Religion & Jewish Life

Rabbi at historic D.C. shul comes out as gay

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

(JTA) — Rabbi Gil Steinlauf struggled for decades with an identity that he only acknowledged publicly this week.

On the Monday after Yom Kippur, Steinlauf, the married senior rabbi at Adas Israel — a large and historic Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. — announced that he is gay.

“With much pain and tears, together with my beloved wife, I have come to understand that I could walk my path with the greatest strength, with the greatest peace in my heart, with the greatest healing and wholeness, when I finally acknowledged that I am a gay man,” Steinlauf, 45, wrote in an email to congregants.

He said that he and his wife of 20 years, Rabbi Batya Steinlauf — director of social justice and interfaith initiatives at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington — would divorce.

Even as a child, Steinlauf wrote, he recognized a “difference” in himself but never let it define him or impact his choice of a spouse.

“I sought to marry a woman because of a belief that this was the right thing for me,” Steinlauf wrote. “This conviction was reinforced by having grown up in a different era, when the attitudes and counsel of adult professionals and peers encouraged me to deny this uncertain aspect of myself. I met and fell in love with Batya, a wonderful woman who loved and accepted me exactly as I am.”

Ultimately, though, “the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable,” he said.

The Steinlaufs have three children.

A letter of support from the congregation’s president, Arnie Podgorsky, accompanied Steinlauf’s announcement. Podgorsky said the rabbi had the full support of the congregation’s lay leadership.

“Our synagogue is strong, large, and inclusive — a big tent with room and respect for all,” he wrote. “Rabbi Steinlauf, along with the rest of the clergy, will continue to advance new paths to Torah, making Judaism and its tools for a beautiful life more accessible for more Jews. We will continue our diverse approaches to worship, from the traditional to the innovative. At the same time, we understand that Rabbi Steinlauf will be undergoing a challenging personal transition in the coming months, and we extend to him patience and a generous spirit.”

Podgorsky said that Steinlauf shared his news with the officers of Adas Israel earlier this fall.

“We determined together that he would see the congregation through the High Holy Days in the customary way, and then make his news public,” Podgorsky’s letter said.

Steinlauf has been the senior rabbi at Adas Israel, a 145-year-old congregation in northwest Washington, since 2008. He served previously as a rabbi at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, N.J., and Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio.

He graduated from Princeton, studied at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and was ordained in 1998 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Adas Israel counts many prominent members among its approximately 1,500 family units, including the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg.

In a post Monday on The Atlantic’s website, Goldberg put Steinlauf’s announcement in context.

“Rabbi Steinlauf fell into an odd liminal moment in history,” Goldberg wrote.” If he were a 25-year-old rabbi, there would be no drama here, no nothing, in fact, because he would simply be a rabbi who happens to be gay. The Conservative movement of Judaism has changed over the past decade or two in unimaginable ways. I have trouble picturing a synagogue that wouldn’t hire a gay rabbi. On the other hand, if he were 60 years old now, with the same identity, he most likely would have been able to glide toward retirement, his secret intact.”

A 2006 decision from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards paved the way for the ordination of gay rabbis and the recognition of same-sex unions in the Conservative movement.

In 2012, Steinlauf officiated at the first same-sex wedding at Adas Israel.
He wrote about that union and the sanctity of same-sex love last year in a column published in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

“I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman,” he wrote. “Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender. Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.”