monday, March 16, 2015 – the CCAR installed Rabbi Denise Eger as its first openly gay president, marking an historical moment for the governing body of North American Reform rabbis.
Rabbi Eger’s installation has made national news, including a feature story in the New York Times that discusses her journey from working in the mailroom of her Memphis synagogue at age 12 to her installation this week. In the Philadelphia Daily News, Rabbi Eger calls her installation “a wonderful tribute to all those LGBT colleagues and allies who worked so hard to channel hearts and minds and to work for equality and to cast the widest open tent for Judaism."
Her installation at the CCAR’s annual convention, held this week, wasn’t the only major LGBT-centric news to come out of the event. At the conference, the CCAR passed also passed a resolution on the 25th anniversary of the report of the ad hoc committee on homosexuality and the rabbinate, in addition to a landmark resolution on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. This new resolution is the first CCAR resolution on the topic, affirming the organization’s “commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions” and “the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by the name, gender, and pronoun of preference in our congregations, camps, and schools regardless of physical presentation.” It urges “the adoption of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and that require individuals to be treated under the law as the gender by which they identify.”
Rabbi Eger’s installation and the passage of these two resolutions build upon not just HUC-JIR’s 25-year-old decision to admit gay and lesbian students but also upon the larger Reform Jewish community’s longtime commitment in support of LGBT rights. In 1977, the governing bodies of both the CCAR and the Union for Reform Judaism affirmed the right of gay and lesbian individuals to equal protection under the law and called for the prohibition of discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals, building upon a 1965 resolution by Women of Reform Judaism that called for the decriminalization of sex between same-sex individuals (the first Reform Movement resolution that addressed LGBT rights). Since then, Reform Jewish organizations have passed more than a dozen resolutions relating to the rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, from opposing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to supporting marriage equality.
With the CCAR’s new resolution, the Reform Jewish community maintains its stature as a leader among faith groups in supporting the rights of transgender individuals. As early as 1978, the CCAR affirmed that a rabbi may officiate at the wedding of a couple in which one partner has transitioned to the gender with which he or she identifies; in 1990, the organization affirmed that being transgender is not sufficient grounds upon which to deny an individual the opportunity to convert to Judaism. In keeping with this commitment to equality, in 2003 HUC-JIR admitted its first openly transgender rabbinical student, who, upon ordination, became a member of the CCAR.
The CCAR has also created a way for Reform Jews across the country to follow its decades-long example of inclusivity. Mishkan HaNefesh, the Reform Movement’s new machzor (High Holiday prayer book), includes gender-neutral blessings for transgender people and changes “bride and groom” to “couples,” among other inclusive updates. The new machzor is a perfect springboard for starting conversations about how to model inclusion in the Jewish community and beyond.
Reform Jews’ commitment to social justice and celebration of all identities affirms our tradition’s fundamental belief that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine (Genesis 1:27). The Reform Movement’s long, storied history of promoting LGBT equality – including the CCAR’s new machzor, its series of historic resolutions, and its newly-elected president – demonstrate the essential role rabbis play in shaping the sacred endeavors that lead all of us toward equality and inclusion in our communities.