The rabbis of the nation’s gay and lesbian synagogues gathered this week at a first-of-its kind meeting, held at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in the West Village.
Their goal was to share experiences "and to find out whether there are in fact things unique to us as leaders of gay and lesbian congregations," said one participant, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Los Angeles’ Bet Chayim Chadashim, during a lunch break.
The answer, she and other participants said, is that there are and there aren’t.
Ten rabbis attended from the nine gay and lesbian congregations in the United States large enough to employ clergy. They came from cities across the country, including San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and Oakland Park, Fla. Some of the rabbis are gay men, some are lesbians, and some are straight, and they were ordained by the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movement seminaries.
There are about 30 gay and lesbian Jewish congregations around the country, said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of the synagogue where the meeting was held, but most are small and more like havurot.
The result of the two-day, closed-door meeting, held Sunday and Monday, was a great sense of validation among peers and a plan to meet again next winter in Los Angeles, said participants.
While in New York they addressed a range of common concerns unique to gay and lesbian synagogue leaders. One of the most pressing is determining how best to serve the families with young children who are becoming more common at gay and lesbian synagogues, while not alienating older members, who established the congregations as adult places in an era when gay couples didn’t often have kids.
About half of gay and lesbian congregations today have Hebrew schools, Rabbi Kleinbaum said, and all offer some child-oriented programming. Beth Simchat Torah is planning to open its own Hebrew school in September 2001.
Another challenge relates to the content of child-oriented programming. "What does it mean to be in a family with two mothers or two fathers in the material we produce for a Chanukah celebration or Passover seder?" asked Rabbi Kleinbaum. "How much do we assume that the Jewish family has a man and woman as the adults, and what does it change when you have two people of the same sex?"
An issue that propelled gay people to found the first of these congregations 25 years ago, the difficulty of being accepted as homosexual by family members, is today receding somewhat as a problem, said conference participants.
"People dealing with rejecting families is much, much less of a problem now than it was in the early years," said Edwards. That issue was aided by the March vote of the Reform rabbis’ organization to sanction same-sex commitment ceremonies. It helps because now "people are hearing validation from an authority which had been ambivalent," Edwards said.
Yet gay Jews can still face difficulty when they come out as homosexual, said others.
"Many people feel like they’ve had to make a choice between being Jewish and being gay, and that’s still true in the year 2000," Rabbi Kleinbaum said. "A lot of people have experienced brokenness at the hands of Judaism."
Meeting with the other rabbis validated "the really important role that rabbis have to heal that," she said. "We are the ones in the trenches. We see the broken bodies and souls that result from the anti-gay religious language of people like Dr. Laura.
"It’s not abstract to us. We’re counseling and interacting with people every day who are broken by that. We see our task is really doing God’s work to provide an alternative and deeply religious response."
Part of that response is through developing rituals and liturgy for gay and lesbian Jews, said the rabbis.
There is, currently, a "prayer for coming out" which is recited at many gay and lesbian synagogues, said the rabbis.
Today they are also developing liturgies for commitment ceremonies, baby-naming rituals, and divorce, they said, and at the conference shared what they’re doing.
There are also ethical issues which, if not unique to gay and lesbian Jewish communities, come up far more often there than elsewhere, said the rabbis, like those related to using anonymous sperm donors to get pregnant.
Overall, though, religious life at gay and lesbian synagogues is essentially the same as it is at others, said participants.
"I don’t think that the differences are as dramatic as people would expect," said Rabbi Bob Saks, of Bet Mishpachah in Washington, D.C. "When people come to our synagogue they’re coming for the same reasons that any other Jews come to synagogue. With few exceptions, we say the same prayers. It’s not really different in content."
The bottom line for gay and lesbian synagogues is that people are there to be Jewish first and foremost, Kleinbaum said. "What people don’t realize is that gay people don’t always think about being gay."
Aside from planning to meet again next winter, "we aren’t really sure what the future’s going to be" for this new group, she said. The rabbis were not planning to function as a political advocacy group, though the possibility was raised at the meeting.
"We had so much to talk about with this first gathering," she said. "The future’s wide open."