Rabbi Debra Kolodny is a veteran of several social justice movements, bringing a spiritual perspective and an activist’s passion to racial and economic justice, women’s, environmental, peace and LGBTQI+ causes since 1980.
Debra’s activism includes: Leadership in Portland United Against Hate; Producing a Queer Clergy for Black Lives Matter conference; Serving on Oregon's Coordinating Committee for the Poor People’s Campaign; Conducting hundreds of workshops on LGBTQI+ issues, spirituality and sexuality, workers rights, peace and women’s rights; Serving five years as National Coordinator of BiNet USA: National Bisexual Network, Facilitating NGLTF’s National Religious Leadership Roundtable for six years; training over 1000 Oregonians in “Interrupting Hate in Public Spaces”, speaking at dozens of rallies supporting the Living Wage, Black Lives Matter, Freedom to Marry and Immigration Rights and against White Nationalism, Trump, Islamaphobia and more.
Rabbi Debra was raised in a secular Jewish home by a jazz musician unionist father and a feminist League of Women Voters mother. Their identity as a Jew was totally enmeshed with the message to seek justice and in Far Rockaway, New York, there were no shortage of opportunities.They participated in their first justice march at 8 years old, staged a direct action at 10 in their elementary school by wearing pants when girls were not allowed to, and didn't wear a skirt again for 8 years. They gathered signatures to get a progressive Democrat on the ballot at 12 years old, and when they went to college at 17 began their activism in earnest. First by supporting worker rights at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations and then by running the ERA Countdown Campaign in Tompkins County for the local NOW chapter, Debra organized, ran a signature campaign, fundraised and took to the streets.
When they came out first as a lesbian in college in 1980 and then as Bisexual in 1984 while at law school, their activism expanded to LGBTQI+ and specifically Bisexual organizing.
Debra spent the first 17 years of their career working in and with unions, specializing in creating large-scale labor-management partnerships. While in the Negotiations Department at the National Treasury Employee’s Union in the mid 1980’s they helped negotiate protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status for over one hundred thousand workers. They soon became the union’s first Director of Cooperative Efforts.
From 1993 until 2002 Debra consulted to public and private sector clients in the areas of participation, labor-management partnership, interest based bargaining, conflict resolution and workplace redesign. They also served dozens of LGBT and faith based social justice clients as a facilitator, trainer, coach and project manager and served as Executive Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal for nine years.
They moved to Portland in 2011 to be the rabbi at P’nai Or and then served as Executive Director for Nehirim-a national retreat and advocacy organization for LGBTQI+ Jews. They served Resolutions Northwest as its Executive Director in 2016 and 2017 and in the summer of 2017 chose to prioritize rabbinics, activism, culture change and coalition building.
Since 2017 Debra has served as the Executive Director of ‘As the Spirit Moves Us’, a Jewish justice organization, where they serve as Rabbi of Portland’s UnShul, co-founder, Steering Committee member and Project Director in the Portland United Against Hate coalition and convener of the Portland Spirit Led Justice Alliance.
Debra has published dozens of articles and blogs in the Huffington Post, Washington Blade, The Friends Journal, Tikkun, Zeek and The Advocate regarding a variety of social justice topics. They have been interviewed by several major news outlets on television and radio (e.g.: Philadelphia Inquirer, Toronto Globe and Mail, Tablet Magazine) and has spoken on the radio and cable television. Debra’s anthology, Blessed Bi Spirit: Bisexual People of Faith, was published by ContinuumInternational Press in April of 2000.
Debra was ordained in January, 2011, by the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal seminary. They have an undergraduate degree from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
In addition to the above, their roles in the LGBT movement and in faith communities include:
- Participating in the lay leadership of Fabrangen, a Jewish spiritual community in Washington DC for 15 years;
- Founding and leading P’nai HaSadeh, a Jewish learning community in Maryland;
- Serving Shoreshim, a Jewish congregation in northern Virginia for four years;
- Conducting hundreds of workshops on bisexuality, social justice and spirituality at LGBT conferences around the country, keynoting at several;
- Serving on the Board of The Interfaith Alliance of Montgomery County and chairing the LGBT task force;
- Facilitating bisexual support and leadership groups of 10 to 150 people;
- Conducting workshops for congregations on welcoming LGBT members;
- Organizing a Rosh Chodesh group (a monthly Jewish women’s gathering);
- Leading the Montgomery County Living Wage Campaign;
- Leading the DC BiNetwork and the DC Alliance for Multicultural Bisexuals;
- Organizing over a dozen conferences and retreats for a variety of national and local organizations;
- Conducting Bisexual Awareness Training for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network;
- Representing BiNet USA at the NGLTF National Policy Roundtable;
- Lobbying legislators on bisexuality, and in support of ENDA;
- Managing a national bisexual clearinghouse;
- Organizing the first bisexual support group in Philadelphia;
- Organizing protests on a law school campus against discriminatory employers;
- Performing prison ministry with Quakers;
- Performing GLBT peer counseling; and
- Spearheading the ERA Countdown Campaign in Tompkins County, New York.
(This biographical statement provided by Rabbi Debra Kolodny.)
Biography Date: January, 2004; revised October 2019
Jewish (ethnic, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox) | Human Rights Campaign | National Gay & Lesbian Task Force | Author/editor | Bisexual activism | Nehirim