Newly ordained gay rabbi becomes a Conservative first

Rachel Isaacs has known, for as long as she can remember, that she wanted to be a rabbi.

On May 19, she concluded her pioneering journey through the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary to become the first openly gay person of either sex to be accepted into and then ordained as a rabbi by JTS.

But when Isaacs was in college, she thought she wouldn’t be able to become a Conservative rabbi because JTS, at the time, did not ordain gay clergy.

When the Conservative movement changed its policy five years ago, after nearly two decades of painful and divisive debate, Isaacs was in her first year of rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion — and deeply immersed in her studies there.

“I loved my teachers and classmates and couldn’t imagine being someplace else. I was happy for the [Conservative] movement but was unsure what it meant for me personally,” she said.

Rachel Isaacs

After returning to the U.S. from Israel, where she learned in yeshiva and began her studies at HUC, she moved to Brooklyn and joined the Park Slope Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue with a lesbian rabbi.

“My thinking shifted. It was a living expression of the Judaism I believed in and wanted to foster as a rabbi,” said Isaacs, 28. “It’s a community that is progressive and traditional and has an openly lesbian rabbi. The more I was at PSJC, the more I thought this is what I want to do.

“I wanted to lead a halachically observant community, so I decided it was best to transfer to JTS, where it would be far more likely I’d be working at a congregation that kept kosher, was more Shabbat observant and had more davening with traditional nusach [melodies] — things I grew up with that were part of my personal practice.”

Switching seminaries midstream wasn’t easy. Isaacs had to take extra classes in order to graduate on time, even as she worked as a rabbinical intern and a college chaplain.

Isaacs started at JTS in her third year of rabbinical school. The following year she worked as a rabbinic intern at PSJC and was a Kol Tzedek Fellow at American Jewish World Service, speaking about social justice at synagogues around the country. For the past year she has worked as the Legacy Heritage Fellow rabbinic intern at Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, Maine, and will be its half-time rabbi starting this summer after she moves from Brooklyn. She also will work part time as the Jewish chaplain and a faculty member of Colby College in Waterville.

Isaacs was not the first openly gay person to be ordained by JTS. Another rabbi, Antonio Digesu, came out of the closet a couple of months before his ordination — shortly after JTS announced in March 2007 that it had changed its policy to welcome gay students.

PSJC’s Rabbi Carie Carter, who has mentored Isaacs through her time at JTS, put the new rabbi’s tallit across her shoulders at her ordination. Carter was questioning her sexual orientation when she enrolled at JTS in 1991, but had to stay closeted through her 1997 ordination.

“For everybody who saw her give me that tallit during the ceremony, they knew it was a really important moment,” Isaacs said. “She went through the seminary closeted — there were so many people that did. For her student and congregant to be able to be ordained openly with her blessing — it was very historic and very moving.”

Even though it has been five years since JTS decided to accept openly gay and lesbian students, studying at the seminary remains a challenging experience for some — perhaps evidenced by Isaacs’ refusal to answer when asked if there are other openly gay students there who will be following in her footsteps.

“JTS doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Isaacs said. “As much as the struggle for gay and lesbian equality has made great strides, there are still people who struggle with their sexual orientations or have families who aren’t supportive or are scared they won’t get jobs. That’s just life as a gay or lesbian person.”

According to Carter, “The seminary is still getting comfortable with this decision, just like it took the seminary years to get comfortable ordaining women rabbis. It was a learning process there and it’s a learning process here. They’re taking steps. One was just taken and more will continue.”

Being the first openly lesbian rabbi ordained at JTS is “really an honor,” Isaacs said.

“That I could stand on that stage and be ordained was the culmination of years and years of time and energy and effort from other people. I feel very grateful to them,” she said, “especially knowing that I won’t meet most of them. But I’m thankful for them.”

This story originally appeared in the Forward newspaper. To read more, please go to www.forward.com.