They also serve: Rabbis’ spouses prove as diverse as roles they fill

Just before the High Holy Days last year, I was sitting in synagogue when I was struck by the star power of its rabbi. When he spoke, everyone listened, transfixed, as if the words he offered were revelations — inspiring, challenging and healing all at the same time.

At the end of his sermon, the congregants erupted in applause. I could hear them whispering about him all at once.

“He’s amazing,” several said.


“I love him!”

That’s when the cantor’s wife, who was sitting next to me, tapped me on the shoulder.

“You know,” she whispered under the din of temple chatter. “I’m waiting for the story about what it’s like to be married to someone in the clergy.”

That’s when I began wondering about the people rabbis go home to at night, the people who don’t just love the rabbi, but who also know the rabbi.

For as long as rabbis have been arguing Talmud, their wives have been at home preparing Shabbat dinner.

Yet that image, along with expectations for clergy spouses, has evolved. For one, they’re no longer all women. They’re no longer always hovering in the background; they’re not even always a different gender from their partner.

Modern rabbis’ spouses don’t fit into any single mold.

” title=”David Light”>David Light balances comedy writing with care of his two daughters; ” title=”Bruce Ellman”>Bruce Ellman brings his psychology training to benefit his temple; Marjorie Pressman served as a fiery force throughout her now-retired husband’s pulpit career; and ” title=”Marjorie Pressman”>Marjorie Pressman put it, “I didn’t marry a rabbi. I married the man I fell in love with.”

And that’s the thread that binds these seven people together.

At the heart of all these stories and all their struggles, are simple, powerful love stories.

All the

‘Wagging’: My Story as Gay Jewish Male

A couple of years ago, I heard about an oral history project for older gay men and women that resulted in a staged play. I didn’t see it, but when Bob Baker, the adapter-director, sent out the call for a new cast, I signed up.

We listened to each other’s stories, wrote up the most telling ones and turned remembered conversations into dialogue. After nine months, out came a play.

Everyone’s life is a book, a saga of depth, dreams, passion. The art is all in the telling. This is our story.

We performed “Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” to three sold-out houses one weekend in February at Highways Performance Space. And we’re about to perform the show again.

Stonewall, for those not up on queer history, was the bar in Greenwich Village where, in 1969, drag queens and minority gay patrons revolted against yet another police raid and said, “enough!” From sexual liberation to AIDS to gay politics and so on, no other generation of gays or lesbians has quite the same perspective that we do.

Here are some of my stories:

When I became the director of the Workmen’s Circle in Southern California in 1995, we opened A Shenere Velt Gallery, which is now celebrating 10 years of Jewish and socially conscious art. A show I mounted in early 1996, while still in my six-month probation, presented photographs by Albert Winn, a gay man seriously ill with AIDS.

None of us knew whether Al would survive until the opening. But I considered it the special mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) I was uniquely positioned to provide. I was willing, in fact, to put my job on this line.

Older members might inform our board that they could not approve of Al’s photo studies of pill bottles in the form of a menorah. But no one complained.

Even better, that spring, the new AIDS treatments came in and saved his life. He’s a thriving artist today. I believe that his resilience to hold out for his “last show” kept him alive until that Shehecheyanu (blessing that thanks God for a long life) moment.

Here’s another: Our youth branch here in Los Angeles was the first in The Workmen’s Circle to endorse same-gender marriage. There were some who felt this was not an appropriate issue for us, but within a couple of years, it had become our national policy.

Like society in general, Judaism has always responded to changing times. We always need to hear the voice of the “outsider,” the “stranger” and the “other” to advance our sense of righteousness in the world.

Coming out is an ongoing process. As new people come into your life, it matters or it doesn’t that you’re gay, and you have to determine their need to know. At first, my 70- and 80-something doyennes of Yiddish socialism had daughters to fix me up with, but after a few months, that stopped. Funny, though, they never mentioned their gay son or nephew.

The story of my life as a gay man also is a Jewish tale. Today, in the bloom of our GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) movement, we have rabbis and others who hold leadership positions in myriad Jewish communal organizations, who reveal new paradigms of Jewish life. Our homosexuality is simply one more aspect of life to factor in.

With others, it might be their left-handedness, their disability, their shyness, their aptitude, their love for a non-Jew, their political orientation, their crisis of faith. Being gay is qualitatively different, however, because social pressure causes boys and girls, young men and women, to turn against themselves.

