(Photo: 2009 Westboro Baptist Church members protest Beth Chayim Chadashim)
In the early 1970s, lesbian and gay Jews (bisexuals and transgender folk were not yet on our collective radar) founded the first gay synagogues: Beth Chaym Chadashim in Los Angeles (1972) and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City (1973). At a time when traditional Judaism was still very homophobic, LGBT congregations provided queer Jews with safe places to practice our religion and celebrate our community.
The L.A. and New York shuls were soon followed by similar congregations in South Florida (Etz Chaim, 1974), Washington, D.C. (Beth Mishpachah, 1975), San Francisco (Sha’ar Zahav, 1977), Seattle (Tikvah Chadashah, 1980) and other cities. Together, LGBT synagogues form the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews (WCGLBTJ) (www.glbtjews.org).
Unfortunately for queer synagogues, the growing acceptance of LGBT Jews on the part of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements (though not yet the Orthodox) have made uniquely gay temples less necessary. Writing for the venerable Jewish Forward (2008), Anthony Weiss noted the change as gay shuls like Atlanta’s Beth Haverim began to attract straight members: “As the mainstream Jewish world has increasingly accepted gay and lesbian Jews, gay-and-lesbian-founded synagogues like Beth Haverim have grappled with questions that go to the core of their identity. Now, as more and more straight members join Bet Haverim and other synagogues like it, a large question arises. Should there ideally be such things as distinctive gay and lesbian synagogues, or would the need for such a separate space disappear?”
There is no easy answer to this question. Weiss quoted Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who said that eventually most LGBT congregations would disappear, if only “because gay men and lesbians would be at ease in reform congregations.” On the other hand, as Jewish gay activist and scholar Jay Michaelson (God vs. Gay?) recently told me, “there are different models in different places. In many places, LGBT congregations are being replaced. In other cities, such as L.A., New York, and San Francisco LGBT synagogues are continuing to grow and change.” According to the Forward, in 2005 Cleveland’s Chebrei Tikvah merged with the local Fairmount Temple, though it still meets twice a month as an LGBT minyan (quorum).
As LGBT Jews became more active in the lives of “mainstream” synagogues, they began to form specifically-LGBT havurot (fellowship groups) within those temples. One of those is the Ru’ach (“spirit”) founded in 2000 as part of Temple Israel of Greater Miami (templeisrael.net/community/gay-lesbian). Ru’ach describes itself as “a havurah serving the Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in South Florida. We are committed to fostering a joyous, open and accepting environment for sharing spiritual, religious and social programming.” Among a growing list of Ru’ach- sponsored events are the annual Pride Seder; semi-monthly havdalah services that bring the Jewish Sabbath to a close; and educational programs featuring gay and Jewish scholars like Michaelson. Members of Ru’ach also work together with [email protected] (Nextat19th.org), a Jewish cultural group housed at Temple Israel, which, though not necessarily gay, is definitely LGBT-friendly.
On a national level, LGBT Jews have created community organizations that supplement the more synagogue-oriented WCGLBTJ. Nehirim (“lights”) (Nehirim.org), founded by Michaelson in 2004, is (according to Michaelson) “the largest national community organization of LGBT Jews, partners, and allies. We have run retreats and other programs for thousands of folks across the country. We also partner with local groups already doing great work in the area.”
Future Nehirim-sponsored events include a woman’s retreat (Falls Village, CT, March 23-25); a men’s retreat (Falls Village, CT, March 30-April 1), a co-ed nehirim east retreat (Falls Village, CT, June 15-17) and a week-long camp nehirim for Men (Easton Mountain, NY, August 22-26).
Another national LGBT group is Keshet (keshetonline.org), which takes its name from the Hebrew word for “rainbow” and “bow.” Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life. Having merged with Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity in 2010, Keshet sponsors social and cultural events in the greater Boston area, ranging from Jewish text study to an annual GLBT Jewish speed-dating gala, Keshet Quick Dates. On a national level, Keshet offers LGBT Jews support, training, and resources.
As individuals and as a group, LGBT Jews will continue to exist, to flourish, and to leave our mark on the Jewish, LGBT, and mainstream communities. As we continue to evolve, our community organizations will follow suit, in order to reflect our ever-changing realities.