The High Holy Days with Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Sr. Founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue

Welcome Rabbi Eger. Thank you for joining with WEHOville and our readers to share the story of the High Holy Days. But first let’s get to know you. Tell us where you were born and grew up and how you got to West Hollywood.

Thank you Larry!! I grew up in Memphis, TN but I have lived in the Los Angeles area for more than 40 years! So I think by now I can say I am an Angelino!! I came west to attend USC and the rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College. I was ordained a rabbi in 1988 at time when there were few women rabbis and no openly gay rabbis. I came out publicly in 1990 in an Los Angeles Times article as our denomination -Reform Judaism was debating the issue of ordaining openly LGBTQ people as rabbis to give a face and name to the cause. In 1990 Reform Judaism began ordaining openly LGBTQ people as Rabbis and Cantors, just a month later. Reform Judaism has long been a champion for LGBTQ civil rights.

At different times in these 40 plus years I have lived in West Hollywood. But I have been the rabbi in West Hollywood at Kol Ami for 29 years! Congregation Kol Ami will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year at this time!

When was Kol Ami founded and when did you move into this beautiful new temple on La Brea?

Kol Ami was founded in the spring of 1993. We met in a Presbyterian Church in West Hollywood for 10 years before we built our spiritual home on La Brea at Lexington. The east side in those years was not like today. It was an afterthought in the City. I am proud that our Temple building was part of the east side renaissance that you see today. We moved into our newly built building 20 years ago this October in 2001! This was before the Target/Gateway Project was built or the many apartments. We believed strongly in helping rebuild our city an develop the east side of town!

How large is the membership at Kol Ami and what percent of members are West Hollywood residents?

We are a congregation of 250 households but we serve a much larger constituency. We are proud of our special program called The Open YAD Project which is an outreach and engagement program for Jewish 20 and 30 year-olds! Our assistant Rabbi Ross Levy heads this up and we have a thriving support and social program for them. Our congregation has lots of opportunities for Jewish study, Jewish culture and social programs for seniors, and people of all ages. We have family programs for those with kids. Kol Ami was founded in the height of the AIDS Crisis and we still have a monthly HIV support group that meets. Congregation Kol Ami has a majority of LGBTQ people but we also have straight couples and singles. We truly model inclusion and celebration of LGBTQ Life.

Your readers might particularly be interested in our Introduction to Judaism classes that begin Sunday Oct 3. If you are curious about Judaism, considering conversion, dating or marrying someone Jewish and just want to understand more this is the class. It’s all online and information can be found at https://kol-ami.org/intro

I understand you became the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Yes, I was President from 2015 -2017. I was the first openly gay or lesbian person to do so. This is the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North America. And represents some 2500 Reform rabbis world-wide. This includes liberal rabbis from all over North America and Europe, Australia/New Zealand, Israel and S.Africa! During my term as the chief rabbi, I passed special resolutions of inclusion and support for transgender people as well as strengthening our commitment to tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world.

Are you familiar with other lesbian or gay rabbi’s or any transgender rabbis that you know of?

There are now many open LGBTQ Rabbis. I have worked to help make that possible during my more than 3 decades as a rabbi. I have been an activist working for LGBTQ inclusion both within Judaism and in the larger world. As chair of the LGBTQ Rabbinic Network, I wrote the resolution that was passed in 2000 by Reform Judaism on officiation at gay weddings and then helped marshal the forces of Judaism to help in the fight for marriage equality. I even got to do
the first wedding here in California, for Robin Tyler and Diane Olsen who were plaintiff’s in the marriage case in 2008!
Ok on to the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah represents the Jewish New Year, what year is it? The Jewish calendar celebrates the new year in the fall. In the Bible we are told to mark the year with the sounding of the ram’s horn, or shofar. We celebrate the creation of the world and all humanity. We dip apples and honey to taste the sweetness we hope the new year will bring us and the world. We celebrate with family and friends at a festive meal with a round challah bread to symbolize the circle of life and the circle of the year. This new year will by 5782! But Rosh Hashanah is a sacred time of reflection on one’s actions and words in the past year and seeking atonement for any misdeeds, sins, and we mak commitments to rectify them in the coming year. We start with Rosh Hashanah which begins Monday, Sept. 6 in the evening and is observed this year on Tuesday Sept. 7 and Wednesday Sept. 8. This is part of a special 10 day period known as the Days of Awe or Ten Days of Repentance. It culminates in Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, this year beginning at sundown on Wednesday Sept. 15 and all day Thursday, September 16. And Yom Kippur follows.

