Rabbi Denise Eger seeks to open doors wider to all Jews

What does God require of you? Only to do justice, to love compassion and walk humbly with your God.

“It’s on my wall,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, pointing to the spot in her office where her favorite Bible verse is written (also transcribed on her tallit). “Prophet Micah, Chapter 6, Verse 8. It’s really a reminder of what our human tasks are.”

They are tasks she will have a chance to tackle on a large scale as the new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in North America. When she takes the helm of the 126-year-old Reform organization March 16, at age 55, she will be its third woman and first openly gay leader.

Meeting in the LGBT-friendly West Hollywood synagogue Kol Ami, of which she is the founding rabbi, Eger — a longtime activist on many fronts — said her goal as CCAR president is to make Judaism bigger, more accepting and more inviting. 

“We have to open the doors wider, and open the tent wider, and open the synagogue wider, and open the JCC wider, and open the Federations wider. So that’s my goal to help Jews become more Jewish  —  to open the doors wider,” she said.

Rabbi Steve Fox, CCAR chief executive, said he’s “extremely excited” about Eger becoming president, particularly because she’s been a strong leader and crusader for human rights.

“It’s also very meaningful for the rabbinate that we have elected our first openly LGBT president at a very historic moment in time,” he said.

In 1977, CCAR passed its first resolution calling for human rights for homosexuals, demanding the end to discrimination against members of the LGBT community. It later advocated for the ordination of openly gay rabbis and affirmed the right of a rabbi to officiate at an LGBT wedding. 

But sexual orientation isn’t all that defines Eger. Talking to her is like talking with a family friend — easy and relaxed. Every so often, in a moment of inspired enthusiasm, her face lights up and she speaks passionately, like she’s in the midst of reciting the best part of a sermon. 

In typical rabbinical fashion, Eger speaks in call-and-response, repeating the questions that are asked to her before responding. Asked which biblical character she’d like to spend time with, she throws the question right back at you before answering decidedly: Deborah.

“You know, she’s pretty cool,” Eger said. “She sat under this palm tree and people came to her for advice and counsel and, supposedly like the oracle of Delphi, she gave pronouncements. But she was also a general, so here was this really gutsy woman in a time when women did not do those kinds of things, and she had her finger on the pulse of the nation.

“And I think it’d be really cool to sit under her palm tree with her, have a little cafe au lait or a cup of tea and hear her reflect on her take on leadership … and on the role of women.”

Eger grew up in Memphis, Tenn., in a close-knit Southern Jewish community, which was smaller and less fragmented than the one she later found in Los Angeles.

“The South is a great place to be Jewish, because it’s a tight Jewish community,” she said. “Whether you’re in Atlanta or Memphis or Nashville or New Orleans, the Jewish community is very interrelated, very family.”

With the South as her backdrop, Eger was raised in the belly of human-rights activism. She remembers driving her mother to work on Beale Street, where her cousins owned a business, and sitting outside of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

“Now it’s the National Civil Rights Museum, but at the time, it was a crumbling slum mess. It had fallen into disrepair and disarray in a terrible neighborhood in town — urban blight — and I used to sit there and think, ‘How could this great man have been assassinated? What in our country could lead to such horror?’ And really that inspired me along the way to say that my Judaism was going to be a vehicle for helping others, to lift up those who felt ‘other.’ ”  

Eger knew what it felt like to be an outsider from the time she was 12.

“I knew that I was a lesbian, and it was the South and it was very formal and there was no room for that. It was a different time, you couldn’t talk about it, you had to remain hidden, so that’s where I felt out of step,” Eger explained. 

But for her, the synagogue was a place of refuge, “of great safety and continuity for me.” It was about this same time that she decided she wanted to have a Jewish profession. Originally, she thought she’d be a cantor but decided during her sophomore year in college to become a rabbi. So she transferred from Memphis State University, where she was a voice major, to USC, which had a joint program of religion and Jewish studies with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1988, she was ordained a rabbi.

For many of Kol Ami’s congregants, largely composed of local Russian and LGBT communities, this is their first time returning after many years of avoiding synagogue because of a fractured relationship with their inherited religion, whether it be for personal or political reasons.

“There’s always an ‘other,’ so I think that I’ve been taught both by parents and my rabbis and teachers what it means to help lift up the voices. And that’s one reason we’re Kol Ami, ‘voice of my people,’ ” Eger said.