What comes up in our play so insistently is that for kids who are genetically wired to turn out gay — and a certain percentage always are — the signs are there early on. Removing shame and disgust from the social equation will make those kids, and all of us, a whole lot happier.

When my sexual thoughts and urgings started, I took note. A few early relationships with women ultimately gave way to the openly gay person I am now, since coming out definitively in 1971. My gayness exerts no less active a presence in my life than the next guy’s heterosexuality, with all his attendant affairs, relationships, marriages, children, divorces, alimonies, moves.

For me, gay liberation came more easily than for some. From my teen years on, I had already defined myself in opposition to the establishment — opposition to Christian hegemony, to banal popular culture, to racism, to war, to imperialism.

Gay oppression was another thing to protest. It became almost a habit. That also partly explains why I felt drawn more to Yiddish than to Hebrew.

Homosexuality is never really a private matter, as some of our liberal and tolerant friends demand. How can it be? The social structures and prejudices that continue to bring misery, depression and worse to our queer sisters and brothers must be changed as part of the work of tikkun olam (healing the world).

I think my gayness has been an asset to my work. I give my time — evenings, weekends, holidays — in ways that I simply would not be able to if I had a family. I love my work, and I know it needs my full dedication.

But mine is a very special marriage of personality to career. I am not suggesting that gay people can therefore be loaded down with extra work assignments.

One Sunday, as I drove to work for an afternoon program, I had this epiphany. Asking myself, “Why am I doing this? No weekends, little time to myself? No fun?” I suddenly realized that being director of the Workmen’s Circle right here, right now, is who I am in this life. It’s what I do. It’s my contribution to the world.

People say the best way to meet someone is just by going about your business, and if it’s beshert (ordained), they’ll turn up. I’m not big on bars and drinking, anyway. So this guy attended a gallery opening recently, and …well, another meise (tale), another time.

That’s part of my story. Come see our show to hear more. Just as importantly, listen to the voices around you.

“Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” will be performed on May 13 at 8:30 p.m, May 14 at 2:30 p.m. (followed by a meet the cast), May 19 and May 20 at 8:30 p.m. at The Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. $10-$12.

The Torah of Our Lives

Left to right, panelist Rabbi Elliott Dorff of University ofJudaism, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, moderator MarkLevine, panelist Rabbi Leila Gal Berner and lawyer and AIDS activistDavid Rephun, the panelist from an Orthodox background. Below,panelist Rabbi Allen Freehling.

In Leviticus, male sexual relations are considered an abomination,punishable by death. “A man shall not be with another man as if witha woman. It is an abomination,” reads one passage. But, as with allthings biblical and Jewish, the Torah passages are open tointerpretation. And interpret they did last week at UniversitySynagogue at a panel discussion on Orthodox, Conservative, Reform andReconstructionist views on homosexuality and bisexuality.

The event, which attracted about 150 people, was sponsored by BethChayim Chadashim (BCC) and was the second in a six-part seriescelebrating BCC’s 25th anniversary as the world’s oldest synagogueserving the gay, lesbian and bisexual Jewish community.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, University of Judaism rector, representing theConservative movement, characterized his position on homosexuality asmore liberal than his movement’s. He looked visibly pained at momentsas he described dilemmas he faced in applying Conservative laws thatgo against his personal beliefs. The movement has passed resolutionsthat prohibit discrimination against homosexuals, but hasn’tsanctioned commitment ceremonies and doesn’t permit openly gay menand lesbians to enter rabbinical school or to be ordained. When hewas dean of the UJ rabbinical school, Dorff said that he didn’t wantto know if someone was gay or lesbian, “because I didn’t want toenforce the policy.”

Still, there is hope for change in the future, the rabbi said. TheTorah only spoke of homosexual relations that were oppressive,cult-based or licentious, not about long-term, committedrelationships between people of the same sex. “We in the 20th centuryare free to legislate in favor of lesbian and gay relations,” hesaid, as the audience clapped in appreciation.

