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    Historic Gathering of LGBTQ Clergy Builds Community

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    By Rivka Gevurtz

    Recently, over 60 rabbis, cantors, chaplains, and student clergy came together, not only from around the Bay Area, but also from throughout the U.S., Canada, Germany and Israel. We came together for four days of learning, sharing and community-building. Hosted by Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the gathering was the first of its kind in more than 20 years. Rabbi Camille Angel of Sha’ar Zahav observed, “Among the many gifts that our time together afforded, was the opportunity to host this historic gathering and share our gorgeous sanctuary space for convening, [as well as] an inspiring book of prayer, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, which each registrant took home thanks to the generosity of our benefactor [the Walter & Elise Haas Foundation].”

    Rabbi Angel shared that she made more than two-dozen new friends and colleagues, including students still in seminary, freshly ordained rabbis and elders. “Their stories have inspired me in my own journey, but I had never had the chance to meet with many of them in person. Lots of potential for the future!”

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    Martin Rawlings-Fein, a congregant of Sha’ar Zahav and a rabbinic student agrees. “As student clergy,” he said, “the retreat was most helpful in both formulating what is already being done by the many clergy in attendance, and to formulate what my own rabbinate will look like in the coming years. I am so grateful to Nehirim for the chance to be part of such a momentous occasion.”

    The retreat was produced by Nehirim, a national retreat organization and advocacy group that aims to promote diversity and equality based on the teachings of the Jewish faith. Nehirim fosters a sense of community among the Jewish LGBTQ community, through spiritual and cultural gatherings around the country. Led by Nehirim Executive Director, Rabbi Debra Kolodny, this was its first such  gathering specifically for Jewish clergy who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender or queer.

    rabiThe retreat welcomed participants who ranged from long-time leaders in the community to those who are currently studying to become faith leaders. It also reflected the different types of ordination from traditionally trained rabbis to newer ordination models, such as Maggids (religious story-tellers).

    Maggid Andrew Ramer, also of Sha’ar Zahav, noted, “I could not have imagined when I came out in Berkeley in 1972 that one day I would be sitting in a room with 60-some fellow Queer Jewish clergy. From our time together, ripples of change and inclusion of every kind are making their way out into the world.”

    The retreat, held December 7–10, explored the intersection of faith and identity. Teachers and speakers from all of the Jewish movements wove together panels, workshops and informal discussions that reflected on the 30+ year history of LGBTQ clergy,  delving into the gifts that their unique perspective brings to the larger Jewish community. Rabbi Eli Cohen of Chadeish Yameinu in Santa Cruz said of the experience, “The Nehirim retreat for LGBTQ clergy was an amazing gathering. The opportunity to connect with colleagues across a broad spectrum of gender and sexuality, and branches of Judaism, was rich. The workshops were thoughtful and often provocative. Already, I have brought to my community some of the gleanings, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to inform my work.”

    To culminate the gathering, Rabbi Debra Kolodny led the clergy in visioning what these retreat participants—and the combined 200 LGBTQ clergy in this country—might accomplish together, going forward. “Clergy are powerful multipliers!” she exclaimed. “Those who attended have the capacity to disseminate learnings, inspirations and best practices to their students, congregants, colleagues and friends. We explored theology, ritual, liturgy, pastoral care, and leadership opportunities. I expect that thousands of people will ultimately be treated to amazing new drashot (sermons), beautiful new prayers, gorgeous new rituals and fascinating new teachings.” She continued, “We also began to articulate our vision for future contributions to the larger Jewish community. I believe that the relationships and networks that formed as a result of this event will result in innovative projects, campaigns and ongoing learning opportunities.”

    The clergy have each returned to their home communities, to prepare for Hannukah. They are eager to take on their leadership roles, mindful of Isaiah’s injunction to “be a light unto the nations.” The hope engendered by this gathering will undoubtedly bring illumination, not only at this darkest time of the year, but also in future, lighting the way through the pain and discord in the world around us.

    Rivka Gevurtz is Director of Finance, Administration & Development for Nehirim, www.nehirim.org