Navigate to Belief section

Destination Wedding

How a Toronto shul grappled with gay marriage

June 15, 2009
Interior view of the First Narayever Congregation(Interior View of the First Narayever. Photo © Robert Burley. Ontario Jewish Archives.)
Interior view of the First Narayever Congregation(Interior View of the First Narayever. Photo © Robert Burley. Ontario Jewish Archives.)

Anyone who knows anything about how synagogues work—especially small synagogues—won’t be surprised to hear there was a big debate at last night’s annual meeting of the First Narayever Congregation, an unaffiliated traditional-egalitarian synagogue in Toronto, about whether to shell out for the installation of a regular elevator to replace the rickety contraption that currently ferries disabled congregants up to the main sanctuary.

But the first item on the agenda last night—a proposal to allow the synagogue’s rabbi to officiate at same-sex marriages—generated almost no debate at all. Of the 175 members who cast a ballot, 164, or 94 percent, voted in favor—a margin that may have surprised even the most optimistic observers, and well in excess of the 75 percent supermajority needed to pass. “That’s as close to unanimous as you get,” said Ali Engel-Yan, a member of the ritual committee who was heavily involved in the issue.

Sunday’s meeting was the second time the synagogue, one of Toronto’s oldest, put the question to a vote; the first time, in 2004, a majority of congregants supported allowing same-sex marriages, but the proposal failed to reach the required supermajority, then fixed at 80 percent. (The decision in 2006 to lower the bar to 75 percent, and to allow proxy voting, was done in part to facilitate passage of the same-sex marriage question.) The quiet success of the second effort capped an eight-year process by the 600-member congregation to reconcile the inclusive, egalitarian beliefs that underpin Nareyever’s existence with the desire to maintain halachic integrity; in other words, to arrive at the conclusion, by consensus, that, just as they could call themselves “traditional” while allowing women to read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls, they could extend participation in the rituals of family life to gay men and lesbians without giving up the beloved designation.

When the issue first came up, only the Reform rabbinate had voted to allow same-sex marriages in North American congregations, and only a handful of Canadian provinces, including Ontario, were issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Within Narayever, even those who considered themselves in favor of gay rights generally struggled to find support for their moral convictions in the religious texts.

“They might be small ‘L’ liberals in their lives, but they do look at the shul as being a bedrock of tradition that doesn’t just flow with the times but that defends things that are timeless,” Narayever’s rabbi, Ed Elkin, said during a recent interview in his small office. “The concern in 2004 was that we were going out on a limb—‘Does this mean we’re going to be a gay shul?’ was a concern of people,” Elkin went on. “And there were people, a subgroup of those who were in favor of gay marriage, who objected to the whole process. They said it was a human right—that the rights of the minority shouldn’t be voted on.”

In the intervening five years, the ground has shifted considerably. Canada passed a federal same-sex marriage statute in 2005, becoming the fourth country in the world to allow gay civil marriage. (A handful of U.S. states—starting with Massachusetts in May 2004—have opened their marriage bureaus to gay couples.) Some Christian denominations have engaged with the issue and, in 2006, the Rabbinical Assembly of the American Conservative movement issued opinions allowing individual congregations that adopted gay marriage rituals to remain within the movement. “It would have made us a fringe shul [in 2004]—we would have been jumping the gate,” one Narayever congregant told me at a kiddush lunch in late May. “Now,” he shrugged, “no one cares.”


The First Narayever Congregation is housed in a modest brick building, painted slate-blue, at the corner of a residential side street just west of the University of Toronto campus. Originally built as a Forester’s Lodge, the synagogue was used as a Mennonite church before members of the congregation, initially established in 1918 as a mutual aid society for emigrants from Naraiev in the Ukrainian region of Galicia, bought it in 1940. But like many small downtown shuls—not just in Toronto, but in cities across North America—Narayever found itself steadily emptying through the 1950s and 1960s as its founding members died or went to live with their children, who in large part moved to the suburbs or gravitated away from their parents’ orthodoxy. They joined Toronto’s newer, bigger synagogues, like the Reform Holy Blossom Temple or the Conservative Beth Tzedec.

By the 1970s, the shul itself had fallen into a state of semi-disrepair; photographs show the building with its front windows boarded up. It was saved by a small group of Jews—led in part by young academics living in the neighborhood—who began holding egalitarian services downstairs that, while Orthodox in approach, reflected the progressive social values of the baby-boom generation. Dianne Saxe, who joined the shul in 1982, said she was sold from the moment she walked into her first service and saw a man leading services with his baby resting on his shoulder. “I’d never seen that,” said Saxe, who was then a freshly minted attorney with a toddler and an infant of her own.