People of all sorts find their way to the congregation — and Eger. Fifteen years ago, Wendy Goldman was between congregations after her rabbi retired and her mother passed away. “I wanted a place to grieve and find spiritual renewal,” she said. 

So Goldman turned to Kol Ami and, although she identifies as a straight woman, she never felt out of place in the primarily LGBT congregation. Later, when she was in the hospital, she remembers the relief she felt upon seeing Eger at her side during a trying time.

“Groggy from the anesthetic, I opened my eyes to see [Eger] sitting at my bedside, helping me to have courage to face the recovery I was facing,” she said. “She is truly a special person to me.”

Located across the street from a hyper-developed stretch of high-rises, retail chains and grocery stores, Kol Ami got its start in 1992. Back then, the neighborhood was, to put it nicely, downright sketchy — so much so that contractors chose to have the main doors for the congregation in the back, accessible via the parking lot. 

“It’s now a lovely residential neighborhood,” said Eger, who called the synagogue a “mitzvah” of urban development, explaining that, as the first new building on the block, it helped spark what followed.

Her accomplishments as a mouthpiece for human rights are extensive. Eger is a spokeswoman for the LGBT community, sitting on the boards of countless organizations, promoting AIDS awareness, equal marriage rights and basic civil rights. She was the first woman and openly gay president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, blogs regularly for the Huffington Post and has received numerous awards. (She’s also engaged to be married and the proud mother to Benjamin, who is in college.)

Much of her activism, she said, is inspired by her own childhood Memphis rabbis, who staged marches and protests during a tumultuous time in the civil rights era. 

One of those role models was Rabbi Harry Danziger of Temple Israel in Memphis, who served a term as president of CCAR a decade ago. In particular, Danziger said he remembers Eger’s confirmation, which is typically a formal ceremony. Acoustic guitar in hand, she opted to sing Joni Mitchell’s folk ballad “The Circle Game.”

“I take enormous pride in her becoming president, but more, I take pride in the rabbi and human being she has become,” Danziger said. “It is an honor to have been her rabbi and to be her predecessor as president of the CCAR, which is such a force for Jewish continuity and tikkun olam.” 

For all her metaphorical talk about opening doors wider in the Jewish community and beyond, circumstances are making that happen literally. This past July, a stolen Tesla crashed into Kol Ami’s edifice, and now part of the building remains boarded up. 

So what’s the No. 1 item on Kol Ami’s to-do list? Literally opening the doors wider. 

“We’ve known we wanted to change the front entryway for a while now. I didn’t think it would happen by a car crash into a building,” Eger said.

It’s symbolic of her larger plans. 

“Imagination is the greatest gift from God that we have, and what a sin it is if we don’t try and use it,” she said. “And now we have to imagine, what’s the future of Judaism going to look like. What can we make it look like?” 

And that’s why she’s excited to be president of CCAR — “because I’ll be in a position to do that imagining in a larger scale.” 

Letters to the editor: Iron Dome, Tesla crash, PETA and more

Prayers Overseas

David Suissa’s article was terrific, and I pray for his daughter’s safety (“Israel Needs an Irony Dome,” July 18). I also have a lot of family in Israel now. … I have often thought lately that the Journal was too tough on Israel but seems better now. Keep up the great work; we need you.

Chic Lippman, Century City

Physical Repairs, Emotional Reparations 

I was shocked to learn of a stolen car crashing into Congregation Kol Ami in Hollywood on July 3 (“Tesla Crashes Into Kol Ami; Damage Undetermined,” July 11). 

While the physical damage to Kol Ami was serious, it doesn’t begin to address the emotional costs to our members. Raising funds to erect the building took effort and diligence over a number of years and built a sense of pride in the founding members. The visible harm to our building has been repaired, but a life has been needlessly lost. 

I have only a brief, one-year history as a member of Congregation Kol Ami, yet I know that the surrounding Jewish community might benefit from knowing more about our sacred side, with Rabbi Denise Eger leading the way. She, along with Cantor Mark Saltzman and the family-like congregation, open the doors and their hearts to those who suffer from pain caused by finances, health and family loss. 

I invite all unaffiliated Jews to share in the blessings as well as the frenzy caused by the car crash. As we head into the High Holy Days, please join us in welcoming Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Wendy Goldman, West Hollywood

Fine Feinstein

Thank you for spotlighting Michael Feinstein this week — the man is a treasure (“Michael Feinstein Sings Gershwin,” July 18).
To those of us who work in the archival and musical worlds of the Great American Songbook, Michael is a true hero. He travels throughout North America teaching this wonderful music to high school students, he has established an archive and a museum in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, and he hunts down rare and meaningful items from the worlds of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Jerome Kern and so many others.

