While studying to become a rabbi during the 1980s in New York City, Denise Eger started a group for gay and lesbian students, holding meetings far from campus. At the time, there were few prospects for out lesbian rabbis, a lesson Eger would learn personally — no one would hire her. But she found her calling at a synagogue created as a religious refuge for gays, Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue to be recognized by Reform Judaism.
It was a road that led her to found Kol Ami, a welcoming and jubilant Jewish community that is open to all.
Since then, the Reform Jewish movement — Eger’s lifelong spiritual home — has undergone a radical transformation on LGBT issues and now fully embraces the community. So much so, in fact, that Eger, in 2015, became the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism — the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in North America.
Eger has been honored for her HIV/AIDS work and is a highly regarded expert on Judaism and LGBT civil rights. She is a noted author contributing to anthologies such as “Torah Queeries,” “Lesbian Rabbis,” “Twice Blessed,” and “Conflicting Visions: Contemporary Debates in Reform Judaism.” She wrote the piece “Creating Opportunities for the ‘Other’: The Ordination of Women as a Turning Point for LGBT Jews”, which appears in the book “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” published in 2016.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have been out to myself since age 12 … came out in the press in 1990 although I was out and living as lesbian since college. The hardest person ended up not being hard at all — I just thought it was and that was my father, who was loving and kind and accepting.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
I have many LGBT hero and sheroes! And I have been fortunate to meet many of them. But Rev. Troy Perry who transformed the religious community with his simple message that God loves gay people is truly one of my greatest heroes.
What’s Los Angeles’ best nightspot, past or present?
I remember Revolver of the 1980s. So many people would be packed in on a Saturday night. And so many who are now gone.
Describe your dream wedding.
I had my dream wedding! 200 plus family and friends on a Sunday afternoon this past July! With a great DJ and 19 rabbis all friends who came in to bless our marriage!
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
I have worked on a variety of issues, women’s rights, fighting racism and working for civil rights for all people, working closely for farm workers and their rights to fair treatment and pay!
What historical outcome would you change?
If I could change anything it would be to destroy the rise of Nazism that led to the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews. I think about the vibrant Jewish communities of pre-World War 2 Europe and what would be happening today if that had not all been destroyed.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Meeting Lady Gaga at the last March on Washington
On what do you insist?
High standards and expectations of myself.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
Commenting on the erasure of LGBTQ people from the 2020 census: More shameful mess from the Trump admin #LGBTQ #spiritualresistance. (Your readers can follow me @deniseeger)
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Speak Truth to Power”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
No, I love my life!
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I believe that what we call God is the energy and life source of the whole universe that connects everything. Our souls are part of this universal energy. When we die it is only our body that dies but our souls are eternal and reunites with the ultimate Source of the Universe.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Talk to one another and work together — silos and competition do not advance our cause.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
My son Benjamin who is soon to graduate college.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
That gay men and lesbians do not get along.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
My favorite LGBT movie is “The Kids Are Alright,” in part because I have always had a crush on Annette Bening, but also because of the highlight of parenting.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Saying you’ll call soon and then not calling.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
I am blessed to have had a lot of honors and recognition of my work, so not trophy or prize but I guess I would say winning the lottery. It would be nice not to have to worry about finances.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
I wish I had known about weightlifting. I have discovered that I love doing that as part of my workout.
Why Los Angeles?
Because it is the most diverse, vibrant, creative city, where you can be anything you dream of if you put your mind to it.