At that time, gender-egalitarian practices were about as welcome in Orthodox shuls—and, particularly in Canada, in Conservative shuls—as gay marriages are today. The remaining members of the original Orthodox congregation sued unsuccessfully to stop women from handling Torahs during services in the downstairs rec room, but in short order the new gender-egalitarian congregation had displaced the aging remnant of the original membership in the main sanctuary. Seating was integrated and the partition dividing the men’s and women’s sections was moved down to the function hall. The few elderly members who didn’t decamp for shtiebls in the surrounding neighborhood were given two rows of single-sex seating alongside the bimah, mainly so that the poorest among them would feel comfortable continuing to come eat at the lunches that followed Shabbat services.

But as the rest of the city’s Jewish community caught up in terms of adopting gender-egalitarian practices, the weight of the shul’s identity shifted back to its “traditional” designation, with its full Torah readings each Saturday. Nonetheless, Narayever retained a kind of rookie spirit. It’s the kind of place where new members are immediately asked which committee they want to join; the most active members have given thousands of hours of volunteer time to keep it going. Because it never affiliated with a movement, Narayever pursued a do-it-yourself approach, reflected as much as anything in the neatly trimmed mailing-label stickers, printed with a version of the Amidah prayer that includes the female progenitors of the Jewish tribes, that have been carefully stuck into each copy of the Orthodox Birnbaum siddurs tucked into pew pockets. The congregation is flexible enough to hold on to people who profess a variety of views on God, from mild agnosticism to outright atheism (moderated by the belief that Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the living of a good life); but the size of the congregation reinforces a general preference for consensus on matters ranging from ritual practice to construction projects; no one wants to drive anyone away from a place they see not just as family-friendly, but as an extended family.

The first time the question of how to accommodate gay members arose was in the late 1980s, when a lesbian couple applied for family membership; the board sidestepped the question by converting all family memberships into individual memberships. In early 2001, almost a year after the American Reform rabbinate voted to consecrate same-sex unions, another lesbian member asked Elkin, Narayever’s rabbi, to officiate at her wedding. The timing couldn’t have been more awkward: Elkin, who grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue on Long Island, New York, was ordained at Hebrew Union College, and while he had voted in favor of the same-sex marriage resolution at the Reform rabbinate meeting that year in Greensboro, North Carolina, he had only been at Narayever a few months, and he didn’t feel it was his place to test the limits of his new congregants’ liberalism. “I was a Reform rabbi by training, and I wouldn’t say that I came here knowing what the congregation meant by ‘traditional-egalitarian,’ and how far I could go,” Elkin said. “I didn’t feel when the couple contacted me that I could just say yes and go ahead.” Instead, he took the issue to the board, which established a “committee on inclusion” in 2001 to study the myriad halachic questions that would be involved in sanctioning gay marriage.

In keeping with the intellectual bent of the congregation, the committee proceeded to meet monthly over the course of a year to consider 200 pages of readings; at the same time, open meetings were convened to bring the rest of the congregation into the discussion, with presentations by rabbis representing a variety of viewpoints and a screening of the film Trembling Before G-d about the alienation of gay Orthodox Jews. By March 2003, the committee had produced a densely written 24-page report, along with a 13-page appendix annotating Torah and Talmudic commentaries relating to same-sex marriage, which carries the legend “Do that which is right and good in the eyes of G-d” on the front. After 18 months of discussion, they were prepared to recommend that Narayever begin allowing gay members to participate fully in life-cycle events—birth and death announcements, aliyahs at bar and bat mitzvahs, conversions—and to continue making anniversary announcements for all members, regardless of sexual orientation, as it had begin doing in February 2002. But when it came to the central question—same-sex marriage—the committee said it could not reach consensus, and recommended waiting a year to vote at the June 2004 general meeting. “Some members may feel that we are recommending a delay just for the sake of delay,” the committee members wrote, noting that they had no intention of becoming a mini-Sanhedrin. “We believe that it would ultimately benefit the community more to live with the uncertainty for another year in order to have an opportunity for members to struggle with the issues in an informed and educated manner.”

The vote was held at a special meeting in January 2004. Synagogue members had argued themselves out, waylaying fellow congregants at traffic lights to share their latest thoughts on the issue and diverting themselves during Haftarah readings by thumbing through the voluminous resource binder the committee left in the sanctuary. “People did not want to drag it out until June,” said Elkin, who in December 2003 sent the membership his own 10-page letter offering a halachic analysis supporting Jewish same-sex marriage.

His reasoning was twofold: either the shift could be justified as a correction of an injustice based on outdated assumptions, as with women not being allowed to touch the Torah, or the ancient findings regarding homosexuality could be re-interpreted to apply only to a very narrow category of almost pagan behaviors that simply do not pertain to committed same-sex relationships as they exist in the modern world.