Here at the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, we are proud to support his work.

What a mensch!

Fran Morris-Rosman, Los Angeles

For Those Who Can’t Speak for Themselves

Life in the circus may be an adventure for circus chef Matt Loory, but for the animals used by Ringling Bros., it’s a living nightmare (“Pie in the Eye Is Just Dessert for This Circus’ Young Chef,” July 18). 

Elephants spend most of their lives chained in boxcars, robbed of family, the freedom to walk for many miles on fresh grass, and all that is natural and important to them. 

Bullhooks (weapons resembling a fireplace poker with a sharp steel hook on the end) are used to keep elephants submissive and afraid. A former Ringling staffer gave PETA chilling photos of baby elephants who were torn away from their mothers, tied up with ropes and terrorized until they gave up all hope.

Ringling paid a record $270,000 fine to settle violations of federal law and has been cited repeatedly by federal authorities for failing to provide veterinary care, causing trauma and physical harm, unsafe handling of dangerous animals and failure to provide adequate care in transit.

Ringling employees have the choice to come and go. Animals do not.

Jessica Johnson, PETA

Happy to Have You

My name is Mark Winn and I am Jewish by osmosis, not by birth, but I grew up in what I’ve coined the Lower Borsht Belt — Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and San Vicente boulevards. I was a Fairfax High graduate, class of 1971, when Fairfax was 75 percent Jewish. Also, I was a member of the Westside Jewish Community Center and played flag football against the temples. I purchased a poster that featured a young African-American boy biting into a piece of Levy’s rye bread — I am African-American, by the way — over which read:

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.”

I pick up the Jewish Journal at various libraries around, and I enjoy reading the diversity of articles and viewpoints expressed therein.

And in conclusion, I want to add: You don’t have to be Jewish to read and love the Jewish Journal.

Mark Winn, Los Angeles


The California runoff race between Ben Allen and Sandra Fluke was incorrectly identified in a July 18 article (“Jews and Education: An Unusual Difference of Opinions”). They are running against one another for state Senate.

Exclusive photos: Horrific Tesla crash aftermath

The back end of the stolen Tesla S wedged into the entrance to Kol Ami in West Hollywood.

If you look closer you'll see the FRONT end of the car on the far left of the photo.

The front end of the stolen vehicle collided with the white Honda Civic on the left.

The Honda – which had 5 passengers inside – had to have its top removed in order to remove people from the vehicle.

One of the TWO poles the stolen Tesla S slammed into causing the car to slit in half.

Debris from the crash littered the ground outside the Kol Ami entrance after a tow truck removed the vehicle from the scene. [Photo by Ryan Torok]

Kol Ami executive director Sadie Rose-Stern discovered damage on the exterior wall of the shul. The car flew into the into the front entrance of the shul on La Brea boulevard, destroying a metal gate and the shul’s front door as well as damaging adjacent glass. [Photo by Ryan Torok]

The West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department closed down “two long city blocks” of La Brea boulevard, from Santa Monica boulevard to Fountain avenue, according to Sgt. Richard Bowman of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department. The streets reopened nearly fifteen hours later, at 5 p.m., Bowman said. Photo by Ryan Torok. [Photo by Ryan Torok]

The remains of the shul’s blasted-through front gate sat by the side of the shul, while a member of a construction crew prepared to board up the entrance. [Photo by Ryan Torok]

LGBT Rights in the Middle East event postponed

A free public panel discussion on “LGBT Rights in the Middle East” that was set to take place on Dec. 5 has been postponed.

The event, which had originally included only Jewish speakers, has been put off until an as-yet-unnamed date in 2013 so it can include a broader spectrum of panelists, according to a statement issued by the City of West Hollywood.

“In recent days, the City of West Hollywood has received requests from a diverse spectrum of people regarding the planned Human Rights Speakers Series event on ‘LGBT Rights in the Middle East’ that was scheduled this week.  In an effort to ensure that we are able to discuss the issue from all perspectives, we have decided to postpone the event to re-evaluate the panel participants and focus of the discussion,” said an e-mailed statement by Tamara White, public information officer at the City of West Hollywood.

