When Chai Feldblum decided to tell her father, an Orthodox rabbi, that she was a lesbian, she was only slightly nervous.
Several years before that she had come to him as no longer frum, or ritually observant, and having lost her in faith in God.
“It was actually a much more traumatic experience for me and my family, especially my father, for me to come out as not religious,” said Feldblum, one of five presidentially appointed commissioners of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the first who is openly lesbian.
But her father, “just sort of let me be. He said, ‘OK. OK. You’ll see what life brings.” While “never happy with my decision, he accepted me fully for what I was, and he was very happy that I was happy in life and work.”
He did, however, regret her decision not to pursue her original career goal of being a Talmudic scholar. “That’s what he wanted most,” she said, adding, “I disappointed him.”
Feldblum, 56, is a self-described product of “a mixed marriage.” Her father, Rabbi Meyer Simcha Feldblum, who died 13 years ago, was modern Orthodox. He is his family’s sole survivor of the Holocaust, having lived most of those years in a forest in Poland.
Her mother, Esther Yolles Feldblum, who died when Feldblum was a teenager, was Hasidic.
They sent their daughter to Jewish schools. “I was incredibly happy in that life. It made sense to me. That was my complete life.”
Then, in the beginning of her junior year at Barnard College, while attending High Holiday services, she started singing the prayer that asks, ‘Who shall live and who shall die.’ Thoughts of her mother’s death three years earlier in a car accident overwhelmed her.
“In a flash of a moment, I just decided I did not believe,” she said. “If God decides everything,” why was her mother no longer alive, she wondered?
She slowly entered the secular world and met some “radical women” who “finally gave me the name of what I was thinking through high school and college,” she said of how she realized she was gay.
Now, “I give thanks, not to God, but I give thanks every day to be able to live my life” the way that feels natural to her. “I feel blessed.”
After realizing being Jewish was not a zero-sum game, that she could express her Judaism without being fully observant, she returned to celebrating Rosh Hashanah dinners, Pesach seders and her favorite holiday of Purim. She had never ceased pursuing her work to heal the world, she said.
“My parents valued education and doing good,” she said, adding, “I learned those commitments as a young Jewish girl.”
Doing good led her on a career path that has so far taken her to the Supreme Court, Georgetown University Law School and now the EEOC.
After receiving a J.D. from Harvard Law School, she clerked for Judge Frank Coffin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, whom she called “a phenomenal human being.” She called Blackmun “the most humble, caring, kind person I have met.”
Although she worked “incredibly long hours,” the experience of “working on cases that will affect the whole country” is something she cherishes.
She then taught at Georgetown for 18 years before moving to the EEOC, which was created under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to implement and enforce laws dealing with discrimination.
“Our only job is to settle discrimination issues,” hopefully before they go to court, she said. If the matter does end up in court, the EEOC represents the federal government.
Teaching is a facet of her job. “We go out there in the community, and we educate people. We educate employers about what is allowed and is not allowed under the law.”
Feldblum was nominated to be one of five EEOC commissioners in the fall of 2009. Her confirmation was controversial, not because she was gay but because she had written so much on gay rights, she said.
In March of 2010, she became one of President Barack Obama’s recess appointments. The Senate confirmed her to a term that ended in July 2013. She has been reappointed to a second term that ends in July 2018.
While generally pleased with the work of the EEOC, Feldblum is particularly thrilled with its opinion last week that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal.
“I am very proud of that decision,” she said. When the EEOC works to end discrimination due to race, religion or sexual orientation, it is working “on behalf of supporting everyday people.”