Some find things have changed, but challenges remain

BY PAM DROOG JONES, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Gay activist Philip Deitch came out before Passover several years ago. Then he hosted his first seder.

“The holiday’s universal message about freedom from bondage had never been stronger or clearer to me,” he says. “Passover is an annual reminder that if one group is denied its personal freedom then all groups and peoples are at risk. We are responsible for each other.”

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There’s no official count of the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews in the metro St. Louis area. But it’s certain they count themselves among Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews. Some are activists, others are closeted. Many are single, others are in committed relationships. Several raise children. They’re professionals, college students, blue-collar, teenagers, senior citizens. In other words, Deitch says, “Being a gay person in the Jewish community is pretty much like being any other person in the Jewish community,” with the same joys, frustrations and challenges.

But that hasn’t always been the case.

First steps

About 15 years ago when Central Reform Congregation was being formed, Rabbi Susan Talve says, “What we learned was that the few gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews who maintained any kind of affiliation with the Jewish community at all, ‘checked’ their gay and lesbian identities at the door.” So the board of the new congregation made a commitment to create a safe space where everyone could pray and celebrate together. “The inside barriers were our fears,” Talve says. “We had fears of being labeled the ‘gay’ congregation and how this might influence or confuse the identities of our children.” But just as the congregation had built in strategies to overcome sexism, it began to build in strategies to overcome homophobia. “We began to see how letting go of our homophobic fears was good for all of our souls,” Talve says.

Adds Deitch, “You can’t just sit back and say, ‘We’re open and accepting.’ Because of the experiences people have had, they are not necessarily going to be trusting if the congregation or the communal organization doesn’t put itself out there publicly that it is an accepting and safe place.”

To join CRC, Deitch says, “you don’t just send in a check. You have to go to prospective member brunches where you find out who we are. We love new members, but we make it clear we are not a debating society. We have certain core principles we believe in. So please, if you don’t buy into these principles, we don’t want to make our existing members feel uncomfortable in their own congregation.” At CRC, Deitch says, “there are gay and lesbian families with kids, gay and lesbian couples holding each other during services, receiving honors up on the bima. We are active in every aspect of the congregation,” states Deitch, the first openly gay person to serve on CRC’s board.

CRC also was the first area congregation to sponsor a gay and lesbian chavurah (“circle”). “The group met regularly for years, but there doesn’t seem to be as much of a need for it now,” Deitch says. “Attendance in the congregation has grown larger as attendance at the chavurah has become smaller.” That’s because “the chavurah outgrew itself,” says CRC Rabbi Randy Fleisher. “We’ve done such a thorough job of integrating a welcoming attitude into the congregation that gay and lesbian members no longer perceive the need for a safety valve. However,” he notes, “there’s always more to do. In this work of diversity and inclusion you don’t rest and congratulate yourself. You do what you can to open your arms and your heart.”

Congregation Shaare Emeth also sponsors a group called Keshet (“rainbow”) that promotes the inclusion of LGBT Jews in their community. Rabbi Jim Bennett says the group has not been active recently, but he hopes to revitalize it and reach out to new members. Rabbis at other Reform temples say they would encourage gay and lesbian members to form a chavurah if they expressed an interest.

Where they stand

In regard to ordaining lesbian and gay Jews as rabbis and performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, different denominations have different interpretations of Jewish law, which is based on the Biblical book of Leviticus. Orthodox Jews do not ordain lesbians and gays as rabbis and do not allow same-sex marriages. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews permit both. Conservative Jews are on the fence.

At Bais Abraham, Rabbi Hyim Shafner says: “Obviously being gay and Orthodox is a very difficult situation for people and presents great challenges. I have congregants who are gay and lesbian, and I see it as an important mission to be sensitive to that. It’s very inspiring to see their commitment to Torah despite the struggles.”

Within the Orthodox community, he notes, there are no special programs for gay people.

