When I was 15 years old, a new rabbi moved to my small town of Easton, Pa., and changed my life. I had been raised in our Conservative synagogue, but dropped out after my bar mitzvah. The new rabbi befriended me, introduced me to Jewish youth groups, Torah lessons, Hebrew camping and, most importantly, books on Jewish philosophy. I discovered there was more than one way to be Jewish, and more than one way to think about God.
Fifty-five years later, I’m retiring from official Jewish life, having wound my way through a journey of personal and religious discovery I never could have predicted at 15.
Through my studies, I learned of God as a process, rather than as an entity who you would talk to and that would then react. I read about God as a power within human experience that enabled people to transcend and work together toward a more fulfilling life. That resonated with me, and I decided that I would be a rabbi too. After college, in 1969, I enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
My views on God were far from the traditional Conservative line, but JTS didn’t mind as long as I got good grades (which I did) and was observant (which I mostly was). Nonetheless, I soon ran into three problems.
First, while I was in seminary, the Reconstructionist movement broke off from Conservative Judaism, eventually taking with it many of the more liberal thinkers who otherwise would have become my colleagues. Second, by the time I graduated in 1975, I was becoming uncomfortable with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, notwithstanding that all the branches of American Judaism felt great pressure to support the Israeli government. As for rabbis like me who voiced alternate views — our jobs were on the line.
But perhaps toughest of all, I was starting to reluctantly accept the fact that I was gay. During my seminary days, the Conservative rabbinate was a male-only organization and, at least officially, totally straight. I spent years of therapy to try and “change” my sexuality. It didn’t work, of course. There was no such thing then as an out-of-the-closet gay rabbi and from where I stood, it felt like there never would be.
In 1978, I moved to Washington to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikva in Rockville. I continued meeting men in secret, hiding my personal life from my congregants. Finally, when the congregation offered to renew my contract in 1980, I realized I couldn’t go on like this. I walked away, never telling them why.
And with that, I figured my life as a rabbi was over. I sold insurance, did some computer programming and eventually went back to school to become a psychotherapist. I met and fell in love with the man I would, many years later, be able to marry.
And then in the early 1980s, by chance, I met a member of a small independent congregation in Bethesda called Beth Chai. They were looking for speakers, and I gave a talk about the history and meaning of the books of the Bible. When I told them these were human documents, they weren’t shocked. They were, instead, absolutely fascinated by someone who knew traditional Judaism but without the traditional doctrine.
Beth Chai was a Humanist congregation, organized around the idea that humans — not God — create the world we wish to inhabit. They were open to all sorts of politics and ideas, and certainly didn’t care that I was gay (or this or that). The group rejected the theistic approach to Judaism embraced by most synagogues and instead celebrated the culture, ethnicity and intellectual heritage of Judaism. The group’s services were built around the values and underlying meaning of the holidays, with just a handful of particularly evocative prayers. Beth Chai embraced agnostics and atheists, as well as members who believed in God. I felt embraced too.
After speaking at High Holiday services for a couple of years, I became their part-time rabbi. I led services, gave lectures, provided counseling, conducted bar and bat mitzvahs, presided at weddings and funerals, helped launch their Sunday school and participated in the intellectual life of the congregation. They didn’t expect me to pretend to believe in anything. They were — and still are — an intellectually curious group of people, hungry for information and a connection to their Jewish heritage and culture, and always eager for an opportunity to celebrate their Jewish identity, but without the prayer and devotion to God that more religious places put at the center of their practice.
So, almost by accident, I found myself having gone full circle. I walked away from my dreams as a teenager. And then they came true all over again, only this time with me as my true self.
Rabbi Arthur Blecher, 69, is retiring this summer after more than 30 years as Beth Chai’s rabbi.
Good luck Rabbi Art. You will be missed by Beth Chai and all of the lives you have touched.