Denise Eger, the founding rabbi of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami, tomorrow will be installed as the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinical organization of Reform Judaism.
The Reform movement, founded 126 years ago, includes 862 congregations in the United States and is one of the first Jewish groups to support gay rights.
Eger, 55, has been a major advocate for acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the Jewish community. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1990 she said that anti-gay sentiment had made it difficult for her to be hired as a rabbi after she graduated from seminary. In 1988 Eger became rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue recognized by Reform Judaism. She publicly identified herself for the first time as a lesbian in the 1990 L.A. Times story, which was published shortly after the CCAR publicly welcomed gay and lesbian people as rabbis. The Reform movement in the late 70s called for civil rights protections for gays and by many Reform rabbis supported same-sex civil marriage.
In 1990 Eger became the first female president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. In that position she urged the board’s 300 rabbis to deal with issues such as affordable housing, hunger, interfaith relations and professional growth for religious.
In an interview with WEHOville in February, Eger said she worked with others to found Congregation Kol Ami in 1992 as an accepting congregation for West Hollywood’s gay and lesbian Jewish population. Some of its members didn’t feel comfortable at the Chabad Russian Synagogue on Santa Monica Boulevard, affiliated with the Hasidic movement, or the former Temple Bet El on North Cresent Heights Boulevard occupied by the Iranian-American Jewish Federation.
“It was a place to reflect the new realities,” Eger said. “A place to be really proud. It was a cross section of people — those who could participate in ACT-UP ‘die ins’ and those who wore suits and sat on the boards of APLA and the LA LGBT Center.”