Conservative S.F. shul elects 1st openly gay president

Kenny Altman is waiting for the day when an openly gay man becoming president of a Conservative synagogue is not considered news.

But as that time hasn't yet come, Altman acquiesced to an interview with the Jewish Bulletin — as the recently installed president of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom.

Altman, 48, grew up in Fair Lawn, N.J., where he attended a Conservative synagogue. He moved to San Francisco in 1988, and came out a year later. Although he was a member of the Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav for several years, which has a long history of outreach to the gay community, he missed Conservative Judaism.

"As much as I loved it and admire everything they've done in last 25 years, I just feel more comfortable in a Conservative synagogue," he said. "I feel it's very important to be part of a synagogue that has a daily minyan, as almost every morning I put on tefillin, and where it has a full Torah reading every Shabbat."

Altman found Beth Sholom by chance. He was working in Sausalito at the time, taking care of a friend with AIDS-related dementia. On his way home one day, he decided to stop and say a Mishebeirach (prayer for healing) at the synagogue that was en route. That synagogue turned out to be Beth Sholom.

"I immediately felt comfortable there," he said. He joined the congregation in 1996.

Altman, who is the administrative manager for Parents Place of Jewish Family and Children's Services, said his sexual identity was never an issue at the Conservative synagogue. Nevertheless, he started what's become known as the Keshet (Rainbow) Chavurah for gays and lesbians who belong to Beth Sholom.

"There were a handful of people who believe very strongly in the Conservative movement, but at the same time, that there are some changes that need to be made. We prefer to be part of the change from within rather than from the outside."

However, Altman emphasized that his becoming president was not politically motivated, nor is it meant to advance any kind of agenda.

Rather, his presidency, which began July 1, "was a progression in leadership," he said, as he already chaired the synagogue's ritual committee for three years, as well as served on the board.

"I want to be president because I believe in this community and I want to give my service to this community."

If Altman has any agenda, he said it's to be inclusive to everyone. "Anyone who's looking for a connection to Conservative Judaism should be able to find it at that shul. It doesn't matter whether they're gay, straight, old, young or whatever."

Altman is particularly proud that Beth Sholom has 150 to 200 members who know how to read Torah, he estimates. He has taught four or five classes throughout the years, where he's taught about 60 of those readers.

Altman recently attended a seminar for incoming presidents within United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and learned that to have so many Torah readers in a congregation is rare.

"No one else is doing this," he said. "They wanted to take [ideas for training Torah readers] back to their congregations. The other agenda that I'd be pushing is to have 400 Torah readers by the end of my term."

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, said he knew of no other cases of an openly gay man or lesbian serving as president of a Conservative synagogue, but no one kept such statistics. "The fact that people keep saying it's a big deal, that makes it a big deal," said Meyers.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Alan Lew, spiritual leader of Beth Sholom, said he would be surprised if Altman was the first, though he hadn't heard of any others.

What made Altman different though, said Lew, was that before he came to Beth Sholom, the synagogue's outreach to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community was next to nothing.

"He's made a tremendous impact here already because he decided to come to Beth Sholom as an openly gay person who wished to belong to a traditional synagogue and not be passive about his status," said Lew. "It's really made a big difference around here."

Furthermore, Lew complimented Altman on how he integrated himself into synagogue life as a whole.

While the Conservative movement is still not where it could be on gay issues, Altman didn't think his sexual identity would be a hindrance at Beth Sholom. "I wasn't thinking I want to be the first gay president," he said. "I want to be president, I hope I can do a good job at it, and that I happen to be gay is what comes along with it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."