Rabbi Denise Eger has been in the trenches, getting her hands dirty in the fight for social justice both within the Jewish community and beyond, for more than two decades. As the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform synagogue that just celebrated its 20th anniversary, Eger has created a welcoming and inclusive space for Jewish people, worked with those living with HIV since the epidemic’s early years, and consistently advocated for LGBT people. Eger took a break–from time in the synagogue, posting to her blog and attending her son’s varsity baseball games–to speak with me about her Memphis roots and connection to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the challenges facing our community and what the holiday season means for LGBT people.
What do you see as the challenges facing our community in the coming five years, other than marriage?
Increasingly we are going to see more issues around kids in junior high and high school, coming out and curricular issues. In California, we have done some stuff like that (the governor signed landmark legislation in July mandating that the contributions of LGBT people be included in public school lesson plans), but it’s not true in every state, so I think that a major move is to make our schools safer, not just with the bullying issue but a safer environment for LGBT kids to be in. Also, as textbooks and curricula are written, and we’re seeing this in California, but it will make its way across the country–what’s a gay role model, a gay hero, and are we going to continue to hide the fact that people were gay when we discuss the fullness of their lives?
You were raised in Memphis. What was that like?
The South, in those years, was a very stratified place, both around color, whites and blacks, and around religion, Christians and Jews. That being said, it was also my roots in Memphis that have made me aware of the need for social justice and social activism, because, of course, Memphis was where Dr. King was assassinated, and that hit me in a very powerful way. Growing up in the synagogue that I did, where the rabbi was with Dr. King that week, negotiating with him on behalf of the sanitation workers–that was part of growing up, knowing that as a Jewish person, we had to speak out for injustice, no matter where the injustice was. It very much shaped me and helped me not to be silent as a lesbian, as a rabbi during the AIDS years, and with all of our civil equality issues as a community.
You worked in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
What I did as a rabbi was visit people in hospitals and bury people, because those were the years where people would get a diagnosis and be dead in six months. I was dropped into the middle of a war zone and these people were my friends. I run a monthly HIV support group. Our congregation is marching in the AIDS walk in honor of our commitment to continuing to fight against AIDS and support those people affected with HIV.
What’s the meaning of the season for you?
For Jews, of course, we observe Hanukkah, the festival of light. It teaches us about, in ancient days when the Maccabees went to rededicate the temple after it had been “polluted” by the Greeks. They cleaned it and relit the candles that were dedicated to God. The miracle of the light lasting longer than the amount of oil they had, I think is a really important symbol. That really speaks to me. It’s about lasting even when you think you can’t. So in the LGBT community in particular, there are times when the outside beats us down and sends us messages that we are less than. I think part of the light of the holiday season, for me, is about shining who you authentically are as a beacon of hope, unity, and peace. Because when you can be all of yourself, there is an inner peace that comes.