Leap of Faith: An interview with Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Last fall, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel Synagogue sent an email to his congregation. He told them he was gay. (And it was good.)
By Randy Shulman on May 28, 2015
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf – Photography by Todd Franson“I’m not going to go on record as saying Moses was gay.”
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf says this with a laugh — he laughs often and warmly, it turns out — but he’s also quite serious in response to a reporter’s offhand remark that Moses could be viewed as history’s first gay activist.
“But the story of Moses is a kind of coming out story,” Steinlauf says. “He grew up as a Prince of Egypt in the house of Pharaoh, completely in the center of power. Yet, he was nursed by his Israelite mother, so he knew that he had this secret identity. He lived in inner-conflict over those two worlds, those two identities of himself, until he finally came to a head when he killed an Egyptian who was oppressing an Israelite, and ran away. He tried to hide until God called him back. And then he spoke on behalf of his people.
“So I always make the argument that Moses has a kind of queer coming-out parallel in his life story, and that’s a fundamental motivational factor for his ability to recognize the suffering of his people and to stand up to Pharaoh, because of his ability to overcome his own limitations and insecurities and his shame of who he was.”
The same could be said for Rabbi Steinlauf who, in an act of courage last October, sent an email to his congregation of more than 1,500 families at Adas Israel, the storied Conservative synagogue that presides over the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and includes Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan among its worshipers. In the email, Steinlauf informed his congregation that he, in fact, was gay and that he and his wife of 20 years, Batya, with whom he has three teenage children, would be divorcing.
The backlash could have been significant for the 46-year-old Steinlauf. It wasn’t. The news spread like wildfire after the Washington Post reported it. The congregation heralded their support. And then, things went back to business-as-usual.
“It’s not that Adas has always been so utopian,” says Steinlauf. “As recently as maybe 15 years ago — this was before my time — there were huge fights on the Board of Directors about whether or not it’s appropriate to extend family memberships to gay families and gay couples. There was vehement opposition on either side of the debate.”
Steinlauf, a handsome man with the kind of calm, learned demeanor one expects from a Rabbi, hails from Long Island, where he was raised in “a very sort of high strung New York Jewish” way. His family wasn’t particularly observant, but they were very active in the Jewish community.
“We were very ethnically Jewish,” he says. “There’s an expression — ‘Bagels and lox Jews.’ Jewish food, Yiddish everywhere, always thinking about Israel and talking about Jewish issues around the world. We didn’t go to synagogue regularly but there was always a sense of Yiddishkeit around.”
As a boy, Steinlauf “was very interested in religion and thinking about God and all those things.” Though his family were members of a Reform congregation, he made them “join a Conservative synagogue, because I realized that the kids who went to the Conservative Synagogue were actually learning things that I wasn’t learning in my Reform temple. They switched for my sake.”
After graduating from Princeton, his interest in Judaism, in learning, in teaching, in spiritual introspection led him to Rabbinical school, where he spent six years training. He was an assistant Rabbi for three years in Columbus, Ohio, and then spent seven years at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey, “right outside Manhattan.”
Then came the opportunity to lead Adas Israel, where he’s been since 2008.
“I was pretty honest with them,” he says. “I told them that I wanted to take it in a direction of really making it relevant and diverse and exciting in ways that they hadn’t, bringing conversations into the Synagogue that they’ve never had here in this context. And I would like to believe that’s why they hired me.”
Of course, the conversation he eventually brought proved to be a test — one that the synagogue passed magnificently, in a way that all other synagogues now have their eye on what has occurred. On a more active level, Adas Israel will, for the first time in its history, have a contingent in this year’s Capital Pride Parade on June 13, and Steinlauf has started a LGBT Torah study group, open to not just just Adas Israel members, but anyone who cares to partake.
“Adas Israel has a long-standing reputation of being a synagogue that can push the envelope in the Conservative movement,” he says. “It certainly is continuing in that tradition.”
Like so many, Steinlauf felt from an early age that he might be gay. But he kept those feelings tamped down, pushed to the side. “That couldn’t be who I am,” was a constant refrain in his head. His two decade marriage to Batya was as profound and meaningful as any other, a point he stresses throughout a two-and-a-half hour conversation — and beyond.
