Menu JTA Search

Jewish Congregations, Individuals out in Force for Gay Rights March

Jewish groups, congregations and individuals from around the country joined hundreds of thousands of marchers here this weekend for the largest gay rights march in history.

The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Equal Rights and Liberation, as it was officially known, wound its way across Washington on Sunday from near the Washington Monument to the Capitol. Organizers expected about a million to attend, though the U.S. Park Police estimate was 300,000.

Under warm and sunny skies, marchers carried rainbow-colored gay rights flags and American flags, and posters bearing such slogans as “End Discrimination! Lift the Military Ban,” “Lesbian Rights Now” and “Civil Rights Now.”

Goals of the march included greater visibility for gay and lesbian issues, including the introduction in Congress of a gay civil rights bill, an increase in funding for AIDS education and research, and end to discrimination against gay men and lesbians in the military.

The fact that the march has “garnered so much attention has proven that it has had an effect and that it has been successful,” said Barrett Brick, executive director of the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews.

The World Congress represents gay synagogues and other groups around the world, and it was just one of many Jewish groups at the march.

A contingent from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was there, as well as a group from the Reconstructionist movement, a few graduate students from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and members of synagogues from around the country.

Evely Laser Shlensky, chair of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action, was marching with the UAHC group. The march, she said, is “an expression of our values. It reflects the position we’ve already taken, of civil rights for everyone.”

Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of the UAHC’s department of interreligious affairs, said he had brought his 6-year-old daughter with him to the march. “It’s part of her family values,” he said.

GAY RABBIS, TOO

Rabbi Eugene Lipman, a former head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai in Washington, compared the march to the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King.

“The size of the gathering is going to make a difference” in parts of the country “where no one knows gays and lesbians are people,” Lipman said. “The lesson has to be learned in the same way” that people learned that “blacks are people, in the 1963 march.”

Sammie Moshenberg, Washington representative for the National Council of Jewish Women, said her organization was well-represented at the march. “Our organization is concerned where there is an issue of discrimination,” she said.

Leah Garrett, a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, came to the march with nine people from her school.

“We felt it incumbent as Jews to affirm gay rights,” she said. “We know what a minority” feels like.

The graduate school is separate from the JTS rabbinical school, but one rabbinical student, Sara Paasche, was marching.

“To be here as a Conservative Jew shows that people inside” the movement “are trying to move things,” Paasche said.

The Conservative movement, unlike Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, does not allow the ordination of openly gay rabbis.

One Conservative rabbi at the march, Howard Handler, said his congregation in New York did not renew his contract after learning through an anonymous phone call that he was gay.

“I’m a test case for the Conservative movement,” he said. “I wouldn’t take a job without saying I’m gay.”

Handler, who said he now has six weeks to go on his contract at the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue, stood near signs reading “Queer Rabbis and Friends and Families,” and “Hire a Lesbian Rabbi.”

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, a lesbian who is religious leader of a Reconstructionist congregation in Media, Pa., said that it is possible to “have a loving relationship with the Torah and challenge it.”

She said she is “out” to her congregation and, although it is “very wonderful to be open, it doesn’t mean the issues are solved.”

‘ONE IN EVERY MINYAN’

David Stein, a member of Beth Ahavah, a gay synagogue in Philadelphia, was carrying a sign with a Star of David, half of which was in the form of a pink triangle, the symbol that the Nazis made homosexuals wear during World War II.

Jews attending the march were especially concerned that the Jewish gay and lesbian community achieve more acceptance within the larger Jewish world.

“We can’t afford as a community to ditch people — our gay sons and daughters, uncles and aunts,” said Alan Amberg, who came from Chicago to attend the march.

“I hope this gets visibility; it’s terribly important,” he added, as he stood with others from the World Congress contingent.

“We are part of this movement” for civil rights “as much as anyone else,” said Rabbi Marc Blumenthal of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a gay synagogue in Los Angeles. “Jews have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement.”

Blumenthal sported a T-shirt with the slogan “One in every minyan,” a reference to the oft-quoted statistic that one in every 10 men is gay.

“By marching as a synagogue,” said Lee Walzer, a member of Washington’s gay congregation, Bet Mishpachah, “we can show the world that gay people are everywhere, that there are many Jewish gay and lesbian people.”

Even small gay synagogues were represented at the march. Charles Adler, who is active in the 50-member Beth El B’nai in Dallas, was there with a few others from his synagogue. His T-shirt showed two large multicolored cowboy boots, with the word “Texas” printed beneath.

Some Jewish participants expressed hope that the Jewish community would become more receptive to the concerns of gay and lesbian Jews.

“There’s a hunger for spiritualism within the gay and lesbian Jewish community that is not addressed,” said Robin Wagner, a member of Am Tikva, a gay congregation in Boston.

NEXT STORY