Rabbi Denise Eger, leader of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami; Yossi Herzog, an Israel LGBT rights educator; and Karmel Melamed, an Iranian-American attorney and contributor to the Journal; had been scheduled to appear on the panel.

In an interview on Dec. 4, Eger said that the event was cancelled so that it could include speakers representing more Middle Eastern cultures. Eger said she has offered to help with the planning of the panel, in particular to help find an appropriate Arab speaker.

Although the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and the City of West Hollywood were partners in organizing the event, the consulate declined to comment on the postponement, referring questions to the City of West Hollywood.

If the panel’s problem was that there wasn’t an Arab speaker on it, it wasn’t for lack of people representing the Arab world locally who can speak on the topic of LGBT rights in the Middle East, according to Jordan Elgrably. He is executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center, a Los Angeles nonprofit that presents arts and cultural events about the Middle East and North Africa. Organizers of the LGBT event did not contact the Levantine Cultural Center for help organizing the panel, Elgrably said. 

“We would have been happy to give them recommendations,” Elgrably said,

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel and the West Hollywood mayor had been set to deliver remarks, and Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute, a national think tank at the UCLA School of Law, was set to moderate, according to the event flier.

‘Forward 50’ heavy on politicos; Faith groups petition Supremes re Prop. 8

Forward 50 Heavy on Politicos

The Los Angelenos in this year’s just-released Forward 50 list include an Orthodox rabbi who suggested that Israelis should be able to decide the fate of Jerusalem, a rabbi who led efforts to fight Proposition 8 and a Westlake School for Girls graduate who this year was an Olympic-gold-medal swimmer.

The Forward 50, a list of Jewish movers and shakers published annually by The Jewish Forward, is heavy this year on Jews involved in politics, particularly in President-elect Barack Obama’s successful campaign and developing the new administration. Three of the top five standouts are Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new chief of staff; Penny Pritzker, his national campaign finance officer; and Sarah Silverman, whose video for The Great Schlep encouraged Jews, young and old, to vote for Obama. (The other two members of the top five are kosher activist Rabbi Morris Allen and Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the dovish lobby J Street.)

“Jews played an outsized role in the presidential election campaign, and, by the looks of it, will continue to do so in the new Obama administration,” Forward Editor Jane Eisner said in a statement. “This was also the year the kosher meat industry faced its greatest legal, consumer and ethical challenges and in the process exposed major lapses in the U.S. justice and immigration systems, prompting rabbis of all denominations to examine the moral dimension of a central Jewish tenet.”

Those honored from Los Angeles, in addition to Silverman, are: Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, who last fall wrote an op-ed for this paper that broke an Orthodox taboo and said Israel should have the independent freedom to negotiate over Jerusalem; Rabbi Denise Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in West Hollywood, and a leading activist against Proposition 8; U.S. Olympic gold-medalist Dara Torres, who at 41 stole the show in the Water Cube from everyone but Michael Phelps; U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), who became chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee after the death of Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos; and, for the third time in six years, Daniel Sokatch, who served as founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and left Los Angeles this summer to lead the San Francisco Jewish community.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Faith Groups Petition Supreme Court, Challenge Prop. 8

On Nov. 17, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) joined a coalition of Christian organizations in filing a petition asking the California Supreme Court to invalidate Proposition 8, the statewide ban on same-sex marriage.

The petition argues that the controversial ballot measure threatens the U.S. guarantee of equal protection, and was too dramatic a revision of the state Constitution to be passed by voters without Legislature approval.

“The Progressive Jewish Alliance is proud to join with our friends in the Christian community who likewise recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” PJA President Douglas Mirell said in a statement. “We hope our petition will remind the court and other faith communities of the dangers posed when a minority group … is deprived of equal protection by a simple majority vote. If Proposition 8 is allowed to take effect, there is nothing to stop voters from writing religious, racial or ethnic discrimination into California’s Constitution through the next statewide ballot initiative.”

Other signatories of the petition included the California Council of Churches, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The PJA is the only Jewish organization to take part.

— Rachel Heller, Contributing Writer

Jewish Free Loan Establishes Housing Fund

The Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) has received a $100,000 donation from the Annenberg Foundation to establish a housing loan fund that will offer $3,000 interest-free loans to individuals struggling to pay their mortgage.

The fund is a direct response to the home foreclosure crisis, which, thanks to risky lending and the subprime mortgage meltdown, led to a majority of California homes sold last month being bank-owned.

