Connection more than skin deep

Jamaican Everlyn Hunter is used to standing out in a synagogue.

“I am used to being one of the few blacks in white settings, so I’m not having a new experience being black in a Jewish community necessarily,” said Hunter, a board member at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), a Reform synagogue on West Pico Boulevard.

Carlton Williams, an African-American member of Temple Beth Am, agrees that skin color is not an overriding factor in his connection to the Jewish community.

“I feel more of an interaction from value to value, as opposed to skin color to skin color,” said Williams, 46. “There’s a diversity of Judaism, and I don’t consider Judaism as one color, because I’ve seen multiple ethnicities of Judaism.”

A Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews conducted from Feb. 20 to June 13, 2013, found that 2 percent of the approximately 6.7 million Jews in the United States are black. And although the survey includes a broad definition of “Jewish,” from being born Jewish to non-Jewish people with a Jewish affinity, high Jewish intermarriage rates and adoption levels suggest that the number of racially diverse Jews, including blacks, is significant and climbing.

“Certainly conversion is one way, and the extent to which 50 percent of Jews intermarry,” said Diane Tobin, the founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, a Jewish research and community-building initiative. She added that Jews also adopt — often transracially — at twice the standard rate.

However, the number of black Jews in Los Angeles is still comparatively very low.

“The smallest group I have that ever converts are black,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the rabbinic director of Judaism by Choice, an organization that offers classes on Judaism for those considering conversion, explaining that approximately 10 of his 300 students a year are black.

“The black community is so connected to Christianity, and so if a black person leaves and becomes Jewish, there are very few other black Jews that they connect with, so it takes, I think, a lot of courage for a black person to consider Judaism,” Weinberg said.

Indeed, Lisa Bellamy, 33, who is mixed race and converted to Judaism last August, recalls how before converting, Jews asked her why she would want to add on another reason to be discriminated against as someone who is already a minority.

“In all honesty, I didn’t feel I had the choice,” Bellamy said. “Growing up mixed, I did have issues with feeling out of place and not truly accepted by either race. It wasn’t until I converted and got more involved in my Judaism that I truly felt I was home.”

Indeed, with the coming of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, Bellamy points to Jews’ and blacks’ common history: “We have a long history of both being oppressed and with discrimination, and in the civil rights movement a lot of Jews helped out with that. There’s a natural camaraderie and empathy for the Jewish people with the black community,” she said.

BCC member Hunter was raised Seventh-day Adventist but converted three years ago. During her conversion process, she discovered she had Syrian-Jewish family on her maternal side, who had migrated in the 19th century to Jamaica, where Hunter was born and raised until she moved to the United States with her family at age 14. For reasons unknown, her grandmother had raised her mother Seventh-day Adventist, keeping the family’s Jewish heritage secret.

Hunter rejected the church as a child and first connected to Judaism in college through her observant Jewish girlfriend, with whom she kept a Jewish household. However, Hunter later lost touch with Judaism, then reconnected only when she moved six years ago to Los Angeles, where Jewish friends and mentors she met led her to explore the religion further.

“I was looking for a spiritual community, a religious connection,” she said. “Pretty important people in my life were Jewish, and practicing Jews.”

Hunter was attracted to the Jewish idea of tikkun olam as well as the value for education in the community, and she identified with Judaism’s “nomadic history.” Ultimately, converting to Judaism was “less a conscious analytical choice than it was something that felt right.”

Like Hunter, Williams — who had belonged to a Methodist church with his family, then converted along with his wife and three kids in 2010 — pursued Judaism partly due to his encounters with Jews. When he visited a social services agency during the recession, the person who helped him was wearing a kippah.

“I felt a lot of tzedakah from the [Jewish] community,” Williams, 47, said. “We just kept seeing people in kippahs helping us out. As we were being helped and getting ourselves back together, it kept getting back to this Jewishness.”

He recalled thinking, “Maybe there’s a people I belong to that I don’t know about.”

Hunter said she has experienced some tension between her black and Jewish identity. She recalled one incident when she received negative treatment from a gay African-American group with whom she was campaigning for marriage equality when she revealed she was Jewish.

“Within the Jewish community I have encountered prejudice, and within the black community here I have encountered prejudice against Jews as well,” she said.

Bellamy, who attends services at the progressive, egalitarian community IKAR,  first connected to Judaism when she reconnected at 18 with her maternal, white Jewish relatives, with whom she would celebrate the High Holy Days.

