Sherith Israel starts chavurah for gays and lesbians

While Flaxman's devotion to her Reform synagogue never wavered, she was surprised to discover a void in her spiritual experience.

"Rabbi [Alice] Goldfinger started a sermon in which she started talking about hidden Jews. I thought she was going to talk about assimilated Jews, but it was on gay and lesbian Jews and how they need to be included. I was sobbing.

"I think for any group, we don't have to see ourselves represented all the time," Flaxman said. "But [it's nice] to hear something that lets me know that I've been seen."

Flaxman is one of more than a dozen Sherith Israel members and another dozen of their lovers and friends, who formed a gay and lesbian chavurah this spring.

While it is not the only place that gay and lesbian Jews can pray among gay Jews, the group may be the first gay and lesbian chavurah in the Bay Area affiliated with a mainstream synagogue.

Looking back on her "Hidden Jew" sermon, Goldfinger — now Dubinsky and assistant director of the Los Angeles-based Union of American Hebrew Congregations — recalls the 1993 sermon as a defining moment in her spiritual leadership.

"I believe that two people who commit themselves have entered into a sacred relationship for life and should be able to celebrate that," she said in a recent interview.

While every rabbi grapples with interpreting Jewish Scripture, Dubinsky had blazed her own path with that sermon. At that time, the UAHC, the Reform movement's synagogue umbrella organization, had only vaguely encouraged gay inclusion. But its rabbinical association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, had not endorsed Reform rabbis' officiation at gay marriages and still do not.

Dubinsky's trail-blazing preceded by four years the UAHC's 1997 edict, "Kulanu" (all of us), which calls on Reform rabbis to welcome gay and lesbians to congregation life. The edict recommends that congregations redefine families, change couples' membership forms from "husband and wife" to genderless titles, and create gay and lesbian programs.

Even before "Kulanu," mainstream Reform congregations in recent years have welcomed an increasing number of gays and lesbians, say UAHC officials.

"More and more gays and lesbians have children and bring them to [congregation] preschool and Sunday school," noted Rabbi Julie Spitzer, a UAHC regional director in New York.

The couples often become reacquainted with congregation life to support their child's Jewish education, Spitzer said.

At Sherith Israel, Renee Bauer, assistant program director, also preceded "Kulanu's "outreach statement when she organized the chavurah. A gay congregant had tried a year earlier to start the group. But he failed, and in his frustration, eventually joined the Episcopalian Grace Cathedral.

"It kind of felt like we were losing people," Bauer said. "There was another person who was going to cancel his membership, and then because of the chavurah stayed."

Sherith Israel's gay-friendly stance would have been welcomed years earlier by chavurah member Jennifer Siegel, who is getting reacquainted with the Jewish community after years of self-imposed alienation.

Siegel, 29, grew up in Sherith Israel but moved away from San Francisco to attend college and eventually settled into a law practice on the East Coast.

The lawyer has led a relatively secular lifestyle since she left San Francisco. She just didn't click with Judaism as a youth, she said. Sunday school was never challenging enough, and the once-male orientation of prayer books left her cold.

But when Siegel returned to San Francisco last fall to care for her terminally ill mother and later to bury her, she found comfort in the synagogue of her childhood.

"I spent some time with [Rabbi] Marty Weiner, who was my rabbi when I was growing up. He was wonderfully supportive," she said. "It felt wonderful to see the nonsexist language [in the newer prayer books]."

Siegel decided to stay in San Francisco after her mother died.

"I was looking for connections with people in environments that would be interesting. There was an announcement [for the chavurah] in the Sherith Israel bulletin. It sounded interesting."

She now attends the chavurah regularly with her brother, who also is gay.

"There are few opportunities when you get together with a group of people and don't have to do something organized. This is not focused on drinking or having to do something. It's just kind of peaceful, talking or whatever. It's a community cultural tradition," Siegel said.

On a recent Shabbat in the Haight Street neighborhood, chavurah members lit candles and formed a circle in a vine-and-fern shrouded yard as the sun gave way to dusk. Into a Babel of sirens and traffic noise beyond the fence, they sang earthy Hebrew rhythms to the beat of sand shakers and tambourines.

The group packed into member Albert Basso's small Victorian apartment after the services for shmoozing and casseroles. The nervous host moved furniture and gathered extra chairs, but some preferred to sit on laps and the floor as they kibitzed about activities, such as Sunday's San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade.

Basso, 37, first came to Judaism in jail. Though he had been born Jewish, he and his mother did not know until recent years that his grandmother had hidden her Jewishness to raise the family in her husband's faith.

"I hated it," Basso recalled. "I didn't want to be in a church that didn't say anything to me. That has been my attitude toward religion until God called the Jewish blood in me."

A Jewish chaplain started Basso on his Judaic journey with a private Purim service.

"He read the Megillah and put a yarmulke on my head."

In his cell, Basso began to read Jewish Scripture and pray to a Jewish God. But what really impressed the prisoner, was that his prayers were answered for the first time in his life — he was released early.

After jail, the reawakened Jew encountered Sherith Israel while staying in a nearby drug rehabilitation house. He felt welcomed by the congregants, who were supportive of his struggle to remain sober while living with HIV. He celebrated his bar mitzvah there.

But as a gay man, Basso couldn't find the right fit in the synagogue's sundry chavurot.

"I didn't feel that I have much in common with [chavurah members]. They all work and I don't," and the singles chavurot tended to be heterosexual, younger professionals. "I was self-conscious, unable to feel that I belonged."

Since joining the gay and lesbian chavurah, Basso has found kindred spirits and filled the gap of social connections that had been missing from his Jewish immersion.

Sitting across the circle from Basso, Flaxman feels more comfortable holding her lover's hand at the chavurah's services than at the synagogue. She considers the group a nice "side benefit" to congregation life.

Siegel is still unsure about Judaism, but her mother's death and the chavurah have caused her to reconsider religion.

The three have found in the chavurah a happier marriage between their sexual orientation and spiritual life, but there may be hundreds of other gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews in the Bay Area who remain hidden, Dubinsky said.

Whether those with a passion for Judaism affiliate with a congregation and keep quiet about their sexuality or simply stay away from synagogue life, they live compromised lives, chavurah members maintain.

"Judaism does not separate between the spiritual and the ordinary. It governs how we eat, do business and live our lives," Dubinsky said. "It's in the mundane that we look most closely for God."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.