WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J., Aug. 1 (JTA) — It looked like the Orthodox participants at the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Jewish Organizations’ conference would have to forgo Shabbat services.
There were only three Orthodox men attending last weekend’s conference, seven short of a minyan. But then a group of Orthodox Jews who happened to be vacationing in the hotel noticed a sign in the lobby listing the services and asked to join.
Bonnie Kantor, one of the conference co-chairs, said she immediately informed the newcomers “what kind of a group this is,” expecting them to revoke their offer. Instead, they told her, “A Jew is a Jew and a Torah is a Torah.”
Together, they were exactly 10 men. “Without us they wouldn’t have had a minyan and without them we wouldn’t have had one,” said Kantor.
It was an incident appropriate for the 20th anniversary of an organization that’s enjoying unprecedented acceptance.
With 65 member organizations representing 14 countries, the World Congress has grown significantly since its early days when a handful of gay activists, who happened to be Jewish, came together to respond to a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.
In just the past few months, the gay and lesbian Jewish communities have seen two major victories: The Reform movement affirmed its rabbis’ right to officiate at same-sex unions, and Israel’s high court ruled that both partners in a lesbian relationship could legally register as their children’s mothers.
Many gay Jewish synagogues, once havens for the closeted, now enjoy close ties with other local Jewish institutions and boast that their inclusive atmospheres even attract some heterosexuals. As these synagogues grow larger and more established, several are starting religious schools and buying cemetery space.
Since the early 1990s, both the Reform and Reconstructionist streams have ordained openly gay and lesbian rabbis, and a growing number of congregations are hiring gay clergy.
At a session in the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America’s biennial this spring, the JCC of the Greater St. Paul Area, in Minnesota, suggested JCCs host gay film festivals and offer gay and lesbian couples family memberships.
In Albany, N.Y., and Boston, gay Jewish organizations are working closely with federations to make local Jewish institutions more welcoming to gays and lesbians. Many gay congregations report they are now being invited to participate in community activities, like Israel parades.
In Israel, the openly lesbian Michal Eden now sits on the Tel Aviv city council. She plans to run for Knesset in the next election and if she wins, would be Israel’s first openly gay legislator.
But lesbian and gay Jews are far from winning full acceptance. Most Orthodox and many Conservative leaders consider homosexual acts to be prohibited in the Bible. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.”
Biblical scholars, however, have argued over the meaning of this passage.
Neither the Orthodox nor the Conservative movement ordains openly gay or lesbian rabbis or sanctions same-sex weddings, although about 20 Conservative rabbis do officiate at such ceremonies and are not penalized.
Within the Reform movement, many congregations lag behind the statements of national leaders when it comes to welcoming gays and lesbians, said the CCAR’s former president, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, in a speech to the conference.
Rabbi Greg Kanter, 35, who now leads a gay and lesbian synagogue in Fort Lauderdale, said that when he came out at a large Reform congregation in Minnesota six years ago, board members questioned whether he should be allowed to work with youth. That congregation eliminated Kanter’s position when his two-year contract was up.
Several people said their families have been less than accepting of them. In a keynote speech to the conference, Israel’s Eden, 31, told of how her family threw her out of the house 11 years ago.
At a comedy session, comic Lisa Geduldig, of San Francisco, drew knowing laughter with jokes about Jewish parents for whom gay and lesbian offspring are “disappointments.”
She opened her routine by asking if there were any “faygeles” in the audience, jokingly using the derogatory Yiddish term for gay.
A number of conference participants — including the leader of France’s gay Jewish group — requested that their last names not be used in an article. However, they were far outnumbered by those eager to be interviewed.
That rising comfort level is spurring the formation of a networking group for gay, lesbian and bisexual Jewish communal professionals, 30 of whom showed up for a planning meeting.
While gay clergy informally networked in the past, they “were hard to find because so many were closeted,” said Rabbi Debora Gordon, 37, a Reform rabbi at Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy, N.Y., and one of the co-chairs of the new group.
Amid the growing openness, some are questioning what role America’s 41 gay and lesbian Jewish groups — most of them congregations and havurot — should play.
In a speech, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the Conservative movement’s University of Judaism, urged gay and lesbian Jews not to segregate themselves from the larger Jewish community.
Dorff, who is heterosexual but a vocal advocate for the rights of gay Jews, later told JTA that he fully understands “why gays and lesbians would want congregations of their own.”
However, he suggested they join both gay and mainstream congregations, since sticking to separate shuls “isolates them from the heterosexual community and makes their acceptance even harder.”
Others agreed, but emphasized the ongoing need for gay and lesbian congregations.
Nachum Golan, 58, of Pittsburgh’s 80-member Bet Tikvah, said several of his fellow congregants already have dual affiliations.
But things like gay and lesbian couples kissing after services or going up to the bimah to celebrate anniversaries, aren’t always so welcome in mainstream congregations, he said.
Kanter, the rabbi who left a mainstream synagogue for a gay and lesbian congregation, said, “We’re another choice for people.”
Gordon, who leads a mainstream shul, said that as long as gays and lesbians have a distinctive culture, “there’ll be a need for gay synagogues in the same way there’s a need for Sephardic synagogues.”
In addition, she said, gay synagogues provide a venue for gay Jews to find romantic partners and “it’s hard to imagine most mainstream synagogues being really comfortable with the guys getting dressed up in high heels and dresses for Purim.”
The warmth radiating from the conference, where all 260 participants linked arms and sang for Havdalah and closing services, illustrated, however, the emotional power of a predominantly gay and lesbian environment.
“This is rejuvenating for me,” remarked Golan. “It truly fills my heart with love.”