Tables set with candles, lavender cloth, and pink haggadot filled the sanctuary as temple members and their friends arrived to celebrate the first LGBT event held at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa—a Pride Seder. Parents, children, grandparents, singles and couples, most of whom were not LGBT, shared in reading a haggadah which merged the Passover narrative with the liberation story of Jews who have come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
In the past, the handful of LGBT Jews belonging to Shomrei Torah didn’t want to be treated differently than other members by having congregational LGBT events, but the struggle for marriage equality in California inspired them to start sharing their experiences through the seder and other community conversations.
Even today, LGBT people feel the sting of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. LGBT events grounded in Jewish education, tikkun olam, and community allow for meaningful conversations and supportive role models within the relative safety of a temple’s walls. Special programs—same-sex marriages, baby-naming rituals for LGBT parents, prayers of healing, and memorial ceremonies for LGBT members and their families—offer temple members a chance to stand with us in our struggle for full inclusion, and help build stronger bonds of friendship within the synagogue.
Rather than feeling singled out, the LGBT Jews who attended Shomrei Torah’s Pride Seder told me that, for the first time, they felt fully present in their spiritual community. And the rabbi and other non-LGBT members responded with enthusiasm to the evening and to a more open dialogue with their fellow LGBT congregants.
It is a mitzvah to relate the story of the Exodus as if we ourselves had been liberated from bondage. LGBT programming is part of the process leading to our collective liberation, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
Andrew Ramer is a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. His book of midrashim, Queering the Text: Biblical, Medieval, and Modern Jewish Stories, was published in spring 2010.
In the mid-1980s I was a 30-year-old gay, closeted Jewish man who thought of synagogues as places for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and the High Holidays—and where I had to dodge sweet, well-intentioned ladies intent on fixing me up with their daughters or granddaughters. In those days, a gay man just didn’t fit in.
So when a group of LGBT Jews in Minneapolis began holding monthly Shabbat services in people’s homes, I was thrilled. Amidst this group of warm, friendly people I could be my true Jewish, gay self.
Yet in time the separateness disquieted me. Our sexuality seemed an odd basis for celebrating Shabbat together. I no longer wanted to be defined as a “gay Jew,” but as a Jew who happened to be gay.
Later in the 1980s I attended a Minneapolis Reform synagogue-sponsored forum on LGBT Jews. It was nice that this earnest, respectful group was “reaching out,” but I realized that in being “reached out to” I was also considered an “outsider.”
Then, a new Reform congregation sprang up in the Twin Cities. The rabbi and president were openly lesbian, most congregants were straight, and sexual orientation did not seem to matter. There, I saw a lesbian couple celebrating 10 years together receiving a blessing from the rabbi along with a straight couple celebrating an anniversary. Everyone chatted at the oneg. It was easy, relaxed, comfortable. Later, the rabbi shared her hope that one day sexual orientation would be irrelevant, though not invisible, in society. I had found my synagogue.
Truly welcoming synagogues demonstrate their inclusiveness subtly and regularly. Instead of creating “LGBT programs” or “reaching out” initiatives, they acknowledge LGBT pride festivals in their monthly bulletins along with clothing drives and college fairs; and introduce same sex households along with other new families. In this understated manner, synagogues tell LGBT people they are part of the fabric of the Jewish community.
Morrie Hartman is a member of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis.