Rabbi Brian Besser: The Long Road to Happiness

Religion was always important to Brian Besser. He took his bar mitzvah very seriously, and for many years thereafter joyfully attended a special high school program held every Sunday morning at the Jewish Theological Seminary in uptown New York City. It was quite an effort. He took the bus from his New Jersey home at 8:00 AM, arrived for class at 9:30, and immersed himself in Jewish thought until 12:30. Thereafter he had lunch in Manhattan with his grandparents, who rejoiced in Brian’s thirst for learning. At the time it seemed likely that he would become a rabbi.

Fourteen-year-old Brian was knowledgeable about Jewish law, math, and history, but he was very naive about sex. He was puzzled when a counselor molested him at camp. When he returned home, he confided in his older brother, who told him to “get a girlfriend.” But being social was never easy for Brian. He isolated himself at school and successfully immersed himself in his studies, always being at the top. In his senior year he made a friend, another boy with whom he studied. Brian fell in love. He filled his diary with passionate love letters to his idol and one day decided to send them to him. His friend was surprised and regretted that he did not feel the same. Brian was both emotionally crushed and ashamed that he had read the cards wrong.

Brian went off to Harvard. His childhood dream of becoming a rabbi was forgotten and he majored in mathematics. By then he knew that he was gay but was unable to develop a long-standing, serious relationship. He poured his passions into his studies and continued to excel. After college he took off for Europe and lived two years in France.

Eventually Brian came out to his parents. Regretfully the family had never discussed sexual matters previously, and doing it when Brian had reached adulthood was painful and awkward. To Brian’s surprise his emotionally distant, liberal lawyer-father had no problem accepting his gay son. To him all of Brian’s asocial behavior now made sense. His mom, however, was profoundly shocked. She and Brian had always been extremely close, and she saw his being gay as a betrayal. She also felt that it violated Jewish theological principles.

To put some distance between himself and his childhood home Brian moved to San Francisco. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and obtained an MA in computer science. After graduation he hiked the Pacific Coast Trail, a 2650-mile path extending from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Completing it was a once-in-a-lifetime, liberating, intense experience.

Upon his return to San Francisco he worked for Oracle Computers. Brian enjoyed the technical problems his job entailed but it did not satisfy his soul. After six years he resigned because he was stressed out.  During this time, he became engaged with Sha’ar Zahav, a San Francisco gay synagogue. Brian’s Jewish soul, which had been dormant for many years, reawakened. He became a lay service leader and revised the synagogue’s gay prayer book.

Brian also fell in love. He met Joe with whom he established a deep relationship. For a variety of reasons the partners decided to move to a farmhouse in rural Vermont, near Brian’s parents’ retirement home. It was almost natural for him to help the local Jewish community to establish the Jewish Center of Greater Stowe. Soon the group asked him to work for them on a part-time basis. Brian felt half-fulfilled. Could he still become a full fledged-rabbi? He applied to the Hebrew College in Newton, MA and after a very rigorous interview process, the seminary accepted him to their five-year program. Brian being gay did not matter. By then the reform branch of Judaism was ordaining openly gay men and women (and the Conservative branch would follow during Brian’s years in rabbinical school). Brian’s ordination was a high point for the entire Besser family.

In 2012 Brian Besser became the rabbi of Beth Shalom in Bloomington, Indiana. He is passionate about this latest step in his journey. Besser loves both the intellectual aspects of his job as spiritual leader, as well as its pastoral duties. As he said during one of his Friday night services: “I serve God, by serving others.”

For Brian Besser, being gay has receded into the background. He simply is part of the human race. He wants to serve as a rabbi for anyone and everyone, as opposed to being identified with a particular constituency. Indiana is a very “red” state struggling with the legality of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). As one of the state’s religious leaders he joined the effort to repeal the law as a member of the clergy rather than as a gay man.

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Author’s Note: While he lived in San Francisco, my son David attended services at Sha’ar Zahav and “felt more at home there than in any other synagogue.” His memorial service was held in the sanctuary.

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