“All of a sudden, I had this big huge Jewish family that I always craved and wanted,” Bellamy said. “That was the first time I really started to relate to Judaism and feel accepted.”

All three interviewed for this story said they feel accepted by the Jewish communities they’re part of.

“I went to the Kotel — that was an incredibly, incredibly moving moment … but the [tune to] Ma’ariv Aravim is something that stays with me all the time,” said Hunter. “It’s something that I feel that’s always a profoundly emotional moment for me whenever I hear that.”

Part of the attraction to Judaism is also the Passover story, a story that ties Williams to his African-American roots, as well. 

“My favorite holiday is Passover, as I can identify with the Exodus experience of transitioning from a slave to a free-thinking man.”

Clergy reflect on Proposition 8

On a wall of the Autry National Center — among Los Angeles Jewish immigrant artifacts, biographies of Hollywood Jewry, above a case of kippot from Uganda — a white banner proclaims in crimson letters: “Beth Chayim Chadashim, Jewish, Gay & Lesbian & Proud.” The banner, used in gay pride marches in the 1980s and ’90s, is part of the museum’s exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” which runs through Jan. 5. Lent to the museum by the world’s first gay synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, (House of New Life), the banner is presented as a symbol of gay liberation in Jewish life.

Just across the museum’s courtyard, in its Wells Fargo Theater, the gay pride movement and, in particular, the road to marriage equality, came to life at an Oct. 20 symposium, “Faith Meets 8,” linked to the “Mosaic” show. Moderated by Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus, speakers included the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the world’s first gay church, and Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), joined by Mormon scholar Joanna Brooks, and USC religion and sociology professor Paul Lichterman.

This November marks the fifth anniversary of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Much of the discussion at the Autry centered on the role that conservative religious groups played in the measure’s initial success — prior to it being overturned by the United States Supreme Court last spring — as well as what the speakers described as recent rapid shifts leading up to this year’s resumption of gay marriages.

“What we’re seeing now is this sea change that’s happening in same-sex marriage in state after state, such a sudden change and such a shift from what we saw in 2008,” said Edwards, whose Reform congregation is in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The rabbi attributed these changes to the hard work of activists, as well as the positive impact that recent same-sex marriages have had, especially on prior opponents. “There’s nothing like getting invited to a wedding … and seeing what a couple is creating together, a family together, to help people let that fear fall away, to break down those boundaries,” Edwards told the audience of about 60 people. 

It was Perry, whom Edwards referred to as “the founding reverend” of the BCC, whose encouragement led to the formation of the Jewish congregation in 1972, and his L.A. church served as the temple’s original home. In 2004, Perry, along with his husband, was among the first litigants to sue the state of California in seeking gay marriage. The Supreme Court overturned Proposition 8 in June, along with the landmark ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, and in October, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize gay marriage. Other states, including Michigan, are expected to follow soon. Although Perry emphasized his belief in marriage equality as a civil right, he also found grounding in his faith: “I’m as serious as a heart attack over this issue. … I come from a religious background that told me it was moral to marry … so for me it was a religious issue.” 

The conversation at the Autry also focused on how many Mormons, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews voted in support Proposition 8, because they believed same-sex marriages might lead to infringements on their own religious liberties. When moderator Lazarus asked whether religion has impeded social change, the symposium speakers said that faith and progress can go hand in hand, and that it was time to look forward.

In an interview, Edwards said she has been delighted to see her calendar fill up with weddings and noted an influx of younger gay and lesbian couples joining together under the chuppah. “Celebrating Jewishly, and within the law,” Edwards said, “feels so good.”

LGBT Jews take pride in inclusiveness

Before he told members of his family, Nathan Looney told members of his synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), that he was transitioning from female to male. He says the encouragement he received is typical for members of this Pico Boulevard congregation.

“I see my family once in a while, but I see the people here once a week, sometimes more,” said Looney, who added that the synagogue gave him “perfect support.”

Looney was among more than 100 participants who attended Pride Shabbat at BCC, a Friday night kickoff to a weekend of activities celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a watershed moment in the LGBT rights movement, Pride festivities in Los Angeles included parties, a lesbian-led march, a festival and a Sunday afternoon parade along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. In a year that has seen the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and President Barack Obama becoming the first president to support same-sex marriage, the LGBT communities had much to celebrate.