“Given the current housing climate, it was critical that JFLA establish a fund that can meet the growing needs of our community,” said Mark Meltzer, executive director and CEO.

The housing loan fund will complement JFLA’s emergency loan program, which has provided $3,000 loans to help renters avoid eviction or cover a security deposit and has assisted homeowners with utility bills and emergency repairs.

JFLA has seen a surge in emergency loan applicants this year. The nonprofit plans to raise another $750,000 during the next three years through foundation grants and individual contribution and to increase the average housing loan to $5,000 within the next few years.

Loans are available to people of all faiths. For more information on loan programs or procedures, visit the JFLA Web site at www.jfla.org or call (323) 761-8830.

— BG

Resource Guide for Elderly Visitors Available

The Older Adult Task Force is offering a free, quick reference for families who need advice about how to best accommodate older relatives throughout this holiday season.

OATF, a coalition of approximately 40 social service agencies in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, says the guide contains information about social and health services, housing, transportation and financial assistance. Specifically, it highlights commonly asked questions and concerns and then “provides a listing of agencies with their phone numbers that can assist in addressing the relevant issues.”

The coalition has distributed the guide to relevant organizations, libraries, pharmacies, churches and recreation centers. To have a copy of the guide mailed to you, call (310) 394-9871, ext. 411, or send e-mail to olderadulttaskforce@yahoo.com. A downloadable version of the guide is available at http://www.smpl.org/pdf/quickreferenceguide.pdf.

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Archdiocese, ADL Partner to Educate Teachers

California’s Catholic school educators will be better armed to field questions about anti-Semitism in the classroom, thanks to a three-day conference sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The “Bearing Witness” program delved into the theological and political roots of anti-Semitism, as well as the methods for teaching certain delicate subjects in schools: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the historical relationship between Jews and Christians. The Rev. Dennis McManus, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, and Rabbi Eliot Dorff, professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, were among the speakers.

The conference, held Oct. 28-30, culminated with a special Shabbat dinner that included participants, program alumni and ADL leaders. The program is now in its sixth year and has reached more than 1,300 schoolteachers.

— LF

Ground-Breaking Groundbreaking

Congregation Kol Ami, the only Reform synagogue in West Hollywood, prides itself on being an alternative to the mainstream, an inclusive, nonjudgmental place where gays, lesbians, bisexuals and heterosexuals connect to a spiritual base, where what matters most is that you want to be there. But it seems the mainstream may be closing in on Kol Ami – or the gay and lesbian religious community in general. At a groundbreaking and consecration ceremony at the site of Kol Ami’s future building, leaders of the Los Angeles and West Hollywood communities, as well as leading Los Angeles rabbis, offered support and congratulations.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky lauded the 250-member congregation, founded in 1992 with 35 members, for its courage, character and strength. Mayoral candidate and City Councilman Joel Wachs marveled at the distances crossed since he visited the first gay-focused church in Los Angeles 30 years ago, when gay Jews like himself had no spiritual home.

“We are performing the mitzvah of redevelopment,” said Kol Ami’s Rabbi Denise Eger. “We are here because of a lot of hard work and dedication by all of you, and your commitment to believe in a future for our community and our city.”

Eger saw the steady rain and gloom of the day as a sign of cleansing, of fertility and renewal. The rain did little to keep away more than 200 people who huddled under the caterer’s tent, made festive with a klezmer band and rainbow bouquets of balloons, which matched the rainbow-painted shovels used for the groundbreaking. Guests joined in the rousing “Halleluyah” and “Shehecheyanu” prayers led by the rich voice of Kol Ami’s cantor, Mark Saltzman, who is also an opera singer.

The new $13.5 million building, expected to be completed in about a year, will stand in an 11,000-square-foot lot at the corner of La Brea and Lexington. Just inside the eastern edge of the West Hollywood city limit, the property was the last available vacant lot in West Hollywood and is in a planned redevelopment area.

“We are honored to have Kol Ami in the city of West Hollywood, because I think about Kol Ami in the same way I think about West Hollywood – welcoming to all and supportive of all,” said West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem Paul Koretz. Mayor Jeffrey Prang said he hoped Kol Ami would serve as a “spiritual anchor” as the area develops.

Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Mark Diamond, a Conservative rabbi who heads the Southern California Board of Rabbis, also offered congratulations and support.

Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations on the West Coast, tied the day’s events to an interpretation of the weekly portion of Beresheet. “God created beginnings,” he said, “and left the rest for humanity to complete.”