Atlanta’s Joshua Lesser named one of America’s ‘most inspiring’ rabbis

My rabbi is a gay man who was raised in a traditional Jewish community in a fairly conservative part of the country. He has been a model for how to have difficult conversations about deeply personal, painful things, and for how to speak my truth calmly and clearly. He has freed me from fear of difference, change and pain. He has taught me to make decisions based upon my values — not upon habits or fears — and to move forward with faith that I am doing the right thing, even in difficult circumstances.

Lesser was recently profiled in our annual Faith & Spirituality issue which you can read below.

Rabbi Josh Lesser

Congregation Bet Haverim

When and how did you come out?

Coming out is a continual process but for me it began in high school. I knew I was different but had no language for it except to say that I was the most popular loner. I wrestled with an eating disorder in part to continue my hiding, but started attending a support group on my own without anyone’s knowledge my senior year.

There I became friends with a gay college art student, a bisexual punk rock chick and a straight beauty queen. We joked we were our own “Breakfast Club.” I was presumably straight. They were at my high school graduation.

When it was time to receive my diploma I received a standing ovation, and I had this Sally Fields revelation that people really liked me and I burst in tears. Later I met up with my gay friend and I began to tear up again and he leaned in and kissed me.

Six years later, I applied to seminary and in doing so I knew that I had to be out in every facet of my life if becoming a rabbi were to have itegrity. And so shortly after telling my parents I was becoming a rabbi, I surprised them again by telling them I was gay.

How did religion play a role in you coming out?

I went to a traditional Jewish day school so I received loudly and clearly the message that homosexuality was a sin, which delayed my coming out and had me fear losing everything I held dear.

On the other hand, I was given the messages that social justice was a precious value and that each of us had a part to play in restoring the world and reaching out to others. Similarly, the ability to question and think critically were spiritual gifts given to me in school. Together they were lifelines to reconstruct a contemporary Judaism building on a feminist reinvesting of Judaism that allowed me to find a way back to my spiritual life.

I also cannot forget how my sister who had the same education would remind me that love was holy. When trying to come out to my parents, she encouraged me to do it over a Shabbat dinner. Connecting this truth to the sacredness of the holy day and to family was a beautiful gift and way to frame my sexuality and identity as holy and a part of my spirituality.

Ultimately, though I could not get the words out of my mouth and left them a letter, but my sister’s vision remains with me as the right way to claim all of who I am, a gay spiritual Jewish man.

Congrats, rabbi!