Rabbi David Horowitz proudly tells his story at the start of each meeting of Akron’s Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter.
D. Horowitz: “Hi I’m David, my daughter Wendy is gay and my son is straight."
Horowitz recites his story effortlessly, and you can tell he’s told it many times. As the newly-named national president of the gay rights support and advocacy group PFLAG, he travels the country recounting his personal evolution, sitting in on conference calls with the White House and encouraging others to get involved.
The retired rabbi wasn’t always a gay rights activist. He wasn’t even always comfortable openly talking about his lesbian daughter. Horowitz thinks back to 1990, when Wendy came out as a lesbian. It was the day before her graduation from Ohio State University.
D. Horowitz: I think my wife and I cried probably all that night. It was a stormy night. And every time a heterosexual couple walked by, tears started in our eyes, just not being able to handle it.
Horowitz says his tears didn’t stem from homophobia, but from the fear of how his religious community in Akron would react. As rabbi of Temple Israel, he frequently talked about his children to the 600-member congregation. He wondered what he would say and even questioned whether he could lose his job. His now 42-year old daughter, Wendy lives in Minneapolis. She remembers the day she told her parents.
W. Horowitz: After they left, I called my girlfriend’s mom, and I said, they are never going to talk to me again. I don’t know what to do; I’ve just lost my parents.
But Wendy Horowitz also knew the strength of her father’s unconditional love. Given time and education, she felt he’d be able to accept her.
W. Horowitz: He was never critical of me, he didn’t care what I looked like, and he didn’t care if I was pretty or not. It didn’t matter to him. It just mattered to him that I was the best me that I could be. And I always knew that.
She supplied her parents with books and pamphlets – one of them for PFLAG. David Horowitz says he decided to go to a meeting.
D. Horowitz: All the sudden, there were people just like me. In fact, there were three ministers sitting there who had gay children. So not only were there other people, there were other clergy who had gay children, and it was almost a revelation to me. And that was the first place where I felt safe to be able to say, “My name is David and I have a gay daughter.”
Soon after, Horowitz decided to come out to his congregation. Temple Israel is a reform synagogue, -- the most liberal of the three main branches of Judaism. But any rabbi openly discussing homosexuality, especially 20 years ago, was unusual.
Still, Horowitz says the reception was overwhelming.
D. Horowitz: People were making appointments to come speak with me. They had gay children, they had gay siblings and before it all shook out, I bet you around 200 people from 200 different families talked to me, a third of the congregation. And I’m thinking, this isn’t even San Francisco!
Within weeks, Horowitz made waves nationally at a rabbinical conference. The rabbis were voting on whether to support the ordination of openly gay rabbis. Horowitz says he found himself at the podium when one rabbi held up the Gideon Bible, referenced the book of Leviticus and denounced homosexuality as a prohibition from God.
D. Horowitz: I suggested that the book of Leviticus also deals with adultery and the penalty for adultery is death, and what do we do with adulterers today? And I suggested that we probably make them officers of our congregations and ignore the fact that they are adulterers and if they’re rabbis, we ignore that too. They were screaming at me, ‘Don’t you know the presence here, how could you say such a thing!’
The motion to ordain openly gay rabbis passed, and Horowitz says his Akron office was flooded with calls. He was thrust from being an advocate to an activist. But, even back in his Akron congregation, he had critics. Horowitz remembers one father.
D. Horowitz: He sent a letter to the board saying that I told his son it was ok to be gay. And, in fact I had. It was right after Matthew Shepherd had been murdered and I had a convocation of the entire religious school and I said to the kids, ‘If you’re gay, it’s ok to be gay.’
Horowitz also riled some people outside his religious community. Chuck Magilavy owns the Diamond Deli in downtown Akron. Magilavy says he used to refuse to wait on gay people at the deli and thought David Horowitz’s open acceptance of gays was wrong.
Magilavy: I had very bad feelings towards gays. And I didn’t think a rabbi should be doing that kind of thing, or any religious person.
Unexpectedly, Magilavy found an ally in Horowitz. Magilavy’s now 21-year old son, Kyle, came out to his parents in high school. Magilavy says he now sits side-by-side with Horowitz at PFLAG meetings.
Magilavy: You know I told him, I said, you’re my son and I said, I wish you were never scared to come to me about you being gay. And that’s when I talked to David and I said, ‘Years ago,’ I said, ‘I couldn’t stand you.’ And David says, ‘Well how do you like me now?’ And I said, ‘I respect you. Thank you.’
Temple Israel’s vice president, Joyce Butlien, also says she gained a new perspective through Horowitz. She was raising her two young sons when her family joined the congregation.
Butlein: Even if the kids don’t know what it means, like a boy would call another boy, ‘Oh you’re so gay,’ and it’s almost like Rabbi Horowitz’s face would come in front of my eyes (laughs) and say, ‘OK, you cannot let this go.’
And I hope as a parent I would have stopped something like that, but he always reminded me that there are teaching moments when you have kids.
That’s how David Horowitz’s daughter, Wendy, also remembers her father. She says he was always a protector.
W. Horowitz: When I was really little, and I would go to service I would stand behind him and play with his tallit as he greeted people after the service. And I felt really shy about being around all those people. But I’d always stand beside by dad and feel very safe.
Wendy also got to stand beside her dad as an adult, when he officiated at her wedding to her partner. It was a defining moment in both of their lives.
Within two years of coming out to his congregation, David Horowitz began pastoring a gay synagogue in Clevelandand he says he was the first rabbi in Ohio willing to perform same-sex weddings. But Wendy Horowitz appears relatively unfazed by her father’s transformation from tolerance to activism.
W. Horowitz: To the community at large, he’s kind of larger than life. He’s a rabbi, he’s a respected person and he gives advice and he teaches people very well and he teaches people a lot. And sometimes I forget he’s all these things to all these other people. To me, he’s my dad.
David Horowitz will spend at least the next two years as national president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. He remains true to Akron and the local PFLAG chapter where his journey began in a church basement, and says local connections mean more than national movements.
D. Horowitz: (to PFLAG group) Get to individuals and change the hearts and minds of individuals. One at a time if necessary.
Horowitz says his goal as PFLAG president is continue getting more people, gay and straight, to be active participants in the gay rights movement.