Fighting for social justice takes fortitude. And sometimes finding a salve for the wounds of war, weariness and disappointment can itself seem a burden too huge to bear. But then comes a voice of love and self-assurance, tinged with angry righteousness, aimed squarely at inspiring that heavy next step and never, ever abandoning the cause.
The voice emanates from Rabbi Denise Eger, who has been vociferously advocating for LGBT equality since the early 1980s. Ordained in 1988, the power of Eger’s presence, often alongside longtime activist Rev. Troy Perry, reminded many of the courageous religious leaders on the frontlines during the dangerous battles for African American civil rights.
In 1992, during the height of the AIDS crisis, Eger and 35 others founded Congregation Kol Ami, a synagogue serving LGBT and allied Jews in West Hollywood. On June 19, about 200 people celebrated Kol Ami’s 25 years of commitment to “helping heal the world,” including Eger’s historic work bringing LGBT acceptance to Reform Judaism. Eger just completed a two-year term as the first openly gay President of more than 2300 Reform Rabbis worldwide, which she calls “one of the most significant events in my life.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and his husband, Olympic diver Tom Daley, presented “Guardian of Justice” awards to founding members Kim and Natalie Bergman. Founding member Alvin Gross and temple social justice activities chair David Glickman received “Spirit of Kol Ami” awards.
“One of the most significant events for me has been our LGBTQ fight for equality,” Eger tells the Los Angeles Blade. She became immersed in the issue of marriage equality, leading efforts in 1996 when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage bill to get the Reform Rabbis to support civil marriage. Then Eger wrote a “revolutionary resolution” that passed in her denomination. “It was “transformative for Judaism to understand that marriage was marriage and it paved the way for other religious denomination to come to support marriage equality both civilly and RELIGIOUSLY,” she says.
Eger calls her impactful leadership during the fight against Prop 8 “a hallmark of my rabbinate.” Kol Ami “was a force for organizing and every night we took out the pews in the sanctuary, set up tables and we became a hub for phone banking and trying to defeat Prop 8.”
The passage of Prop 8 was not her only obstacle. “One of my biggest disappointments has been the tendency for our community to get lazy,” Eger says. “We think because in California we have achieved so much equality that we don’t have to be engaged. I know that Congregation Kol Ami’s presence has helped people explore the intersection of justice and spirituality for themselves whatever their faith journey is and we continue at Kol Ami to be deeply engaged in social justice work.
“But some of our LGBTQ community and our allies think especially here in California that we achieved full equality. We have not,” Eger continues. “Wherever a child fears coming out, wherever a trans person is fired from work, wherever someone is denied their spiritual needs the work of equality is not done. We need more places and more LGBTQ people to transform the lives of all of Los Angeles and our nation. We need our energy, our voices to engage and transform this world. We can’t rest on our laurels. We know from the teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “None of us are free until all are free.”
Eger has always been aware of the intersectionality of oppression and the struggle for liberation, “especially in these times when fear mongering, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism Islamophobia have raised their ugly and immoral head,” she says. “I believe it is my religious calling to combat that wherever I am. My Judaism teaches me to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
It is a consistent message. “At the core of my religious faith is the eternal promise of justice for all. Not for some but a vision that one day all people of goodwill and good faith and no faith shall sing in one voice an anthem of peace and liberty. And we cannot gather tonight only 35 miles from Baltimore when there are others who lack equality and justice. Our community has known police brutality. After all the Stonewall riots were a response in 1969 to continued police harassment. And there will be no justice and equality until all are at the table,” Eger said in an April 26, 2015 sermon at the Multi-Faith Prayer Service in Washington, DC for Unite for Marriage.
“The world needs our LGBTQ vision of humanity—equality for all, true dignity, and love,” Eger tells the Los Angeles Blade. “And we can’t rest until that is a promise for every person. Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue, anticipates that its members and supporters will continue to be out front, leading that spiritual quest for true human dignity for all.”