When a group of rabbis and rabbinical students traveled from Philadelphia to Southern California in December 1986, they were told they would be picked up at the airport. When their ride arrived, they exchanged code words with the driver. Then they took off through the streets of Los Angeles.
“I remember not knowing where we were driving to,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a faculty member at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who was traveling with the group. “It felt as if we were walking into this secret, scary organization.”
Holtzman was in L.A. to attend the first gathering of Ameinu, an underground group for LGBT rabbis and Jewish professionals that provided a critical support network during a period when being outed meant you would likely lose your job, when no Jewish denomination had ordained an openly gay or lesbian rabbi, when same-sex marriage was not on the table, and when the AIDS crisis was at its peak. For three successive years in the late 1980s, Ameinu offered a haven for LGBT rabbis and Jewish professionals from across North America to gather, talk, offer support, daven, and strategize.
“The davening was really intense and beautiful; the conversations were intense. There was a sense of real freedom,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, a rabbinical student at the time who is now the senior rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. “I think for many of us they were really transformative and had an impact on what work we would do.”
Ameinu held just three retreats in three years: the first in Los Angeles, the second in Philadelphia, and the third in Toronto. Between 15 and 30 people attended each gathering—about three-quarters of them women—and the main focus of their time together was to talk about their experiences and offer support. Most were Reform or Reconstructionist; a few were Conservative. During this time, there were flickers of evolution in the Jewish community on gay issues: The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College began to admit openly gay students in 1984, and the first class to matriculate under the policy was ordained at the end of the decade. But no other denomination would ordain gay rabbis at this time, and although a handful of rabbis did come out after being ordained, fully justified fears about employment kept most LGBT clergy and Jewish professionals in the closet.
Ameinu—no connection to the current organization of the same name—operated in secrecy, and its story has never been told. Thirty years have passed, and some of the details have faded in the memories of those who were a part of it. However, it was a formative experience in the lives of many who went on to become trailblazers on LGBT issues in the Jewish community.
The first Ameinu meeting in Los Angeles was convened by Rabbi Drorah Setel, then a rabbinic assistant at a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, and her partner at the time, the well-known musician Debbie Friedman. Friedman wrote some of the most famous pieces of Jewish music of the 20th century—including “Mi Shebeirach,” which she co-wrote with Setel; the Reform movement named its cantorial school for Friedman after her death in 2011. But she feared losing her career if it ever became widely known that she was a lesbian and remained private about her sexual orientation her whole life. Friedman, who was born in 1951, was also more inclined to view her sexual orientation as a personal matter than would a younger generation of lesbians, Setel said.
At the time, Friedman and Setel were hosting a largely lesbian women’s minyan in their home for Shabbat, and Setel had been involved in starting a Jewish feminist retreat group. Their vision for Ameinu was to create a private space where LGBT Jews could support each other in community and, most crucially, bring the Jewish and LGBT parts of their identities together.
“At a time when so many of us were closeted, to be in a space where we could be fully ourselves with each other was profoundly significant,” said Setel, who was then closeted in her workplace and pretended to have the flu in order to attend Ameinu. At the L.A. gathering, Friedman performed for the first time her song “L’Chi Lach,” which she had written with Savina Teubal, a feminist biblical scholar who was a lesbian.
“I think [Friedman] needed it and knew that we needed it,” said Rabbi Deborah Brin, now a geriatric care manager and freelance rabbi based in Albuquerque. “I don’t think anyone was thinking about transformation in the Jewish community at that point. We had to figure out how to navigate this territory of being very, very public [as clergy] and also needing to protect ourselves at the same time.”
The L.A. meeting and the two subsequent retreats were organized by word of mouth with confidentiality being a primary concern. No lists were kept of Ameinu attendees, and no photos were taken during the retreats. Participants were asked not to say that they were traveling to the retreat city ahead of time so that no one could connect the dots between them and another Ameinu member. One Ameinu member traveling to L.A. recalled being told to meet her contact in the fruit section of a grocery store; others were given a phone number before their flights with instructions to call it when they landed to learn the exact location of the retreat center.
