Locals confer with others in N.J. to merge gay, Jewish identities

WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J. — It looked like the Orthodox participants at the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Jewish Organizations' conference would have to forgo Shabbat services.

With only three Orthodox men attending last weekend's conference, they were seven short of a minyan. But then a group of Orthodox Jews who happened to be vacationing noticed the sign in the hotel's lobby listing the services and asked to join in.

Bonnie Kantor, one of the conference co-chairs, said she immediately informed the newcomers "what kind of a group this is," expecting them to revoke their offer. Instead, they told her, "A Jew is a Jew and a Torah is a Torah."

Together, they were exactly 10 men. "Without us they wouldn't have had a minyan and without them we wouldn't have had one," said Kantor.

It was an incident appropriate for the 20th anniversary of an organization that is now enjoying unprecedented acceptance.

"Given that the main event of these events is networking, I'd have to say that this is the most successful event yet," said San Francisco resident David Gellman.

Gellman, the president of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, said that the event provided a forum for shmoozing, noshing, praying and discussing everything from "leather Jews to forming ties with local federations."

With 65 member organizations representing 14 countries, the World Congress has grown significantly since its early days when a handful of gay activists, who happened to be Jewish, came together to respond to a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.

In just the past few months, the gay and lesbian Jewish communities have seen two major victories. In the first, the Reform movement affirmed its rabbis' right to officiate at same-sex unions. And Israel's Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Jerusalem lesbian couple who are raising two sons; the decision grants the non-biological partner the right to legally register as a mother.

"The Reform movement was rightly lauded as leading the fight for rights," said Gellman, "but they were also taken to task for contributing more words than actions."

Many gay Jewish synagogues, once havens for the closeted, now enjoy close ties with other local Jewish institutions and boast that their inclusive atmospheres even attract some heterosexuals. As these synagogues grow larger and more established, several are starting religious schools and buying cemetery space.

Since the early 1990s, both the Reform and Reconstructionist streams have ordained openly gay and lesbian rabbis, and a growing number of congregations are hiring gay clergy.

The conference had sessions that suggested ways for Jewish community centers and other local and national Jewish institutions to reach out to gay and lesbian Jews. Some gay congregations report they are now even being invited to participate in community activities, like Israel parades.

In Israel, openly lesbian Michal Eden now sits on the Tel Aviv City Council. She plans to run for Knesset in the next election and if she wins, would be Israel's first openly gay legislator. Eden, 31, thinks she's come a long way since her family first threw her out of the house 11 years ago.

But lesbian and gay Jews are far from winning full acceptance. Most Orthodox and many Conservative leaders consider homosexual acts to be prohibited in the Bible, and therefore do not ordain gay rabbis or sanction same-sex weddings. Leviticus 18:22 states, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination."

Biblical scholars, however, have argued over the meaning of this passage.

Within the Reform movement, many congregations lag behind the statements of national leaders when it comes to welcoming gays and lesbians.

Rabbi Greg Kanter, 35, who now leads a gay and lesbian synagogue in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said that when he came out at another large Reform congregation six years ago, board members questioned whether he should be allowed to work with youth. The congregation eliminated Kanter's position when his two-year contract was up.

At a comedy session, San Franciscan comic Lisa Geduldig, drew knowing laughter with jokes about Jewish parents for whom gay and lesbian offspring are "disappointments."

She opened her routine by asking if there were any "faygeles" in the audience, jokingly using the derogatory Yiddish term for gay.

Amid the growing openness, some are questioning what role America's 41 gay and lesbian Jewish groups — most of them congregations and Chavurot — should play.

In a speech, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, director of the Conservative movement's University of Judaism, urged gay and lesbian Jews not to segregate themselves from the larger Jewish community. Dorff is heterosexual but a vocal gay rights advocate. Others agreed, but emphasized the ongoing need for gay and lesbian congregations.

Nachum Golan, 58, of Pittsburgh's 80-member Bet Tikvah, said several of his fellow congregants already have dual affiliations.

But things like gay and lesbian couples kissing after services or going up to the bimah to celebrate anniversaries aren't always so welcome.

Rabbi Debora Gordon, 37, a Reform rabbi at Congregation Berith Sholom, a mainstream synagogue in Troy, N.Y., said that as long as gays and lesbians have a distinctive culture, "there'll be a need for gay synagogues in the same way there's a need for Sephardic synagogues."

In addition, she said, gay synagogues provide a venue for gay Jews to find romantic partners and "it's hard to imagine most mainstream synagogues being really comfortable with the guys getting dressed up in high heels and dresses for Purim."

San Francisco's Gellman said the event fostered an international community, from Tiburon to Tel Aviv and points in between.

"Nobody leaves the conference like this feeling isolated," said Gellman. "No matter where people live, they are united by the problems that they face, and by the solutions that they share."