South Carolina rabbi resigning and will leave state, citing anti-LGBTQ legislation

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Deepfriedkudzu file.

By Louis Keene

(Forward) — Citing a raft of recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, a South Carolina rabbi on June 21 told his congregation that he will resign and move his family to a state more friendly to gay people, becoming, many believe, the first Jewish clergy member to publicly leave their position over local anti-gay policy.

Rabbi Greg Kanter, who is gay and married with two children, said in a letter to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the oldest Reform synagogue in the U.S., that he was resigning as associate rabbi of the Charleston synagogue, where he has served since 2017.

“A confluence of factors have gone into this decision, including the barrage of legal challenges in the state of South Carolina that target me and my family,” Kanter, 58, wrote. “While last year’s legislative session was not a complete disaster, the attacks aimed at LGBT people continue to concern us. And so, we find it necessary to take steps to move to a place that will not target us and our human rights.”

The resignation will not be effective until June 30, 2024, according to the synagogue, but the rabbi will leave on sabbatical at the beginning of April.

In an interview on June 22, Kanter said he felt public discourse around the laws in South Carolina had influenced how people there think about LGBTQ+ people, even as the Jewish community he helped lead welcomed him and his family with open arms.

“It seems like they’re in the news all the time, and my family is the target,” he said. “They’re talking about weakening our marriage, going after trans kids, and I think adults and kids take notice when people in power do those things. It makes it rougher for all of us.”

Following a series of proposed anti-LGBTQ+ bills in South Carolina that affect education, healthcare, marriage and protections against discrimination, Kanter’s resignation fits a national trend of people leaving red states over a growing body of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. More than a dozen U.S. states have passed laws banning medical care for children who identify as transgender, including states that have sizable Jewish populations, such as Texas, Florida and Missouri.

Kanter, who has a transgender child, has already seen his family affected by the new South Carolina laws. Though a bill to ban trans-affirming medical care for youth failed in the state, the proposal caused the local hospital to cancel this care for minors, in some cases mid-treatment.

“Everyone takes it for granted that they can drive less than two miles to their doctor and get whatever their kids need,” he said. “But we don’t.”

Jewish leaders have taken a leading role in fighting such legislation. In Missouri, Rabbi Daniel Bogard, of St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council — both of whom have trans children — were among the loudest voices campaigning against a pair of anti-trans bills related to medical care and participation in sports. Both bills passed.

Responding to a tweet about Kanter’s legislation, Picker Neiss wrote, “I don’t know what to say when some of us live in a fundamentally different country than others. We’re not talking about different taxes, we are talking about different rights. Our lives are not equal in every part of the U.S.”

Idit Klein, chief executive of Keshet, a nonprofit that supports queer Jews, said she has had frequent conversations with LGBTQ+ families about leaving states over anti-LGBTQ legislation.

“Some tell us that they are struggling with whether it is time to uproot themselves and their families and move elsewhere,” Klein wrote in a message. “Others tell us that they are clear: the time to flee is now.”

She and Rabbi Joshua Lesser, the founder of the Rainbow Center: A Jewish Response to LGBT people and their families, said Kanter was the first example of Jewish clergy leaving over a red state over anti-LGBTQ+ laws they were aware of.

Originally from St. Louis, Kanter was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1993. In a 2020 interview with Alliance for Acceptance, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, Kanter said he began to come out to himself and others during his final year of rabbinical school, when there were no more than a handful of out gay rabbis in the country.

“At that time, in 1993, not a single out gay or lesbian or bi or trans rabbi had been hired by a congregation,” Kanter said. “Those who did have jobs got them while they were still in the closet and later came out.” He decided to take the same approach.

But as a young rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Kanter was so miserable hiding his identity that he decided to come out sooner than he had planned. He told the senior rabbi, and then the other two members of the rabbinical staff, who Kanter described as “not my biggest allies ever, but they were supportive, and supportive of me keeping the job.” The synagogue of 2,100 member families also was “overwhelmingly supportive.”

Kanter’s letter to KKBE was preceded by a note signed by the synagogue’s president, Naomi Gorstein, and head Rabbi Stephanie Alexander calling the news “bittersweet.”

“In the six years Rabbi Kanter has served KKBE as Associate Rabbi, he has consistently led us with enthusiasm, generosity of spirit, and above all, kindness,” they wrote.

His departure from KKBE dismayed a congregation member who wrote about the news on Twitter.

“Welp, my rabbi just resigned,” wrote Brandon Fish, director of the JCRC of Greater Charleston. “He’s taking his family to a state where LGBTQ people like him & his family aren’t targeted by oppressive laws. We’ve fought hard against these bills, but the persistence with which they’re being pursued was enough for his family to seek a new home 💔.”