“Historically, in the development of halacha, where there has been a will to change, a halachic way has usually been found to implement the change without undermining the tradition,” Elkin wrote his congregants. “The question is, do we have the will? … In bringing same-sex couples under the chuppah of our shul, we’d be doing something that Jews have never done before our own time, to our knowledge. We’d be doing so without the warrant of a bet din of rabbis whose views have been disseminated and accepted by other ‘traditional’ communities. It is, without a doubt, a ‘big deal.’” Elkin wound up with a flourish: “I would be proud to be the rabbi of a shul that used the tools halacha makes available to be as inclusive and as welcoming as it possibly can to a group of Jews who have been marginalized far too long.”

Seventy-one percent voted in favor, leaving the policy unchanged but giving proponents of same-sex marriage the moral victory—a big deal, of sorts, but also no deal at all. “It was an ideal result—it meant the people who were in favor felt good, and it bought us time,” said Saxe, who added that she was undecided herself until her children convinced her that breaking the halachic constraints on gay Jews was a change in the tradition that would make their generation more likely, rather than less, to remain within the Jewish fold. “Everyone knew it would come back in four or five or six years, and it wouldn’t be cataclysmic.”


Which is, of course, exactly what happened. Immediately following the first vote, a handful of members left, on both sides of the issue—people who, in the words of the 2003 committee report, “saw the halacha as so overwhelmingly opposed to recognition of same-sex relationships that they didn’t know why we were spending time contemplating a change,” and those who “felt that the need to have full inclusivity was so overwhelmingly clear that they didn’t know why we were spending time talking about the need to change.” In the meantime, the synagogue continued to grow, attracting about a hundred more members by this year than it had five years ago. Many are young adults who, unlike their parents, stayed downtown as they started families and wanted a congregation that offered an ethical and religious community; as members of not just the post-Stonewall generation, but the post-AIDS generation, the idea that religious strictures on same-sex couples should be so at odds with civil laws on marriage, and with their own beliefs, seemed more anachronistic than anything else. “I think this whole issue in our society, not just in our shul, but in society, is very generationally divided,” said Ali Engel-Yan, who at 32 is part of the younger generation of up-and-coming synagogue leaders. “Our generation is more open—it’s almost like yesterday’s news.”

At a recent Saturday kiddush—coincidentally following the reading of the Haftarah portion detailing the love between David and Jonathan, widely interpreted by gay scholars as a homosexual, not just fraternal, bond—members seemed more interested in discussing the latest gossip about the elevator issue than in reopening the marriage debate. “It’ll pass, no question,” several people told me. Yet many of the most ardent supporters—including synagogue officers and members of the ritual committee—declined to speak to me, on or off the record, before the vote, citing concerns not just about jinxing the outcome but about drawing attention to Narayever. Elkin said only a handful of people had turned up for a discussion session he had about the issue in early May—something he attributed to the fact that most had made up their minds already, rather than to disinterest or ambivalence. The central question that preoccupied participants at that meeting was about how the shul would accommodate transgender members. “The person who brought it up seemed to be saying not so much ‘where is this heading’ but ‘let’s try to get it all together and try to anticipate what the next hot issue is going to be,’” Elkin said. “That was a surprise for me.”

It’s not clear who will be the first gay couple to be married in the shul, but at least one couple was waiting on the outcome of the vote to book their aufruf in the sanctuary. “If it had gone the other way, this morning I would have been sending out mass emails asking who knows how to read Torah, because we would have had to do it ourselves,” said Orrin Wolpert, who regularly attends Narayever’s Friday night services, when Elkin holds roundtable discussions about the week’s Torah portion. He and his fiance, due to be married in early August, decided not to upend their wedding plans, but called first thing this morning to pick a date. With Elkin’s assistance, Wolpert has developed a 20-page handbook of wording and practice for a same-sex marriage ceremony that he believes is in keeping with Narayever’s traditional practices. (Wolpert, a longtime friend, shared the document with me in draft form). “As practicing Jews, we take seriously the commandments of the Torah and believe it is our responsibility to embrace them and honour them,” Wolpert writes in the introduction. “At the same time, we assert our rights as members of B’nai Yisrael to live by these commandments and to enjoy the rituals that were derived from them, regardless of our sexual orientation.”

Yet, in an odd way, the point of taking the vote at Narayever was simply to have it done—to have the issue resolved, rather than hanging like a sword of Damocles over the congregation the next time a couple came forward asking for a wedding. “Someone had to decide, and who should decide? The rabbi? The board?” asked Elkin. “There are advantages and disadvantages to the way we’re doing it, to this process.” He said some supporters of same-sex marriage had pushed for him to decide by fiat—a move he resisted this time as he had in 2004. “My instinct was that on such a fundamental issue it’s best if the whole shul decides, because that way the decision has the strength of the whole community,” Elkin said. “This is the whole community walking forward together, holding hands—it’s happening elsewhere, but it’s still new for us.”

A draft of Wolpert’s same-sex wedding service is available for download here, in PDF form.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.