The Jewish community participated in LGBT events throughout the weekend with a combination of philanthropy and prayer as well as celebration.

In addition to Pride, BCC’s Friday night service also marked the 40th anniversary of its first Shabbat service. Congregants were invited to prepare short speeches to read from the bimah throughout the service to share memories, describing their personal journeys to spirituality as well as coming out to themselves and their communities. The congregants’ stories started with the earliest members of the congregation and continued toward the more recent.

Davi Cheng, a computer graphics designer who helped create the biblically themed stained glass windows in the sanctuary, first came to BCC in 1996 when her partner, Bracha, began keeping a more Jewish household. Cheng, a former BCC president, recalled how she celebrated her 17th anniversary with her partner at the synagogue.

“[Bracha] arranged to have ‘The Song of Songs’ sung to me during Friday night services. We were invited to light the Shabbat candles. What a powerful night that was — to be able to be who we are and celebrating publicly our anniversary. Just this act of sharing our love with the community was very affirming,” she said.

At Congregation Kol Ami, a congregation in West Hollywood, Rabbi Denise L. Eger and Cantor Mark Saltzman led Pride Shabbat services. Congregants also took part in a professional clothing drive for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s Jeff Griffith Youth Center, which gives shelter and supplies to homeless LGBT youth as well as helping them obtain GEDs and vocational assistance.

“That is really what gay and lesbian pride is about,” said Eger, who served as a judge for the parade. “It is about creating an environment of total inclusion. Tolerance does not mean that anyone does anything. To really include means you go another step further.”

Celebration of diversity was also reflected in an interfaith service at the intersection of Santa Monica and La Cienega boulevards before the start of the Pride Parade on Sunday. The service included live music and was led by spiritual leaders from Kol Ami, BCC, Metropolitan Community Church Los Angeles (MCCLA), the International Buddhist Meditation Center and the Los Angeles Queer Interfaith Clergy Council.

The Rev. Neil Thomas of MCCLA worries that young people are leaving the church “because they are equating religion with bigotry and hatred.” He believes the interfaith service is important for dispelling the idea that God does not love gay people.

Victor Bumbalo of the Buddhist Meditation Center agreed. “Young people coming out think people of faith have turned their backs on them. Being LGBT should not stop someone from being spiritual,” he said.

While the mood throughout the weekend was supportive and optimistic, it was also acknowledged that there is still work to be done in obtaining civil rights for the LGBT community.

Eger stressed that the LGBT community will continue to exist in a state of second-class citizenship until the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of BCC agreed.

“It was great to see that the president came out in support of gay marriage, but that same week, North Carolina passed the law banning it. … Minuses always come with pluses. It’s two steps forward and one step back, to put it in parade terms. But we’re still moving forward.”

BCC Looks to Future With New Home, Programs

Drivers at a red light looked on with curiosity as hundreds of congregants and supporters of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) poured out of the doors of a synagogue, forming a parade on the sidewalk of Pico Boulevard. Their destination: BCC’s new location, at 6090 W. Pico Blvd.

This parade, held in April, marked the move of the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue to a new site and a larger building that will better accommodate the congregation’s growing membership and programming. BCC’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards said that the move represents the culmination of several years of effort, including a unique and lengthy fundraising campaign and a collaborative renovation of the new site.

For some, including 90-year-old Harriet Perl, who joined BCC in the early 1970s, the new synagogue already feels like home.

“When I came into this building, I burst into tears,” Perl said. “I’m so overwhelmed by what we have done, by how wonderful this congregation is and how far we have come in one lifetime.”

The undertaking cost nearly $3.5 million — an estimated $2.3 million for the building and another $1.2 million for the renovation. Approximately 75 percent of the synagogue’s congregation contributed, with contributions ranging from $100 to $1 million. Approximately $20,000 came from nonmembers.

The ark in BCC’s new building is solar powered and covered in copper strips engraved with the personal messages of congregants. Photo by Kenna Love

“We just exuded confidence that this was going to work and [that] we were going to move into a great new space,” said Brett Trueman, former president of BCC, who contributed $280,000 in addition to running the fundraising campaign, which started in 2006.

A professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Trueman and his husband initially intended to donate $50,000 to the campaign. Then a fundraising consultant told them their donation would send a message to the rest of the BCC community, and encouraged them to offer more.

“The next few people we reached out to” — a group that included Edwards and her wife — “I think in total committed $1.5 million,” Trueman said.