“But I have tried my best to make my synagogue a place where people are not judged according to their sexual preference,” Shafner says. “It’s a place I hope where any Jew would feel welcome and be comfortable, where you can be who you are. I like to focus on all the wonderful things that unite us in Judaism.”

“Rachel,” who requested anonymity, agrees that being Orthodox and gay has been inspiring. “It makes you much more committed to openness and acceptance within the Jewish community and beyond, and that really inspires me,” she says. She notes that, as an Orthodox lesbian, she feared being rejected by the Jewish community when she moved to St. Louis. “I had to re-evaluate my connection to Judaism and to the LGBT community,” Rachel says. “But I’ve had a very positive experience because of the shul I attend, although some members are more open to me than others.”

Conservative Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of B’nai Amoona believes the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors “is the major issue of the 21st century for Conservative Jews. But down the road, same-sex marriage is a big issue and an important one because obviously people’s lives and happiness are at stake.”

At the moment, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which makes decisions concerning Jewish law for Conservative Jews, holds the consensus position that given the current state of scientific, psychological and biological information on the origin and nature of homosexuality, homosexual relationships nevertheless cannot be judged to be in accord with halacha, or Jewish law. However, the committee met in March to try to reach an agreement on whether and how the movement’s view of Jewish law on homosexuality should change. A decision will be announced in December.

“We in the field have been very patient awaiting the decision of the committee. I for one have been respectful of the process,” Rabbi Rose says. “Candidly, I hope the committee will come out in favor of ordaining gays and lesbians and allowing us to officiate at the unions of people who love each other. Otherwise we will lose the participation of those bright, sensitive, talented individuals who add to the tapestry of Jewish life.”

Rose says although B’nai Amoona has several gay and lesbian members, he has not been asked to perform a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple. “Maybe people have not asked me because they know I’d have a hard time being able to say yes. On the other hand, I’m sure it will happen. But I’d like for same-sex marriage to happen within the framework of the committee because at the moment I’m in a very uncomfortable place.” He believes the issue is complicated by the fact that sexual behavior is involved. “Sadly some people see homosexuality as deviant and are incapable of acceptance,” he says.

Aside from marriage, Rose says, in every other way B’nai Amoona is open to gay and lesbian individuals and couples and their families. “They are fully integrated into our congregation,” he says. “Does that mean everyone sitting in the pews is comfortable with that? No. Like the Sabbath or the dietary laws, people take it to various degrees.” He expects that “some problems are bound to come up” when the first same-gender marriage or baby-naming for a gay or lesbian couple takes place within the Conservative community in St. Louis. “But the other side of that is the joy and elation that will occur,” he says.

“The hallmark of liberal Judaism is the understanding that Jewish law should have a vote but not a veto,” says Rabbi Fleisher of CRC. “We should always consider that Jewish law is in many cases eternal and holy. But in other cases it does not take into account the knowledge and revelation we’ve received since Jewish law was encoded. There are times when it is incomplete. The weddings we perform are sanctioned by the congregation, the community and Reform Judaism. We welcome these couples and do our best to make their ceremonies holy and meaningful.”

Rabbi Fleisher feels CRC is no longer “on the cutting edge” on the gay-marriage issue. “At least in the Reform movement, we are totally on board in full embrace of the LGBT community, and if that’s true in St. Louis, believe me, it’s true nationwide,” he says. “Here we are a little more conservative than other areas of the country. But in the Reform Jewish world, on this issue being progressive is more the norm now.”

Rabbi Mark Shook of Temple Israel says although he has not been asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage, “I’ve made it very clear that I’d be happy to do so,” he says. At United Hebrew, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg says she and Rabbi Howard Kaplansky have been asked to marry same-sex couples, although for various reasons those marriages did not take place. “But I am open to it,” she says, adding she would encourage same-sex couples to participate in the pre-marriage program offered to all couples at United Hebrew. “I wouldn’t treat a same-sex couple any differently than I do any other couple,” she says. Similarly, Rabbi Dan Plotkin at B’nai El says, “I would treat a same-gender couple exactly the same as any couple preparing for marriage.”

