Yoel Kahn, Ph.D., rabbi and advocate for LGBTQ Jews, was born in Oakland, California, in 1958 and raised in San Jose, California. The youngest of three brothers, Yoel found community and connection in Jewish life and the synagogue from an early age. His parents were deeply Jewishly committed and active members in their synagogue but not personally religious or observant. It was at a Reform Jewish summer camp, URJ Camp Swig in Saratoga, California, that he discovered spirituality and enduring friendships. Coming home from camp, he experienced a gap between the spiritual community he found at camp and the uninspiring worship in synagogue and between the acceptance and caring of the camp community versus what he felt at home and at school. These formative camp years – when he was 12 – 14 – informed his life-long interests in meaningful liturgy and prayer, non-theistic theology and nurturing community. Later, Kahn spent a year in high school at kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Northern Galilee of Israel.
While he knew he was attracted to other boys from an early age, he did not have language to talk about it. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, he met people who were comfortable around gay people and were supportive of his tentative coming out. He attended Gay Pride in San Francisco and attended services at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, which had been founded in 1977 as a “gay synagogue (later, Kahn became its rabbi). He graduated from Berkeley in 1980 with a degree in Hebrew language.
Despite having been encouraged to consider becoming a rabbi by his camp counselors and others, Kahn was reluctant; at the time, the Reform movement seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), had an unwritten but widely known policy that it would not knowingly accept or ordain a gay or lesbian person and actively attempted to screen them out (this included using now discredited psychological screening). Further, he wondered if his theological questioning made him an appropriate candidate for the rabbinate. With the encouragement of a HUC-JIR dean – who helped guide his application through the system – he was admitted and spent the first year in Israel and subsequent years at the New York campus. Even as Kahn was growing into a gay identity during his seminary years, he stayed publicly closeted. One of the most prominent professors at the school had previously publicly announced that he would not sign the ordination of any gay or lesbian student. Nonetheless Kahn was ordained as a rabbi in 1985.
Many people asked him: “How can you be gay and be a rabbi?” Eventually he realized, this was a false dichotomy. The question was not “How can you be gay…” – he was and is gay, and this was never going to change – but rather, “How can you be out and be a rabbi?” but this was incorrect too – because, once ordained, they can’t take this away! People were asking, he realized, not “how can you be a rabbi” but “how can you make a living as a rabbi?"
The only congregation to offer Kahn a position was Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, as its part-time rabbi. the third gay-outreach synagogue founded in the United States, Sha’ar Zahav was already a member synagogue of the Reform movement. The congregation grew under Kahn’s leadership and his position became full-time in 1988; he left the Congregation in 1996.
In his first High Holy day sermon, “AIDS is our Earthquake,” Kahn spoke about the importance of seeing the AIDS epidemic as a disease following its epidemiological course like the rest of nature and not as a theological event. Over the next decade, Kahn was active in both local and national responses to the epidemic, both within and beyond the Jewish community, frequently speaking about how the care and compassion from lovers, ex-lovers and friends was a model of communal response to suffering and disease and asserting the full place of gay and lesbian people in God’s creation and the Jewish community. Kahn helped found the first Jewish social services program for people with AIDS, served on the Reform movement’s AIDS Task Force, the San Francisco Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS and committees for the International Conference on AIDS. . During his tenure, nearly 100 members of Kahn’s congregation died from AIDS . Kahn consulted frequently with other rabbis and Jewish institutions around the world about HIV & AIDS around both practical and religious matters. At the same time, Kahn advocated that the epidemic not overshadow the struggle for justice and equality for LGBTQ Jews. The strain of these years took a toll and Kahn resigned in 1996.
Over the next decade, Kahn served in a variety of positions in the Jewish community, including Director of the Hillel (Jewish students organization) at Stanford University, teaching and as Associate Director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. In 1999, he received his Ph.D. from Stanford University. Kahn realized that he yearned to return to the pulpit and, in 2007, became the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California. In this position, he was recognized and welcomed as an out gay person; still, it was periodically challenging – after years of fear and prejudice – to fully believe that he was see simply as “the rabbi.” After fourteen years of service, he retired from the synagogue and became Rabbi Emeritus in June 2021.
Shortly after his ordination in 1985, and in part inspired by the discrimination he experienced in seminary, in placement and by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), a resolution was proposed calling for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in the Reform movement and of gay and lesbian rabbis in the Reform rabbinate. Kahn was appointed as the only openly gay person on the national organization of Reforms rabbis’ (the CCAR) Committee on Homosexuality. He wrote both an essay (later widely published), and, most influentially, gave a keynote address to the 1988 convention of the Reform rabbinate, beginning:
I do not believe that God creates in vain. Deep, heartfelt yearning for companionship and intimacy is not an abomination before God. God does not want us to send the gays and lesbians among us into exile—either cut off from the Jewish community or into internal exile, living a lie for a lifetime. I believe that the time has come, I believe that God summons us to affirm the proper and rightful place of the homosexual Jew—and her or his family—in the synagogue and in the Jewish people.
In 1980, the CCAR membership voted to formally endorse gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis. In 2015, on the 25thanniversary of the original vote, Kahn was invited to again address the plenary of the CCAR convention. Throughout his rabbinate, Kahn advocated for LGBT Jews, advising rabbis and organizations and speaking and writing on behalf of their full inclusion and integration into Jewish community.
Over his rabbinate, Kahn served on the Board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, on its Response (Law) and Liturgy committees and as President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis. In addition to other communal roles, Kahn has served on the City of San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the Board of Trustees of the Graduate Theological Union. In 1981, as a young rabbinic student, he met his husband Dan Bellm and together they raised a son, Adam. In retirement, Kahn leads a small congregation in Florence, Italy, is a volunteer Chaplain for the Berkeley Police Department and serves as a mentor to rabbinic students.
(This biographical statement written by Yoel Kahn. Photo credit: Shoey Sindel.)
Biography Date: November 2022