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Lesbian Clergy Recount Their Paths to Jerusalem

Friday, August 18, 2006

U.S. lesbian clergy leaders look back on decisions and breakthroughs that helped bring them to World Pride in Jerusalem last week. As bombs fell 50 miles away, one female rabbi prayed for peace "within this region, for all its neighbors."

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U.S. lesbian clergy leaders look back on decisions and breakthroughs that helped bring them to World Pride in Jerusalem last week. As bombs fell 50 miles away, one female rabbi prayed for peace "within this region, for all its neighbors."
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Rabbis Sharon Kleinbaum and Ayelet Cohen

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)--The Rev. Pat Bumgardner, 53, remembers her sense of being called to religious work when she was in high school and visiting a rectory.

When she told the clergy there her feelings, she said they responded, "No, that can't be true, you must be a nun. Consider that and take a vow of silence."

"This made me angry," Bumgardner said.

What also angers Bumgardner, head pastor of New York's gay and multi-denominational Metropolitan Community Church, is the hostile treatment of homosexuality by the conservative branches of the world's three major monotheistic religions.

So despite the breakout of intense warfare between Israel and Hezbollah in July, she and other religious leaders--mainly Jewish and Christian--attended Jerusalem World Pride, Aug. 6-12, to challenge religious groups that oppose and condemn homosexuality.

For some female clergy the trip entailed a second level of challenge, since Israel does not officially recognize female rabbis.

The first World Pride event, held in Rome in 2000 to coincide with the year of the Christian Jubilee when millions of pilgrims journeyed to the Vatican, drew about 200,000 gays and lesbians, according to organizers. Attendance at this second World Pride event, however, was much lower, "in the thousands," according to organizers, due to fears about the war in Lebanon and controversies over Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories, which caused some people to cancel or boycott the event.

In the closing Shabbat ceremony, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who was co-chair of Jerusalem World Pride and the event's main religious leader, asked all in attendance to pray for peace "within this city, for all of its residents. For this country, for all of its citizens. Within this region, for all of its neighbors."

Path Through Culture Wars

During the event, as bombs fell 50 miles to the north, Bumgardner and a handful of other female religious leaders spoke with Women's eNews about the various paths that had led them from the cultural wars surrounding lesbian women in the clergy to this actual battleground in the Middle East.

During the 1980s Protestant and Jewish sects had begun to ordain female clergy, but being openly lesbian was double trouble.

Rabbi Dawn Rose, library director at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue and the leader of a part-time congregation in Norwich, N.Y., said that in 1985 she had begun her education to be a rabbi and was enrolled in a Jewish seminary in New York.

"I hoped the lesbian thing wouldn't matter," she said. But the issue came to the fore in 1988 when she invited an openly gay rabbi to speak at the school. Rose said that the invitation sparked a controversy and faculty began to question her sexual orientation and she felt some pressure to "out" lesbians in the program. An administrator told her that homosexuality was in violation of the rabbinical program.

Despite three years and $30,000 invested in her education, Rose found the "witch hunt" atmosphere so unbearable that she switched into the seminary's doctoral program. It was not technically a religious program, so she could not legally be expelled. She graduated in 1996 and later taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

She Didn't Want to Lose Judaism

Kleinbaum, the event's religious leader and head rabbi for the Congregation Beth Simchat Torah of New York, the world's largest gay and lesbian synagogue, looked back to being a teenage Orthodox Jew. She remembers disliking "the gender issues in Orthodoxy" but not wanting to lose Judaism.

Kleinbaum said that by her 20s she knew she wanted to be a rabbi, but there were no role models.

Despite the lack of female footsteps to follow, she and other women at the event said they pressed ahead, intent on molding a religious career and encouraged by the international wave of people declaring publicly that they were lesbians in the early 1980s.

Some women said that while being a lesbian could be particularly challenging, the difficulties of just being women gave all female clergy something in common.

Sandra Turnbull, 45, pastor of the Glory Tabernacle Christian Center in Long Beach, Calif., was ordained around 10 years ago as an openly lesbian clergy. "I received more hate mail as a woman than as a lesbian," she said. "That's why I'm so committed to inclusion." While largely a gay church, about 25 percent of her congregation is straight.

Leading the Flock

Ayelet Cohen, the 32-year-old associate rabbi for Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, who is straight, came to Jerusalem World Pride to help lead her flock along with head rabbi Kleinbaum.

Cohen, who described herself as coming from a "second-generation Jewish feminist background," said her mother's generation questioned Jewish tradition that provided rituals for boys but not for girls and helped spur the bas mitzvah to celebrate female teens' transition to womanhood.

Her generation's challenge, she said, is to lower the religious hurdles for gays and lesbians.

Cohen said her own religious calling came when she went with a friend to a Beth Simchat Torah Gay Pride Shabbat service in 1995. Watching the service appealed immediately to her feminism. "I want to be that kind of rabbi," she told herself during the service. "I want to do that."

Turnbull said it was notable that so many women--straight and lesbian--have managed to pursue their ambitions as religious leaders.

"Up to 23 years ago, certainly not many options existed for women wanting to be in the clergy," said Turnbull. But today, "in my generation, women are in the pulpit."

Michael Luongo is a freelance writer and photographer in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Conde Nast Traveler, MAMM, National Geographic Traveler, Out Traveler and many other publications. More of his work is available on his Web site: http://www.michaelluongo.com.