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How Gay is Your Shul?

"How Gay is Your Shul?"

By: Michael Kaminer


"How gay is your shul?"

It's a question most rabbis and synagogue presidents don't hear all that often. But 3,700 of them are about to get asked. That unusual query is the first step in a massive new campaign to make congregations more welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) Jews. And by integrating more gay people in shul life, it could change how straight people experience synagogues too.

"Most synagogues in the U.S. are walking advertisements for heterosexuality," says Gregg Drinkwater, executive director of Jewish Mosaic, one of the organizations behind the LGBT Welcoming Synagogues Project, which launched in April. (The other partners are the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute of Synagogue 3000, a think tank whose aim is revitalizing synagogue life.) "Shuls think they're more inclusive than they really are. They're family-oriented businesses, and that's alienating for people who don't see their own families reflected."

In June, Jewish Mosaic and their partners will start surveying nearly every congregation in the U.S. on their policies and practices of inclusion—for example, whether they offer same-sex spousal benefits, follow a written nondiscrimination policy regarding sexual orientation, or use nonexclusive language on membership forms.

When the survey concludes later this summer, Jewish Mosaic will use its findings to create a "resource guide to best practices" on LGBT inclusion for synagogue leaders, who have few places to turn for help with questions on sexuality and gender. "We're evaluating, not judging," Drinkwater says. Congregations that follow the guide's recommendations will get a kind of seal of approval promoting them as LGBT Welcoming Congregations.

If it succeeds, the project could open a new chapter in the complicated dialogue between gay people and the Jewish establishment. While three of four major denominations now allow gay rabbis and same-sex unions, Orthodox officialdom still treats same-sex relationships as a shande: After Conservative leaders voted in favor of allowing gay rabbis and unions in 2006, the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox group, retorted by noting—"with great sadness"—the recognition of "so-called same-sex 'commitment ceremonies.' "

Much Jewish unease with homosexuality is rooted in an oft-quoted verse from Leviticus (18:22):"You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, that is an abomination." Since we're also the people commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis, 1:22), there may be an additional degree of discomfort, even among the most liberal Jews, about relationships whose ultimate purpose isn't procreation.

"Because of the discomfort gay issues bring up, they don't fall into the same social-justice spectrum as other issues," Drinkwater says. "Halacha comes up in discussions about gay inclusion where it doesn't for anything else. Even Reform Jews who aren't observant use Leviticus as a basis for their discomfort."

What that means is that even though the Reform Movement has supported gay rights since 1965, individual emotions can produce very different reactions when a gay person walks through temple doors. "Homophobia is ingrained," Drinkwater says, "and the fastest way to change it is by daily interaction."

To be sure, there have been genuine and sincere efforts at the leadership level to include gays and lesbians in Jewish life. Reconstructionists started ordaining gay rabbis back in 1984; a lesbian rabbi, Toba Spitzer, now heads their rabbinical assembly. In 1997, the Union for Reform Judaism published Kulanu, a handbook designed to guide temples toward building more inclusive congregations. Even Conservative Judaism took steps in 2006 when its leaders voted to allow gay rabbis and same-sex unions if the congregation chose to.

But good intentions at the top don't always translate into action on the bimah or in the pews. "Without internal champions or external guidance, it's very hard for shuls to change," Drinkwater explains. "Kulanu is incredibly valuable, but its recommendations are based on the personal experiences of contributors." Jewish Mosaic's program, modeled on a successful United Church of Christ initiative called "Open and Affirming," will use formal social-science research methods—data collection, interviews, site visits—in drafting guidelines to make LGBT people feel welcome.

The five-year-old Jewish Mosaic bills itself as "the first national organization dedicated to helping the Jewish world become more open, accessible, and welcoming to LGBT Jews." It was founded by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, the academics behind the groundbreaking literary anthology Queer Jews, which presented a new face of gay Jewish life—assertive, engaged, integrated.

The group is funded by the Jewish Funds for Justice, which promotes social change by supporting progressive causes. Drinkwater, who is Shneer's life partner, a former journalist, and a longtime activist in gay and Jewish causes, works from the Jewish Mosaic's Denver headquarters. Last year, the organization opened an office in San Francisco; it plans to expand to New York in 2009.

