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Temple Tolerance

Ohavi Zedek's new Associate Rabbi is a musician, a lawyer and a gay man


Rabbi David Steinberg hasn't finished moving into his cubby of an office in Burlington's Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. The former rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh arrived at his new job in Burlington this month, but he doesn't officially take over as cantor and Hebrew school principal until September.

But Steinberg says he already feels at home in the 400-family Conservative Jewish congregation affectionately known as "OZ." A shiny, partially deflated "Welcome!" balloon is tethered to the fan in his office. "Shalom, Rabbi David!" reads an announcement on the news page of the synagogue website. It continues: "We're delighted to welcome Rabbi David and his family -- his partner, Peter Blackmer, and Peter's mother, Judith Ladd -- to our community."

Steinberg and Blackmer -- a seventh-generation Vermonter who works at UVM -- were joined in civil union at Kingsland Bay State Park in June. "It was a big Jewish wedding," remembers the rabbi.

At a time when religious congregations the world over are fighting about the acceptability of gay spiritual leaders, OZ is making a powerful statement by hiring Steinberg. The synagogue, which has a number of GLBT members, enjoys a queer-friendly reputation. And while OZ doesn't perform interfaith marriages, Rabbi Joshua Chasan was officiating same-sex unions long before the advent of civil unions.

Chasan points out that sexual orientation is just one of many issues that divide people of faith. OZ's senior rabbi, a visible leader in Vermont Interfaith Action, says that accepting differences is "the central issue in the world today." Hiring a gay rabbi sends the message that the Temple is actively engaged in promoting tolerance. Says Chasan, "Rabbi David is such a kind and direct person that he will be able, just by who he is, to help us in that process."

That said, Chasan notes that Steinberg was not hired because he's gay -- OZ's new Associate Rabbi possesses a unique resume that qualifies him to minister to the congregation's musical and educational needs.

Steinberg reviews his convoluted path to the ministry during an interview in his cluttered office. A compact and stylish 44-year-old, he wears a short-sleeve, button-down plaid shirt and blue Calvin Klein work pants. He also sports a pair of slight, boxy specs and a plain blue yarmulke perched on a crown of closely cropped graying hair. He chooses his words carefully -- it goes with the territory -- but speaks enthusiastically.

Steinberg was born in the Bronx and grew up on Long Island. As a child, he developed an appreciation for music, and learned to play piano and viola. "I was always a big classical music fan," he says. "I fell in love with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3 when I was 12."

Steinberg considered attending conservatory, but chose instead to major in music and pre-law at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his B.A., took a year off, and then entered Harvard Law School. He loved reading the law and also the experience of singing in the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum ensemble.

After graduating from Harvard in 1987, Steinberg went to work at a law firm in Portland, Maine. It didn't suit him. "Literally within the first month of being a lawyer in Maine, I realized, 'My God, I hate this,'" he remembers.

He stayed at the firm until 1991, all the while becoming increasingly active in the local Jewish community. He became a cantorial soloist, joined his Synagogue's board, and began teaching Hebrew School.

Steinberg eventually left the law firm and entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he was ordained in 1997. He served as a rabbi for a congregation in Pennsylvania, then worked as a college Hillel director before becoming the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh in 1999.

As a spiritual leader, he says he enjoys helping people "find meaning, and their own sense of who they are, their place in the universe." But it's not just other people he helps. "It's part of my job to be developing my own spirituality," he observes. "They pay me to do that. It's pretty cool."

Steinberg's coming-out process played a crucial role in his decision to become a rabbi, but at first he was reluctant to discuss it in a newspaper article. In Plattsburgh, too, he avoided "the gay rabbi" spotlight. When anti-gay activist Fred Phelps launched a campaign there recently, Steinberg declined to take a public role in the controversy. In fact, he declines to compare Plattsburgh to Burlington, or even to talk about how his congregation there accepted the appearance of his partner at services. He will say that Burlington is "progressive" and "open-minded," but says he'd like to leave it at that.

Ultimately, though, he agrees to tell his coming-out story. He's been open about it at OZ, and shared it with the search committee that recommended him to the congregation. Search committee chairperson Debra Schoenberg remembers the experience well. "He was tearful as he was talking about it," she says in a phone interview. "We were tearful. One doesn't expect that level of intimacy at a professional interview."

It goes something like this: When Steinberg was working as a lawyer in Portland -- while he was discovering the Jewish community there -- he began to question his sexual orientation. At first, he says, he felt conflicted. He wondered how to reconcile his desire and his faith.

When he was 28, he attended the Conference on Judaism in Rural New England, an annual gathering held in Lyndonville, Vermont, that was discontinued in 2004. There, Steinberg had what he calls "a crisis of conscience." He had just read Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay and Jewish. He began to feel that by remaining closeted, he was denying a vital part of his identity. "I felt I was spitting at God," he says.

When he returned to Portland, he came out to other members of his temple. Reactions were mostly positive, Steinberg says diplomatically. He recalls that one man, a past president of the Synagogue Brotherhood, accepted his announcement with little more than a shrug. "He said, 'Well, you can still chant haftorah, right?'"

Shortly afterwards, Steinberg entered the Reconstructionist seminary. In his class, there were seven lesbians, one gay man and eight straight people.

Retiring cantor Jerry Held, an alum of the same seminary, got to know Steinberg when he attended services over the past few years in Burlington. He was impressed with Steinberg when the rabbi taught a Hebrew School class during his interview. "He sat right down on the floor with the kids," he says. "They really liked him."

Held says he has "no qualms" about handing over the pulpit to Steinberg. "He's the kind of guy ... you feel good about yourself after you talk to him," he says.

He adds that he hasn't heard anyone object to Steinberg's sexual orientation and doesn't expect to. Rabbi Chasan says he hasn't heard much, either, but he notes that not everyone at OZ feels comfortable with gay clergy. "Of course, there are people here who have yet to integrate the understanding that differences in sexual orientation are normal," he says. "And I look forward to such folk having the opportunity to get to know not only Rabbi David, but the many members of our congregation who are lesbians or gay men."

Jason Lorber, a Democratic state legislator from Burlington, is one such congregant. He and his civil-union partner both belong to OZ. Lorber says it's "great" that Steinberg is joining the "OZ family." "It's a welcome step," he says, "and it's not surprising, given OZ's queer-friendliness."

But being queer isn't the only difference Steinberg brings to OZ -- he's also a Reconstructionist rabbi, a label that means he's seen as more theologically "liberal" than the conservative synagogue. OZ accommodates a variety of liturgical styles; congregants can choose from three different interpretations of the Torah, depending on their personal tastes. Despite his background, Steinberg describes his liturgical tastes as "traditional."

He's the first to admit that his sexual orientation is only a very small part of who he is as a clergyman. Analyzing his hopes and fears for his new job, he focuses instead on his musical role. Steinberg says he recently had a dream in which he stood at the pulpit like a conductor, directing the congregation as a symphony. All of the various voices blended sonorously. "It's always about getting people to work together without getting rid of individual voices," he says, "bringing it all together in a way that connects you with something larger than yourself."

But he also spoke of a recurring nightmare. "I'm not the conductor, I'm a soloist. I'm late in getting my stand set up. I don't know the music." Sounds like classic performance anxiety. He might be reassured to hear Rabbi Chasan characterize OZ's harmonious mission as "a work in progress."