Gays, lesbians applaud Reform resolution on unions

When California voters approved Proposition 22 last month, David Gellman was feeling down in the dumps.

But his gloom over the passage of the anti-gay marriage initiative was replaced last week with elation after Reform rabbis overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming their officiation at the unions of gays and lesbians.

"On the heels of Prop. 22, this was welcome news," said Gellman, the president of San Francisco Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a synagogue that reaches out to gays and lesbians.

"I'm delighted, completely delighted," he added. "We view it at Sha'ar Zahav as a major milestone, and by no means is it a compromise."

The resolution, which does not use the words "marriage" or "wedding," was modified shortly before the vote to emphasize that not all Reform rabbis agree on same-sex unions.

Kenny Altman, the founder of the Gay and Lesbian Outreach Program at Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, shared Gellman's enthusiasm. But he called the resolution a compromise.

Altman said he was "a little disappointed" in the wording that the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis settled on.

"It seems like the CCAR watered it down somewhat, even though they're saying they didn't," he said. "It says, 'We support those that want to perform same-sex marriages, and at the same time we support those that do not want to.'"

Altman said a similarly worded resolution regarding heterosexual marriages would not only sound foolish, but would demonstrate that gay-and-lesbian issues are still often addressed with a lack of chutzpah.

"You would never have any group come out with a statement that says, 'We support those that want to marry heterosexuals, but we also support those that don't want to.' That was one thing I was disappointed in."

Overall, however, Altman said he was very pleased. "I think it's wonderful," he said.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Robin Leonard, a past president and current board member at Sha'ar Zahav. She is also a member of the regional board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement's congregational arm.

"I'm excited and proud to be a Reform Jew," she said. "I think it was a very embracing statement, a very affirming statement."

Leonard said the spirit at Sha'ar Zahav's Shabbat services last weekend was sky high. "It was clearly something that was very, very well received by our congregation."

And of a UAHC board meeting on Sunday, she said, "there was a lot of pride in the room."

Still, Leonard, who will begin rabbinic studies this summer at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, felt the resolution was a compromise.

"There was a recognition on the part of the voters not to split the rabbinate or bring down the CCAR," she said. "But I think the essential part and the essential affirmation" is what packs the biggest punch. "It doesn't matter what surrounds it."

Gellman agreed.

"It's very clear what the message is," he said. "And it's consistent with the Reform movement's autonomy in the rabbinate — that rabbis decide how and if they will conduct [same-sex ceremonies], not the CCAR."

Reaction was also upbeat at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York, the world's oldest and largest gay and lesbian synagogue.

"It's important from a symbolic point of view," said Steven Fruh, a Beth Simchat Torah member who came back to Judaism 11 years ago after abandoning it, thinking homosexuality and religion were incompatible.

"The largest Jewish organization has said our relationships have just as much validity" as the relationships of heterosexual couples, he said.

"May the Conservative movement be next."

Altman, who sits on the board at Beth Sholom, believes that will happen someday.

"I have a lot of friends in their 20s and 30s who are in their first or second year in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Although they are not gay, they are going full speed ahead to make these kinds of changes," he said.

"Fifteen or 16 years ago, people said that women would never be ordained in the Conservative movement, and now that's happening. The next thing that's going to happen in the Conservative movement is that gays and lesbians will be ordained. And then it will be a natural progression to have them perform gay and lesbian marriages."

Gellman didn't want to predict what will happen in the Conservative movement.

"The door is open," he said. "It remains up to the Conservative movement to step through it."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.