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Rachel Isaacs: What a Quiet Revolutionary Looks Like

Rachel Isaacs knew by the age of 13 she wanted to be a rabbi. Awareness of her sexuality came later.

Isaacs described her coming-of-age as a lesbian: “I came out to myself around 14. I started the Gay-Straight Alliance in high school (in Freehold, NJ). At Wellesley, being gay was in no way noteworthy.” Openly lesbian, when she was ready for rabbinic school, Conservative Judaism was not ready for her. Isaacs spent two years at Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and transferred to the Jewish Theological Seminary ( JTS) in New York as soon as the school admitted openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students, in 2007.

Although Isaacs feels her ordination “represents a revolutionary moment in Jewish history,” she has no desire to be the Jewish lesbian poster person. Wearing a small black yarmulke and speaking in a resonant voice, Isaacs explained, “I count myself lucky to be born in 1983. I have to pause to think about the wider implications of who I am.” Simply by her gender she’s challenging the patriarchy of Judaism, but, she says, “I probably take that for granted.” She said, “My ultimate goal is to give Jews the resources to perform mitzvahs.”

Described by JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen as having “cognitive intelligence to burn,” Isaacs seems to seek out a carefully reasoned middle ground. “There are a lot of politics at JTS,” she said, “and then there was my education. I tried to keep that separate as much as the teachers did.” In fact, one of her favorite teachers was Rabbi Joel Roth, the author of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards responsum opposing the ordination of gay rabbis.

Isaacs sees Judaism as “richest when there are ritual and ethical standards that challenge you — kashrut, Shabbat, affirming the centrality of Israel and that it’s a mitzvah to live there.” During her two years with Reform Judaism, she “never got comfortable at a synagogue with non-kosher food or HUC’s showing movies on Shabbat.”

The first of the new generation of openly lesbian Conservative rabbis, Isaacs chose as her mentor Rabbi Carie Carter, from the closeted generation of gay rabbinic students. A measure of how much things have changed, Carter felt able to tell Lilith that she is the author of “In Hiding,” the anonymous chapter about lesbian Conservative rabbis in the 2001 book Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. As Isaacs’ mentor, Carter blessed her and draped the ordination tallit over her shoulders in the presence of the JTS chancellor and ordaining rabbis.

Carter, ordained by the seminary in 1997, was closeted thoughout her rabbinic studies. Now an open lesbian rabbi, she leads the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, where Isaacs interned.

Not all congregations are ready for gay or lesbian rabbis, or even straight women rabbis. Of the eight women in her class of 26 rabbinical students, Isaacs is one of only three women hired for pulpit positions. She’ll be a half-time rabbi with Beth Israel, a congregation of 25 families in Waterville, Maine, where she served as a rabbinic intern. Unable to afford a full-time rabbi, the congregation wanted her so much that they joined the Conservative movement to make it easier for Isaacs to serve. Isaacs will also be the Jewish chaplain at Colby College in Portland and on the faculty teaching Hebrew and Jewish theology. She is arriving in Waterville with her partner, Melanie Weiss, who holds a master’s degree in Modern Jewish Studies from JTS.

As for Carie Carter’s take on Isaacs’ ordination: “The best part is that Rachel Isaacs, this woman who is a brilliant teacher, chose to be a rabbi, and that she got the opportunity.”