Why a Gay/Lesbian Synagogue?
by Rick Landman Why does anyone need a Gay/Lesbian Synagogue? Because people want to feel comfortable, safe and appreciated. Whenever a minority faces prejudice, bigotry and discrimination, it will seek a safe place. It is not a uniquely gay phenomenon. The United States is dotted with numerous "Little Italys," "Chinatowns," and neighborhoods that predominately reflect one specific culture.
We have two cross currents--a strong political move towards integration, combined with a reality that parts of the society still prefer to live in close proximity with others of their group. So why should it be any different for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community?
Before World War II, most American resorts were restricted. Only a few places were truly "Jew-friendly." Thus the "Jewish Borsht Belt" was born. In the Catskills, Jews were able to be themselves and to practice their form of Judaism in an environment that reflected their specific cultural background. But, in time, anti-Semitism in the tourist industry decreased, and Jews could travel and stay at many "Jew-friendly" resorts. By the 1970s, the Catskills started to lose its Jewish resorts. By 1999, even the Concord was sold. Jews were merging into the mainstream.
Gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered Jews are in a similar situation to America’s Jews of the 1950s. There are some synagogues that claim to be "gay-friendly" to one degree or another. And thus, many gay or lesbian Jews are now finding it possible to participate in more mainstream synagogues.
But when one looks at the few so-called "gay-friendly" synagogues, one must question whether gays and lesbians are truly accepted. Do these "gay-friendly synagogues" have schools that support the children of gay/lesbian couples? Do they have wedding ceremonies for gay/lesbian couples? Do they have socials to encourage gays and lesbians to find mates? Do they have classes and sermons that analyze the interpretations of the Bible which seem, at first blush, to condemn homosexuality? Would there be whispers if a member stood to say Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for the death of a same sex lover?
These are just some of things that lesbians and gays can do in a synagogue such as Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York. In addition, it is hard to downplay the exhilaration of being part of a large gathering of people who share your beliefs, such as when you see 300 other gay and lesbian Jews at Shabbat services each week, or marching down Fifth Avenue with CBST (Congregation Beth Simchat Torah) in a Gay Pride Parade.
There is one more analogy that I would like to make, and that is to the State of Israel. Most American Jews have never traveled to Israel. But they are proud that Israel exists. Israel not only stands as a homeland of last resort (in the event that another Hitler arises), it also is a beacon of Jewishness.
Gay/lesbian synagogues perform the same function. People in remote areas (where there are "gay-unfriendly synagogues") can share in the pride when they see Congregation Beth Simchat Torah marching down Fifth Avenue or speaking out to the greater Jewish Community to open up their hearts to their gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender family members. They may not visit that often, but they are glad that CBST (Congregation Beth Simchat Torah) exists.
So while I cannot predict the future, I would not be surprised if the future holds both "gay-friendly synagogues" where lesbians and gays can become part of the Jewish community as equals, and gay-lesbian synagogues. But there still will be "straight-friendly" synagogues like Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, where gays and lesbians can feel they are surrounded by others who understand them and will love them for themselves.
Rick Landman currently works as a university administrator. He was the founder of the Gay Liberation Front at the SUNY at Buffalo in 1970, and sent buses to the First March on Albany for Gay and Lesbian Rights on March 14, 1971. He was the New York representative for the First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 14, 1979, serves on the Board of Directors of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, and founded the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Children of Holocaust Survivors