Rabbi Jim Bennett at Shaare Emeth says he has officiated at several commitment ceremonies between same-gender couples, but not yet at Shaare Emeth. However, he’s preparing to perform the congregation’s first commitment ceremony early next year. He does not call the ceremonies marriages because, he says, “I haven’t lived in a state where same-sex marriage has been legalized.” He adds, “If asked, all the rabbis at Shaare Emeth would gladly unite same-sex couples as we do heterosexual couples. I have officiated at a baby-naming and other blessings for same-sex couples. We are completely welcoming and inclusive of members of the LGBT community.”

Happy newlyweds

On Sept. 4, 2005, Lisa Mandel and Ruth Heyman were joined in holy matrimony at CRC. “I know it may sound funny, but I’m very conservative and traditional,” says Mandel, a freelance photographer. “But as a Jew I can’t think of anything more important than making a family, and I feel it’s necessary to be married in order to raise children.” Adds Heyman, an actress and theater instructor, “Being part of CRC we felt embraced by the Jewish community. And at CRC our getting married was nothing radical.”

Both women say their families and friends were accepting and excited about the marriage, including Mandel’s 9-year old son from her first marriage (also to a woman). Heyman’s sister made the chuppah. “Friends of my parents came up to me in tears to say how incredible our wedding was,” Mandel says. “There was so much love from our families and between us. You know, once you actually see the ceremony and become part of it, all the issues fade away. A marriage is a marriage.” Heyman notes, “It was empowering to everyone in that room.”

Heyman says being married has made a difference. “We had a marriage and a honeymoon and a got a ketubah and our world shifted. Straight people go through this all the time, but once you’re married it truly is different,” she says. “I never believed that but it’s true.” She adds, “Sometimes we realize, as we go along as though everything is normal, we are unaware of how the world sees us. We’re struck by how we have to renegotiate or redefine for others how we are no different.”

When the couple announced their engagement, (they were the first lesbian couple to appear in the Jewish Light) Heyman was employed at the Jewish Community Center. “Some colleagues said mazel tov and some said nothing,” she says. “But I never had any negative responses from anyone. I felt my employers were supportive.” Mandel also says she never heard any negative comments.

However, both women say they were surprised two years ago to see yard signs in support of Amendment 2, the Defense of Marriage Act, on the lawns of some of their Orthodox neighbors. “Of course we were fighting the amendment so when we’d drive by these people’s homes and see the signs we were very disappointed,” Mandel says. Although she would not describe herself as an activist, she says, “By being an out lesbian, I’m political every day.”

A parent, a child

Psychologist Dean Rosen has been president of the St. Louis metro Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays since 1999. His involvement began in 1995 when his son, Adam, came out and “dragged me to my first PFLAG meeting,” he says. “I didn’t think I needed it to accept my son but I needed it more than I realized.”

Rosen says one of his goals as PFLAG’s president was to give the organization more visibility in the Jewish community. “For years, the Jewish viewpoint was, ‘We have nice children and they grow up and get married and have babies.’ There was no place for alternative lifestyles,” he says. “But in every family, there are children or nieces or nephews who are gay or lesbian.”

Rosen believes that in the Jewish community, for many people homosexuality is a non-issue. “But for others, they have deeply held beliefs that are religiously based, but that create a certain prejudice,” he says.

“From my own point of view, Jews in our society are wonderful about accepting gay and lesbian kids — except when those kids are their own,” Rosen says. “In fact, what I have found is some very liberal people go through their own personal feelings of shame and loss when their own children come out, even though it’s no big deal to their friends.

“In my own congregation,” he adds,” I know several families who told me about their gay children but are not out in the synagogue. Obviously Reform and Reconstructionist temples are very embracing. But we need to move beyond this ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mindset which is still an issue for individual rabbis and congregations.”