“I have been thinking about one thing I said in the interview, and I’m a bit concerned,” he wrote in an email in the days following our conversation. “I talked about how my ‘leap of faith’ involved realizing that it was ultimately about how I love. I’m concerned that it might come across as suggesting in some fashion that my love for my wife of 20 years was not real.
“In fact, my love for my wife was very real and complete. It’s critically important for me to ensure that there is no confusion about that. While my love for her was real and beautiful, I came to see that, as a gay man, I needed to love in a different way.”
METRO WEEKLY: For those readers who aren’t Jewish, or who may not have a clear notion of what a Rabbi is, can you give us a brief explanation?
RABBI GIL STEINLAUF: Unlike other religious traditions, a Rabbi is not considered a holy man or holy woman. The word Rabbi literally means “teacher.” And that’s really what I am. I’m a teacher of Torah, a teacher of the Jewish tradition. We are pulpit clergy, but the role that Rabbis play in modern American Jewish congregational settings is that we are setting the vision and goal of a congregational community. We rule on matters of Jewish law, and what applies and what doesn’t apply in our own communities. Judaism is a legalistic tradition, so we have to be knowledgeable about Jewish law. There’s lots of pastoral work and, of course, preaching and teaching. It’s a very busy, very rich, very intense life, because we’re dealing with people in all moments of the life cycle, from birth through death.
MW: You say a Rabbi is not a holy person. But I was always under the impression they were. Doesn’t the Jewish religion have the the equivalent of the Pope?
STEINLAUF: [Laughs.] Are you kidding? Jews agreeing on who would be the Pope of the Jews? Can you imagine such a thing?
In different Jewish communities, there is the equivalent of a holy man. For example, the Chasidim — the black hat people — have their Rebbe. He’s more like a holy man. Rebbes are like gurus. Rebbes have Chasidim who orbit around them and drink in their words. They can “see into your soul,” and when they give you a blessing, it’s life-altering. But in general and traditionally, Rabbis are just particularly learned Jewish people.
MW: The synagogue you oversee is nationally prominent.
STEINLAUF: Adas Israel is an historic congregation. It’s 150 years old — President Ulysses S. Grant was at the founding ceremony. It has a major presence not only in Washington, D.C. but in the American Jewish community because it’s a solid anchor in the Conservative movement in the Jewish world. So it’s a big and important place. When this job opened up and I applied, I didn’t think I was really going to get it. It was an amazing opportunity for me, because it’s a platform where you can really make a difference. A lot of the members here are people in leadership in the government and in think tanks and journalists who are influencing the tide of our society.
MW: How have you altered the synagogue’s course since coming here?
STEINLAUF: I like to put it this way: In the 21st century everything’s changing. How we make meaning, how we form our identities, how we connect our sense of who we are, and what we’re doing in life to a bigger picture, is different from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. My message to this congregation has been that we can’t be operating in this congregation like it’s 1965 anymore, because we’re going to become absolutely irrelevant in 5, 10, 15 years.
“I believe that to be Jewish is a form of being queer. When you think about the role of the Jewish people throughout history, we have always never really fit in.”
MW: How would you describe the atmosphere here in the years before it changed.
STEINLAUF: It has always been a very strong, powerful Synagogue. I would say it was much more in keeping with more conventional expectations of synagogues. So there were services, but the style of the services was very formal, very decorous. If there’s a kid crying in the service now, I think that’s just terrific, whereas a couple of decades ago, the service would stop and they would give dirty looks until the parents took the kid out.
The idea is to be very progressive. I’m interested in “disruptive innovation.” The grand experiment I’m working on in this congregation is what happens if you take one of the established institutions in American Judaism — the synagogue — and do from within new things that deliberately cut against the grain of expectation. You’re going to automatically discomfit people, you’re automatically raising anxiety levels, but in that creative tension new kinds of things can happen that people haven’t had the opportunity to experience before.
MW: Why so much change?
