I met Joe Hample in the summer of 2005 at Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform synagogue with mostly gay and lesbian members in Los Angeles. He was back from his first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He was 48 and I was 55. We were going together by December of ‘05. In the fall of 2007, Joe became BCC’s student rabbi. Everyone joked that I was the student rebbitzin. I reminded him of people’s names and what he was supposed to know about them. I also fended off people who had a project for Joe, even the rabbi.
We talked about where Joe would go when he was ordained, and I understood that we would be likely to leave Los Angeles. I agreed that we could live wherever he got a job.
Joe took an internship in New York City in the summer of 2008, the summer when all the long-term same-gender couples were deliriously getting married. I didn’t think we would do it. Then Joe asked me. After a two-hour discussion, I said “Yes.”. Rabbi Lisa Edwards from BCC performed the ceremony on November 1. There was a tremendous energy to the wedding, everyone knowing our rights could be taken away the following Tuesday. Our marriage has remained valid in California.
Our real problem came with placement in the spring of 2009. Only two Reform congregations asked Joe to visit, one in northeastern Tennessee, and one in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I visited both congregations with him. Neither hired him, and the Pennsylvania congregation told him they objected to his “lifestyle.” They had pledged not to discriminate based on sexual orientation. I know my presence hindered him. People can ignore that you are gay if they choose, but not when you bring your partner.
Joe worked a few part-time, underpaid jobs in L.A. after ordination, and taught some classes. He took over a monthly student pulpit in California’s Central Valley. His “stipend” just about paid for gas to drive there. I went with him a few times.
Joe had applied to work in the California prison system. Last November, he was interviewed at Pelican Bay Prison, in the northwest corner of California. We moved to Crescent City this past January. There are only a handful of Jews in the area, and a congregation so small they couldn’t scare up a minyan for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. A rabbi comes from Arcata, 75 miles away, one Friday monthly. The other Fridays, Joe is happy to lead the service. The few people there have become our friends.
The prison didn’t ask Joe about his spouse. His congregants are all incarcerated, most for life. No one in the prison administration socializes with us. I’m happy to not have “rebbitzin” duties.
It’s a small town. When people ask why I moved here, I say “The rabbi at Pelican Bay is my husband.” It took some time for me to be able to say that, but now I do.
Barry Wendell was born and raised in suburban Baltimore. He lived in Los Angeles for twenty-five years until moving to Crescent City,CA in January with his spouse, Rabbi Joseph B. Hample. Barry retired after more than eighteen years as a substitute teacher in 2004, and also worked as a cantorial soloist and bar/bat mitzvah tutor. His writings include a piece in “Jewish Currents” about his marriage to Rabbi Hample, and numerous angry letters-to-the-editor of a variety of publications. He was the balloon vendor in the first episode of “Flash Forward” last year on ABC.