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My Favorite Biennial: Changing a Movement
by Michael Rankin

Before the Union’s 1985 Biennial in Los Angeles, it was a very different world for gay and lesbian Jews.

In l985, the UAHC’s (now URJ) newly published Torah commentary included within its discussion of Leviticus 18 a reference to some gay men as child molesters. While the Union had accepted into membership three predominately gay and lesbian congregations, only one, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, was served by an openly gay rabbi. Heterosexual rabbis who considered serving these synagogues were warned by colleagues that such posts might ruin their rabbinic careers.

Change might have happened eventually. But one workshop at the Los Angeles Biennial hastened that change. Some believe it transformed the Reform Movement.

The workshop, called “Toward a Greater Understanding of Our Gay and Lesbian Brothers and Sisters,” was organized by members of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav—which I then served as president—and chaired by Jerome Somers, a future chairman of the Union’s Board. I was the one gay man on the panel.

Believing few would attend, Biennial planners reserved a small room. At the beginning I thought they were right. The room was almost empty. A young cantor came in, looked around, took a seat far in the back. Others, equally anxious, joined him in the last row…as if they were trying to disappear into the back wall.

Then the room began to fill. Union President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler walked in and took one of the few remaining seats. Soon there was standing-room-only.

When it was my turn, I presented a slide show. “A Year in the Life of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav” began with our High Holy Day worship in the packed Unitarian church we rented. In the first slide, viewers saw a woman at the front signing the service for the hearing impaired and a child running down the aisle. The message was evident: we were sensitive to the needs of a variety of congregants—and many of us had children.

The slides continued. Tashlich under the Golden Gate Bridge, where a busload of Japanese tourists had joined us in our hora circle after we cast our bread into the Bay. Our sukkah in Golden Gate Park. Our Purim spiel, “Polyester,” with a full-bearded past president dressed as Esther. The laughter broke the ice. Even those in the back row began to relax.

More slides. A Sha’ar Zahav section at a baseball game at Candlestick Park. A “Trail Midrash” hike on Mt. Tamalpais, Torah study under the redwoods, a congregational second seder at Ft. Mason Officers’ Club, congregants demonstrating on behalf of Soviet Jews in front of the Russian consulate, a fundraiser at the Jewish Festival in the Park for Ethiopian Jews and individuals devastated by HIV and AIDS.

The slide show ended, and for a few seconds the room went silent. Suddenly the audience rose, almost as one, for a standing ovation. None of us will ever forget that moment of affirmation.

Afterwards the cantor and several rabbis sought us out to talk of their struggles. What did we think would happen if they came out to their congregations? We couldn’t say—it depended on the congregation, the rabbi, the leaders. But this we did know: whatever the result, they would be infinitely happier out of the closet.

Returning to Seattle, the cantor came out, first to his rabbi, then to the congregation’s president, and finally to the temple board. Without exception, every person was loving and supportive.

His partner, whom he had been reluctant to introduce to the congregation, began to attend services and later became a Jew by Choice.

Others came out as well.

Gay and lesbian applicants to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion began to open up about their homosexuality during their interviews. If otherwise qualified, they were admitted. They formed a student association at the seminary.

Rabbi Schindler began speaking of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender inclusion at regional and national biennials. He called on UAHC leaders to join with the CCAR in forming a Committee on HIV and AIDS, so not only Jews but everyone living with the virus could experience compassionate care.

In time, our Movement voted to support rabbis who wished to officiate at gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies. The majority of Reform rabbis now officiate at weddings or civil ceremonies for same-gender couples committed to living Jewish lives. Gay and lesbian Jews, both lay and professional, have taken their place among the leaders of Reform Judaism. And that offensive section in The Torah: A Modern Commentary was replaced with a new one reflecting current scientific understanding of the etiology and nature of homosexuality.

Although the parashah for that Los Angeles Biennial was Vayera, Genesis 18-22, which includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, nobody at the workshop commented on those verses. Perhaps we were more focused on hachnasat orhim, the mitzvah of offering hospitality to strangers and wayfarers.

After Los Angeles, we gay men and lesbians no longer felt like strangers and wayfarers. The doors of the tent of Sarah and Abraham had opened to us.

We were home.

Michael Rankin, M.D., is a member of the URJ Board, Anshe Chesed Congregation in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.


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