When Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa marched with members of his synagogue at Sonoma County’s Pride Parade in Guerneville on June 5, it was a first-time experience for the rabbi, who was loath to officiate at LGBTQ weddings when he was hired by the Conservative shul four years ago. Nowadays the rabbi is not only gung-ho about LGBTQ pride, but he is fully open to presiding over queer wedding ceremonies — as long as both bride and bride or groom and groom are Jewish. Miller attributes his change of heart to a soft-spoken yet persistent member of his congregation, Dr. Arnold Drake, a 79-year-old retired internist and gastroenterologist, who has assumed a leadership role at the synagogue since moving to Sonoma County eight years ago after decades in Memphis, Tennessee.
“He has had a positive influence on me in many ways,” Miller said of Drake, president of Beth Ami’s board from 2011 to 2014. “He has a gentle way with conversation.” Conversation is at the heart of Drake’s relationship with Miller, the rabbi said.
Continuing something he started years ago with his rabbi in Memphis, Drake goes for early morning walks with Miller before Saturday Shabbat services. The two chat about issues and concerns, and sometimes the talk turns to Drake’s openly gay son, also an internist and gastroenterologist, who practices in Washington, D.C.
“I told the rabbi that my late wife and I were at first terribly distraught on learning that our son was gay,” Drake said. But soon enough, he added, they educated themselves on issues of sexual identity and orientation and became advocates on behalf of their son and other LGBTQ individuals — so much so that Drake became the national president of PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. He held the post from 2000 to 2002, after founding the first PFLAG chapter in Memphis.
A national organization with hundreds of affiliates nationwide, PFLAG was started by Jeanne Sobelson Manford, a Jewish mother of a gay son, and much of its national leadership over the years has been Jewish, including several other past presidents: Paulette Goodman of the Washington, D.C. area, Adele Starr of Brentwood in Southern California and Rabbi David M. Horowitz of Akron, Ohio.
Dr. Stanley Drake said his father is “a force of nature,” never shying away from an issue simply because it was controversial or unpopular. For example, he used to participate in sit-ins at a Southern restaurant chain that would fire openly LGBTQ employees.
“My mother was always worried about Dad,” he said, “and would caution him to stay away from TV cameras filming the protests. Of course, he appeared on TV.”
Inclusion is a priority at Beth Ami, where the LGBTQ members make up approximately 12 to 14 percent of the congregation’s roster, according to one official. Drake and Henry Cohn, an openly gay Beth Ami congregant, are co-chairs of Beth Ami’s Keshet committee, which promotes LGBTQ inclusion.
Cohn said Drake is as much an active listener as he is a passionate and persuasive conversationalist. But mainly, he brings “commitment and passion” to everything he does.