Gay Synagogues’ Uncertain Future
As mainstream acceptance grows—along with membership—gay congregations face unexpected questions
At the same time, a demographic shift began. By the 1990s, more and more nuclear families were becoming part of the fabric of the LGBT synagogue. For the first time, integrating children into synagogue life became an issue in environments that had been formed by adults. What Kleinbaum notes about CBST is true across the board: LGBT congregations “started as adult-oriented communities.” In this, they broke from the model of other liberal temples and synagogues in America, which were established to serve families with young children right from the start.
According to Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, the number of LGBT people affiliating will only grow when they have more children, explaining, “The people who are most involved are the ones raising Jewish children, because at that point in their lives they have to reflect upon what it means to be Jewish, and they need the help of other Jews to socialize their children into Jewish life.”
That day may come, but for now, most LGBT Jews don’t have children. Those who choose to participate in synagogue life do so for any number of other reasons. “There are people,” said Keshet’s Klein, “who wanted to go to a ‘regular’ shul. Or wanted a rabbi. Or wanted services every week. Or wanted a particular service or a shul with its own building. Or a host of other reasons that people will choose one shul over another.”
LGBT congregations have proven themselves to be an important part of the landscape of organized Judaism. In welcoming members’ straight families and allies, they continue to teach mainstream synagogues how to become more inclusive. They have led the way in creating prayers and ceremonies that are both steeped in tradition and speak to the needs of the modern world. They dedicated themselves to social action long before it became a catchword in the broader Jewish world.
But what of the future? As liberal synagogues, both LGBT and mainstream, struggle to attract and retain members, will they band together to change the way organized Jewish life functions? Will mainstream synagogues catch up and render LGBT-identified synagogues irrelevant?
Cohen thinks so, especially because there is a significant minority of LGBT “younger adults, who are post-sexual orientation about identity.” Nehirim’s Michaelson agrees: “Generally, millennials are a generation of people not interested in self-segregation. Just being gay is boring. To choose an LGBT-specific community, there has to be another compelling reason, something more than mere identity.”
That trend will no doubt continue, but it may not presage the end of the LGBT synagogue movement. Judaism, after all, has never been uniform. It has long accommodated differences, whether between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Orthodox and liberal, LGBT and mainstream. Keshet’s Klein predicts, “In 40 years, LGBT shuls will be alive and well and will continue the current trend of being ever more diverse and ever more sensitive to inclusion while still being particularly attuned to the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.”
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