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Focus on Issues: Younger Homosexual Jews Seek Integration As Generation Gap Looms

Eric Cohen, a 33-year-old health care consultant and a Jewish gay activist, is switching synagogues.

He has been a member of Manhattan’s gay and lesbian congregation for the past few years, but he is soon planning to start attending a mainstream Conservative synagogue with a gay and lesbian club.

Cohen is one of many Jewish homosexuals who are moving out of the synagogues founded specifically to serve the needs of gay and lesbian Jews to join mainstream congregations.

Cohen is also a member of JAGL: Jewish Activist Gays and Lesbians, a two-year- old New York group devoted to political and social action.

Most members of JAGL are in their late 20s and early 30s, as are the organizers and many members of a newly formed group for gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, called the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association.

Members of the new groups say they want to be able to feel comfortable as Jews outside of gay and lesbian synagogues. One of their goals, they say, is to make the larger Jewish community aware that they do not want to be ghettoized into solely homosexual environments.

There is a generation gap of sorts between young gay and lesbian Jews, who expect to integrate into the larger Jewish community, and older homosexual Jews, who founded the first gay and lesbian synagogues and came of age in a time when such a concept was virtually unimaginable.

The differing expectations are due both to changes in communal and religious attitudes toward Jewish gays and lesbians and changes in society at large since the birth of the gay rights movement some 25 years ago.

“The integration of identity has changed radically,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay synagogue.

“In the 1970s and before, it was in either-or choice” between being gay and being Jewish, she said. “Today a young person growing up can see visible gay and lesbian Jews integrating those things.”

When homosexual Jews attend college today, they find themselves in an environment where multicultural tolerance extends to gays and lesbians, according to Bob Goldfarb, 43, a marketer of classical music and a member of JAGL.

“When they come out of college they find the rest of the world is not so supportive. They think it ought to be, and that they can help change things so that being homosexual is not an automatic source of exclusion,” he said.

For Beth, a lesbian raised in an Orthodox home who began acknowledging her sexual orientation about 15 years ago, “If there is one Orthodox rabbi who is quietly receptive and accepting — to me, that feels like a really wonderful when I was dealing with `coming out’ I didn’t know of any.

“For people growing up with a gay rabbi at a gay synagogue and this very public debate about homosexuality and Judaism, the reaction t the fact that two Orthodox rabbis may be quietly accepting is: Why the hell are there only two? It’s a different perspective now,” added Beth, who asked that her real name not be used.

The creation of the first gay and lesbian synagogues in 1973 — Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and Beth Simchat Torah in New York — meant that Jewish gays and lesbians for the first time had someplace to go to relate to their Jewishness communally.

Just more than two decades later, much has changed about the acceptance of gays and lesbians within the wider Jewish community.

Jewish community centers have programs designed for gay and lesbian members and Jewish boards of family and children’s services reach out to provide counseling and other services.

“Even Jewish repertory theater groups put on shows with gay and lesbian themes,” said Rabbi Allen Bennett, who was the first rabbi to make his homosexual orientation publicly known.

“Twenty years ago nobody would have touched this stuff,” said Bennett, who was the first rabbi of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian synagogue, Shar Zahav, and is now director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the East Bay, in Oakland, Calif.

When he entered the Hebrew Union College in cincinnati in the late 1960s, each candidate had to undergo a psychological evaluation before being accepted into rabbinical school. One of the questions asked was about homosexual tendencies. If the candidate answered that he had such tendencies, he was not accepted, said Bennett, who acknowledged that he lied at the time.

In contrast, HUC and the Reform movement’s rabbinical placement commission recently adopted a policy of not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Many mainstream liberal congregations welcome gay and lesbian members and quite a few also have havurot or social clubs designed to serve their homosexual congregants.

The porous boundaries are working both ways: Most gay and lesbian congregations have seen a dramatic upsurge in the number of their heterosexual members, though straight Jews remain a distinct minority.

At Atlanta’s Bet Haverim, the percentage of heterosexual members has doubled to 10 percent of its 100 congregants in under a year, said Michael Kinsler, past president of the synagogue.

“They’re looking for a haimische and creative environment,” said Kinsler.

There are at least 36 gay and lesbian congregations and havurot in North America, six of which are affiliated with the Reform movement and one which is connected to the Reconstructionist movement.

The Conservative movement passed a resolution in 1991 welcoming gays and lesbians as members of its synagogues, but also has a policy prohibiting homosexuals from working in rabbinic and other leadership positions.

However, the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the Rabbinical Assembly have, for the last two years, invited homosexual Jews to speak to their students and convention attendees about what it means to be Jewish and gay.

And rabbis connected with the liberal movements — even some in the Conservative movement — are increasingly comfortable performing commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian Jewish couples.

According to Eric Cohen, gay synagogues “played an important role for people who were closeted.”

Then you started to see you weren’t the only lesbian or gay Jew around, and as the gay liberation movement moved forward, Jewish gays and lesbians did exactly the same thing,” he said.

“Now we’re saying we have a place at the table in Jewish affairs and are trying to find what that place should be.”

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