STEINLAUF: I’m doing this because I really believe that no matter what happens, no matter what we say, synagogues will always be the real centerpiece of the American Jewish experience. That no matter how disaffected or alienated a lot of Jewish people might be in our day, if they’re ever going to inquire about their own Jewish identity, they’re going to look to synagogues to provide something. And if synagogues meet the conventional expectations of what people grew up with, they’re going to walk right out the door again. So it has to be a very, very different kind of experience.
That said — and I have to say this, it’s important — Adas is a multi-generational synagogue. The older generations here are less comfortable with some of these innovations. So it is very important we still have conventional features so that everybody feels comfortable. The beauty of working in a very, very big and multifaceted urban congregation is that you can have it all.
MW: You’re Conservative. Do you look at the Reform movement, with its relaxed stance, as somehow — there’s no good way to phrase this —
STEINLAUF: Less than?
MW: Yes. Less than.
STEINLAUF: No, I don’t. Because I’m inherently a pluralist — my world view is diversity. There’s an expression in the Rabbinic literature: “These and these are the words of Torah.” It means there’s multiple opinions on everything. If you open up any page of Talmud, the Rabbis are arguing. And what’s interesting is, they always preserve both sides of the argument, even though we actually only follow one. Why? Because the other opinion matters, too.
One of the most beautiful and most powerful insights that Judaism has that other traditions don’t have as strongly, unfortunately, is that there’s an inherent diversity of perspective and interpretation to what the tradition means. So I inherently respect my Reform colleagues as having a particular understanding and take on what Judaism and the Torah is all about. As I also respect my Orthodox colleagues.
MW: I’ve always looked at Judaism as a religion but also as a culture. I probably fall on the more cultural side these days.
STEINLAUF: A lot of people who aren’t Jewish have trouble grasping this, but being Jewish is only in part a religion. In Judaism, we call ourselves “a people.” And our people is rich and varied and diverse and textured. There are observant Jewish people and there are secular Jews, but one of the things we all inherently understand is that we’re all Jewish.
I see tremendous parallels between the uniquely Jewish experience in the world and in history and the experience of being queer. I believe that to be Jewish is a form of being queer. When you think about the role of the Jewish people throughout history, we have always never really fit in. We have always been kind of on the outside of mainstream civilization — on the outside, and yet interestingly, right in the middle of it at the same time. One foot in and one foot out. That’s sort of what it feels like to be Jewish. It’s kind of also what it feels like to be gay. We’re completely a part of the world that we live in, and yet there something about us that’s fundamentally “other.” And to be Jewish is to be fundamentally “other,” as well.
Similar to being queer, to be Jewish is a source of anxiety for other people who don’t understand us. To be Jewish is to be a source of persecution and attack and oppression from those who project their nightmares onto us because we look like them, we might even dress like them, but then we’re somehow “other-fied.” And so, my journey of being gay, of being closeted, and then coming out has been deeply influential on my path as a Jew, on my path as a Rabbi, on my vision of Judaism and how Judaism can evolve in the 21st century. And all of that has been deeply formed by my insight and experience of being gay.
MW: Well, let’s go there. Talk about about your life before coming out. You were married, you had kids.
STEINLAUF: So I met my wife, Batya, in Rabbinical school. She’s a Rabbi, too. We were best friends and truly fell in love. We got married and had a beautiful marriage for 20 years together and had a really, really wonderful, close-knit family — two girls and a boy.
STEINLAUF: But I always knew from my childhood that I was always attracted to the same gender. That was always there. I didn’t act on it. And, I don’t know, maybe that attributed to my ability to, you know, to live this life in this hetero-normal existence, because it wasn’t in direct contrast to other kinds of experiences I’ve had. I just knew that these were very, very real desires and dimensions of myself that I disassociated from.
MW: Was Batya aware of your internal struggles?
STEINLAUF: She always knew I struggled with things. But she also knew that our marriage was very real in every way and that we loved each other.
“I only got one seriously nasty e-mail out of a congregation of 1,500 families. It was written on a typewriter and it said, ‘You took this job under false pretenses and you must resign immediately.’”