Whereas interest has been focused on gay children, gay parents are now getting more attention. In fact, Rosen says, same-sex parents are emerging as a fast-growing demographic. Danielle Silber has experienced that directly. The founder of the St. Louis chapter of COLAGE — Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere — Silber and her brother were born to and raised by their mother and her partner (two Jewish lesbian women) and their biological father and his partners.

“My brother jokes that we have four fathers and two mothers. The only thing that makes our situation difficult is not that they are lesbian or gay but that there are more of them, so the demand for our time can be very frustrating!” she says.

Silber, an international events coordinator at Washington University, says her growing-up years were difficult, especially during middle school. “That’s when it’s so hard to be anything different. Bigotry was everywhere, in the media, in school, and sadly one of the worst places was the synagogue where I went for Hebrew school, in Washington, D.C. The rabbis there were very homophobic.”

Fortunately, she says, for worship, her family also attended an LGBT synagogue. “The congregation was very enlightened there,” she says. “They helped me realize that in any community, Jewish, Catholic, African-American or whatever, there will be factions that will be beautiful and open and celebratory of families, and others who may be a little slower to accept diversity.”

Silber says when she came to St. Louis attend Washington University, she wanted to reach out to other youths with LGBT parents. “So often those who want to limit LGBT rights try to justify their actions by saying they want to help the poor youth of LGBT families,” she says. “Most of these youth are angry that they would be used to justify hurting their families.”

The LGBT community and the Jewish community are inseparable to Silber. “That’s how I grew up,” she says. “And I think one of the really beautiful things about Judaism is its understanding of the unique gift that every individual has and that only with all of these gifts can we build a productive society and make heaven on Earth essential. That’s why, for me, the Jewish community is a perfect place for LGBT families to emerge and be celebrated.”

On Campus

Until recently, “Queer Jews” was the name of the organization for Jewish LGBT college students in the area. Now the group calls itself Keshet. “The attitude these days is less in-your-face,” says Hillel Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow. “It was never a big group, but it’s a necessary one.” Keshet organizes programming for members as well as the general Washington University population, programming such as panels on local LGBT awareness issues.

Keshet also sponsored an LGBT seder. “In preparation for it, the group wrote a haggadah and put it up online,” Rabbi Orlow says. “Not that the traditional haggadah is homophobic, but this was a tremendous opportunity in the traditional seder to talk about liberation in many ways. It’s a wonderfully rich haggadah, and I’ve incorporated a lot of it into my own seder.”

In addition, two years ago Keshet members handed out hamentashen to students on campus. The message was to “come out for Purim.” Rabbi Orlow explains, “Esther was a young Jewish woman who closeted her Jewish identity to keep a favored position with the Persian king. When she learned of Haman’s plot she revealed her identity and saved her people. It was a very courageous act.” The moral: “Take a risk and share your identity and speak truth to power,” Rabbi Orlow says. “It was a wonderful moment any student could join in. Who would think the hamentashen could be a traditional yet current articulation of Jewish life?” He says Keshet members are planning to repeat the event next Purim.

At new-student orientation, Hillel also sponsored an introduction to gay-friendly St. Louis called “The Arch Is Bent,” Rabbi Orlow says. “Other campus ministries are equally LGBT-friendly but at Washington University Hillel has had an opportunity to lead on many things. It’s a safe place for students to explore many things, including their religion and their sexuality.”

Out and about

For the past three years, an interfaith service has kicked off the annual St. Louis PRIDEfest celebration. It’s sponsored by the Holy Ground Alliance, consisting of CRC, Metropolitan Community Church, Unitarian and African-American congregations and St. John’s Methodist Church, where the service was held June 22. Holy Ground members come together to do neighborhood and social justice work. “This service is one of the most moving and important things we do,” says Rabbi Fleisher. It’s just one example of the visibility and activity of the Jewish LGBT community in the metro area.

