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Congregants of Cleveland Park’s Adas Israel Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in D.C., received a surprising email Monday afternoon: Their senior rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, announced he is gay and that, after having three kids and being married for 20 years, he and his wife are divorcing.
“These are great upheavals in my personal life, as in Batya’s and that of our children. But it is plain to all of us that because of my position as Rabbi of Adas Israel, this private matter may also have a public aspect,” he wrote, later adding, “The truth is that like anyone else, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life. I ask for your continued trust in me to guide you as your spiritual leader as I truly am.”
To Steinlauf’s relief, his congregants are opening their arms. “I am overwhelmed by the love and support that is literally by the moment flooding in,” Steinlauf tells City Desk. “People keep telling me they are more proud than ever to be a part of the congregation. I hoped for [this reaction], prayed for it, and it looks like that’s what’s happening.”
Steinlauf, 45, has been a rabbi at the synagogue since 2008 and says he grappled with the decision to come out to his family and congregation over the last three years. He and his wife decided in August they would divorce, but wanted to wait until after the High Holidays before they announced it. Steinlauf’s letter to his congregants comes on the same day that gay marriage was legalized in Virginia, something he says was just a “pleasant coincidence.”
“It was three years ago that I came to the understanding that this is not something that I am going to get over, this is who I am,” he says. “I think I will be a better rabbi to my congregation if I am living in my integrity.”
As Steinlauf put it, his sexuality is a “nonissue from the perspective of the Jewish conservative community.” The highest legal body in the Conservative Judaism movement voted in 2006 to allow gay rabbis and same-sex marriage ceremonies. Steinlauf officiated at Adas Israel’s first same-sex marriage a few years ago.
The president of the temple, Arnie Podgorsky, also wrote a letter to congregants, saying he supports Steinlauf’s personal announcement and asked congregants to “offer every kindness and consideration” to the rabbi’s wife and children.
“Together with the other officers of Adas Israel, I stand with Rabbi Steinlauf,” he wrote. “Our synagogue is strong, large, and inclusive—-a big tent with room and respect for all. 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.”
Steinlauf says that his role as rabbi won’t change, though he hopes he can be a role model to young, gay congregants.
‘The biggest story here is that it is a nonstory,” he says. “I’m not a single-issue rabbi.” Here’s Steinlauf’s letter:
I am writing to share with you that after twenty years of marriage, my wife Batya and I have decided to divorce. We have arrived at this heartbreaking decision because I have come to understand that I am gay. These are great upheavals in my personal life, as in Batya’s and that of our children. But it is plain to all of us that because of my position as Rabbi of Adas Israel, this private matter may also have a public aspect. We recognize that you may well need a period of reflection to absorb this sudden news. I am most grateful for the support Adas’ lay leaders and clergy have provided my family and me in the short time since I brought this matter to their attention. That support makes it possible for us to prepare for this new chapter in our lives, and for me in my ongoing service as Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation.
While I struggled in my childhood and adolescence with a difference I recognized in myself, that feeling of difference did not then define my identity, much less the spouse I would seek. I sought to marry a woman because of a belief that this was the right thing for me. 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. Together, we have shared a love so deep and real, and together we have built a loving home with our children—-founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition. But my inner struggle never did go away. Indeed, Batya herself has supported me through this very personal inner struggle that she knew to be the source of great pain and confusion in my life over decades.
A text I’ve sat with for years is from the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 72b) and states, “Rabbah said, any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar. Abaye, and some say Ravah bar Ulah, said [one whose inside does not match his outside] is called an abomination.” Ultimately, the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable. 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. Sadly, for us this means that Batya and I can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love. As our divorce is not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpachah a covenant of family.
I hope and pray, too, that I will be the best father, family member, rabbi, friend, and human being I can be, now that I have resolved a decades-long struggle. The truth is that like anyone else, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life. I ask for your continued trust in me to guide you as your spiritual leader as I truly am. I also ask for your love and kindness toward Batya and our children as they seek to live their lives with dignity, as they journey the challenging road ahead.
I feel immensely proud that for many generations our congregation has set standards of vision and leadership in the American Jewish community and am sincerely grateful for the privilege of serving Adas Israel. Now, with deepened humility, I look forward to continuing the delicate task of marking and celebrating our shared human journeys in joy and in holiness.
Photo via Adas Israel Congregation.