Gay, Asian, Jewish and in charge

The first thing Robert Bernardo plans to do as the new president of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance is ensure there are more food options at the meetings besides shrimp dumplings and sweet and sour pork.

“I try to keep kosher, and I come out of the meetings starving,” Bernardo said with a laugh.

The new president of the group known as GAPA is active at his synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, and converted to Judaism last year. Bernardo is the group’s first Jewish president.

GAPA was founded as an AIDS support group. But over the years, it has become cultural, social and political in nature.

Bernardo, 37, lives in South San Francisco. He works as a public information officer at the Oakland Port Authority. When he was 2, his family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. He grew up in San Mateo County, where he attended Catholic elementary school and Catholic high school, and even served as an altar boy.

As a teenager, he realized he was gay.

“I came out to my parents when I was 16,” he said. “My family was great but the religion wasn’t so great. It was very difficult in trying to reconcile being gay and being Roman Catholic.”

In choosing to break from the church, Bernardo left religion as a whole. And later, as one of the first openly gay Asian detectives in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, Bernardo was the lead detective investigating hate crimes.

“I worked with the Anti-Defamation League on all the anti-Semitic incidents,” said Bernardo. “I never would have guessed that someday I’d be Jewish.”

But as Bernardo reached his 30s, he realized he missed having a spiritual life. “I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to turn,” he said, “and I started asking my friends.”

Bernardo went through a lengthy process, talking to his diverse group of friends, interviewing them about their faith.

When he heard about Judaism, he said, “it just resonated with me. There was something about the religion that made perfect sense.”

There was a logic and practicality to it that appealed to him, and especially the notion of one God, which was very different than the concept of the trinity with which he was raised.

A wonderful first interaction with Rabbi Camille Angel, spiritual leader of Sha’ar Zahav, also helped.

And while he was a bit apprehensive about attending services at Sha’ar Zahav for the first time, he was relieved when he got there to see other Asians. He laughed, as now, he said, they’re kind of a clique.

Bernardo said that he never felt unwelcome anywhere in the Jewish community, even when he visited a number of synagogues around the Bay Area as part of his conversion process.

As an aside, Bernardo is one of three subjects of a documentary about Asian Jews that is in the final editing stages. The filmmaker trailed him around for about a year, through his conversion process.

“I’m very proud to be Jewish, and I never really said that about my spirituality before,” he said. “But I think I finally found my place.”

When asked what he would bring to GAPA as a Jew, he said that alliance-building was one of his top priorities, and he could serve as a bridge himself.

The issue of gay marriage is a priority of Bernardo’s, and GAPA and other groups are already anticipating a major battle in keeping an anti-gay marriage proposition off the ballot in the 2006 election.

“The battle in California will only be one if we can really make inroads with lots of groups, and especially faith-based groups,” he said. “Those connections have to be made, and I feel I could play a very important role in building those types of bridges and making those types of connections. Not only in Asian and gay groups but also with communities of faith.”

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."