Beth Sholom 1st Conservative shul to form gay chavurah in Bay Area

He first tried Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco with a high percentage of gay and lesbian congregants. Altman felt welcome, but wasn't quite comfortable with its Reform tradition. He had attended a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey while growing up.

He started searching for a Conservative synagogue and wound up in Rabbi Alan Lew's office at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

Three years after that meeting, Altman leads a gay and lesbian chavurah for Beth Sholom — the only gathering of its kind at a Bay Area Conservative congregation.

Obviously, that first meeting in 1995 was a fortuitous one.

"I sat with Rabbi Lew and said what I wanted to do — lead services and read Torah," said Altman. He asked the rabbi if an openly gay man would have a place in the congregation.

Lew remembers the meeting.

"I was as encouraging as I could possibly be," said Lew. The rabbi's own agenda included attracting more gay and lesbian congregants — previously, he had assembled a delegation from Beth Sholom to march in the Gay Pride Day parade.

Lew's assurances were enough. Altman joined Beth Sholom, and since then, according to Lew, Altman has had a "meteoric rise in the temple's leadership."

One of Altman's proactive contributions to the temple has been the formation of the chavurah.

Early last month, the chavurah hosted an outreach potluck lunch for members of Beth Sholom and the Jewish community at large. The event drew about a dozen people who share Altman's feelings of wanting a more traditional form of Judaism without having to hide their sexual orientation.

Chavurah attendee Melanie Miguel Shiloh is a third-generation Beth Sholom member. She and husband Michael are bisexual.

"It was presumed I was heterosexual within the Beth Sholom community," said Shiloh. "I'm so happy that there's a group at [Beth Sholom]."

Her husband agreed.

"Where do bisexuals fit in?" he asked. "The single most important thing [we] can do is being out. Do ask. Do tell."

The gathering also drew members of other synagogues. One man who asked not to be identified by name belongs to an Orthodox synagogue where the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is in full force. Although he feels committed to Orthodox practice, he came looking for a Jewish community where he could be comfortably open about his homosexuality.

Another attendee, Justyn Lezin, said she grew up "conservadox." She and her partner, Kim Haveson, are shopping for a synagogue with a Jewish community that promotes spirituality, creativity and has a place for gay and lesbian families.

There was even a member of Sha'ar Zahav.

"I'm here to see if gay and lesbian Jews from different synagogues can do something to make tikkun olam," said Alan Giannini, who is concerned about fractionalization within the gay and lesbian Jewish community.

"I hope we're not going back to a situation where we're separating ourselves."

Altman admitted to being apprehensive at first about how his group would be accepted. However, he said, the board and membership at Beth Sholom have been tremendously supportive of him and the chavurah. Many of the board members came to the first get-together to show their support and Lew fully supports it.

While Altman has found a welcoming home at Beth Sholom and is paving the way for other gay and lesbian Jews to be part of the Jewish community, there is still work ahead. What Altman would really like to do is go to rabbinical school and immerse himself in Jewish study and Jewish law.

"Right now I can't do that in the Conservative movement," Altman said.

Lew is well aware of that and other limitations for gays and lesbians within the Conservative movement.

While acknowledging that Beth Sholom has been a leader in the Bay Area in welcoming gays and lesbians into a Conservative setting, Lew noted that Conservative congregations Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and Kol Emeth in Palo Alto also have shown similar openness.