From Disgrace to Praise
By Rabbi Yoel Kahn
I have spent my life in the Reform Movement. I grew up and became bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu El of San Jose, California, and the most important and formative experience of my life was my first summer as a camper at UAHC Camp Swig (now URJ Camp Newman). Several years later, in my first summer as a counselor, I met Rabbi Lennard Thal, who encouraged me to consider enrolling one day at HUC-JIR. It was Rabbi Thal’s encouragement that led me to the rabbinate.
However, my path was not an easy one. In 1980, the College-Institute still had a long-standing policy that it would not knowingly admit or ordain anyone known to be homosexual. While never explicitly stated, this policy had been in effect for as long as anyone could remember and before and throughout my rabbinical school career, I heard numerous stories of dedicated young people who had been forced out of or withdrawn from the rabbinic program. All incoming students were required to take the MMPI (Massachusetts Multiphasic Personality Index) and meet with a psychologist; one of the specific purposes of both of these activities was to screen out homosexual applicants. I “lost” my score sheet on the way to my appointment. (The MMPI has been long since been discredited as an indicator of sexual orientation.)
I felt like a Murano during five miserable years of rabbinical school, fearing daily that I would be “outed” and expelled. (I found out many years after ordination that there was in fact discussion in the administration about me around this issue.) I kept a low profile and tried not to call attention to myself. I vowed early on that I would not lie about who I am but would try to avoid being asked questions I would rather not answer. I had gone to the New York campus with the goal of studying with a renowned faculty member whose books I admired but then was afraid to work too closely with him, lest I let out something about my personal life. I could not be confident that I would be ordained until it actually happened; even then, I wasn’t entirely sure!
Anticipating ordination in 1985, my classmates were cautioned against any of us assuming the pulpit of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav of San Francisco, “a Reform synagogue with a special outreach to gay and lesbian Jews, their friends, families and community.” Assuming this pulpit, the rabbinic placement director said, would result in the “shmutz of homosexuality” [sic] being on your resume and “you will never get another job.” While the well-intentioned rabbi was trying to give the best advice he could to young colleagues, this was a devastating experience; being associated with homosexuals would make one suspect, and this would preclude any future career opportunities. (During this period, others knew more about me than I had known. Unlike every other rabbinic student, I was unable to get a job at my home URJ summer camp because the director had heard something.)
Looking for my first rabbinic position, I was discouraged from applying for a position with a leading congregation in a large, urban setting; the rabbi explained that he had children to put through college, and if he hired me, “We would both lose our jobs.” Other positions that I expected to be open to me also declined to even invite me for an interview; of course I can never know what the basis for this rejection was, but I do have my suspicions.
My story does get better. I did become the rabbi of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and served there for 11 years. Subsequently, I had positions in Hillel, higher education, and JCCs, and I am now the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Berkeley, CA. While I have ample reason to believe that there were various positions which were closed to me over the years because of prejudice, I am happy to be leading a congregation I love and which values and embraces me, my family, and my rabbinate.
Others have not been so fortunate. Over the years, I have heard many stories of promising future rabbis who were expelled from HUC-JIR or were turned away. Many rabbis – along with cantors, educators, youth workers, and others who sought to serve our people – endured years of rejection, discrimination, and ostracism. Since 1990, the institutions of the Reform Movement have been committed to welcoming as students and as professionals all qualified and committed Jews, regardless of sexual orientation. While the first decade after this decision was not easy for many LGBT colleagues – and for many, the 1990 resolution came too late – the last 10 years have been a time of ever-increasing visibility, inclusion and acceptance.
Our movement can and should be justly proud of its leadership in the campaign for full inclusion of gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, in the civic sphere and in the synagogue and Jewish family. My story – and our Reform Movement’s – echoes the Haggadah’s narrative: “mi-g’nut l’shevach, from disgrace to praise.” When we retell this story, let’s be sure to start at the beginning.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. He is married to Dan Bellm, and they are the parents of a college-aged child.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah