A new rabbi-in-residence at the University of San Francisco (USF) is bringing LGBTQ issues into the forefront of the Jesuit campus’ social justice work.
Rabbi Camille Shira Angel, a lesbian woman, has taught in the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice for many years. Now she is moving into her role as the university’s first ever rabbi-in-residence, bringing a renewed energy and spirit into the position that serves students of all backgrounds, especially those who are LGBTQ.
Angel begins the position this fall, adding to her impressive resume of activism and spiritual work. A ninth-generation rabbi, Angel formerly served in a leadership capacity at Sha’ar Zahav, an LGBTQ Jewish community in Los Angeles. A scholar of religion and LGBTQ communities, Angel regularly teaches an ethics course on “Queering Religion” at USF. She will now be officiating at Jewish lifecycle events, as well as offering spiritual support to Jewish and other students, according to Jewish News of Northern California. Julie Dowd, director of campus ministry, said that Angel’s new position was designed specifically to utilize her gifts and experience.
Rather than the university’s Jesuit affiliation being a hinderance to Angel’s work with Jewish and LGBTQ students, she explained that addressing Ignatian values head-on and also calling out discrepancies where students may notice them. She said: “I get to show my students how we ask the hardest questions about issues where the tradition doesn’t fit and how we respond with our values,” noting that the Jewish tradition is a great source of support for all students at the school. “I have fallen in love with Judaism all over again,” she said. “I have the opportunity to share its genius, creativity, and ability to adapt and be strategic.”
Her presence on campus is opening new windows of understanding for faculty and staff, as well as students. Fr. Donal Godfrey, SJ, associate director for faculty and staff spirituality, says that Angel has motivated him to speak out for the rights of LGBTQ students in a Catholic context:
“I learned from Rabbi Angel that I should continue to speak up and own this struggle within my own faith tradition as a Catholic priest. . .Rabbi Angel inspires me to be the best Catholic I can possibly be!”
Outside of her specific “Queering Religion” course, Angel hopes to reach students across the campus in a broader sense, bringing in new perspectives about who is able to represent Judaism in different contexts. She said, “I feel that my congregation is without walls. Everyone needs a rabbi, and you don’t have to be Jewish.”
Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, chair of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, agrees wholeheartedly. “She is a rabbi for the people, not for Jews only,” he told the Jewish News of Northern California. He was a strong advocate for Angel’s appointment to the position, noting that her history of dedicated service to students allows her to make an impressive impact on the campus. “I have seen her work tirelessly in supporting USF students no matter their identities,” he says.
For many students at the Catholic university, her presence there may be their first introduction to both Jewish and LGBTQ communities. “Some of my students have never met a Jew,” says Angel. “Most have never met a woman who is a religious authority figure, [let alone] a lesbian who is teaching a class about it and making it a verb.”
In addition to drawing much-needed awareness to LGBTQ issues, Angel has also educated faculty on blind spots they have when speaking about Judaism from a Christian background. In particular, she explained the loaded implications of the word ‘pharisee’ as something shameful, a hypocrite in a position of power. Dowd explains Angel’s clarification:
“When you say Pharisee, one usually thinks Jew. She said Pharisee is a rabbinical line, and we had a wonderful conversation about that. We need to be careful about language and how Christianity can come across with anti-Semitic themes.”
Catholic institutions often need greater education and cultural awareness on a wide range of issues, and Angel’s appointment is a bright spot for USF. With her history of social activism and dedication to LGBTQ causes, there is no doubt she will continue to raise the school’s profile as a home for students who wish to work for justice and human dignity. Angel says it best:
“We all need support in fighting the good fight. We need to bring together these sparks of light that have gone too far away.”
Angel’s appointment will indeed spark great light for the students at USF and beyond.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, August 22, 2019