Tell us about Yom Kippur, what does it mean and why is it important?

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the culmination of this ten day period of reflection and personal inventory. We ask God for forgiveness for any trespasses or sins and we are to go to those we have harmed by word or deed and seek forgiveness. For our friends in 12 steps programs this is making amends. In Jewish tradition if you ask God to forgive on this day, God does forgive! Judaism has a loving and welcoming embrace of God. On Yom Kippur we fast as a sign of atonement. Some of us wear white all day as a sign of spiritual purification and we will recite special prayers in synagogue. It is the holiest, most solemn day of our year. But when it ends it is a most joyous time because we emerge renewed and blessed for the New Year ahead-a clean slate to make the most of our lives.

Will Kol Ami be doing in-person services this year ?

Congregation Kol Ami is providing a mixture of experiences. I will be leading services along with our new Assistant abbi Ross Levy and our wonderful Cantor Patti Linsky She has been with us at the High Holy Days for the last six years. Rosh Hashanah evening (Sept. 6 -yes Labor Day!) and Day one (Tuesday Sept. 7) will be online Only. The morning of Day 2 (Wednesday) we will have services at 10 am in our Temple building on La Brea and they will also be livestreamed. For Yom Kippur (Sept.15 and 16) we will be in person at Harmony Gold Theatre (7655 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046) and online. But if you join us in person you must provide Proof of vaccination and masks are required. If you are not a member of the Temple already you can purchase a ticket to join us online or in person, (Https://kol-ami.org/hhd). This is one of the ways synagogue support the good work we do all along.

Who should people contact if they want to join the temple?

We welcome those who are interested to connect with us by talking to our Executive Director, Marca Gay by calling the synagogue at 323-606-0996 or visit our website for more information https://kol-ami.org. You can find information about the High Holy Days, upcoming classes, speakers, and programs which are open to all. Most of our classes and programs and services are open to the community and many are free of charge. We have a lot of opportunities to connect. The Jewish holy days actually continue after Yom Kippur! Four days later we celebrate Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles which is week-long harvest festival-with lots of outdoor celebrating. We invite your readers to share in these celebrations as well as the many social justice initiatives we sponsor!

Thank you again for your time and spirit. Keep West Hollywood safe and blessings to all this holiday season.

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Steve Martin
Steve Martin
12 days ago

Denise is a beloved figure in West Hollywood and thank you for the great interview. Rabbi Eger played an important role in the re-development of the Eastside of our City when she planted the Temple on La Brea and Norton. Although my husband and I are not Jewish, we were delighted that she would officiate at our wedding that took place on the Temple’s roof.

Ham Shipey
Ham Shipey
13 days ago

good grief…..what is going on with this site??????

Good witch of weho
Good witch of weho
12 days ago
Reply to  Ham Shipey

I know. It’s the strangest thing that a liberal city founded by activists and LGBT organizers would have articles about openly gay people just living life. I keep waiting for an article about a cranky old guy who lands in West Hollywood after a dive bar falls on his sister and finds his way by following the rainbow cross walk.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
12 days ago

Have you secured the rights to this story?

Alan Strasburg
Alan Strasburg
12 days ago
Reply to  Ham Shipey

Engaging stories about real people in our community. It’s a beautiful thing. One wonders why anyone engages in your completely empty rhetoric.

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