10 area rabbis back gay, lesbian religious marriage

Though it's generally known that some area rabbis perform same-sex ceremonies, this is the first time that so many have publicly stated their position.

The interfaith statement, designed to demonstrate a widespread support among clergy, simply states: "I have officiated or would officiate at the religious marriage of a same-gender couple."

The signers represent a myriad of faiths: Baptist, Episcopalian, Zen Buddhist, Jewish, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ and non-denominational Christian.

In addition to Litman, the rabbis who signed comprise Stephen Pearce, Helen Cohn, Sydney Mintz and Peretz Wolf-Prusan, all of Congregation Emanu-El; Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel; Eric Weiss and Miriam Senturia of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center; Pam Frydman Baugh of Or Shalom Jewish Community; and Yoel Kahn of Stanford Hillel.

All of them are either Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal. And with the exception of Kahn, all of them represent San Francisco congregations or organizations.

Nine of the rabbis signed the declaration before it was publicly released on Thursday of last week. Frydman Baugh added her name to the list Monday.

The declaration was circulated by the S.F.-based All Our Families Coalition, a nonprofit group that promotes civil and human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered families.

"I think marriage rights are human rights," said Litman, a Reconstructionist rabbi whose Reform congregation reaches out to gays and lesbians.

Cheryl Deaner, executive director of the All Our Families Coalition, said supporters began collecting clergy signatures about three months ago — soon after February's "National Freedom to Marry Day," an event that supports civil marriage for same-sex couples.

Deaner, Litman and others decided to gather signatures to show that many spiritual leaders support religious — in contrast to simply civil — marriage for same-gender couples.

"I think people need to know these religious leaders believe the love of God includes gay and lesbian families," Deaner said.

The statement was released last week to coincide with the Southern Baptists' national convention in Salt Lake City. That denomination formally condemns homosexuality.

Pearce, who is Emanu-El's senior rabbi and president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, said he signed the statement because it's a "just thing to do. We liberal Jews believe in social justice."

Up to now, Pearce has never performed a same-sex ceremony.

"No one has asked," he said. But Cohn and Wolf-Prusan, other Emanu-El rabbis, have performed such ceremonies, Pearce said.

Pearce added his name to the list, even though he wouldn't personally call such a ceremony a "marriage" per se. He would instead deem it a "commitment ceremony."

"Marriage really has a traditional context of a relationship between a man and a woman. Why do we have to put it into the same context? I would say you don't have to," the Reform rabbi said.

Still, Pearce offered his signature because he doesn't want to "nit-pick" over the language.

To Litman, however, the words "religious marriage" are extremely important.

"I think `commitment ceremony' is a euphemism," she said. The phrase has been used for a number of years to educate people and ease their discomfort about same-sex unions, she added.

Litman, herself, performed "commitment ceremonies" for more than a decade. Then a few years ago, she decided to start using the word "marriage."

"I don't see any difference based on the gender of people," she said.

Senturia of Ruach Ami also consciously calls such ceremonies "marriages."

"I would say it's whatever the couple wants to call it," Senturia said.

"I am calling it a marriage because in my mind it has the same power as any coming together of two people who are making a sacred commitment to each other. I want to give it the full honor it deserves, even if the broader society doesn't."

Senturia, a Reconstructionist rabbi, doesn't generally perform marriages right now because of her full-time work at Ruach Ami, which assists Jews who are ill, dying or bereaved. But she has officiated at one same-gender marriage in the past.

She, Pearce and Litman said they hope the declaration can influence other Jews and their rabbis who may be on the fence about the issue.

Litman added that she believes she can get many more signatures. As a matter of logistics, she said, she approached only San Francisco rabbis — except for Stanford Hillel's Kahn, who used to lead Sha'ar Zahav.

In September, the coalition will invite all the clergy who sign the statement to a special service. If renovations at Sha'ar Zahav's new building in the Mission District are finished by then, the service will take place there.