MW: How did you absolutely know you were gay? If you’d never acted on it, even before the marriage…
STEINLAUF: I don’t have a good answer for that. I just knew. I guess because I have always been so introspective and have been obsessed with the truth my entire life. Obsessed with it. I always felt there was a dissonance between how I was in the world and how I felt inside. I could never make those things match.
MW: Was there a catalyst to make those things match? Something that triggered it?
STEINLAUF: My realization actually happened — this is telling — three years ago on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the time Jews are supposed to be spiritually naked before God. And with my personality, I get into profound introspection and have been taking stock of my life since I came to Washington of what’s missing, what’s wrong. I woke up that morning of Yom Kippur and it was literally waking up in the morning and realizing, “Oh, this is who I am.” That was a completely new concept for me. I’d never, never allowed myself to own it like that before. I had freaked out about it all the time. I worried about it all the time. I pushed it away all the time. But never on every level of my being was I able to simply say, “Oh, this is who I am.” And that’s the beginning and the end of the story.
MW: But what caused that realization?
STEINLAUF: I think I was ready. I was ready. Some of us are ready when we’re 18, and some of us when we’re 43 years old. Suddenly 43 years of shame dropped away. It really dropped away.
MW: How did Batya take it?
STEINLAUF: One of the reasons why I fell in love with her is that there is absolutely nothing phony about that woman. She says it like it is — to a fault sometimes. She had fundamental trust in me in the sense that I was always 100 percent honest with her to the extent that I knew how to be honest with myself. So we had discussions and over the course of three years came to the decision we would have to get divorced. We take the idea of marriage very, very, very seriously, and I wasn’t going to try experiences while still married. So if I’m gay, the marriage would have to end. We struggled for three years up till that point, getting to the precipice, then backing off and then to the precipice and then finally jumping off. It was a leap of faith.
MW: That’s a remarkable leap of faith because you might have found it wasn’t for you.
STEINLAUF: That occurred to me. It totally occurred to me. What if this whole thing is a total mishegas, as we say? When I was a kid in college, I would always wonder to my friends, “What if I’m gay?” I would literally say this to people because I was such a neurotic Long Island kid. I used to freak out about everything, and they were like, “No, you don’t have cancer. No, you’re not dying. No, you’re not gay.” So I relegated my gayness to just another neurosis. And when this became who I am, it was such an alignment of the stars, that it felt absolutely real and true, the seeking of this truth that was always out there suddenly was in here. It was a very spiritual experience for me. And in that reality, I was able to take this leap of faith. So now my wife and I are divorced, and I’m living as a gay man now.
MW: You didn’t have to do this. You could have remained married.
STEINLAUF: I wanted to. I tried. When I first had the euphoric realization that this is who I am, the intention I really set for myself is “I’m going to continue to be married this woman, I love my life, I love my wife, I love my whole everything.” I was very happy like this. With all these trappings. I wanted that. But once it’s out of the bag, you can’t stuff it back in again. I saw this as essentially the quality of my path in life. My path to God involves me being created in the image of God as a gay man in this way. So I couldn’t rectify the dissonance between that deep sense of who I am and the other aspects of my life that didn’t match with that anymore. It was truly agonizing, excruciating, those three years leading up to this.
MW: Was it worth it?
STEINLAUF: The act of owning those desires, the act of owning that as me, not other than me, was a tremendous healing in my life.
MW: It’s a pretty seismic event when a Rabbi at a synagogue of this size and this stature comes out. It becomes big news.
STEINLAUF: I honestly didn’t expect it to be as big a news story as it ended up being. I honestly expected something in the Washington Post about it, but I didn’t think it would get picked up in so many other papers. I didn’t anticipate that. I also didn’t expect literally the thousands of notes and e-mails I got from people around the world responding with incredible love and support. I mean, just overwhelming. People thanking me, men who had the courage to come out because they read the story, young people thanking me. I still can’t wrap my mind around it, actually.
MW: Does that say something about our world right now?