It was the participants who chose the name Ameinu, meaning “our people.” When the group was being formed, organizers referred to it, tongue-in-cheek, as “Aron Hakodesh.” The Aron Hakodesh is the ark where the Torah is kept in a synagogue, but translated literally, the term can mean “holy closet.” Navigating the experience of being closeted was a topic of intense interest at Ameinu, where most of the retreat was devoted to fellowship and informal conversations.
“I remember talking about how cognitively dissonant it was to author sermons about ethics, truth, standing before God in your authenticity and knowing we weren’t,” said Rabbi Leila Berner, who traveled from Philadelphia with Holtzman. “It’s corrosive to the soul.”
“Secrecy is toxic, and it eats at the person who’s holding the secret,” Brin said. “There’s a level at which you can’t be authentic and there is no integrity.”
At Ameinu, Brin was known as the rabbi from Mexico City. She was actually serving as the rabbi for the Reconstructionist synagogue Darchei Noam in Toronto. But she was the only female rabbi working in all of Canada in 1986, and she was worried about being outed. In service to preserving everyone’s anonymity, the participants at Ameinu had agreed that if they were ever to speak about each other in the future, they would use a general descriptor, like “a rabbi from California.” But that wouldn’t work for Brin, who would be immediately identifiable if anyone were to ever mention a lesbian rabbi from Toronto. And so she became the rabbi from Mexico City, a deep cover that would later be passed on to another Ameinu member, a Conservative rabbi deeply afraid of being outed.
“It sounds hard to imagine now, but we were all terrified,” Brin said.
‘Secrecy is toxic, and it eats at the person who’s holding the secret.’
Brin did eventually come out to her Toronto congregation in the late 1980s, and when her employment contract was up for renewal, it was extended for another two years, making her the first gay or lesbian rabbi to get a contract renewal after coming out. But she still encountered some hostility within the congregation, especially after she had a commitment ceremony with her partner. The final straw for her was when she was told that during a blessing for a baby recently adopted by a lesbian couple, she could not call both mothers up together for an aliyah. She made the “very rabbinic” decision to invite one mother to read haftarah during the ceremony so that she would be on the bimah at the same time as the other mother was called up for an aliyah. Then she resigned the next day.
“I wasn’t going to be oppressive to other people just because I had to deal with being a lesbian,” said Brin, who left the congregation in 1990.
When Kleinbaum was ordained in the Reconstructionist movement in 1990, she wasn’t out, but she had worked as a student rabbi for an LGBT synagogue in Atlanta, so it was rumored that she was a lesbian. She had trouble finding a job and ended up working for the Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement. She came out to her employers before she accepted the job offer, and thus became the first openly gay person hired by the Reform movement.
“Sometimes in the Jewish community you could be out with a ‘wink, wink.’ Sometimes if you were like, ‘This is my life partner,’ or ‘I want to celebrate on the bimah,’ you would be fired,” said Kleinbaum, who started a committee during rabbinical school to change the culture around LGBT issues at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “I love listening [now] to the Jewish community being so self-righteous about gay stuff.”
During the years that Ameinu was active, the Reconstructionist movement was starting to ordain openly LGBT rabbis, and the Reform movement would affirm ordination shortly thereafter in 1990. (The Conservative movement would not allow openly gay rabbis to be ordained until 2006.) Many Ameinu members met as students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, after it began admitting openly LGBT students in 1984. Ameinu members were among the first generation of female rabbis, and many of them were trailblazers in different ways. Holtzman was the first woman to have her own pulpit in the United States; Setel was the first woman to be ordained solely by women.
The three years that Ameinu was in existence spanned a difficult but crucial period as the Jewish community began to evolve on gay issues. There may not have been a conscious choice to end Ameinu after its final retreat in Toronto, but the support and organizing lived on in subsequent activism. Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg, who became active in the World Congress of LGBT Jews and worked to push the Reform movement to sanction same-sex marriage, said Ameinu strengthened him by letting him know he wasn’t alone.
“It gave us the political strength to change the world,” Sleutelberg said. “We’ve lived through the total rejection of who we are, through the transformative decades, and please ,God, soon we’ll be in an era of total acceptance.”
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the first women to have her own pulpit in the U.S.)
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Drew Himmelstein is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her monthly column about parenting appears in J., the Jewish News of Northern California.