A Pioneer in Same Sex Marriage
By Lisa J. Huriash
Every Friday night, Jennifer and Agnes Winokur drive from their Miami home to one of the oldest gay synagogues in the nation to pray.
The lesbian couple, who took the same last name, decided last year they wanted to marry and have children. Although they knew it wouldn’t be a legal marriage recognized by the state, they found Rabbi Harold Caminker of Congregation Etz Chaim in Wilton Manors. Caminker joined them on their Bahamas cruise and married them in a religious ceremony.
"They supported us and now we support them," Jennifer Winokur, 36, said of the congregation.
"You can be yourself here," said Agnes Winokur, 33. "I can put my arm around her when he’s talking about family values," she said, referring to the rabbi.
Etz Chaim, which means "tree of life" in Hebrew, is the only synagogue for gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in Florida, and the third-oldest such synagogue in the United States, according to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah Rabbi Ayelet Cohen and Beth Chayim Chadashim Rabbi Lisa Edwards.
Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, founded in 1972, claims to be the first. New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, founded in 1973, says it is the second oldest.
Etz Chaim, founded in 1974 and claiming a couple hundred members, is like other synagogues in most ways. Members collect food for the poor, submit recipes for a cookbook, attend social functions such as theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, become religiously inspired and stay aware of their connection with Israel.
But it is also different.
The front of the sanctuary on Northeast 26th Street not only hosts an American and Israeli flag, but the rainbow flag that is a symbol for gay rights.
In their Sabbath prayer book, the traditional prayer for the sick also includes "a full and speedy recovery be sent to all persons who are living with AIDS" and a special meditation: "As we stand in the presence of God, we give thanks that we are able to celebrate our sexuality and our heritage. Give us the strength ... to be true to ourselves and others as gay and lesbian Jews. May we never suffer for who we are..."
The congregants use the synagogue to receive emotional support on issues ranging from overseas adoption and marriage to daily issues facing gay people.
There are some critics. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the influential Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America in New York, said Judaism considers homosexuality a sin.
"I don’t mean in any sense to condemn the people, but the idea of a gay synagogue is an absurd idea," he said. "It is as absurd as having a synagogue geared toward people who feel they must eat non-kosher food or must desecrate the Sabbath. Somehow, I don’t think they are going to get authentic Jewish learning in an environment like that."
Even at Etz Chaim, the subjects of gay unions and gay rabbis still draw debate.
Orthodox Judaism does not allow the ordination of gays. In Conservative Judaism, although rabbis opposed the recent attempt at a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, top leaders continue to debate the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. A 25-member panel of leaders will vote on the matter in December.
Reform Judaism has accepted gay rabbis since 1990.
Caminker, who moved to Wilton Manors from California in 2005 to lead this congregation, was ordained as a rabbi in 1978. He has been openly gay for 10 years, after being married to a woman for 18 years. He has three daughters.
He says this synagogue has been as much a blessing for him as it has for his congregants.
"I had a synagogue, I needed something deeper," he said. "I wanted to be a rabbi for a group of Jews I had something in common with."
Gay Jews often feel more comfortable discussing their lives with him, Caminker said.
They do not feel judged by clergy, he said. "Many have had wounded spirits and wounded souls throughout their prior faith voyage."
Sometimes reactions from other rabbis were interpreted to be "judgmental, even hateful," he said.
His synagogue, affiliated with the Reform movement, prides itself on an accepting environment. There was a heterosexual couple who came one recent Friday night for Sabbath services just because they like the place. There’s a male-female couple who had operations; the female had been a man, and the male had been a woman. And there are gays and lesbians -- some single, some in relationships -- who greet one another and strangers with the customary Sabbath greeting of "Good Shabbas!"
Caminker will be heading to Jerusalem on Tuesday for the World Pride event that will begin Sunday. He will be one of the speakers on "Coming Out in the Pulpit."
"It’s a community, it’s like a family," said Scott Dolinsky, of Pompano Beach, a vice president of the synagogue. "I consciously decided to move to this part of Florida because I wanted to be part of a gay Jewish population. A lot of good friendships have been made.
"While we are a Reform congregation, most of our members came from very traditional types of congregations and they felt out of place," Dolinsky said. "You couldn’t very well -- if you were lucky enough to have a partner -- kiss them and sit there and hug them, and it’s perfectly acceptable in our congregation. People can show their emotions freely."
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-572-2008.
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