STEINLAUF: At the time, I joked that the thing that made news is the fact that it’s a non-story. Yeah, I came out, okay, there are lots of gay Rabbis. I came out at a conservative Synagogue, that’s a little unusual. I came out at a very big, prominent conservative Synagogue. That’s interesting. But the fact that there was no backlash, there was no drama within the Synagogue — that’s remarkable. And that’s the real statement about the times that we live in. That’s why it became a bigger story.
MW: Were you worried about backlash?
STEINLAUF: Sure. Up until the day that the story dropped, I really didn’t know what was going to happen. There are certainly people who aren’t comfortable with it, but we’re in a period of history where even people who have discomfort with it are smart enough not to make a big deal about their displeasure. I only got one seriously nasty e-mail out of a congregation of 1,500 families — one — and it was written by a long-time member. I believe he’s in his nineties. It was written on a typewriter and it said, “You took this job under false pretenses and you must resign immediately.” Which is really what the entire congregation would have said in his day, many, many decades ago. But, you know, I’m honestly amazed by the level of support here. Some of the older generation members here are some of my biggest supporters on this issue, interestingly.
MW: I have read some criticism from people who have claimed you should have just kept quiet and stayed in the marriage. How do you respond to that?
STEINLAUF: You know, honestly, because I love my wife and my children so much it became patently clear to me, completely crystal clear to me, that the way I can be the most loving to my wife and to my children was to end the marriage. Because if I stayed in the marriage, then it would have kept it from being a truly loving, very real marriage that it had been for 20 years into living a lie. And because I’m so profoundly focused on living a life of integrity and being in the truth, I couldn’t live with myself if I was living a lie. My wife would never have wanted me to live a lie, and I would have been a terrible father to my children if I’d been living a lie, because what kind of role model would I be if I had stayed in the lie? And frankly, what kind of Rabbi would I be in a congregation if I were a liar, pretending to be somebody who I’m not, just for the sake of holding on to whatever it is that people think I should have stayed in the marriage for. At some point, integrity matters most in leadership and in being a mensch. That’s the beginning of everything else. If we don’t have our own integrity as human beings then in what way can we truly be ethical in any other way?
“We have unbelievable amounts of societal shifting to do. We’re still a deeply racist country. And I think there’s going to be deep homophobia for a long time to come in our society.”
MW: The people who are critical are presupposing that you were hiding it all along.
STEINLAUF: Right. That’s the one thing that’s very difficult for some people to understand — and I don’t blame people for having a hard time understanding this. But I do want it to be said that you know, believe it or not, I had a real marriage to a woman. I really did. And I know that’s incredibly difficult for people to hold on to, but that’s actually what happened and yes, that process of coming to terms with myself meant that everything that we honored about that marriage, in order to honor it, meant that marriage had to end.
Divorce is horrible and divorce is painful and I’m not going to candy-coat this. Ending a marriage is a horrific loss and it’s very, very painful for my kids and for my wife and for me. None of us would have chosen this, you know? Being gay is not a choice. And so this is how it had to be and so they had to struggle with this. Are they thrilled with all of this? That I’m getting publicity for being gay, that the gay thing is responsible for the breakup of the family that we had as we knew it? It’s a tragic loss for my family and what I can say is that I am very grateful we’re going through this loss together. My wife and I are best friends. And that’s not going to change. We consider each other to be family no matter what. And we’re going to be family forever. I hope that she remarries and I hope that she has a wonderful life that moves forward. But we do consider ourselves to be family still. This is not a bitter divorce on any level.
MW: She sounds remarkable.
STEINLAUF: She is a remarkable human being. She really, really is. I’m very, very lucky. I’m lucky on so many levels I can’t even begin…. Really, I get teary-eyed sometimes thinking that I just can’t believe how well this has gone considering that this has been my ultimate nightmare for my whole life, imagining “I hope I don’t end up gay,” like that’s the worst death sentence. Look, I was a teenager in the ’80s. I grew up during the era of AIDS. And if I had any association with being gay when I was a kid growing up, it was being alone and isolated and rejected and unlovable. That’s how I connected those ideas together in my head, which I think is what led me toward a life of living in the closest in the way that I did. So to suddenly be where I am now, and to have the world not only be okay with it, but just the unbelievable degree of support, is beyond anything I could have imagined.
