Members of the recently formed Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in June 1979 during the “San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade.” (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)
Members of the recently formed Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in June 1979 during the “San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade.” (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)

In the ’70s and ’80s, our letter-writers went to battle over gay rights

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San Francisco has long celebrated its place in the forefront of the gay rights movement, from the rise of the Castro neighborhood in the late 1960s to the political activism of Supervisor Harvey Milk in the 1970s to the legalizing of same-sex weddings at City Hall in 2004.

But over the last several decades of struggle for LGBTQ+ equality, the Jewish community hasn’t always been on the same page.

One place the conflicting attitudes, ideologies and beliefs played out in the 1970s and 1980s was in our letters section. Individual opinions were all over the map, from those who strongly condemned homosexuality to those who fiercely advocated for gay rights.

One such back-and-forth was sparked in 1973 when we asked a prominent Reform rabbi in Pittsburgh, Solomon Freehof, for advice.

A “congregation of homosexuals” had been established in Los Angeles, and the paper wanted an “expert on Jewish law” to weigh in. (Freehof was renowned worldwide as an interpreter of Jewish law.)

Freehof’s column was highly controversial and angered many readers, as subsequent letters to the editor showed.

First, the rabbi — who was born in 1892 and died in 1990 at age 97 — made it clear he thought that homosexuality was not only a sin under Jewish law but also counter to Jewish values.

“If Scripture calls it an abomination,” he wrote, “it means that it is more than a violation of a mere legal enactment; it reveals a deep-rooted ethical attitude…. How deep-rooted this aversion is can be seen from the fact that although Judaism developed in the Near East, which is notorious for the prevalence of homosexuality, Jews kept away from such acts, as is seen from the Talmud (Kiddushin 82a) which states that Jews are not ‘under the suspicion of homosexuality.’”

He likewise didn’t support synagogues created specifically for gay Jews. To condone such a synagogue would be “aiding and abetting sinners.” Freehof also conjectured that such a synagogue could turn young men toward homosexuality. (No word on the young women.)

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

Not so fast, one reader wrote in a subsequent letter to the editor.

“I am really amazed that Freehof seems to think that homosexuality is contagious to the degree that he implies. If the orientation were truly ‘unnatural’ I wouldn’t think that with all the harsh and constant efforts of all segments of society to make people heterosexual that so many people would be threatened by it.”

Another reader, who signed his letter as a member of the Jewish Gay Brotherhood, thought to be the first gay Jewish group on the West Coast, noted that gay synagogues do not “recruit.”

“We do choose to attain dignity and self-respect, to be treated fairly as individuals by society and the law, and to take our form of love out of the gutter and make it the beautiful thing that God intended it to be,” the reader wrote in 1973.

One of the first ads in this paper for Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. (Photo/J. Archives)
One of the first ads in this paper for Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. (Photo/J. Archives)

In 1977, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav was founded as a place where gay Jews could worship together, and its leaders wanted to advertise in our pages. According to founding member Ron Lezell, at first this paper refused to run the paid ads. But after pressure from then-JCRC director Rita Semel, advertisements for services at Sha’ar Zahav appeared almost weekly.

This shift drew outcry. One letter to the editor in 1978 stated: “I have been seeing ads in the Jewish Bulletin about Jewish homosexuals and since the Bulletin is a newspaper for the Jewish people of this Bay Area it seems to me that it is becoming party to a hypocrisy, since Jewish law forbids homosexuality! If these people want to do their thing, don’t let them subject us to their personal ways of living.”

The next edition included this response: “A July 7 letter to the editor complaining that the Bulletin runs ads for Jewish homosexuals struck me as misguided, not to say condescending. Even if Orthodox Jewish law (which is continually being reinterpreted) forbids homosexuality, the Bulletin’s responsibility is to its local community, and that community, I am glad to say, includes Jews who are homosexual.”

The following month, we published this letter: “Thousands of gay Jews are tired of being invisible. We gays were rounded up by the Nazis just like the Jews were. To be both Jewish and gay is to know what being an outsider really is.”

A Chabad rabbi replied: “For Jews to organize with the express purpose of being dedicated to behavior which is forbidden by Jewish law has no place in a Jewish society. It is in a way comparable to Shabbos desecrators, or those who eat on Yom Kippur and want to organize a Shabbos Desecrators or Yom Kippur Eaters Society.”

The debate didn’t stop there. In 1984, a letter writer stated: “I think that gay synagogues are unacceptable from the Jewish religious point of view, they are bad for the ‘Jewish reputation.’”

Not so, a writer responded, suggesting that if Jews who opposed gay synagogues actually visited one, “they would have learned of the hundreds of Jewish women and men who (sometimes along with their children) have returned to Judaism because of the existence of synagogues with outreach to the homosexual community. We are Jews who are contributing to the survival of the Jewish people.”

Homophobic letters rarely show up in this publication’s inbox anymore, and the need for activism to counter regressive thinking may no longer seem necessary. But the current wave of anti-gay and anti-trans legislation across the country is a reminder that the fight for LGBTQ+ rights continues. Dozens of Bay Area Jewish organizations will be showing their support on June 25 when they march in San Francisco’s Pride Parade.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.