Trueman attributes people’s willingness to donate to the increase in the synagogue’s membership among Jews in their 20s and 30s, “a coveted group” he said, adding that “when you see their vibrancy, it makes people want to give a lot more.” He also credits the synagogue’s unique outreach and its influential role in the course of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

Now a congregation of 185 families, or 250 individuals, BCC started out with just a handful of gay and lesbian Jews meeting in a downtown Los Angeles church in the early 1970s. The congregation joined the Reform movement in 1974, and in 1977 purchased 6000 W. Pico Boulevard, which was the congregation’s home until the purchase of this new space.

BCC bought the new building in 2009, closing escrow in December 2009 with the previous owner, Max Webb, a Holocaust survivor and founder of Shapell and Webb, a real estate investment and property management firm.

The new site’s proximity to the old one — they’re just two blocks from one another — was appealing to the congregation’s building committee. 

The new, approximately 6,500-square-foot home — its previous building was 3,500 square feet — was originally built in 1929 and had been a church and, later, an auto parts dealer before standing empty for years. BCC’s renovation focused on aesthetics and eco-consciousness.

A close-up of a copper strip on BCC’s ark. Photo by Kenna Love

But how to make what is still a relatively small space feel like a large one? Enter the husband-and-wife architectural team of Marc Schoeplein and Toni Lewis, of Lewis/Schoeplein Architects, who were hired to design the new BCC.

One solution was to make the new lobby feed into every area of the synagogue — the sanctuary, a classroom and library, the kitchen, the clergy’s and administrative offices, and a hallway leading to the restrooms.

The kitchen demonstrates the architects’ creative use of space. A remote-control garage-door-style wall made of light hardwood comes down, with the click of a button, into the middle of the kitchen, so that part of the space can also be used as a classroom.

This commitment to multipurpose use isn’t limited to the interior. Outside is a small parking lot, the synagogue’s only on-site parking (BCC rents two parking lots nearby for use during popular services), and it also serves as a space for outdoor events.

The architecture blends an innovative use of space and an emphasis on the efficient and practical with artistic flourishes, like a wall in Edwards’ study, painted a pinkish color called Razzle Dazzle. It was supposed to be used for the synagogue’s outside wall, but when the design committee was testing samples, one of the neighbors came by and said, “ ‘Any color but that one, please!’ ” Edwards recalled.

Throughout the building, colors, including those in the stained glass windows alongside one of the sanctuary walls, further brighten the naturally lit space, which is filled with light hardwood and glass.

Even the ark isn’t just a place to house the Torahs — it’s a communal art project, made of dozens of wooden blocks, with long, narrow strips of copper running across the length of the blocks, crisscrossing each other. Each piece of copper is imprinted with a congregant’s anonymous personal story, an experience with BCC or of being an LGBT Jew — “whatever people wanted,” Edward said.

“This is where I came out … where I stood under a chuppah and where I came home,” one strip reads.

The architects built solar panels into the ceilings of the sanctuary, which power the light in the ark; torn denim serves as the insulation in the walls; and the parking lot has an electric car-charging station. Other eco-friendly elements include reclaimed wood, salvaged doors and carpeting made from recycled tires.

“We talked a lot about what values we wanted to convey with the building, and sustainability and having a low impact on Earth was on the top of the list of values we wanted to bring to this project,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, executive director of BCC.

BCC’s greening efforts added an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 to construction costs, but the synagogue will be “saving in energy costs down the road,” Park-Rogers said.

Along with the new site come new goals. BCC hopes to attract more non-LGBT, straight members and increase their outreach through programming. For instance, upon their move to the new location, they held a lecture series on Muslims with Rabbi Reuven Firestone.

But how to promote inclusivity while still maintaining its identity as an LGBT synagogue? And does the Jewish community’s growing acceptance of LGBT Jews deem specialized synagogues irrelevant?

“That certainly has made it harder for LGBT synagogues to attract members,” Trueman said, “because we’re not the only place we can go to make [LGBT Jews] comfortable.”

But, he added, “I think a lot of us would agree that while other synagogues are accepting, there’s a difference between being accepting and [being] thought of as part of the mainstream of the synagogue.”

Regardless of what’s in store for BCC, for members like Perl, the synagogue’s value is obvious. “This temple has meant so much to me, I can’t begin to tell you in words,” she said. “It’s the place where my Jewish heart is.”