Joy, and a little fear, mingle at Shaar Zahav event

The all-day, Feb. 10 event at the San Francisco Reform synagogue, dovetailed with the National Freedom to Marry Day on Feb. 12, Valentine's Day and the proceedings of a California court case that lesbian and gay parents fear could dramatically impact adoption rights.

Mostly though, Sha'ar Zahav's registry, which was preceded by Rabbi Camille Angel's half-day seminar on Jewish marriage practices as it relates to the LGBT community, struck a decidedly upbeat tone.

"This is the supreme act of coming out," declared 59-year-old David Stein, who has been with his partner, Alex Ingersoll, for 27 years. Stein, a San Francisco resident who grew up in a Conservative household in New York, has never shied away from either facet of his identity.

"I was 'out' when I was 5," quipped Stein, the executive director of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Israel-Judea. A past president of Sha'ar Zahav, Stein lived in Israel with his partner during the '70s, when both Zionism and America's gay liberation movement were in full bloom.

Stein, who said he helped organize Tel Aviv's first gay rights march in 1979, moved back to San Francisco shortly thereafter, because he wanted to be more directly involved with the burgeoning gay rights movement.

"I was one of only a handful of 'out' couples in Israel at the time, which caused me to lose quite a few friends — most of whom were closeted and fearful of being seen with us." His decision to move back to the States happened to coincide with the emergence of Sha'ar Zahav, which opened its doors in 1977.

"Sha'ar Zahav was really unique in that men and women contributed equally to the infrastructure of the synagogue," he said. "That was really contrary to what was happening nationally at the time — where the majority of the decision-making was undertaken by men. Also, having an organized spiritual component to gay identity was groundbreaking, because most of the gay rights movement had focused on political goals."

Though Stein had participated in San Francisco's domestic partner registry years ago, the ramifications of this second signing with the California Secretary of State remained significant — even if the emotions surrounding it weren't as immediately visible as they were eight years ago.

"Alex and I cried just like all the other couples on the stage when the city registered us," he said. But, he noted, Governor Gray Davis signed legislation affording California's same-sex couples broader equality, effective this past January.

"To have the state recognize our partnership and to complete the paperwork at Sha'ar Zahav — which has been a huge part of our lives for the past 22 years — has brought us full circle," Stein remarked.

National Freedom to Marry Day was organized to call attention to support being built toward ending discrimination in marriage, according to the Web site of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. The day also inaugurated a week of domestic partner registrations nationwide.

San Francisco resident Judith Holiber was among those who were a tad more sanguine about the shape of things to come. Her concern, and one of the main reasons for her attending the ceremony at Sha'ar Zahav, was the California appellate court case, Sharon S. vs. Superior Court.

That case concerns the validity of a second-parent adoption, which refers to one partner being the biological parent of a child the second partner wants to adopt. (Domestic-partner adoption refers to a couple adopting children who aren't biologically related to either.) The case stems from an acrimonious separation between a biological mother and her partner.

Holiber, the biological mother of a 2-year old son, has been with her partner Kim Warsaw for nine years. She worries that the outcome of Sharon S. vs. Superior Court could have a chilling effect on parental rights extended to same-sex partners under the governor's new legislation.

The new state law, which provides for rights such as relocating with a domestic partner without losing unemployment benefits, using sick leave to care for an ill partner or child of a domestic partner, and suing for wrongful death, contains no precisely worded provision concerning the second-parent adoption process.

What it does provide for is domestic-partner adoption of children using the current stepparent adoption process, which Holiber said has always been problematic for gay adoptive parents.

For example, she had to go through numerous home visits by social workers so they could determine whether she provided a "suitable" home for a child. Her partner also had to attend those visits.

"First of all, it was kind of silly that Kim had to investigate whether or not I would be providing a suitable home for a child. After all, I've been with her for almost a decade."

Holiber added that before Davis signed the new law, which at least provides a framework for gay adoptive parents, even if social workers wrote a glowing report about the prospective parents, the recommendation would be nixed because the couple wasn't married.