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Gay Jews Line Up to Wed, Seeking ‘equal Rights As Citizens’

February 18, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Rabbi Yoel Kahn originally married 13 years ago, but on Monday he tied the knot again — to the same man.

Kahn, who leads a congregation in Sonoma, Calif., first wed his longtime partner Doug Dellm under a Jewish wedding canopy, or chupah, but on Monday they finally secured a marriage license from the City and County of San Francisco.

Kahn joined a deluge of more than 2,400 same-sex unions the city began sanctioning last week. The move came in the wake of an attempted amendment by the Massachusetts legislature to reverse a state supreme court ruling allowing gay civil marriage.

They also are among the many Jewish gays and lesbians who hope to have civil weddings after being allowed for years to hold Jewish ceremonies in Reconstructionist or Reform synagogues.

For many, the motivation to marry is as much about gaining equal civil and legal rights associated with marriage as it is about principle.

“I don’t need the state to bless my marriage; I had a chupah and a ketubah,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, of the largely gay Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Calif., speaking of the hallmarks of Jewish wedding ceremonies. But “don’t deny me my equal rights as a citizen.”

Kahn and Dellm waited with their 12-year-old son and hundreds of other gay and lesbian couples for hours in the rain to wed legally, because “it was important to show the world we wanted this,” Kahn said in a telephone interview the following day.

Their original religious ceremony “was our first act of religious commitment and civil disobedience,” Kahn added, “but we didn’t expect” this move allowing gay civil unions “to happen in our lifetime.”

Indeed, while waiting on line to marry, Kahn and Dellm met a gay Jewish couple from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose wedding Kahn officiated at after his own.

Now Kahn and many other gay and lesbian Jews hope the San Francisco gay wedding parade will spark a legal battle to overturn the state’s ban on gay civil weddings and lead the way for other states to follow.

“This is going to force the hand of history,” Rabbi Camille Angel of San Francisco’s Congregation Shaar Zahav, a Reform synagogue, told JTA.

Angel, who has officiated at more than 200 Jewish weddings for both heterosexual and gay couples, also joined the throngs heading to San Francisco City Hall, waiting five hours to wed her longtime partner, Karen Segal.

Back in 1999, Angel and Segal married at a ceremony at Congregation Rodef Shalom in New York, and they display a ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, from that event in their home.

But the couple jumped at the chance to claim the kinds of legal rights civil marriage affords, which “heterosexuals just take for granted,” Angel said.

“We’re high, we’re married, we have a license,” Angel said. “I felt like we should have been singing Shehecheyanu,” the Jewish prayer of thanksgiving said at singular occasions.

Instead, Angel said she celebrated by officiating at eight civil weddings in the past few days, uttering for the first time since being ordained the phrase, “In the power vested in me . . .”

Meanwhile, more than 40 other gay and lesbian couples at her synagogue, which was founded as a gay congregation but has expanded into the general community, also marched to City Hall to wed.

Others from around the nation who also have celebrated Jewish unions joined them.

Eger said many members of her 300-family synagogue in West Hollywood took flight to the San Francisco Bay Area to secure a civil marriage license before the state could jump in and stop the city from issuing the licenses.

“People were trying to get to San Francisco all weekend,” said Eger, who wasn’t able to get there herself.

Many Jewish homosexuals say that even if they have had Jewish commitment ceremonies or religious unions, civil marriage remains key to securing more than 1,000 ancillary state and federal rights, ranging from tax breaks to adoption benefits.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based coalition of groups that promote gay civil marriages, said civil marriage “is the gateway to a vast array of tangible and intangible protections that matter in every area of life.”

Wolfson said his own Jewish beliefs in tikkun olam, or healing the world, helped shape his longtime battle for gay civil marriage.

When political opposition to a 1996 Hawaiian high court ruling allowing gay civil marriage reversed the original legislation, many gays joined the fight, Wolfson said.

In the years since, many members of Congregation Bet Haverim, an Atlanta synagogue with many gay members, headed to Vermont to wed under the state’s same-sex civil-union laws, and some have traveled to Ontario to take advantage of the Canadian province’s gay civil-wedding laws, Rabbi Joshua Lesser said.

This past weekend, some of the rabbi’s friends flew to San Francisco. Others plan to go to Massachusetts this spring to campaign against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would overrule the state supreme court ruling legalizing gay civil marriage.

“For the majority of people, it feels oppressive not to have the same rights as anyone else,” Lesser said.

Like other rabbis of largely gay congregations, Lesser has officiated at gay unions at his Reconstructionist synagogue, performing 18 gay and lesbian ceremonies as well as 50 heterosexual weddings in the past five years.

Gays and lesbians see these events as important public signs of their lifelong commitment to one another, Lesser said, “not play weddings” meant to replace the real thing. Still, he said, “it doesn’t nearly come close” to offering “the same kind of protections as legally married couples have.”

Kahn said, “Civil marriage is an economic event as well as a romantic and spiritual event.”

Underscoring that sentiment, several liberal Jewish rabbinic groups have come out for gay civil weddings.

Last week, the Association of Humanistic Rabbis issued a statement in support of “diverse sexualities and gender identities,” citing its longtime support for gay civil and religious weddings. And the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis also called for Massachusetts to uphold gay civil weddings.

Also last week, 95 Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative rabbis in Massachusetts took out a half-page advertisement in the Boston Globe saying they oppose any attempt to reverse the high court ruling.

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