September 21, 2019

After 25 Years, Rabbi Lisa Edwards Bids Farewell to Beth Chayim Chadashim

After a storied, inspiring quarter of a century helming Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first LGBTQ synagogue, which opened its doors in 1972, Senior Rabbi Lisa Edwards officially will retire on June 30.

In a phone interview with the Journal, Edwards recalled the tiny lightbulb moment when the idea of becoming a rabbi first came to her. It was when her parents, together with a few other local families, helped found a small Reform synagogue — Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Ill., which still exists.

“During that time, I found out women weren’t allowed to be rabbis,” Edwards said. “That was my first rebellious response — to do what wasn’t allowed.”

Slowly, things changed. By the late 1970s, when women were getting more involved in clergy in North America, “I didn’t have to prove anything,” she said, chuckling. And so the light bulb dimmed for a while.

Edwards went to the University of Iowa to pursue a doctorate in English literature. While there, she worked as a teaching assistant, informally studied Jewish scripture with a small group of Jewish women, and wrote a dissertation on American-Jewish fiction and its incorporation of traditional Jewish texts. 

“Iowa City was the first place I’d lived where Jews were really a minority,” Edwards said. “I had a sense there that I’d never had before. I didn’t really have to be Jewish there, but I was teaching students who’d never met a Jew. I felt a responsibility to not only teach Jewish writers to these non-Jewish students, but also to know something about it myself.” 

Then, while Edwards was in a dark multiplex, the light bulb came on again. She went to see “Yentl,” the 1983 Barbra Streisand film in which her character poses as a man so she can study Jewish scripture at a yeshiva.

“It really was a turning point for me,” Edwards said. “This woman craved Jewish learning and went to such extremes to do it. I also connected to it as a lesbian, watching her masquerade as a man to do that. It was a very powerful visual story for me. I think it helped spark something.”

“What I’ll miss most is the opportunity to spend time with my congregants during both the special and regular moments of their lives. I take to heart the idea of living in this community.”
— Rabbi Lisa Edwards

So Edwards and then-girlfriend Tracy Moore packed their bags and headed to Los Angeles, home of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform movement’s seminary. It was the only rabbinical school Edwards could get into as a lesbian rabbinical student. When she was ordained in 1994, a position happened to open up at BCC, located in mid-city. (Today, BCC is located on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles.)

Edwards, who lives with Moore in Koreatown, has quickly found a home in the inclusive, Reform community that caters to Jews of various backgrounds. She came to the congregation at the height of the AIDS crisis — a formidable challenge for a newly appointed rabbi. With each new diagnosis in the congregation, the entire community felt the looming terror of another death sentence, she said. Many congregants passed away during her first few years and the social climate, even in progressive Los Angeles, wasn’t altogether welcoming to the gay and lesbian community. 

“In so many ways, the congregation was isolated from the community at large,” Edwards recalled. “They really became family to each other and really took care of each other. I think the community still feels like that. That doesn’t happen in every congregation. It was frightening, and the whole community was in grief with people burying their peers at a young age. It was horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But we came out of it with a very strong bond.”

That gave way to the marriage equality fight of the 2000s, for which Edwards was a face for Los Angeles, both on and off the pulpit. 

Now, Edwards is in the midst of a farewell tour of sorts. In March, Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove (CD 54) named Edwards a “Woman of the Year” during a formal ceremony on the Assembly floor in Sacramento. On June 12, the City of West Hollywood presented Edwards with a Rainbow Key Award for her decades of work “to make the Jewish community a more welcoming place for gays, lesbians and transgender Jews.” BCC even hosted a screening of “Yentl” in Edwards’ honor last weekend at the Laemmle Music Hall. 

“We’re losing someone who is the definition of a compassionate listener,” BCC’s Executive Director Rabbi Jonathan Klein told the Journal. “As someone who has been working with her, I’ve learned a lot more about how to be a good listener and be less contentious, less confrontational. To be around her is to learn from a master.” 

For congregants like Bracha Yael, 61, a retired engineering contractor who lives a few blocks from BCC, it’s Edwards’ personal touch she’ll miss most. Two years ago, Yael’s partner, Davi Cheng, 61, BCC’s former president, underwent brain surgery. Edwards was there. 

“[Edwards] spent all morning and all day just being with me,” Yael said. “She brought ritual to it, also. Before [Cheng] went in, she had prayers prepared, but also there was just her friendship on display. Sometimes, that’s the deepest connection you can have.” 

Marsha Epstein, 74, a retired public-health physician who lives in Mar Vista, said she always feels better after an Edwards-led service. “She just has this beautiful way of speaking,” Espstein said. “I’ve learned about poets from her that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. She quotes them in her drashes. I love the way she takes stands on progressive issues without alienating people who might disagree. When she’s up there, she attempts to include everyone.”

“What I’ll miss most is the opportunity to spend time with my congregants during both the special and regular moments of their lives,” Edwards said. “I take to heart the idea of living in this community. I’m taking a little break because that’s the protocol, but then I’ll be back, albeit in a much smaller capacity. So, the privilege of being in these people’s lives, of being their clergy, is what I’ll miss most.” 

As for Edwards’ future plans, she and Moore plan to take a yearlong sabbatical to travel and relax before Edwards’ return as clergy emerita. However, Edwards predicts she won’t be able to relax too much with an upcoming presidential election cycle.

 “I suspect that election stuff will occupy a large part of my time,” she said. “I wish I could say there’s no work to do, but obviously there is.”