Synagogues Welcome LGBTQ Jews
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – On the heels of several multi-congregational programs, several Jewish congregations are collaborating on “Chaverim,” (“Friends”), a new initiative for adult LGBTQ Jews.
The idea for Chaverim began percolating in 2007, when West Hartford native Mark Slitt moved back to the area after several years away, in college and then in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Dallas. In each of those communities, Slitt had found a spiritual home in predominantly gay and lesbian synagogues, serving on the board of Congregation Beth El Binah in Dallas for a decade.
“Since young adulthood, it’s been important for me to be part of an organization where my Jewish and gay identities intersect,” he says. “But since I moved back to the area, I haven’t found that happy intersection of gay and Jewish. I’m sure there are other gay and lesbian Jews in greater Hartford. I just haven’t met many, and I’m hoping that this group will be a way for us to find one another.”
A member of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Slitt brought his idea to Cantor Pamela Siskin, who “has been an amazing champion,” he says, first securing support from Rabbi Michael Pincus at Beth Israel and then reaching out to other rabbis in the area.
“Their response has been marvelous,” Siskin says. “Each one agreed that it was time for such a group and all have promised their support and participation as much or as little as we want.”
In addition to Michael Pincus and Dena Shaffer of Beth Israel, participating rabbis include David Small (The Emanuel Synagogue, West Hartford), Jim Rosen (Beth El Temple, West Hartford), Gary Atkins (Beth Hillel Synagogue, Bloomfield), Jeffrey Bennett (Temple Sinai, Newington), Howard Hermann (Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom, Simsbury), and Yitzchok Adler (Beth David Synagogue, West Hartford.
“I’m really thrilled that the rabbis have all been tremendously receptive to the idea,” Slitt says. “It really makes me proud to be a Hartford Jew.”
The group is intended for single and partnered Jewish LGBTQ adults. The inaugural meeting will be informal and unstructured, a forum to establish the group’s presence in the community and discuss interests and future activities.
Sponsoring synagogues have already established a culture of inclusion among their congregations, based on both the official stance of each respective denominational movement and the ethos of each synagogue, what Rabbi David Small refers to as “home rule.”
“The nature of Conservative Judaism is that it’s a strong community of congregations but there’s a lot of home rule in each,” he says. “Particularly when it comes to change, every congregation has the ability and standing to adopt religious changes at its own pace. This was true with regard to equality of women as well.”
In September, the Emanuel’s board of directors adopted a resolution, originating with the ritual committee with Small’s support, which eliminates obstacles for participation in synagogue life based on gender identity.
“The guiding principle to this decision is ‘k’vod habriot,’ honoring the creation and human dignity,” Small says. “This affirmation of equality in Emanuel’s ritual life and our participation in the Chaverim initiative, [means] ‘You’re part of us, come on in, you’re part of the Emanuel family, you have the same status.’ What’s important to me is that we’re presenting this new step as part of an overall temperament and approach of inclusion of The Emanuel and of the Conservative movement.”
Rabbi Gary Atkins of the Conservative Beth Hillel Synagogue began reflecting on the issue of inclusion as Connecticut lawmakers were about to legalize same-sex marriage.
“After studying various teshuvot written by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, I decided that a ceremony of this nature was something I could officiate at, that it fit into the parameters of an evolving Jewish community still guided by halachic values,” he says.
Beth Hillel would go on to adopt an inclusive “kiruv” (ingathering) policy stating that the synagogue would welcome Jews of any sexual orientation. “The challenge is now to bring this segment of our community, often feeling unwanted, into the larger community,” Atkins says. “When I was informed of this upcoming program, I checked with our synagogue and was given authorization to include Beth Hillel Synagogue as a sponsoring synagogue,” reflecting the congregation’s philosophy and outreach.
Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation, is spiritual home to many gay and lesbian couples, says Rabbi Jeffrey Bennett. “Initially, we had programs designed specifically for them but now they are very much a part of the congregation and feel no need to have such programs,” he says. “Many of the couples have children in the religious school and their lifecycle events are no different than other member’s lifecycle events. The gays and lesbians in the congregation are accepted fully. We speak about it at religious school along with the many topics that are relevant in this day and age. In other words, we don’t shy away from the topic. Temple Sinai prides itself on its inclusive nature.”
Rabbi Howard S. Herman echoes this sentiment. “The official position of the Reform movement is that all human beings are children of God and every one of us has the right to find a fulfilling love relationship,” he says. “One’s sexual preference has nothing to do with that. We do not judge anyone’s preference as right or wrong.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler sees Chaverim as an opportunity to strengthen the Jewish value of inclusion. Adler describes his Modern Orthodox congregation as a place that welcomes all members and attendees who seek a Jewish spiritual community. “Sexual orientation should not be a barrier,” he says. “The best way to be inclusive is to be all-welcoming. When I was offered to have Beth David listed as a sponsor of Chaverim, it was an offer to be gladly and appreciatively accepted.”
“A sad reality is that this population has been misunderstood for centuries, and our generation has been confronted with the challenge and given the opportunity of responding to the cry for recognition and acceptance,” Adler says. “Those whose courage allowed them to organize this initiative deserve the unconditional support and respect of the broad Jewish community. In so many ways, virtually every congregation opens its doors to all those who seek God and community within the paradigm of Jewish values and Torah-based traditions, and when it is brought to our attention that we are failing or that we are not directing our energies in the best of ways, we accept the critical input and strive to do better. This initiative can serve two agendas, and both are invaluably important: one is to articulate that the doors of our community and synagogues are open wide; the other is a willingness to learn about how we might better communicate this message and fulfill this aspect of our respective missions.”
Schmooze and Nosh with “CHAVERIM,” a social group for the adult Jewish LGBTQ community: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 7 p.m., Congregation Beth Israel, 701 Farmington Ave., West Hartford | Info/RSVP: Cantor Pamela Siskin, (860) 233-9215, ext. 234 / firstname.lastname@example.org or Mark Slitt, (860) 297-1380 / email@example.com
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