"People are hungering for this conversation in the Jewish world," Drinkwater says. "What's so frustrating is that as much as things are improving, there's still resistance at the higher levels of Jewish institutions. That's why there's still a need for someone like me in an advocacy situation."

With shul membership rolls declining, and younger generations shunning affiliations, Jewish Mosaic's initiative comes at a critical time. "Synagogues are facing a crisis of engagement, and if they don't look under every rock for Jews to become members, they're missing opportunities," Drinkwater says. "Every head counts, which is why they're courting gay members. And there's a growing interest in social justice, so a moral imperative overlaps with the marketing imperative."

Whatever their motives, Jewish leaders know they desperately need to reach new audiences. In a 2007 survey of rabbis by Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR), a Minneapolis think tank, 91 percent called outreach to gays and lesbians "very important," with nearly three-quarters saying they planned to make their congregations more "inclusive" in the next three years. (Respondents were mostly Reform and Conservative rabbis, plus a small number of Orthodox and Reconstructionists.)

According to Rabbi Hayim Herring, STAR's executive director, "Synagogues are awakening to the fact that the Jewish community is not two parents, two children, a dog, and an SUV. Now, they're going to have to learn to follow the money. Most synagogue budgets go toward families with kids at the preschool or bar-mitzvah age. We're slow to catch up, but that's going to change."

In May, as part of the Welcoming Synagogues Project, Jewish Mosaic will conduct 25 "intensive site visits" at synagogues and temples, attending services, meeting leaders and members, and seeing "what's working and what's not." In the fall, with survey results tabulated, hundreds of "synagogue change" leaders will gather in Los Angeles to draft formal guidelines to help synagogues engage LGBT congregants in meaningful ways.

"We have a vision where all synagogues are proactively inclusive, not just passively welcoming," Drinkwater says. "LGBT-specific lifecycle events should be honored, such as weddings, unions, and baby namings. And it's just as important that synagogues recognize the ways they're quietly excluding gay people."

Not everyone agrees with Drinkwater's head-on approach, including some leading gay Jews. "Change moves very slowly," says Rabbi Peter Kessler, who leads Reform Temple Ohev Shalom in Harrisburg, Penn. "When people mention change, they need to whisper it quietly and work from within, rather than tell organizations what to do."

Gay people need to meet Judaism halfway, says Kessler, who in 1978 was involved in the founding of one of the earliest gay synagogues, Chicago's Congregation Or Chadash. "I'm from the school that gay people need to become more mainstream to fit into communities rather than demand those communities change," he says. "It's the obligation of the nonmainstream family to work at educating the mainstream community, rather than feel angry that acceptance isn't waiting for them." Since his installation at Temple Ohev Shalom, Kessler says membership has increased 20 percent.

Things get a lot more complicated in the Orthodox world, where Leviticus tends to be taken more literally and where boundaries around sex and gender roles are strict. Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the New York-based rabbi, author, and educator who gained worldwide fame as the first Orthodox rabbi to come out of the closet in 1999, says LGBT Jews should seek respect, but not expect support, from Orthodox synagogues.

"Gay people can't demand advocacy from an Orthodox congregation," he says. "We're there for a community, not a supportive chorus. This particular aspect of social justice doesn't translate in the Orthodox world. Demanding that traditional communities completely overturn the halachic norm for us is both unrealistic and inappropriate."

Greenberg, one of the openly gay Orthodox Jews profiled in the landmark 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d, has written his own criteria for "welcoming" synagogues. While his criteria require the synagogue to tolerate gay people being honest and open about their lives, he places a much greater burden on gay Jews to maintain a balance between the congregation's needs and their own. "Gay people must recognize they can't impose their hard-fought self-understanding on a congregation," he says. "That said, Orthodox congregations have to figure out how they manage reality. There are plenty of gay people who want to belong to Orthodox synagogues because it's a form of Jewish life that speaks the most to them."

Resistance to the LGBT Welcoming Synagogues Project may also be coming from a surprising source: gay synagogues, which find themselves competing with mainstream shuls at a time when they're all struggling to attract members. "Some gay synagogues think LGBT Jews should be going to them, and that a gay chavurah or outreach from a mainstream shul may be threatening," Drinkwater says.

