Rabbi Denise L. Eger, D.D.
Senior Rabbi, Congregation Kol Ami
Please tell us about your Jewish journey.
My Jewish journey began with amazing parents who instilled in me a love of Judaism and a sense that God was present in my life even at a young age. I grew up at Temple Israel in Memphis, TN, where I had wonderful rabbis who deeply influenced me: Rabbis James Wax, Richard Birnholz, Harry Danzinger, and Alan Greenbaum. They taught me to speak up at injustice, encouraged me and encouraged my musical interests in songleading, and made it possible for me to be a camper and eventually staff at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS.
At camp, I was fortunate to meet and get to know numerous rabbinical students who were my counselors, unit heads, and co-workers as I matriculated from camper to staff. It was at Jacobs Camp where I saw and met some of the early women rabbinical students and entertained the possibility that I, too, could become a rabbi. My undergraduate Hillel experience at the University of Southern California where I met Rabbi Laura Geller, and later at HUC-JIR, gave me many gifts that shaped me as a person and as a rabbi. Once I became a rabbi, my congregants and my work as an advocate and activist for the LGBTQ+ community also shaped my Jewish journey. My teachers, both rabbinical and lay leaders, have enriched my Jewish heart and soul.
Where do you work, and what is most special/rewarding about your role?
I am the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA. I have served this congregation since its inception in 1993. Having the opportunity to serve a community for many decades is a special blessing!
How do you continue to engage with HUC-JIR today?
I serve as a student mentor to fifth-year students. I have had rabbinical interns for more than 30 years and a generation of HUC-JIR rabbis have served Kol Ami. I have been a member of the President’s Council, and, during my term as CCAR President, I served on HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors. I am often called in to guest teach in our School of Education around LGBTQ+ issues and our rabbinical program around practical rabbinics classes.
How has HUC-JIR changed since your time as a student?
HUC-JIR was not a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people when I was a student. It was hard to be a gay or lesbian student then and it was always under the threat of being outed and kicked out of school. We actually started a secret underground support network fo LGBTQ+ students then. I am glad that the policies around this changed and many of us worked hard to make those policies change. Today I am pleased that we can find the best candidates in all of our schools to serve the Jewish community regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
What impact did you have on the CCAR as its President?
During my two-year term as President of the CCAR, we revised the resolution process to make meaningful statements about social justice issues and our Jewish values, including passing a resolution of inclusion and support for transgender Jews. We revised some of the governance structures on how committees operated within the CCAR. We retired debt early thanks to prudent fiscal management. We created an ongoing platform for all the Jewish professional auxiliaries and organizations of the Reform Movement to communicate regularly that includes the CCAR, AJRE, ACC, NATA, Early Childhood professionals, and PREP. Perhaps my proudest contribution is that we initiated the requirement for professional development of rabbis. While rabbis should continue to study Torah Lishmah, as a profession we also want to ensure that continuing education doesn’t get lost in the multiple demands on a rabbi’s time. Like many professionals who are required to have ongoing learning, like lawyers, doctors, social workers, nurses, and therapists, rabbis now have continuing education requirements as well.
What is one of your favorite memories as a student at HUC-JIR?
One of my favorite memories of HUC-JIR came not during rabbinical school but during my undergraduate studies at HUC-JIR. I was the first student who was a graduate of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at HUC-JIR/Los Angeles, which provides all of the Jewish studies courses for the University of Southern California. As an undergraduate student, I took numerous classes with our Los Angeles faculty, and was often in classes with rabbinical students. Rabbi Lewis Barth, Ph.D., was supposed to teach a class at USC and I ended up being the only student in the class. We were in this huge lecture room, just us two, as he gave his talk! I took many classes with Dr. Barth through the years of undergrad and then in rabbinical school, and we formed a deep friendship and colleagueship. When he was Dean, we worked together to create the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation (now the Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity) in the early 1990’s, the first of its kind, which today is part of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.