Synagogues working to be more LGBT-friendly

Ever since Kehilla Community Synagogue was founded in 1985, the congregation’s leaders and members have tried to honor diversity of all stripes.

But about 10 years ago, said Sandy Bredt, executive director of the Piedmont synagogue, lay leaders and staff decided to be more explicit about that mission. They modified their programming and marketing materials to be more overtly inclusive to gay and lesbian Jews.

“For someone who is queer, to come to an institution that has behind it a 5,700-year-old tradition of being very prescribed about what is appropriate conduct, there has to be something that says to them: We want you, too. We want you here,” she said.

Last summer, that commitment hit a fever pitch when the congregation married seven same-sex couples in one ceremony. “It was kind of a marriage of our political and our spiritual values,” Bredt said, adding that it also was “the highlight of my career so far.”

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Seven same-sex couples were married at a “wedding fest” last July at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. photo/jared gruenwald

Synagogues across the country are trying to be more open and affirming of LGBT Jews, and they’re about to get a lot of help.

Recent conferences in New York and Los Angeles attracted more than 100 rabbis, educators and activists from across the denominational spectrum who shared “best practices” for becoming more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews.

The conferences — organized by Jewish Mosaic, a nonprofit supporting sexual and gender diversity in the Jewish community, and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College — were part of the “Welcoming Synagogues Project,” which aims to develop a model for inclusiveness to be implemented this summer by 10 pilot congregations.

The initiative is loosely modeled after efforts by the Unitarian Universalist Church and the United Church of Christ, denominations that make LGBT inclusion a cornerstone of their communities.

“We’re trying to come up with a process that’s scalable” and tailored for Jewish communities, said Joel Kushner, IJSO director. “There isn’t going to be one size [that] fits all.”

Findings from the 2009 Synagogue Survey on Diversity and LGBT Inclusion, presented March 1 and 2 in Los Angeles, underscored what Kushner described as a need for congregations to be more welcoming.

After receiving surveys from nearly 1,000 synagogues, researchers found that 73 percent of the 760 rabbis polled think their congregation is welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews. But only 33 percent of synagogues that responded offer programs aimed specifically at gays and lesbians.

“There’s a lot of goodwill out there, but when you drill down a little deeper, we find that all the goodwill doesn’t necessarily translate into a lot of action,” said Caryn Aviv, a lead researcher.

Rabbi Elliott Kukla, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, went to Los Angeles to hear the study’s results. When he works with synagogue communities, they’ll often articulate how welcoming they are to the LGBT population.

Yet when Kukla asks them how they’re tangibly welcoming (Do they have unisex bathrooms? Do their lifecycle ceremonies represent different gender identities?), they often can’t cite concrete examples of inclusive efforts.

Bredt is thrilled that Mosaic and the ISJO are partnering to roll out a plan for congregations to become “open and affirming” of LGBT Jews. But she cautioned against believing it to be a panacea for synagogue growth or renewal.

“There absolutely has to be a communal commitment to be in spiritual community with people who are different from you in this particular way,” she said. “You have to figure out how to get a synagogue community to open their hearts in a way that would make a genuine welcome.”