But for gay and lesbian Jews who have "mainstreamed" in other parts of their lives, the notion of a gay synagogue can seem quaint. Younger Jews who grew up with openly gay TV characters, pop stars, and politicians feel less compelled to separate themselves from the straight world. "Queer space isn't as important as it used to be for many gay people," says Drinkwater, who notes that the number of active gay synagogues in the U.S. has dropped to 15 from a peak of 25 in the 1990s. "Die-hard members at gay synagogues tend to be older, or some younger people whose gender or political issues make it uncomfortable to be in mainstream shuls."

As long as homophobia exists, gay shuls will stay relevant, says Idit Klein, director of Keshet, a Boston group that trains rabbis and lay leaders on gay-related diversity issues. "Middle-class gay professionals who have kids mirror what most Jews in mainstream congregations look like. They'll fit in more comfortably in ways a gender-queer, politically radical, working-class dyke might not," she says. "Because of legal and cultural oppression of LGBT people, there are still people without options in mainstream congregations."

Novelist Aaron Hamburger, the New York-based author of Faith for Beginners and a passionate defender of gay synagogues, agrees. "Not that I feel uncomfortable in a straight synagogue, but I don't feel at home. It's also a turnoff that rabbis at straight shuls seem to preach that my sole responsibility as a Jew is to date Jewish girls, marry, have Jewish kids, all at the expense of conveying the beauty and richness of our Jewish heritage," he says.

Still, Hamburger recognizes gay congregations face an uncertain future. "When Barnes & Noble started stocking gay books, it really hurt gay bookstores," he says.

To survive, some gay synagogues are choosing to get absorbed by larger "mainstream" congregations, much as synagogues are uniting in places where Jewish numbers are dwindling. Rather than dissolve itself, Cleveland's gay Chevrei Tikvah opted to become a chavurah within Fairmount Temple, one of Ohio's largest Reform congregations. "They're a part of our larger community, like any other chavurah," says Laura Munson, a temple spokesperson.

Such partnerships "may be a successful option" to keep gay shuls viable, says Howard Solomon, president of the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews, which includes more than 47 member organizations worldwide. "I think existing gay shuls will survive, but it's unlikely any new ones will be formed."

The fact that more LGBT Jews are raising families also clouds the picture for gay shuls: Like many parents, same-sex moms and dads want their kids to socialize with other Jewish kids. Debra Stern-Ellis, a 44-year-old executive at a Jewish nonprofit in San Diego, never considered a gay shul. Along with Heidi, her partner of 24 years, and their kids Mikayla and Ethan, Stern-Ellis attends Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform temple whose Web site quotes from the Mishnah: "Separate yourselves not from the community."

"Because we have children, a lesbian/gay synagogue wouldn't meet our needs. We feel whole as Jews, and as parents, at our congregation," Stern-Ellis says. "We may not feel as much camaraderie as a lesbian couple, but we're willing to compromise that so the kids can form relationships with Jewish peers."

Rebecca Shine says that even if a gay synagogue opened in Portland, to which she moved from Los Angeles 20 years ago, she would stick with Neveh Shalom, her Conservative shul. "I don't hang with just one kind of person in my daily life," she says, "and in my Jewish life, I don't want everyone to be like me either. I want old people, young people, singles and married people, gay and straight people. I don't want to feel like I'm praying in a separate little area."

Neveh Shalom hadn't reached out to gay members for 15 years before it launched a chavurah last December. Still, the temple is anything but a "don't ask, don't tell" environment, Shine says. "My partner and I go to Oneg Shabbat. I get synagogue mail addressed to both of us, as a couple. They put our anniversary in the newsletter. It makes me want to get more involved in shul life."

Drinkwater wants gay congregants to expect even more. "Gay people don't feel they have to explain themselves anymore. The two-way street between Jewish institutions and gay people is balanced in favor of the gays right now," he says.

When all of the research, surveys, and site visits end, Jewish Mosaic's real work will begin: convincing leaders to embrace the new inclusiveness, and reminding LGBT Jews that shuls can reflect their lives as much as anyone's.

"Jewish Mosaic's goal is more engagement of Jewish gay people in Jewish life, whatever form that takes," Drinkwater says. "Every individual's soul is unique. People who are different from you in ways you find challenging are still emanations of the divine. And what it comes down to is that we have a moral mandate to respect, love, and include all of them." •