Another chapter ends for Rabbi Laurence "Larry" Edwards as he prepares to retire from his 10-year role at Congregation Or Chadash. Unsure of exactly what the future holds, he plans to continue with his passion of teaching and focusing on the Jewish religion. (June 30 is his last day, with the Pride Parade being his last official "duty.")
A Glencoe native, Edwards grew up attending Congregation Solel, a reformed synagogue located in Highland Park, with his family. His parents were active in the synagogue as they were among the founders. However, Edwards said he and his family were not observant of Judaism in a traditional way, as they celebrated certain holidays.
Edwards describes his decision to be a rabbi as an evolution beginning when he was a child. His influences mainly came from watching Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf lead services as he was growing up and from regularly attending Friday night services with his father, which looks at as a fond memory.
Edwards spend his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago. Realizing during those years he had an interest in religion and wanted to continue studying it, the most logical answer for his next step was rabbinical school where he attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and was ordained in 1975.
"For me, I mostly love the study and teaching aspects," said Edwards. "It is such a rich inheritance of thoughtful people over a long period of time, wrestling with not only philosophical ideas, but more with question of 'what are we here for and what am I supposed to do for this limited amount of time I'm visiting the earth?' and it's about obligation. So there's just so much. I've learned how much I don't know [about Judaism and life in general]."
His career continued as he served as Hillel Rabbi at Dartmouth College for six years and then Cornell University's as Hillel Rabbi for 16 years. Edwards, along with his wife, Susan, and daughter, Sarah, returned to Chicago in 1997 to be closer to his aging parents. Since their return, Edwards held a position at KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park and in 2003 he learned about Or Chadash's through his sister, an out lesbian and rabbi of Or Chadash's sister congregation in Los Angeles. The 2003 pride parade marked his first event with the congregation as rabbi.
"In terms, of mastery, it's not something one masters," Edwards said of the religion. "One tries to serve it, convey it, pass it along, not necessarily in tact, that is to say I don't think of my job as trying to make sure Judaism in the next generation is exactly the same as it was in the previous generation, but to participate in the creative shaking up where necessary, preserving where necessary, the study of it."
Edwards said he is proud to have been part of Or Chadash for 10 years and will continue to be rabbi emeritus. Standing as Chicago's only LGBTQ identified synagogue, located in Edgewater, Edwards explains since it was founded in 1975 and began holding religious services in 1976, it has historically been a place where Jews have felt they could come out and participate safely.
"We have a number of members who have told stories about that," said Edwards. "Especially for members a half a generation ago for who it was a real risk to be out and maybe something that would really change their life around and maybe it would mean leaving a marriage, it could mean a lot of things, but this was a place where they could work through that in a Jewish environment and that was good for them. That's not so much the case anymore."
According to Edwards, the concept of an LGBTQ identified synagogue was formed as a support group for Jewish LGBTQ members who felt excluded and not embraced in the mainstream congregation, but still wanted to partake in a congregation to practice religion. To today's generation, being part of the LGBTQ community is not as much of a shock as it was previously. Edwards questions whether such a thing would happen now because other congregations have become more welcoming. Although, he noted people do say it does make it difference being in a place where they feel like they are in the majority.
Sometimes I say we're the Jewish voice of the LGBTQ community and the LGBTQ voice in the Jewish community," said Edwards. "I don't know if we always succeed, but we really try hard to put at the center our understanding of Torah, the commandment that's repeated 36 times the rabbis say, 'remember you were strangers. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, you know what it is to be on the margins. Love the stranger who is like you.' Sometime people quote, like Jesus, 'love your neighbor as yourself,' but the same chapter of Leviticus also says, 'love the stranger as yourself.' So, whatever we can do to connect gives meaning."
However, within the Jewish community, Edwards said he has heard a range of opinions from other rabbis in regards to having an LGBTQ-identified synagogue. Some conservative and orthodox rabbis he has spoken to are opposed to the changes in the conservative movement such as the ordination of LGBTQ rabbis, which he adds the conservative seminaries allow, and another being rabbis officiating same-sex wedding ceremonies. Although said respectfully and in a friendly tone, some have said they do not understand his participation with a synagogue of this nature. In turn, he has also met some rabbis who are in favor of being more open and inclusive. Edwards has officiated a few LGBTQ weddings, including his sister's wedding.
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