November 19, 2019

Out and Proud

For some prospective rabbis, the greatest challenge is getting into rabbinical school. For Benay Lappe, the challenge was getting out, coming out and being out.

Lappe is the new scholar-in-residence at Milken Community High School’s Advanced Jewish Studies Center, where she is teaching Talmud, Jewish law and ethics. She’s one of a tiny group of openly gay Conservative rabbis (“There aren’t more than five of us,” she told The Journal), and she had to struggle to be ordained while in the closet and to remain a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly once her homosexuality was known.

She will tell her story tomorrow during the Rosh Hashanah morning service for Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC).

Two days before Lappe’s 1997 ordination at The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, the rabbinical school’s dean called her into his office. The seminary had received a phone call from someone who made various charges centering on Lappe’s being a lesbian.

“He made it clear that if I didn’t answer, I wouldn’t be ordained, and if I said I was a lesbian, I wouldn’t be ordained,” she said.

Lappe did the only thing she could so that the ordination could proceed – she denied her orientation. “It was very, very painful, a decision no one should be forced to make,” she said. The dean didn’t confirm until an hour before the ceremony that she would be ordained.

She spent the next three years working for the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership under centrist Orthodox rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and remains an associate there. During that time, she served as director of education for Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian congregation, where she created the synagogue’s Gay and Lesbian Lehrhaus Judaica, the first institution to seriously integrate gay and Jewish studies.

When the local Jewish paper The Jewish Week wrote up the program – with the headline “Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom” – she got a call from Rabbi Joel Meyers, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), who asked her point-blank if she was a lesbian. The policy of the Conservative seminaries and clergy organizations is not to “knowingly admit or ordain avowed homosexuals.”

But the rest of the Conservative movement’s stand on gay clergy was on Lappe’s side. Drafted by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, currently rector of the University of Judaism (UJ), as an interim policy in 1992 and never changed, the policy states that the seminaries, the RA and the Cantors Assembly “will not instigate witchhunts against those who are already students or members.”

With support from Dorff and other prominent Conservative rabbis, including Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Lappe turned back the RA’s attack, charging that the policy does not require any seminary student or prospective RA member to divulge his or her sexual orientation, so she hadn’t violated movement policy – but the rabbis who had gone after her had.

“The fact that I remain a member of the RA in good standing sets a strong precedent,” Lappe said, adding that she hopes her willingness to challenge the Conservative establishment will cause it to deal more fairly with gay students and rabbis in the future.

Ironically, she said, it was her rabbinical studies that allow her to stand up for herself as a lesbian in the face of centuries-old Jewish teachings about the supposed evils of homosexuality. “The seminary gave me the tools for drawing the circle so that gays and lesbians are included,” she said.

“It isn’t God or the tradition that reads out gays and lesbians,” she added. “It’s leaders who have confused their own homophobia with the tradition.”

Lappe, 40, a licensed pilot who grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and whose jobs before entering rabbinical school included teacher and shoemaker, thought of matriculating at a rabbinical school more receptive to homosexuals, but she identified too strongly as a traditional Jew to walk away from the movement she considered her spiritual home. “I’m very proud to be a Conservative rabbi,” she said.

Lappe’s move to Los Angeles is a return – she completed her first two years of rabbinical school at UJ – and her appearance at BCC tomorrow, where she was a member when she lived in Los Angeles, is a homecoming of sorts as well.

Dorff, for one, is delighted to see her back in town. “She’s bright, she’s warm, she’s a terrific teacher, and she’s well-rooted in the tradition,” he said. “I think she’s going to be a major asset to the community.”Lappe loves the work she’s doing at Milken, where she has been out from the beginning. “Milken is a very exciting place,” she said. “It’s very unusual for a Jewish day school to hire an openly gay teacher in Jewish studies, especially a rabbi. Having the opportunity to teach Talmud to kids is something I didn’t think I’d have.”

“I am inspired by her creativity, the depth of her learning, and her menschlichkayt,” said Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Milken’s rabbinic director.

Lappe relishes the chance to show historically disenfranchised Jewish groups such as gays and women that they have a place within Judaism. “I can now say to the gay and lesbian community, you’re part of the tradition, and the tradition is yours; let me teach it to you.”

Beth Chayim Chadashim’s Rosh Hashanah morning service will begin at 10 a.m. Sat., Sept. 30, at Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd. in Rancho Park. BCC asks a donation of $75 for the single service, or $200 for the full series of High Holy Days services, which begin tonight.