Embrace for Rabbi's Coming Out Reflects Dramatic Change in Jewish Community

It wasn't that long ago that Conservative movement would not ordain openly gay rabbis. Rabbi Steinlauf's coming out shows the road the denomination has traveled in its acceptance of LGBTQ people.

Kristina Sherk

NEW YORK – When Rabbi Gil Steinlauf announced that he is gay, in a letter sent Monday to members of the largest Conservative congregation in Washington D.C., it rapidly went viral and lent salience to a new survey, published the same day, which shows overall openness to meeting the needs of LGBTQ people at Conservative synagogues but few policies in place to do so.

While it wasn’t long ago that the Conservative movement would not ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, a policy that changed in 2006 after 15 years of acrimony and debate, attitudes have changed. Nowhere was the Jewish communal shift in attitude more evident than in the reaction Steinlauf got to the letter he sent to members of Adas Israel Congregation announcing that his marriage of 20 years, to a female Conservative rabbi, is ending because “I am a gay man.”

“I’m still kind of reeling from the overwhelmingly positive response from literally all over the world,” Steinlauf, 46, said in an interview with Haaretz. “I’m getting flooded with emails and texts. I’m just completely speechless. It’s a really difficult time in my family for obvious reasons, and it means a lot.” He declined to say whether or not he is still living with his wife, with whom he has three children, who range in age from 14 to 18, but said they are in the process of divorcing.

While Steinlauf has always known he was attracted to men, three years ago he realized that he could no longer deny that he is gay. “It was erev Yom Kippur when I said ‘this is who I am. This is not something I’m going to get over,’ “ he said. His wife knew about his struggle, and he told their children two years ago. But he was committed to trying to keep his family with Rabbi Batya Steinlauf intact. They met when they started rabbinical school at the American Jewish University, in Los Angeles. Just two months ago, he said, they made the decision to divorce.

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“The only way I can be the most loving husband to my wife and father to my children is to let go of my marriage. I wouldn’t want to think of myself as somebody now living a lie. I wouldn’t want that for myself, wife or our children. Frankly, as a rabbi I wouldn’t want my congregants to have a rabbi not living his integrity either,” he said.

The fact that Steinlauf’s coming out did not lead to the loss of his job as senior rabbi at the influential Conservative synagogue — where Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan spent Yom Kippur, a member told Haaretz — reflects rapidly shifting attitudes. Adas Israel has 1,420 member households. Those same changes led the denomination’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which has some 600 congregations as members, to survey their policies and attitudes on LGBTQ issues.

“We had been told that some kehillot [communities] are very welcoming, to anyone regardless of sexual orientation,” wrote Rabbi Paul Drazen, special assistant to the CEO at the organization, in the introduction to the report. “We had also heard reports (but found it untenable) that most USCJ kehillot were, at best, grudgingly accepting of the LGBTQ community.”

Conducting the survey “was an attempt to answer the question ‘how are we doing?’ “ Drazen told Haaretz. “The level of inclusion and welcoming is extraordinarily high, considering that congregations tend to be more conservative. The attitudes are very open and welcoming. There are places where tweaking needs to be done, as on forms saying ‘parents 1 and 2’ rather than ‘mom and dad.’ But those are ‘oops we haven’t thought about it’ rather than deliberate. I was actually very surprised that congregations are really following through on this.”

Of the 250 congregations that responded to the survey, which was conducted last December and published this week, 61 percent said they have members who are out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Twenty three percent said they do not, and 14 percent said they aren’t sure. Forty three percent of congregations said they have staff or board members who identify as LGBTQ and 47 percent said they do not.

Most congregations do not have written anti-discrimination policies regarding sexual orientation or gender identity, fewer than one third include the categories in their anti-bullying training. Just one quarter include LGBTQ issues in their educational programming or curricula and just 14 percent say they have done staff training on LGBTQ inclusion.

At the same time, 80 percent of responding Conservative congregations permit same-sex couples to become members as a family and 51 percent say they use LGBTQ-friendly language on membership materials.

None of the survey findings surprised her, said Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, the Jewish LGBTQ organization which worked with the United Synagogue on developing the project.

“We have observed a marked shift in the direction of inclusion over the past 10 years. Policy changes within the Conservative movement are happening at the same time as changes in the broader world have been a driving force in pushing both rabbinic leaders and congregants to make changes in their communities.”

The Conservative survey indicates “significant progress and highlight areas in which there is still work to do,” Klein said, for example the need for synagogues to include attention to gender identity and sexual orientation in teacher training, and to run programs explicitly inclusive of LGBTQ Jews.

Being openly gay, lesbian or transgender does not pose a problem when rabbis are looking for jobs, said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which has 1,700 members. “We have only seen positive responses for them in congregations, in fact,” she said.

Keshet has worked with about 50 individual Conservative congregations and day schools on implementing LGBTQ-friendly policies. “It’s the pace of change in the Conservative movement and frankly everywhere in the Jewish world that continues to surprise me,” said Klein.

Joel Alter was closeted by necessity when he was in rabbinical school at JTS starting in 1991. After being ordained as a rabbi he worked for a dozen years in Jewish day schools in Washington, Baltimore and Boston and was out about his identity as a gay man. In 2012 he returned to JTS, this time as openly gay and as its director of admissions for the rabbinical and cantorial schools.

While he doesn’t know for certain what percentage of current students are gay or lesbian, it tends to come up when students are interviewing for admission. “They might say ‘I’m gay, lesbian or trans, is it really safe for me to come to JTS? There is no tension around it, it’s just part of their bio. It’s totally unremarkable, and I’m thrilled to pieces.”

JTS created a Committee on Sexuality and Gender, to make sure it is inclusive in its policies and culture, he said.

“In large and small congregations, out LGBT rabbis are serving in congregations, in chaplaincy, in schools. It’s a totally new world,” said Alter.

Steinlauf officiated at the first same-sex wedding at Adas Israel two years ago.

Steinlauf began coming out to his community by telling the executive committee of Adas Israel’s board of directors and his clergy colleagues there. “Everyone was incredibly supportive and wonderful. As the circle widened I got a real sense that my congregation certainly is the kind of one that would welcome a gay rabbi.” The larger board of directors was informed shortly before his letter was sent to the entire congregation. The story quickly got picked up by the Washington Post and The Atlantic.

“Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s it was a very different world,” Steinlauf told Haaretz. “When I was in junior high school I was bullied and beaten up and called all those names. I sought help from various professionals in the ‘80s and the advice was I was going to get over it, ‘of course you’re not gay,’ a lot of really damaging things were said to me. This helped solidify an identity I was constructing where I was split off from this part of myself. I had defined this aspect of my life as a problem I would outgrow.”

Alter is on the board of directors of Nehirim, an organization that promotes queer spirituality and culture. It is running the first-ever queer Jewish clergy retreat, in December, in San Francisco, he said.

“When I was a student I was the only gay person I’m aware of in my class. I’m aware of three in the class that graduated after me, in 1997,” Alter said. “We’ve always been here, obviously. But the change is dramatic. People are being hired. And nobody is closeting themselves.”