By Orrin Konheim
Rick Woler, 33, is a realtor by day and a long-time Hebrew school teacher at Washington Hebrew Congregation. He is the co-founder of the synagogue’s LGBTQ+ affinity group, which helps to bridge the LGBTQ+ community and Judaism. Woler and his husband live in Alexandria.
You mentioned that your husband spends more time in a synagogue than many Jews you know, but he hasn’t converted. Is he areligious?
I think he appreciates it. We had a Jewish wedding. He’s at Shabbat services with me just about every Friday. We do all the holidays together. He’s very involved. He just hasn’t taken that step, which I’m certainly not pushing him to do if he doesn’t want to.
It does seem like someone who grew up in the 2010s might not have had as much hostility being gay as someone growing up in the early ‘90s. You grew up somewhere in the middle. What was your experience like?
I came out to my parents and friends when I was 12. I had very accepting parents, they had a couple of gay friends, so it was never a question of whether or not I’d be accepted. It was pretty easy for me, honestly, and sometimes I feel guilty about that, because I had friends who had a much more difficult time.
You’ve said that you didn’t like Hebrew school. How do you change that for kids?
I make it a warm and welcoming place. I get to know my students. We joke, we laugh, we have a good time, and we celebrate their successes. My priority is the kids first and the Hebrew learning second, because with so many distractions and alternatives for kids in today’s world getting them to come — and enjoy it when they do — is 80 percent of the battle. Once they want to be there, the learning comes naturally.
I just read an article about how Chris Pratt, because of his church attendance, has gotten criticized as an LGBT bigot. Do you empathize with churchgoers or synagoguegoers who might be misconstrued as oppositional to the LGBT community?
I think that’s what Washington Hebrew is trying to do and what we’re trying to do with the LGBT affinity group is show people that there’s a place for them in the religious institutions whether Jewish or not. A couple of weeks ago I was on “Good Morning Washington” talking about our pride Shabbat events, and we briefly discussed that, when a lot of people come out, the first thing they put by the wayside is religion.
At our pride Shabbat, I had at least half a dozen people come up to me and say they hadn’t been to synagogue since their b’nai mitzvah or in a decade or whatever it was, and they went on a limb and came out to this pride Shabbat and had an amazing experience, so I think we’re doing good work and we’re starting to change that understanding and dynamic.
Do you recommend Hebrew school?
Hebrew or religious school has something to offer every child just as Judaism has something to offer every Jewish person, regardless of how much or how little they practice. I often say that Shabbat makes time for those who make time for Shabbat; if you don’t prioritize it in your life, you won’t reap the benefits it has to offer. The same goes for Judaism as a whole. It will deliver in multitudes to those who commit themselves to it, whatever that might mean for the individual.