Rabbi Joel Alter, the new spiritual leader for Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale, said he’s really not so unusual.
“What’s different about my biography — I’m gay, I’m a single dad — first of all it’s not so unusual,” Alter said. “But to the extent it is unusual, I bring that with me in I hope a fully integrated way. I want to lead from that place.”
Alter joins CBINT, a Conservative synagogue, on Aug 1, 2018.
Time for a pulpit
Alter wants to lead with warmth and a sense of welcome. “I remember a congregant who had a teenage son with significant autism,” he said. “He would vocalize very loudly in the middle of services. That’s what life sounds like. That is what a community looks and sounds like. That’s who belongs and has a place in shul.”
“I want the congregation to be a place of learning and caring,” he added.
The rabbi has been director of admissions at the rabbinical and cantorial schools of the Jewish Theological Seminary for six years. Before that, he served at three Jewish day schools over 16 years.
“I’ve been very, very pleased with the contribution I’ve been able to make in recruiting wonderful students,” he said, referring to his recent years at JTS. He said his JTS role was “a fairly narrow portfolio.” He added he was “having the same conversations again and again and again, albeit with wonderful individuals.”
So it was time for a pulpit.
“I think it’s worth noting that I felt warmly embraced and generously and interestingly engaged by first the members of the search committee and by the members of the congregation at CBINT,” he said. “They saw me for who I am. I am excited to have such a strong hazzan as a colleague and partner.”
“The first time I had any clarity about being gay was in the spring after I was admitted to the rabbinical school at JTS,” he said. “I had to come out to myself.”
When Alter was a student in rabbinical school, back in the early 1990s, he thought the pulpit would be a good match for him. At the time, the Conservative movement was reviewing the halakhic (Jewish law) status of gay and lesbian Jews.
“There was the issue in front of me all the time but I couldn’t talk about it in my own name so it was complicated in that way,” Alter recalled.
Though he knew many people were supportive, the conservative movement did not formally recognize a halakhic path for gay and lesbian Jews until 2006. In the 1990s, he decided a pulpit after rabbinical school wouldn’t work for him.
“The process of getting placed in a pulpit is more complicated than pursuing a job outside the congregational world,” he said. “As a closeted rabbinical student, I felt that going through that process was more of a dance than I could manage and retain my integrity. I chose instead to pursue work in the day school world, which turned out very well for me.”
So he went to work for three different day schools, then JTS.
Meanwhile, he increasingly noticed gay men and lesbian women having families.
“I’ve known forever that I wanted to be a father,” he said. For 15 years, he was going “‘round and ‘round” in a mental circle: “Well I want to have kids, but I have to find a husband first. Oh, I don’t have any money.”
By serendipity, he was put in touch with a surrogate mother looking for a third and final surrogacy. She became pregnant with twins, who are now 18-months-old. The girls are Ayelet and Annael.
Alter, obviously, was not expecting twins.
“The short answer is it’s great,” he said. “The long answer is it is often very difficult.”
He and the twins are moving into the rabbi’s house near CBINT around Aug. 1.
Rabbi Jacob Herber stepped down from leading CBINT after 15 years there in July. He joins the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.