If you walk into the local kosher Chinese restaurant in West Hempstead, L.I., on a Saturday morning, or on the upcoming High Holidays, you won’t find any dim sum or lo mein. Instead, you’ll find around 70 people praying with Kehillat Ahavat Yisrael, a growing progressive Orthodox synagogue with a reputation for being especially LGBT-friendly.
For years, the Long Island community of West Hempstead, home to a large Orthodox community, had one main Orthodox synagogue. But recently, Kehillat Ahavat Yisrael has been evolving from a house (cum-Chinese-eatery) minyan into an incorporated synagogue. Since March it has been fundraising to rent a building and buy its own Torah scroll.
“It’s completely altered what’s going on in our community,” said Shlomit Metz-Poolat, the founder and president of the synagogue.
Metz-Poolat had been a member of Anshei Shalom in West Hempstead, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, for 19 years, even after she married her partner in 2012. But when the synagogue moved its membership directory to an online system last year, the shul updated its roster using tax records, causing her member entry to change to her hyphenated last name — including her partner’s last name. The shul revoked her membership, eventually prompting her to start her own minyan where she and her partner would be welcome.
The synagogue’s LGBT-friendly reputation has already spread, attracting visitors from all over the New York area who have been looking for a synagogue where they can be openly gay and Orthodox. Other rabbis have taken notice and offered their services and support. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., donated old siddurim from his synagogue, and Rabbi Susan Elkodsi of the Malverne (L.I.) Jewish Center donated 30 Hertz chumashim (volumes containing the Five Books of Moses). The synagogue has already hosted Rabbanit Goldie Guy, a graduate of the open Orthodox rabbinical school for women Yeshivat Maharat, as a scholar-in-residence.
Rabbi Boaz Tomsky, a teacher at Solomon Schechter of Queens who lives in West Hempstead, has been acting as the rabbi of Kehillat Ahavat Yisrael since it began late last year. Having grown up in a small Jewish community in New London, Conn., Tomsky identifies strongly with the synagogue’s emphasis on inclusion and community.
“When a person comes to a synagogue, they’re welcomed; we don’t look at how they got there,” said Tomsky. “The focus is allowing everyone to feel like they have a place … [that is] nonjudgmental … where they’re able to practice their religion, feel comfortable and feel connected.”
While the synagogue began as a place where Metz-Poolat and her partner, as well as other LGBT Jews in the area, could feel comfortable, the mission of the synagogue has since expanded. It has already hosted a bat mitzvah ceremony where the honoree gave a dvar Torah during the service, a practice that is not allowed at the other Orthodox synagogue in West Hempstead. (The first bar mitzvah ceremony will take place next week.) Metz-Poolat plans to implement a membership structure that makes alterations for different types of households, such as for people living alone.
“It’s got nothing to do with LGBT Jews anymore,” said Metz-Poolat. “It’s become this place where we don’t care who you are; you’re welcome.”
Andrew Marcus, who moved with his partner to West Hempstead to be part of the synagogue community, agreed that Kehillat Ahavat Yisrael’s mission is inclusion, broadly defined.
“LGBT people are not the only people who feel on the outside of Orthodox communities,” said Marcus, the synagogue’s vice president. “Folks who feel like they don’t have a place in the mainstream Orthodox community will have a mainstream place with us.”
About setting up the synagogue and taking it down again at the [Wing Wan] Chinese restaurant where they pray each week, Metz-Poolat said, “It’s really grassroots. It’s like the Jews in the desert carrying the aron [ark].”