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Answering spiritual call after years of discrimination

February 2, 2012 | Alumni

From family law attorney to Reconstructionist rabbi, Evette Lutman ’84 has devoted her life to the pursuit of justice on both the legal and moral fronts of public service.

After 16 years in the practice of law, Lutman altered her career path to follow her religious convictions full-time, leading her to become the first openly lesbian rabbi of Denver. Lutman was ordained in 2010 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Now a rabbi at B’nai Havurah in Denver, part of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Lutman reflects on her career change, from attorney to rabbi, as the result of a spiritual calling after years of discrimination.

Lutman holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Ohio University, and a Juris Doctor from The Ohio State Moritz College of Law. As a student at Moritz, she was involved in the Women’s Law Caucus and mentored new students through Moritz’ student orientation program. Ardent about helping others, Lutman found herself urging those around her to find their calling, as she felt she had found hers in the law.

“Growing up, I strongly believed in the pursuit of justice. I idolized Perry Mason, and I passionately believed in the words of what I would later come to learn was Deuteronomy 16:20, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue …’ This passion for justice drove me, and was the reason why I initially wanted to become a lawyer.”

Little did she know that the pursuit of justice would grow to mean much more to her, as she endured job loss, unemployment, and prejudice on account of her sexual orientation.

While clerking for a Columbus criminal law firm in her third year of school, Lutman was guaranteed an associate’s position after graduation. Confident in her abilities and proud of her newly obtained position, Lutman was approached by a Moritz professor to appear on a radio talk show on LGBT rights and asked to comment on lesbian custody in family law.

It was during the talk show that she came out as a lesbian, on air, to friends, peers, and the legal community as a whole. “I at first questioned whether I should use my real name on the radio talk show, but feeling that I had nothing to be ashamed of, I was happy to be on the show and proud of who I was, so I went for it,” Lutman said.

The next day her future employer terminated her position. The firm explained the termination as based on its “inability to retain her due to financial hardship,” she said. Lutman was certain the decision came down to her sexual orientation and later learned that another classmate had been hired to fill her position. Unable to find work in Ohio, she moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to be with her girlfriend. She worked part-time at McDonald’s and clerked for minimum wage at a local law firm until she passed the Michigan bar exam.

But Lutman never gave up. She was passionate about the law and helping others. She used her faith to overcome the challenges that she faced. Now she sees Psalm 118:22 as her motivation: “The stone that the builders rejected will become the chief cornerstone.” She uses this verse to drive her both morally and professionally and advises others to do the same.

“The trick is to look at the things that you see as faults or failures, and to use them as the strength to overcome your weaknesses, as the foundation upon which you build the rest of your life.”

Lutman went on to represent battered women and was appointed referee for the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court in Ann Arbor, where she served for 10 years. The FOC system was created in 1919 to provide circuit courts across the state with management assistance in operating local offices. The family division of the circuit court, where Lutman worked, hears and decides domestic relations cases and other family law cases, including divorce, paternity, custody, and support matters.

As a referee of the court, Lutman performed tasks on behalf of the judges: holding hearings, examining witnesses, and making court order recommendations. While she did not feel dissatisfied with the position or the legal field in general, she felt that she needed to do something more to follow the pursuit of justice. “In practicing law you can litigate results, but you can’t change a person’s character. While I could issue recommendations for court orders in the family law setting, I could not change the hearts of the people to whom the orders pertained.” It was for this reason that Lutman began to follow what she deems “her true calling.”

Lutman began her journey to the rabbinate in the late 1990s, taking courses at the local synagogue while she worked at the FOC. She eventually began teaching and filling the role of lay service leader before entering rabbinic studies in 2005. During her congregational work, she discovered her ability to “bring the legal into the moral.” She recognized how character modification techniques she learned throughout her legal career could apply to guiding people toward spiritual atonement.

On her career change from attorney to rabbi, Lutman said she found herself asking: “Who is there to represent morality?” She hoped that by becoming a rabbi, she could serve as a voice to and role model for both moral and legal behavior, ensuring rights and fairness to all.

Today, she is happy with her career change and finds herself utilized as a unique resource in the spiritual community. Lutman explained, “Initially, people were unsure whether I was a good rabbi or that I simply had the notoriety because of my sexual orientation. But people have come to see that I care about the congregation and that they can use me as an advocate.”

Even people from other synagogues come to speak with Lutman, and parents with lesbian or gay children come to her for advice and guidance. “We have an open congregation. Families of all shapes and sizes are welcome to join,” said Lutman.

This article was written by Callie Broomfield.