MW: Changing topics. What do you make of the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe?
STEINLAUF: There’s this cancer in western society which is anti-Semitism. And what that makes me think of in our context, of what we’re talking about here, is what I think is a very powerful connection between the Jewish people and gay people. Because the immediate reactiveness of going back to anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews in times of fear, in times of insecurity, and thinking that the Jews are going to undermine everything we live for and stand for means that the role the Jews have played for thousands of years that we’ve been queer.
We’ve been a queer people in all the ways that we take concept of “queer” writ large — that we discomfit, we make people face aspects of themselves that they’re terrified of facing about themselves. We give people the creeps because we do things that look like them but then we’re very different somehow in ways they can’t understand, that seem mysterious. In all of those ways, the Jewish people and gay people are on a shared path. I think that’s a very important place where we can actually learn from each other and learn from our collective wisdom from each other about how to not react with fear and mistrust to the world, because we’re all queer but rather in a way that’s compassionate and seeking further justice.
MW: Shouldn’t the anti-Semitism be a cautionary tale for gays as well?
STEINLAUF: It most certainly is. Thank God that this country is progressing so mind-bogglingly well right now when it comes to anti-discrimination for gay people but at the same time, when you look at what’s happening with Indiana and everything else in the American heartland and the Bible Belt, you know that a similar cancer exists — a societal cancer, that sense of deep-seated fear and mistrust of the other.
The deepest message of Judaism is you have to embrace the other. Don’t be afraid of the other. And that’s the great spiritual battle of our time. Do you reject the other, or do you embrace the other? We’re making great political strides in our society but that doesn’t mean our work is done. We have unbelievable amounts of societal shifting to do. Same thing with racism in this country. We’re still a deeply racist country. And I think there’s going to be deep homophobia for a long time to come in our society, which makes the kind of work that we have to do all the more important. There’s a famous line in [Jewish teachings] that goes, “You are not obligated to complete the task but neither are you free to stop working at it.” It’s a way of life. But you understand that the task we are doing is way bigger than us, way bigger than our lifetimes. You can’t give up working on it from generation to generation.
MW: And how are you working on it?
STEINLAUF: I’m starting simply. The fact that this is a mainstream establishment congregation in our Nation’s Capitol and there’s been widespread acceptance and that’s been the news story, that’s an important thing right there. The fact that other religious communities can look and see that this can happen and it can be not just okay but a celebration, that’s a very important message in our society to give. I’m not best served by being the “gay Rabbi,” but rather by being a Rabbi who is teaching my Torah, which is the Torah that I can teach based upon speaking from my heart and from my truest experience as a human being.
There’s this familiarity now in the congregation. If I’m in a class or I’m giving a sermon or having a discussion with the congregation about sort of a spiritual journey or how to respond to the times, I can simply say, “Well, you know, I’ve been through an extraordinary journey in my identity and this is what I’ve learned about what we need to do in order to face difficulty.” That’s something that gives weight and hopefully inspiration to people to be able to face whatever it is they need to face in their lives.
MW: I have to ask this. Since coming out, have you found any new romance?
STEINLAUF: Since I have come out, I have dated and I have met somebody very special. A nice Jewish boy.
MW: How does it feel?
STEINLAUF: I’ll answer as honestly as I possibly can. What I had constantly dismissed within myself as a hang-up, a neurosis, fill in the label, you know, I suddenly realized it was connected to my deepest capacity to love — and once you understand that about yourself, it even transcends the sexual thing. It’s in the capacity to love and in the way that one loves that becomes irrefutable. Yes, there a small voice in the back of my mind wondering, is this some horrible mistake? Am I going to completely regret this? Of course there was, of course there was. And what I can tell you now is this: I’m sure it wasn’t a mistake.
Adas Israel is located at 2850 Quebec St. NW. For more information on its services and programs, call 202-362-4433 or visit adasisrael.org.
Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.