Gay Synagogues’ Uncertain Future
As mainstream acceptance grows—along with membership—gay congregations face unexpected questions
In the meantime, LGBT congregations focused on the work they set out to accomplish. They held Friday night and High Holiday services, as well as yearly community Seders. As the years passed, they grappled with the AIDS crisis and created ceremonies to mark the life-cycle events, tragic and joyous, reflective of the realities of their members’ lives.
Religious observance, social action, and political advocacy were entwined in the LGBT synagogue movement from the start. Founded by those who were fighting for their own legitimacy in a national culture that still enshrined homophobia in its jurisprudence and worldview, the congregations never saw themselves merely as a refuge from the larger world. Rather, as Kleinbaum stressed, they were a means to engaging with it. “We’re really addressing relevant issues of the 21st century. That comes from wisdom we’ve gained from being a gay shul,” she said, explaining CBST’s commitment to fighting not just against anti-gay bias but for the rights of immigrants, the homeless, and others.
By the 1990s, the daily reality for many LGBT Americans slowly began to shift. The drive for marriage equality was still years away, but acceptance was growing in both secular and Jewish spheres.
By the turn of the 21st century, LGBT individuals, couples, and same-sex-headed families were welcomed as full and equal participants in more liberal mainstream congregations. But the leadership lagged behind. While the Reconstructionist Movement ordained its first lesbian rabbi in 1985, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion began admitting openly LGBT students to its Reform rabbinical seminary in 1990, it took until 2007 for the Conservative movement to follow suit.
No longer excluded, LGBT Jews found themselves in a novel position. For the first time, they could choose where to affiliate without denying part of their identity. The degree to which this is true varies from city to city—LGBT Jews outside metropolitan areas still struggle—but in many places around the country, being openly gay and committed Jews became possible.
Examples of ways in which mainstream synagogues have reached out to LGBT Jews are not hard to find. Not only do clergy at B’nai Jeshurun, the third-oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in America, perform gay marriages, the community as a whole was vocally active in calling for the ultimately successful call to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State. Valley Beth Shalom, a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, has invited LGBT families to join as members for well over a decade and publicly took a stand against homophobia after the 2001 Boy Scouts of America decision to exclude gay men from leadership positions. Synagogues in cities with smaller Jewish populations have also stepped up: Ru’ach, the havurah dedicated to serving the LGBT community at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, runs programs year-round. And, despite the discomfort of some members, Agudas Achim, in Austin, Texas, performed what they called a brit ahavah (“covenant of love”) in 2005, solemnizing the relationship of a lesbian couple, on the synagogue’s bimah.
The shifts in mainstream synagogues and denominations have had a profound effect on LGBT synagogues and temples. Those in L.A., New York, and San Francisco continue to grow and thrive. It’s not just the physical buildings. Their missions and populations have expanded, too. In addition to children’s programming, they have seen their straight-identified membership increase. While CBST does not, on principle, count its members according to sexual orientation, it now boasts a large straight contingent. San Francisco’s Sha’ar Zahav, founded in 1977, has no such qualms: One-third of its 350 member families now identify as straight, according to longtime member and former President Alex Ingersoll.
These cities are big enough to accommodate both vibrant LGBT synagogues and any number of mainstream congregations that may hold more appeal to some gay Jews. In smaller cities, the ability of LGBT Jews to choose to affiliate with institutions that may once have been closed to them has produced different results.
In Boston, for example, the local LGBT synagogue Am Tikva has been in existence since 1976, but it remains small and lay-led. Similarly, Congregation Etz Chaim in Southern Florida maintains a devoted, if largely older membership. Both Boston and Southern Florida have sizable Jewish communities, but Am Tikva and CEC do not necessarily represent the center of LGBT Jewish life in their communities. As more options open, local LGBT Jews choose synagogues to pray at and affiliate with based not solely on where they will be welcome as gay men and lesbians, but on personal preferences: type of prayer service, religious and social programming, even how much traffic they’ll have to fight on Friday nights.
In still other cities, LGBT synagogues are losing their distinctive character. In Cleveland, Chevrei Tikvah became a havurah within a large, well-established mainstream Reform congregation in 2005. And in Atlanta, Congregation Bet Haverim has embraced the gradual expansion of its mission; now the city’s only Reconstuctionist temple, it proudly touts its founding by gay men and lesbians while serving a membership of which a full 50 percent identify as straight.
Jeri Kagel, president emerita at Bet Haverim, explained the process of opening up to more straight members. Established as an independent congregation by a group of gay men and lesbians, the synagogue began to expand its membership even before joining the Reconstructionist movement, when its progressive vision began to attract increasing numbers of non-LGBT people. Slowly, the criteria set by the congregation changed, from the demand that members had to be gay to belong to eventually abolishing all restrictions to membership.
“Our fear,” Kagel explained, “was that we’d be taken over, that our gay and lesbian identity would be lost, but ultimately we decided that we didn’t want to do to others what they did to us, which is not be welcoming.” But, she added, “thankfully, our fears have not been realized, and our dreams have. We have been an incredible model of how to embrace differences and how to create a vibrant community.”
Still, LGBT-oriented synagogues struggle with the same dilemmas as all other non-Orthodox congregations: Fewer and fewer people are joining as members. Even the most inclusive mainstream synagogues struggle to maintain their dues bases. The situation seems especially stark among LGBT Jews. According to Nehirim’s Michaelson, only 12 percent belong to any congregation. As Joan Schaeffer, the first lesbian president of the mainstream Temple Israel of Greater Miami said, “The Jewish community is looking for Jews. People aren’t aligning themselves with religious institutions as much as they used to, so it’s a little bit easier to be who you are these days.”
In My Mother’s Wars, Lillian Faderman recalls her single mother’s frustrated efforts to save her family from the Holocaust