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Gay Jews: Reform vote a step forward


NEW YORK, April 3 (JTA) — Steven Fruh, 56, grew up thinking homosexuality and religion were incompatible.

So, when he realized he was gay, he abandoned Judaism. But 11 years ago when he discovered Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, it was a “revelation” to him that one could be “observant and gay.”

The feeling of acceptance Fruh found upon discovering the world’s oldest and largest gay synagogue was experienced by other gay Jews last week when Reform rabbis overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming that “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

The bimah at the Manhattan synagogue — where the rabbis already officiate at gay and lesbian weddings — features two rainbow-colored gay liberation flags alongside the United States and Israeli flags. During a recent Hebrew class, Fruh and his classmates said the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ resolution was an important step toward greater acceptance for gays and lesbians.

“It’s important from a symbolic point of view,” said Fruh, who was seated next to his partner, Paul Marsolini. “The largest Jewish organization has said our relationships have just as much validity” as the relationships of heterosexual couples, he said.

The resolution, which does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding” and which was modified shortly before the vote to emphasize that not all Reform rabbis agree on same-sex unions, does not make as strong a statement as the Beth Simchat Torah students would have liked.

One student, 32-year-old Kim Felsenthal, said she was disappointed that the resolution did not use the word “marriage,” but she described it as “a start.”

That view was echoed by Rachel Gartner, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was teaching the Hebrew class that night.

“I would’ve liked to see kiddushin,” she said, referring to the Hebrew word for marriage. “But as a general broad statement, it’s thrilling.”

Modifications or not, Marsolini said the resolution is still a “tremendous step forward.”

Another student, Marsha Cohen, who introduced herself as the “straight mother of a gay son,” said she was excited about the resolution, which she called “a step.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and the more people get used to it, the better,” she said.

“Why shouldn’t my one son have the same rights and privileges as the other son?” Cohen added.

Class members said they hope the resolution would influence other religious movements.

“May the Conservative movement be next!” Fruh exclaimed.

However, there was little hope that leaders of Orthodox Judaism, which condemned the resolution, will welcome gays and lesbians anytime soon.

In the synagogue office, next to the large, open room where the Hebrew class was gathered, several board members — meeting to plan the synagogue’s first cemetery — reacted positively to the Reform resolution.

“I think it’s obvious that it’s going to give rabbis that want to perform same-sex marriages more support, without having to worry about losing their jobs,” said Yolanda Potasinski, president of this 27-year-old, 800-member congregation.

The resolution “sets a great example for other movements,” Potasinski added, noting that at her own commitment ceremony, the congregation’s rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, officiated using liturgy based on the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony.

Also, added Potasinski, “People have this stereotype that we’re so different, but this is a validation and just kind of another way for people to understand gay and lesbian couples are no different from other Jews.”

And, as their meeting that night demonstrated, many Jews have yet to accept them. The cemetery is necessary, explained Potasinski, not only because so many congregants are being lost to AIDS, but because families of many members have refused to allow them to be buried in the family plots.

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