Bob Stein holds up the banner for recently formed Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in June 1979 during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)
Bob Stein holds up the banner for recently formed Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in June 1979 during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)

Archives Week: How we covered — or didn’t cover — LGBTQ Jews over the years

Newspapers are the first draft of history, as the saying goes. But important issues often get left out of these early drafts. In the case of this newspaper, the mere existence of LGBTQ Jews was pretty well ignored until 1972.

That first mention, a column by Earl Raab, leader of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council for decades and a regular columnist in this paper, includes the line — a lament, perhaps? — “There are more homosexuals in San Francisco than there are Jews.” Raab does not approve of gay Jews, but insists that he does not wish them ill. He wonders: “At what point do we cross the line — from supporting individual rights — to bestowing society’s official approval to homosexuality as an alternate life style?”

In this newspaper, then called the Jewish Bulletin, and in the wider Bay Area Jewish community, that line grew fuzzier throughout the ’70s.

In March of 1973, we reported on “a group of Jewish homosexuals” who held a protest in front of the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco. They were there, as members of FIRM (Faggots International Revolutionary Movement), to object to Israeli law, which then punished homosexuality with prison. The demonstration followed a meeting at the consulate in which Peter Goodman, an openly gay Jewish man, had attempted to begin the process of immigrating to Israel. The official he met with informed him that homosexuality was illegal in Israel and Goodman was therefore not eligible to make aliyah.

In May 1973, not long after the 1972 founding of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the world’s first gay synagogue, the editors of the Bulletin “asked Rabbi Solomon Freehof of Pittsburgh, an authority on Jewish law, to express his views on the subject.” He did so in a piece with the subtle headline, “Homosexuals And The Jewish Religion.”

“There is no question that Scripture considers homosexuality to be a grave sin,” wrote Freehof, who was 80 at the time. “The rabbi who organized this congregation said, in justifying himself, that being Reform, we are not bound by the Halacha of the Bible. It well may be that we do not consider ourselves bound by all the ritual and ceremonial laws of Scripture, but we certainly revere the ethical attitudes and judgements of the Bible.”

Despite the esteemed rabbi’s persuasive arguments, San Francisco got its own gay synagogue when Congregation Sha’ar Zahav launched in 1977. One might think that its founding would have been perfect fodder for coverage from this publication. But no. At first, Sha’ar Zahav appears only in small ads near the classifieds: “Temple Sha’ar Zahav S.F. Gay Synagogue has Sabbath Services every Friday night at 8 P.M.” The ad appeared weekly beginning in July of 1977. But by September, the services were listed in the paper’s official column of service times for area synagogues.


RELATED: Digitizing J.’s archives was a mission to save Jewish history


However, for any substantive treatment of gay Jews, Sha’ar Zahav still had to buy ad space. In May 1978, the congregation resorted to a wordy advertisement that began: “The Torah portion for this week related to anyone engaging in certain sexual acts for which one would be ‘stoned to death.’ One of the results of this injunction is that there is a congregation of homosexual Jews in San Francisco with membership in the hundreds. We at Sha’ar Zahav want to be active members in the Jewish community. We only seek the opportunity to worship the G-d of our ancestors in a Jewish place.”

Sha’ar Zahav in its early years was forced to rent space in churches and Buddhist temples because Jewish organizations shunned them. The ad goes on to ask for suggestions of Jewish spaces they can rent for Friday night services.

In June 1978, the Jewish Bulletin finally had the courage to give Sha’ar Zahav some attention — but not enough courage to note that it was a gay synagogue. Instead, the brief article merely states that the congregation of some 200 members would soon be holding a service to celebrate its first anniversary.

In 1979, we reported that Rabbi Allen Bennett would soon attend a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association, to address the CCAR’s “Committee on Homosexuality.” At the time, Bennett, the first openly gay rabbi in the U.S., had recently become the rabbi of Sha’ar Zahav — though in this article, oddly, the Bulletin still can’t quite mention that Sha’ar Zhav is a gay synagogue.

Ten years later, the disposition of the Bulletin was changing. In May 1989, we devoted half a page to the upcoming marriage of Jay Schnyder and Allan Grill: “Like an increasing number of gay and lesbian couples who live a lifestyle that persists despite its non-recognition by law or religion, they have opted to affirm their commitment to one another in an open and public way. They wanted more than a simple ceremony, though — they wanted a wedding. And they wanted it to be Jewish.”

The article marked a shift in our coverage of gay Jews — from a problem to be grappled with to a segment of the community whose Jewish identity was worthy of coverage and respect.

(Of course, some in the community were not on board, such as the writer of a letter to the editor in the following issue: “I was shocked by the article of the marriage of two homosexual men … To flaunt the homosexual practice that runs counter to our way of life is a disgrace in a newspaper dedicated to Jewish values.”)

In the early ’90s, we covered the growing acceptance of gay Jews within the Reform movement. In 1990, the CCAR passed a resolution that called upon its members “to treat with respect and to integrate fully all Jews into the life of the community regardless of sexual orientation.” The resolution also supported gay and lesbian rabbis. But for some Bay Area Reform rabbis, it didn’t go far enough.

In a May 1991 article, we wrote of Bennett and two other S.F. rabbis, Yoel Kahn and Eric Weiss, who co-authored a letter calling for greater acceptance of gay and lesbian rabbis. Sadly, 21 of the 29 rabbis from around the country who signed the letter “felt unable to use their names.” They welcomed the CCAR resolution, but lamented that it demanded “that we separate our personal lives from our rabbinic careers. It is time to be accepted for who really are: committed Jews and rabbis who are also lesbians and gay men.”

In 1993, the Bulletin covered the year’s theme for the High Holiday season at the progressive, independent Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley, “interweaving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender realities in the Jewish community.” It was the first appearance of the word “transgender” in this publication. “Congregants cheered during Rosh Hashanah when [Rabbi Burt Jacobson] welcomed people of all sexual orientations to the congregation,” we wrote. “This is not a safe place for people who are homophobic,” Jacobson says in the article.

By the 21st century — and in the last decade in particular — J.’s coverage of LGBTQ Jews reflects a Jewish world that Raab and Freehof could scarcely have imagined in the ’70s.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav since July, 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Rabbi Mychal Copeland has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav since July, 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)

A perfect illustration is our coverage of Sha’ar Zahav’s 40th anniversary in 2017: “The shul that has been known since its 1977 founding as San Francisco’s gay synagogue is now reaching out to a broader community and de-emphasizing its identity as an LGBT-specific congregation.” (We now live in a world where a gay synagogue struggles with its identity because other synagogues in the area are so accepting of LGBTQ Jews that many see no reason to seek out a specifically LGBTQ congregation.)

“Sha’ar Zahav — while retaining its ‘queer values’ core — is focusing on how to serve a congregation that is increasingly of mixed gender, including residents of the Castro who are not gay,” we wrote.

Could Raab and Freehof have imagined our 2015 coverage of a transgender naming and coming-out ceremony for a student at a Jewish day school? Or our 2019 article about the beginning of all-gender cabins at Camp Tawonga? Or the mere fact that our reporters no longer blink when an interviewee tells us they use they/them pronouns?

Our early coverage — or lack thereof — of LGBTQ Jews left a lot to be desired. But the evolution of that coverage over the years is just one example of how the history of Bay Area Jews and the issues that matter to them are reflected in the pages of this paper — all now available for your perusal at jweekly.com/archives.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at [email protected].