Rachel Isaacs has known, for as long as she can remember, that she wanted to be a rabbi. But Isaacs, who on May 19 became the first openly gay rabbi of either sex to be ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, knew by the time she was in college that 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.
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 an openly lesbian rabbi (Full disclosure: I’m a PSJC member.) “My thinking shifted. It was a living expression of the Judaism I believed in and wanted to foster as a rabbi. 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 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 davenning with traditional nusach — things I grew up with that were part of my personal practice,” said Isaacs, now 28.
Switching seminaries mid-stream wasn’t easy. Isaacs had to take four and five classes through her last semester in order to graduate on time, even as she worked as a rabbinical intern and a college chaplain; meanwhile, her classmates, having already fulfilled JTS’s requirements, took far fewer classes.
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 the 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 to Maine from Brooklyn. She will also be working part-time as the Jewish chaplain and a faculty member of Colby College.
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 last week. Carter was questioning her sexual orientation when she enrolled at JTS in 1991, and 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 gay students — perhaps evidenced by Isaacs’s refusal to answer when asked if there are other openly gay students there who will be following in Isaacs’ footsteps.
“JTS doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she 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 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, especially knowing that I won’t meet most of them. But I’m thankful for them.”