Gay Synagogues’ Uncertain Future
As mainstream acceptance grows—along with membership—gay congregations face unexpected questions
New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah made news recently when it announced the purchase of a three-level space in a landmark tower on the west side of Manhattan. When construction is complete, the building in the Garment District will house CBST’s first permanent home in its 40-year history.
“We’ve been in a rental space that’s hard to find and reflects what the community was in the ’70s,” said Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at CBST—the country’s largest LGBT-founded synagogue, with over 1,100 adult members, up from about 650 just five years ago. “Now it will be part of the fabric of the city, out on the street, not hidden away. Without an address, it’s hard to be a firm presence, and that’s what we want to become. We want to say that we are a vibrant part of the life of New York City and the world.”
Across the country in Los Angeles, Beth Chayim Chadashim, the country’s oldest LGBT synagogue, recently reached a similar milestone, having moved into its own new building last year and celebrating its 40th anniversary this past June.
LGBT congregations have finally come into their own, providing a home for the Jewish community’s LGBT members and their friends and families in cities both large and small. But the increasing acceptance around gay issues in mainstream synagogues, from Reconstructionist to Reform to Conservative, and even on the fringes of Modern Orthodoxy, means that these synagogues are no longer the only option for LGBT Jews. So, the lines that once seemed so clear have begun to blur: LGBT synagogues in places like Cleveland and Atlanta are merging or outgrowing their original designation and drawing a more diverse membership, even as mainstream congregations sign up new gay members and become more diverse.
According to Jay Michaelson, founder of Nehirim, an organization dedicated to LGBT spirituality, “There are some people for whom living their Jewish identity is linked to their queer identity, but for others, 2013 isn’t 1983. Most synagogues, outside of the Orthodox world, are welcoming, or at least won’t slam the door in their faces. The LGBT synagogues that used to be the default option for gay people no longer are.”
The future for LGBT synagogues, therefore, is unclear. Have they achieved the goals that led to their establishment in the first place—and if so, have they already outlived their purpose, now that mainstream synagogues have become more welcoming? Where will these synagogues be in another 40 years?
By the early 1970s, the gay-rights movement was gaining steam. Although not the first incident of its kind, the 1969 Stonewall police raid, and the riots that followed, galvanized the gay community, both in New York and nationally. Political and advocacy organizations formed, and Gay Pride parades started marching through American cities.
But politics was not the only arena seeing a surge in LGBT-oriented institution-building. The spiritually minded, long marginalized or rejected by mainstream religious institutions, began to demand places of their own where they could come together for community and prayer. Metropolitan Community Church, the nation’s first “gay church,” and other gay-friendly Christian institutions began hosting social and religious events that drew crowds of seekers. Despite the obvious theological barriers, some Jews participated at MCC, feeling they had no other choices open to them. They had found nowhere in the established Jewish world that would allow both their gay and Jewish identities to be fully and publicly expressed.
Eventually, small clusters of predominantly gay men and a few lesbians set up synagogues of their own in cities across the country, slowly growing from shoestring operations to full-service synagogues. BCC in Los Angeles opened its doors in 1972. CBST in New York followed in 1973. By the end of the 1970s, LGBT synagogues had opened in cities all around the country. In each, marginalized LGBT groups, desiring authentic communal and spiritual spaces, formed congregations that catered to their needs.
While the earliest congregations appeared in the span of just a few years, there was no concerted effort to create a movement. Word trickled out into the national gay community that groups of people were getting together, but each nascent congregation formed independent of the others. In the very early years, they weren’t affiliated with any of the major Jewish denominations, either. No one expected any of the mainstream movements to want to add LGBT synagogues to their rosters. As a result, many within BCC were surprised when, in 1974, the Reform movement supported its bid for formal affiliation.
“The prevailing sense within the community at the time was an expectation of a negative response to the application,” according to Stephen Sass, BCC’s unofficial historian and president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, “but when they went to meet with Rabbi Arnold Kaiman of the then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, his only question was, ‘How can we help you?’ ”
As the number of LGBT congregations around the country grew, many became affiliated with the Reform or Reconstructionist movements. Still, for decades, LGBT Jews faced a choice: They could be openly gay within LGBT synagogues, or remain closeted in mainstream congregations. The exclusion from those mainstream synagogues was real—temples and synagogues, even on the politically, socially, and religiously liberal end of the spectrum, did not welcome openly LGBT members.
While closeted individuals could attend services, and even join as members, LGBT couples and families had it harder. Partnerships were not acknowledged. Rabbis would not perform life-cycle events, such as bris or simchat bat ceremonies that named two men as fathers or two women as mothers. Even on a social level, participation could be difficult, even if just a handful of congregants were loudly uncomfortable with the presence of gay men or lesbians within the synagogue.
As Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a national Jewish LGBT advocacy organization, explained, “When I started doing this work as a paid professional, the refrain was ‘the Jewish community rejected me, or I know they would reject me.’ There was real hostility and rejection experienced.”
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