Like many Americans, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum spent part of her morning last Friday glued to her computer watching the live blog from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The blog, of course, carried the court’s momentous decision granting a constitutional right to same-sex marriage — news that wasn’t unexpected for the rabbi, but that still had her “in shock” five hours later.
“It shows the radical social transformation is possible and that you can’t give up. We’re out of Egypt, so to speak, although we’re not at the Promised Land. We still have work to do, but we’re instructed to celebrate,” said Rabbi Kleinbaum, senior cleric at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, known informally as New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue.
It was a theme that Rabbi Kleinbaum repeated during a celebration that day at the Stonewall Inn, a landmark for the LGBTQ community, and during services that night. It was also repeated in the comments of other rabbis, activists and communal leaders, all of whom expressed joy over the court’s decision while acknowledging the challenges that lie ahead.
For members of Rabbi Kleinbaum’s congregation, the chance to share their jubilation with others began at Friday night services, which coincided with the start of Gay Pride Weekend. They heard an emotional words from the bima, linked arms while singing “We Shall Overcome,” and listened to the evening’s speaker, Diane Ravitch, the prominent educator who, for the first time publicly, announced she was gay.
Ravitch spoke to the congregation with her partner of 30 years, Mary Butz, only a few feet away. She told The Jewish Week that she decided to “come out” publicly as soon as she was invited to speak at CBST.
Asked if she felt any trepidation about making that announcement, Ravitch responded, “I’m 76 years old, so what do I care?”
Each group sported distinct banners, signs, and t-shirts and garnered shouts of “Shalom!” A hora circle formed midway through the route around Congregation Beit Simchat Torah’s float (which featured a chuppah [wedding canopy] made of a rainbow flag and a spangled Star of David).
Part civil rights demonstration, part celebration of LGBTQ identities, exuberant onlookers waved and cheered as decorative floats, families, and rainbow flags paraded down Fifth Avenue.
Shonna Levin wore a black suit, white shirt, and wide-brimmed black hat, an outfit often worn by young men in yeshiva. “For the bochur [young religious man] who lives in silence, I march with you,” her sign said.
“This is about pikuach nefesh (saving lives),” said Levin, citing how LGBT youth from unsupportive families are eight times more likely to commit suicide.
“This isn’t about an act that the Torah declares is not okay,” she said. “This is just about saving lives and affirming people’s identities and accepting people as they are regardless of their choices.”
Like Rabbi Kleinbaum, marchers stressed that their work is far from over.
“There are 77 countries in the world where same-sex relationships are punishable by imprisonment, and 8 or 10 where they’re punishable by death,” Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, told The Jewish Week as Jewish groups gathered before the march. “They’re not fighting for same-sex marriage. They’re fighting not to be imprisoned, they’re fighting not to be killed. Our sign says ‘The Jewish Voice for LGBT Rights Worldwide,’ and we’re marching on that cause.”
Similar opposition lined the sides of the parade behind the crowd, where a few protesters held signs reading “Judaism prohibits homosexuality, that is why God sent AIDS to punish male gays” and other messages. But most paid little notice, instead emphasizing the role Judaism continues to play in advancing social justice causes.
“Judaism, especially progressive Judaism, has always been a very prominent voice for change in this country,” said a marcher with CBST who asked not to be named since he is not a member of the synagogue. “We’re called upon to defend the rights of the poor and the downtrodden and the widow and the orphan and so on and so forth. Judaism always seems to me to be this iconoclast voice calling out complacency, calling out conformity for the sake of conformity.”
In the U.S., perhaps those most affected by the court’s ruling are gay and lesbian couples in states that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage until the day of the decision or shortly before it. Ed Reggi, who lives with his spouse, Scott Emanuel, in St. Louis, made headlines when he Emanuel began organizing bus trips from St. Louis to Iowa, where a court overturned that state’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2009.
The Marriage Equality Bus, as it was dubbed, made a total of 15 trips to Iowa in five years, recalled Reggi, a 44-year-old Brooklyn native and member of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. The idea came to fruition, he said, after he and Emanuel decided to travel to Iowa to get married and, within a week or two, heard from more than a dozen couples who wanted to join them.
Another Jewish couple directly affected by the ruling are Joseph Metzger and Keith Dossiere, members of Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El, the largest Reform synagogue in the Southwest.
Metzger, 25, said that he and Dossiere traveled to New York last fall to get legally married in order to ease the process or hiring a surrogate to carry their baby. The action “helped us enter the contract as one unit,” Metzger said, but they couldn’t begin planning their estate since Texas didn’t recognize out-of-state marriages.
“The day of the [U.S. Supreme Court] ruling, we called our estate-planning attorney to get the ball rolling,” Metzger said. “We didn’t have to jump through any hoops, because the State of Texas now recognizes our marriage as legal.”
Back at New York’s CBST, reactions to last Friday’s ruling ranged from expressions of satisfaction to those of sheer joy.
Standing next to her partner, Marni Arlev, Julie Arlev reacted as the lawyer she is, saying that in light of the court’s 2013 decision overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act, “it would have been hard for the court not to rule this way. It would have been inconsistent with Windsor,” the 2013 case named for Edith Windsor, a New York resident and a member of CBST.
“I hope for it, and we were completely overjoyed,” said Marsha Melnick, 68, speaking for herself and her spouse, Susan E. Meyer. “It’s a great victory for everyone — for the whole country.”
Even while celebrating, though, leaders and friends of the LGBTQ couldn’t help but return to thoughts of the work that lies ahead.
Pockets of resistance to the ruling were reported in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, where the state’s attorney general advised county clerks that they could refuse marriage licenses to gays on religious grounds.
Within the Jewish community, the goal needs to be on ensuring that synagogues, day schools and community centers take steps to make LGBT Jews feel welcome, said James Cohen, acting executive director of Keshet, a national group working for LGBT inclusion in Jewish life. Those steps might include posting photos of gay couples on synagogue websites or changing the wording on day-school application forms “from mother and father to parent one and parent two.”
“Those might seem superficial, but they’re a start,” Cohen added. “When I look at a synagogue website and see families that look like mine, I know I’m welcome.”
“We reiterate the historical position of the Jewish faith, enunciated unequivocally in our Bible, Talmud and Codes, which forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages,” the OU Advocacy Center said. “Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.”
At the same time, the OU Advocacy Center said the organization recognizes that “no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic” and doesn’t expect that “secular law will always align with our viewpoint.”
Like other religious organizations, including Agudath Israel, the OU’s statement expressed concern about how the court’s ruling would affect “institutions and individuals who abide by religious teachings that limit their ability to support same-sex relationships.”
But Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said Tuesday that pockets of resistance to the ruling were “fizzling out.” He also dismissed the claim by conservative religious groups that last Friday’s ruling could result in discrimination against religious schools or clerics opposed to gay marriage.
“It’s a familiar tactic used by opponents of civil rights,” said Wolfson, a member of CBST. “When they fail to block advances in civil rights, they then try to subvert them by claiming special licenses to discriminate.”
Looking to the future, Wolfson said LGBT activists now need to focus on the passage of a federal law that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Such a measure should prohibit discrimination in all areas of the law, including housing, employment and public accommodations, he said.
Doug Chandler is a Jewish Week correspondent and Talia Lakritz is a Jewish Week editorial intern.