Gay Jews come back to the fold

It had been 30 years since Susan Gilbert set foot inside a synagogue. But when she saw the announcement for a potluck Shabbat dinner at Oakland's Temple Sinai for Reform lesbian, gay and transsexual Jews, their families and friends, she couldn't pass it up.

"It was the food factor," joked Gilbert, explaining why she broke her three-decade standoff with organized Judaism. "If the food is good enough, I'll return."

More seriously, Gilbert admitted that her reasons for going to Temple Sinai last month weren't quite so simple. She wanted to re-establish a connection with the Jewish community.

"I'll always be a Jew," she said. "You can't take the Jew out of the lesbian." Indeed, Gilbert ended up staying for Friday-night services.

According to one of the event's organizers, Lisa Orta, the goal of Out and About at Temple Sinai is to reach out to unaffiliated gay, lesbian and transsexual Jews — whether they are temple members or not — and welcome them into synagogue life. Although Orta, her partner Karen Rust and their two children feel comfortable as part of the synagogue's community, she knows this often is not the case.

For many gay people, either the experience of being marginalized in traditional congregations, or the fear of it, keeps them away.

"It's hard to be gay in the synagogue," said Orta. Sometimes the cost of coming out is excommunication from one's family and extended community, she said, telling of parents who sit shiva when their child declares his or her homosexuality or desires to change genders.

Many in the gay community do not want to risk participating in mainstream synagogues. "There's a fear of being rejected, and to be rejected in a spiritual context is devastating for a lot of people," Orta said.

In many instances that rejection is very real, she added. Sometimes it's overt. Other times it's more subtle. Consequently, many gay, lesbian and transsexual Jews seek alternative ways to practice Judaism.

"Gay Jews will form a chavurah and create their own closed community," said Orta.

Others may join a synagogue such as Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, which openly welcomes people of all sexual identities. But that's not always the answer.

A transsexual attending the potluck, who asked not to be identified by name, said he felt "invisible" in a congregation where there was an assumption that people were either gay or lesbian. Although he was raised Jewish and has a master's in Jewish studies, he has been unaffiliated for 10 years. "It's hard to feel comfortable as a transgender person in the Jewish community."

Now, he has begun going to Torah study groups at Sinai.

Reaching out through newspaper ads and on the Internet, Out and About drew approximately 40 men, women and children to the first meeting. The response indicated to Orta that many East Bay gay, lesbian and transsexual Jews are looking for a Jewish connection. She felt the success of the event was also due, in part, to the fact that Temple Sinai was genuinely welcoming.

Orta admits her own motive in organizing the potluck was to connect with other Jewish lesbian families.

For David Beers, who is gay, the meeting provided an opportunity to celebrate Shabbat in a family atmosphere.

"I've always loved kids and would love to have kids of my own," he said. "Seeing all these people there that have children is an encouragement to me."

Orta estimated that about two-thirds of the people stayed for services. For many it was a very emotional experience.

"There were a lot of tears," she said. "For some people it was a real homecoming — the music, the melodies, the rhythm of Hebrew. People were shocked that it was so warm. For some of the people it meant breaking down their own preconceived notions."

For Beers it meant the comfort of just being another congregant. He is in the process of converting to Judaism, having left a religion whose attitude toward gays was excommunication.

"We went up to services and we just blended in," said Beers, who plans to attend future Out and About Shabbats at Sinai. "We were just part of the fabric."