The community also supported a Jewish AIDS task force for many years. “It was part of the AIDS Interfaith Network,” Deitch says. “It provided education and outreach and put in place supportive services for anyone in the Jewish community who may have had a need for them.” More recently, he says, “Many congregations in the Faith Coalition were very active in trying to defeat the anti-gay-marriage amendment.”

Deitch notes when the Jewish Film Festival screens a movie with an LGBT theme, “it always draws the largest attendance.” He adds that the New Jewish Theatre frequently addresses LGBT subjects.

Jewish communal organizations also support the Jewish LGBT community. “We consider the LGBT community to be a very important group,” says Debbie Warshawski of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She notes on the community web site, www.jewishinstlouis.com, there is a section for LGBT information. “We want to expand that,” she says, “because we want to make sure everyone who wants to connect to the Jewish community can find a way to do it and feel comfortable about it.”

Washawski adds that the Federation offers partner benefits to employees, and so do several affiliated agencies including the Jewish Light, Central Agency for Jewish Education, Jewish Community Relations Council and the Holocaust Museum. Also years ago the Jewish Community Center changed its policy to accept memberships of same-gender couples.

The Holocaust Museum recently hosted the traveling exhibit, “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945.” Executive director Jean Cavender says, “We sponsored the show to bring attention to the public that there was another group that was discriminated against during the Holocaust. It was very important to let people know this. A lot of members of the LGBT community saw the exhibit and for many it was an opportunity to experience the museum for the first time.”

At the Anti-Defamation League, Executive Director Karen Aroesty says its Hate Crimes Task Force works with the LGBT community to monitor violence against gays and lesbians. “Also we work with the state legislature to prevent discriminatory bills like one that attempted to amend the hate crimes statue to remove specific protected categories from the language. The only reason for that was to remove sexual orientation,” she says. Aroesty believes “the recent evangelical way of legislating through theology is something the Jewish community should look at to protect the LGBT community. All of these bills marginalize religious minorities if they don’t downright discriminate against them.”

Wish list

Members of the St. Louis LGBT community are profoundly concerned about efforts to pass legislation that would deny basic rights. “With the Missouri legislature considering a resolution along the lines of making Christianity the official state religion, I believe we in the Jewish community have to stand together,” Deitch says. “I would welcome the opportunity to have more dialogue between those in the Jewish community who do not feel positive toward its gay and lesbian members, including some of the rabbis and communal groups. What do we lose by talking?”

Silber agrees it’s important that the Jewish community support LGBT individuals and families. “The Jewish community plays such a vital role in speaking out on so many social justice issues, from Israel to stem cells,” she says. “So here we are seeing LGBT rights being threatened on a federal and local level, and we have to speak out about that as loudly as we do about bills that say Missouri should be a Christian state.”

She adds that she hopes COLAGE will make more inroads into the Jewish community. “I’d like for some of our activities to overlap with some of the programming being done in other Jewish organizations, to present COLAGE as a resource to more youth and families,” she says.

Rachel says she would like to see more resources available for the Jewish LGBT community. “I wish there were more interdenominational Jewish LGBT activities or a group where we could find each other,” she says. “I think there definitely is a certain degree of confusion about the issue in the Jewish community. There’s a big silence around it. It especially seems the Orthodox rabbis believe it’s not an issue in their community and so they don’t have to deal with it.”

‘I am God-created’

As an Orthodox woman, Rachel says a daily blessing praising God for making her according to His will. “Without this blessing or conviction that God is in charge of the world, I wouldn’t necessarily feel there is something holy about my experience,” she says. “As a Jew I have a pretty firm belief that what I am and how I look at the world is what God wants.”

Deitch agrees. “Being gay and Jewish are two of my main identities that greatly inform how I walk in this world,” he says. “I believe that I am God-created and that is not only something to be proud of but it is something to celebrate. If I deny what I am at my core then I deny the wisdom of God in creating me that way.”

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