Yelena Goltsman always knew she was gay, even as she grew up in the former Soviet Union, married a warm and supportive husband and raised two children, now in their 20s. But she didn’t know how to handle the knowledge and, like other gays, often felt like a second-class citizen.
Goltsman met her current partner, Barbara Freedman, more than a decade ago at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the city’s LGBT synagogue, and began dating her seriously in 2005. But the feeling of second-class citizenship began to change only a few days ago — with the State Senate’s June 24 passage of the Marriage Equality Act.
“If I had to describe two steps on the path to living a freer, more fulfilled life,” the 48-year-old Goltsman said, “the first would be leaving the Soviet Union,” where because she was Jewish she was denied employment in engineering, her field at the time, and refused educational advancement. And the second step would have to be “this weekend,” Goltsman said, calling the occasion “a huge step toward freedom” and a moment when she realized “I could be who I am not only to my kids and partner, but in the eyes of the law.”
In the days since the bill’s passage, thousands of stories have emerged over how the new law will change the lives of those directly affected by it. But among the most moving is that of Goltsman and Freedman, who are expected to become the first couple married at CBST under the new law.
“It was perfect timing,” Goltsman said, discussing the couple’s plans during New York’s annual pride parade last Sunday. She and Freedman scheduled the wedding more than a year ago, long before any hint that New York lawmakers would legalize same-sex marriage, and never guessed that their ceremony would be civil, as well as religious.
“God was looking over us,” Goltsman added, as Freedman, 47, nodded.
Earlier last weekend, the couple joined nearly 700 other members of New York’s gay, Jewish community at CBST’s annual Pride Shabbat, a festive occasion even in normal years, but even more ecstatic this year as it coincided with the bill’s passage. At one point, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the synagogue’s senior rabbi, announced from the pulpit that the measure had gained the votes it needed to put it over the edge, eliciting shouts, applause and tears of joys from congregants.
The same sense of jubilation continued as members of the synagogue walked to the Stonewall Tavern, where thousands of other gays and their supporters had gathered, and at the parade, where members of the CBST contingent spoke to The Jewish Week.
Rabbi Rachel Weiss, the synagogue’s assistant rabbi, said she and her colleagues had already received scores of e-mails and phone calls from congregants who were previously married in a religious ceremony, but now wanted a civil license as well, or who were never married and were looking forward to both.
One of those congregants is Stephen Frank, CBST’s president, who said Rabbi Kleinbaum led a religious wedding for him and his partner five years ago, but that they’re now planning to renew their vows. “We’ve been planning this for only the last 24 hours,” he said.
In discussing their reaction to the new law, which takes effect July 24, many of the marchers used terms like “validation,” “legitimacy” and “acceptance.”
Aimee Saginaw, for instance, said she’s certain the Marriage Equality Act “will make kids all over the country realize that people” — gay and straight — “have to be judged on the basis of their personality and not on who they love.”
Saginaw, 39, is single and has no plans to marry anytime soon. But she explained that the new law affects even gay and lesbian singles, saying she won’t “have to wake up every morning and think I’m a second-class citizen.”
Jewish gays in other segments of the community face a more difficult challenge, even with the new law, according to members of JQYouth, or Jewish Queer Youth, a nine-year-old group serving teens and young adults who grew up Orthodox.
Erez Harari, a founder and co-executive director of the group, said the act would have little bearing on how fast or fully the Orthodox world accepts gays as individuals — notwithstanding the issue of whether it can or should embrace gay marriage.
“Attitudes toward gays in the frum [Orthodox] community have less to do with politics,” said Harari, “and more to do with hearing the stories of gay Jews who come from that world and are struggling with their identity.”
The group’s co-executive director, Mordechai Levovitz, said the concerns of JQYouth are less about marriage and more along the lines of ensuring that yeshivas, synagogues and their own families “don’t kick us out,” but, instead, “learn to embrace and accept us.” None of those matters are related to halacha, he added.
Like gays in other communities, Jewish gays are now gearing up for their next battles.
Rabbi Kleinbaum, one of the leading figures in the organized gay Jewish community, described the new law as a “first step” and part of “the long haul,” rather than being a “final culmination.” The challenges ahead include repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed 15 years ago, and protecting the rights of transgendered people.ng
As a religious person, she said, she also believes “we must move forward and struggle against the elements that hate us, but we also must love.”
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America were among the religious organizations opposed to gay marriage and have fought for years against legalizing it.
Addressing the legal ramifications of the new act, Howie Beigelman, the OU’s deputy director of public policy, said his organization wishes the measure hadn’t been enacted. But now that it’s law, he said, he feels “pretty good” about the exemptions added to the bill to protect religious groups. As the law stands, he said, those groups can’t be sued or denied public funding if they refuse to provide services or benefits to same-sex couples.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the OU, spoke of the law’s religious ramifications, calling it an “insult” to groups like his that believe in the sanctity of traditional marriage.
“The act extends the definition of marriage to include something we believe is wrong,” Rabbi Weinreb said. “It dilutes the concept of marriage,” an idea with which Orthodox Jews have a “gut association.”
Gay advocacy organizations, many of which are led by Jews, including members of CBST, say they are looking ahead.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, said his organization would focus on repealing DOMA and replacing it with the Respect for Marriage Act sponsored in the House by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), which would "restore the traditional approach by which states marry couples and the federal government honors those marriages, without a gay exception,” he said.
Alan van Capelle, a former head of Empire State Pride Agenda and now the city’s deputy comptroller, echoed many activists in saying that New York’s action would have a ripple effect.
“There’s no question in my mind that marriage equality is no longer a matter of if — it’s now a matter of when — around the country,” he said.