Personally, Dorff said, he supports long, monogamous relationshipsand believes that the Jewish community has practical reasons tosupport marriage between same-sex couples, as well as those of theopposite gender, since marriage encourages monogamy. He estimatedthat about 14 or 15 of the 1,400 U.S. Conservative rabbis haveperformed commitment ceremonies, which aren’t recognized by civillaw. Asked by an audience member whether he would perform suchceremonies, Dorff looked surprised. “I haven’t been asked,” he said.”But I don’t see why not.” Still, he added in a later conversation,he has some hesitation about performing them without the backing ofhis community.

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner offered the Reconstructionist viewpoint. Aformer BCC member, she is the spiritual leader of Congregation BetHaverim in Atlanta, which describes itself as a Reconstructionistsynagogue formed for lesbians and gay men, and “embracing all Jewsand loved ones,” and is now about 30 percent heterosexual. “I thinkwe’re one of the few temples where bisexuals, lesbians and gays arewelcoming the straight folks,” she said.

The Reconstructionist movement has been in the forefront of changeon the issue of homosexuality. In 1983, it was the first to admitlesbians and gay men into its rabbinical college. In 1992, itaffirmed its support for full acceptance of gays and lesbians asrabbis, lay leaders and parents, and sanctioned same-sex marriage.

“As we look at the Torah, it isn’t a book of instruction but abook of interpretation,” said Allen Freehling, senior rabbi ofUniversity Synagogue, who represented the Reform point of view. LikeReconstructionism, the Reform movement has accepted homosexuals intothe rabbinical and cantorial schools, and, last year, the CentralConference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association,endorsed the civil right to be married of same-gender couples, butthey didn’t vote on rabbis officiating at such ceremonies, accordingto BCC’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards. Many Reform rabbis do officiate,including Freehling and Edwards.

Freehling sparked a buzz of surprise when he expressed the hopethat he would live long enough that congregations such as BCC mightnot need to exist, because gays and lesbians would find a home inmainstream synagogues such as his own. Many people joined BCC becausethey had the experience of being mistreated at other shuls, he said.

But Berner politely disagreed, saying that there is a specificgay, lesbian and bisexual culture that the straight community doesn’trecognize, but which is worth preserving. “We have a lot in commonwith the heterosexual Jewish American community, but there arespecific elements of gay and lesbian culture, music, liturgy andpoetry that are distinct,” she said, as other panelists and membersof the audience nodded their agreement.

Although there are many different streams of Orthodoxy, frommodern to haredi, the movement is united on the issue ofhomosexuality, said David Rephun, a San Diego lawyer and AIDSactivist who was raised Orthodox, but, as a gay man, no longerconsiders himself to be part of the movement. (Moderator Mark Levinesaid that Orthodox rabbis he approached declined to appear on thepanel.) The Orthodox view, despite the fact that there are individualOrthodox rabbis who are sympathetic to the plight of gay and lesbianOrthodox Jews, is that it’s wrong to be or act homosexual, Rephunsaid. But what does the Leviticus prohibition really mean in themodern world? The 11th-century scholar Rashi interprets the passageas saying “anal intercourse is wrong,” Rephun said. “It says nothingabout being homosexual. Homosexuality didn’t exist as a concept untilthe 19th century,” he said, so those who say that the Torah forbidsit “must have some other agenda.”

Several panelists and others were optimistic that the future wouldbring change to the Conservative movement’s stance. “I really thinkit’s only a matter of time before the Jewish Theological Seminaryordains gay and lesbian rabbis,” Rephun said. Even in Orthodoxcommunities, there is change, he said. There are organizations forOrthodox gay Jews in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York and here in LosAngeles, he said. Such developments spell progress, he said — slow,to be sure, but progress nonetheless.

In Support of Family

While liberal Jews may be supportive of gays and lesbians comingout of the closet, they often don’t give a lot of thought to theeffect that this open-door policy may have on straight familymembers, particularly spouses and children. With this in mind, TempleIsrael of Hollywood is sponsoring a panel discussion on the issue onTuesday, Jan. 20, from 7 to 9 p.m., at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

The panel will include Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth ChayimChadashim; Onnolee Sullivan of the Straight Spouse Support Network;Tara Rose of Just For Us; Marcia Spike, LCSW, a clinical consultantto the Straight Spouse Support Network; and Gail Rolf, Impactcoordinator at Hamilton High School.

The event, which is free to the public, takes place at TempleIsrael of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., at the corner of MartelAvenue. For more information, call Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at (213)876-8330 or Phyllis Sewall at (213) 936-9526. — R.S.