Lesbian Rabbi Denise Eger has established a sanctuary for homosexuals who refuse to choose between their religion and their orientation. Called Kol-Ami, the 500-member temple at Lexington and La Brea avenues adjoins one of L.A.’s most Orthodox neighborhoods, no less.
Eger had already started the nation’s first ongoing HIV-positive Jewish support group; she’s also vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. And largely for her efforts in getting the architecturally progressive Kol-Ami synagogue built (“because West Hollywood needed a liberal synagogue!”), she was named businesswoman of the year in 1999 by the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Over the temple’s massive wooden doors, an inscription from Isaiah, echoing the scriptural roots of Eger’s activism, reads, “For My House Shall Be Called a House of Prayer for All People.” The building is the culmination of a symbolic journey for the mostly LGBT congregants, who, struggling for a place in a sometimes unreceptive community, “went from being wandering Jews to inhabiting the Promised Land,” says Eger.
The rabbi builds credibility in traditional circles by pushing for family values and encouraging Jews, whether gay or straight, to marry. The Central Conference of American Rabbis heard her voice, among those of other advocates, recognizing in 2000 that same-sex relationships were “worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”
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On a 2004 Tonight Show appearance, Governor Schwarzenegger said he wouldn’t oppose marriage equality if it were enshrined in state law. Last year, when he came right out and said he’d veto such legislation, Rabbi Eger wrote him a letter: “Many people of faith across California believe that the time has come to extend full equality and inclusion for gay men and lesbians. It is moral and just to do so, and this is exactly what I believe God wants of me.”