The leader of one of the Washington region’s most prominent synagogues on Monday came out as gay, telling his thousands of congregants in a brutally personal e-mail that a lifelong effort to deny his sexuality was over and that he and his wife of 20 years would be divorcing.
“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,” Rabbi Gil Steinlauf wrote to members of Adas Israel Congregation, in Northwest Washington.
In the six years since Steinlauf came to Adas, he has pumped energy into the large, 146-year-old synagogue with efforts aimed at both more traditional and progressive Jews. He made news in 2012 when he officiated at the first same-sex wedding at Adas Israel.
“Love is queer,” Steinlauf wrote last year in a piece called “The Queerness of Love: A Jewish Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” “We Jews are a people who never quite fit into the same categories” as others.
But only Monday did the father of three teenagers reveal how closely he identifies with the notion of not fitting in.
“Any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar,” the rabbi wrote Monday, quoting the Talmud. “Ultimately the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable.”
In his letter to the congregation of 1,420 households, and then in an interview, Steinlauf described an incredibly close relationship with his wife, whom he met in rabbinical school. The pair, he told The Washington Post, spent the past three years “desperately looking at one another, thinking, how can we hold onto this marriage, because we love one another so much?” And concluding that a reality he’d walled off since he was a boy wasn’t going away.
“What we’ve had for 20 years is very real, and the last thing I’d want is for us to live a lie,” he said.
His wife, Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, leads social justice and interfaith efforts for the Jewish Community Relations Council, the regional Jewish community’s main advocacy arm.
Gil Steinlauf, 45, is credited with leading the creation of programs that intrigued both traditional and more progressive Jews. He created a 21st-Century Torah study center as well as the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, with a focus on chanting and meditation.
Steinlauf has been on the forefront of Conservative Judaism on both the embrace of same-sex couples — which is slowly becoming more mainstream in that movement — as well as that of interfaith families.
The leadership of Steinlauf’s congregation appeared supportive Monday, and synagogue President Arnie Podgorsky wrote to congregants to say he stood with the rabbi and his wife.
“I have great respect for their ability to face changing circumstances in their lives with honesty and integrity,” the letter said. “We can all learn from their example.”
The couple, who will continue to live together for now, met as rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The two were named Phil and Barbara when they met, but took the Hebrew names Jews are typically given at birth, Steinlauf said Monday, “as affirmation of a lifetime commitment to our Yiddishkeit” — shorthand for Jewishness.
Joel Fischman, chairman of Adas’s social action committee, said he hoped the synagogue would understand Steinlauf’s journey.
“In Judaism we don’t see our clergy as intermediaries between us and God. We want them to be human. Our rabbi is a teacher. We want our rabbi to inspire and he certainly does. We want our rabbi to teach and he certainly does,” Fischman said. “Maybe there are people who expect their rabbi to be perfect. But I never thought of any rabbi that way.”
The Rev. Jim Keenan, an ethicist at Boston College who writes on pastoral leadership, said people have complex views on what they really want from clergy. People want clergy to both understand brokenness and flaws but also be role models.
“Some people will be like: ‘I’m sure he’s a human being, but I don’t want to see how he is one,’ ” Keenan said Monday. “What’s important is for a clergyperson to meet the expectations of the parish that he or she has. . . . I think we’re starting to look at our clergy as human beings.”
Steinlauf said that given the era and place in which he was raised, “this was as honest as I could possibly imagine being. The fact that I’ve come to this now is part of my acknowledged truth.” He notes that he named his blog “Dover Emet” — Hebrew for “speaking truth.”
“I said to Batya, Will the congregation think I’m not the same person I was before? And she said: ‘You are exactly the rabbi they knew they were hiring. You are the same rabbi. You are a human being.’ ”