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Turning Rites into Rights

Rabbi and single mother of 5 children, Julie Greenberg ’79 is an advocate for families in transition

By Heidi Hormel


With three children graduated from college and two in high school, Rabbi Julie Greenberg is a single mother transitioning into the next phase of her life where she can spend more time doing social justice work on issues such as climate justice, public education, and living wages. Photo by Laurence Kesterson.

For a quarter century, Rabbi Julie Greenberg ’79 has performed same-sex wedding ceremonies because “celebrating love is the right thing to do.”

Greenberg, who has never been married and identifies as lesbian, has performed about 20 such marriages since 1989. She sees her activism in this area as turning “rites into rights,” adding that these ceremonies are “becoming more routine as acceptance spreads.”

Not only was she among the first rabbis in the world to do same-sex weddings, she also welcomes interfaith couples and families and works closely with clergy from other faiths in co-officiations. She says that she wants to “welcome people into Judaism, rather than slam the door shut.”

Although her early work with interfaith couples, along with her life choices and priorities, were often considered heretical by the rabbinical community, she maintained her convictions. Now, she says that she’s invited to speak on panels and was awarded an honorary doctorate from her rabbinical alma mater.

“Doing what you think is right is good. … In the short run, I was considered very marginal but in the long run, I’m very respected.”

After completing a special major in religion, history, and economics at Swarthmore, Greenberg attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., from 1983 to 1989.

At the same time, Greenberg decided that motherhood was also a priority. Raised in Washington, D.C., by “a wonderful, unconventional mother with a lot of love and endorsement to choose my priorities in the world,” she always planned to be a mother.

Even though she was in rabbinical college at the time and had no long-term partner, she gave birth to three children in quick succession using sperm from three different donor dads, as she studied and started the next phase of her life. Eventually, she added two adopted children to her household.

This priority did not necessarily mesh with the congregations that she applied to after graduation. So in 1990, Greenberg became founding director of the Jewish Renewal Life Center, a project of Philadelphia’s ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She offered a yearlong immersion in Jewish living, learning, and activism in spaces throughout Mt. Airy, Pa., an economically mixed urban “village” where she lived.

For a dozen years, she ran the center and created a rabbinic private practice in Philadelphia that offered weddings, baby namings, funerals, and bar and bat mitzvah training and ceremonies.

In 2001, Greenberg became the rabbi of Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir, which means heart of the city in Hebrew ( She also attended the Council for Relationships and became a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private counseling practice. Through her interfaith counseling and family counseling, she is interested in helping families through transitions. “Change is hard,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone can use a little helping hand … or a good book to read.”

Greenberg’s very personal perspective on love, parenting, and religion recently came together in her own book Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time, a memoir and how-to parenting guide.

Greenberg describes her family structure as a web of relationships, rather than the standard vertical tree. She and her children have connections to donor dads (aka sperm donors), to adoption networks, to extended family and community, to past and present lovers of hers, and her gay male parenting partner. To have a sustainable, evolving life, she said, “you don’t throw people out, you build them in.

“This is what made sense to me for my life, not that this is the only way or best way, but it’s what worked for me,” she explains. “I wanted to do this as a memoir, a practical guide, sharing what I’ve learned from living this life.”

With fewer demands on her time since three of her children have graduated from college and two are in high school, Greenberg has been devoting more attention to protecting the planet that “will hold [her children] as they grow up. Caring for the safety of the planet is directly relevant to their futures.”

For information on Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time, go to

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