Soul-searching journey returns rabbi to Sha’ar Zahav

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Today, the new rabbi of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav couldn’t be any clearer about who she is.

Now married with two children, “I would call my orientation bisexual,” she says. “I had significant romantic and serious relationships with people of both genders when I was single. Now I’m in a committed, long-term relationship with my male partner,” attorney Stewart Schwartz.

A highly articulate woman with a hearty laugh and a crown of dark curls, Litman knows bisexuality might confuse those who view human sexuality in strictly black-and-white terms. “Our world doesn’t tend to have a nuanced or complex understanding of these things,” she says.

But even those who don’t understand Litman’s sexual orientation would be hard-pressed to misunderstand her politics. “I’ve been an advocate of gay and lesbian rights for 20 years,” she says.

The 42-year-old Litman — who belonged to Sha’ar Zahav in the late ’70s — comes to the synagogue from a five-year stint as rabbi of Congregation Kol Simcha in Orange County. Like Sha’ar Zahav, it has special outreach to gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews.

Kol Simcha “is really quite a brave congregation,” Litman says. “They are mostly liberals in a very conservative county, Jews in a very Christian county and gay, lesbian and bisexual people in a world that is very heterosexually normative.”

Of course, in many ways, San Francisco probably could not be more unlike Orange County. But the Reform Sha’ar Zahav does share with Kol Simcha certain values nurtured in gay and lesbian culture, Litman says.

These, she adds, include an emphasis on tolerance and gender equality, and a deeply held appreciation of community.

“Often in American society, we’re deluged with the idea of the entrepreneurial individual,” the rabbi says. “Both Jewish culture and gay culture stand in opposition to that and say, `No, you need a group, a community of people to be with you and care for you.'”

With more and more heterosexual members joining its ranks, the 20-year-old Sha’ar Zahav has become an increasingly diverse congregation in recent years. It also has grown in size: Current membership stands at approximately 550, including 130 children. Litman’s children Sophie, 9, and Asher, 6, will increase those numbers.

Because of Sha’ar Zahav’s growth, the congregation is preparing to move from its current building on Danvers Street in the city’s Castro District to a new site on the corner of 16th and Dolores streets. The 9,000-square foot, two-story building is more than three times larger than the synagogue’s present facility.

Another change is on the horizon, as well. Rabbi Martha Bergadine, who served as the congregation’s interim rabbi following Rabbi Yoel Kahn’s departure last year, has been hired as educator.

Litman lights up when talking about her pulpit-to-be. When she belonged to the nascent congregation years ago, she secretly dreamed that one day she would be its rabbi. “It was the best Jewish community I had ever been in, the most open and inclusive and participatory,” she says.

The high level of participation appeals to her greatly. “I’m not interested in what I call `the imperial rabbinate.’ I wouldn’t want that.”

A Los Angeles native who currently teaches Jewish and women’s studies at Cal State Northridge and is also on the faculty of the University of Judaism, Litman knew she wanted to be a rabbi since her days as a Jewish studies major at U.C. Berkeley.

In 1976, she enrolled in the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, which did not accept openly gay and lesbian students until 1990.

Asked frankly in her admissions interview if she had sexual feelings for other women, Litman said she did not.

“But lying and being a rabbi are not exactly things that go together very well,” she says. “I really felt if I wanted to be good rabbi, I had to be open about who I am.”

Deeply troubled by her inability to do so at HUC, she left the college and attended graduate school in Jewish studies and journalism. She attended law school and studied computers.

Then in the early 1980s, she enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which voted to ordain openly gay, lesbian and bisexual students soon after she entered. She graduated from RRC in 1989 and now belongs to both the Reconstructionist and Reform rabbinical organizations. She found out about the opening at Sha’ar Zahav through the Reform movement’s placement office.

“It’s always been my dream to have such an empowered and invested congregation,” she says of Sha’ar Zahav. “I’m very excited. It’s a good match.”

by Leslie Katz