Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?


By eighth grade, Micha Thau knew he was gay. But he also knew that being gay was not acceptable in many of the Orthodox spaces he inhabited. So he buried that part of himself.

But it didn’t stay buried. He began to suffer headaches, vertigo and other physical symptoms he attributes to his feelings of intense isolation. He relished days when the symptoms would send him to the doctor, just because “I got to leave the hellhole that was my life.”

“There were times when it was just crushing,” said Thau, 18, who graduates from Shalhevet High School next month. “I thought it was over, like I really could see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Youth in Thau’s position face few options, none particularly rosy. They can quit Orthodoxy and live out gay lives, either as secular Jews or within another branch of Judaism. They can stay in Orthodoxy and renounce a part of themselves, living in celibacy or difficult relationships. Or they can do as Thau did and fight for openness and inclusion, and risk becoming poster children.

Still, as the secular world increasingly has embraced same-sex couples, the Orthodox has not been left totally behind. A number of congregations and communities, pulled by the conscience of some of their members, are taking a hard, wrenching look at their laws and traditions, and how they impact Orthodox youth.

When Thau came out during his sophomore year to Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, and Principal Rabbi Noam Weissman, he was literally shaking. The administrators were surprised by the toll it had taken just to talk to them.

“We thought we had done an amazing job” promoting inclusion, Segal told the Journal. “And it turned out he had waited to come out to us because he was scared — he didn’t know what the school’s position was.”

Shalhevet student Micha Thau last summer at the Jerusalem gay pride parade. Photo courtesy of Micha Thau

Segal has since emerged as an advocate for teens like Thau. In an opinion column in the Shalhevet school newspaper, he called the dilemma they face “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.”

Thau’s coming out has turned into something like a coming out for the entire Modern Orthodox community in Los Angeles: a highly visible test case for a virtually invisible issue. Thau has joined with Shalhevet’s administration to reshape perceptions of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in a religious community pulled in opposing directions — toward acceptance by its modernity and toward silence by its Orthodoxy.

The letter of the law

For the young people caught up in that struggle, the root of the problem lies in Leviticus, which labels gay sex a toevah, most often translated as an abomination, and, a couple of chapters later, prescribes the death penalty as punishment.

Strains of Judaism differ in how this law, like most laws, is applied. Reform Judaism suspends the prohibition, allowing clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. The two greater Los Angeles synagogues with outreach programs for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Mid-City Los Angeles, are aligned with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism openly grapples with the law. As of a 2006 Rabbinical Assembly decision, gays and lesbians have been welcomed into Conservative congregations and rabbinical posts, but sex between men remains prohibited — the 2006 ruling did not address sex between women — and deliberations continue on same-sex marriage.

Orthodoxy generally adheres to the letter of the law, and homosexuality is no exception. Though outright hostility toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals is less common in the United States than it was before legalized same-sex marriage, so too is unconditional acceptance. Orthodox teens struggling with their sexual orientation in this environment can’t be sure how their communities will react if they come out, or whether they will risk losing friends and family.

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

It’s impossible to know how many teens are caught between their Jewish faith and their sexual orientation. Within the general population, multiple studies have found that around 3.5 percent of respondents self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. But even those studies may not reflect an accurate count because not all respondents provide truthful answers, and many surveys, including the U.S. Census Bureau, do not ask about sexual orientation.

At Shalhevet alone, a school with an enrollment of slightly more than 200, general population estimates suggest there are something like eight lesbian, gay or bisexual students. Thau said he currently is the only out gay student at the school.

“For every Micha Thau at Shalhevet, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of gay, lesbian, transgender students at Orthodox institutions struggling, fearful, worried, self-destructive,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. and an activist for LGBT Jews.

Walking a fine line

For Modern Orthodox communities, the word of biblical law translates practically into a stance that neither embraces same-sex partnerships nor outright condemns those who choose to undertake them.

“On the one hand, we’re not going to support it,” Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, one of the major national Orthodox institutions in the United States, told the Journal. “But on the other hand, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that gay and lesbian members feel as much a part of the community as anyone else.”

Nonetheless, the model of an Orthodox marriage, without a doubt, is a husband and wife. Weil said, “Where there’s a little bit of pushback is where a couple wants to be discussed as ‘Mr. and Mr.’ or ‘Mrs. and Mrs.’ ”

For teens contemplating their romantic and religious futures, the range of answers they might receive from rabbis and school administrators is wide. For now, Shalhevet seems to represent the most progressive response they might receive in Los Angeles.

Valley Torah High School in Valley Village occupies a more conservative place on the spectrum. Reached by phone, Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, the head of school, was quick to note that intolerance against gays, lesbians and bisexuals is not welcome.

“With my students, I feel it’s important that they understand that this is not something that we look down upon,” he said. “This is not a choice that people make.”

However, he wouldn’t budge on the issue of Jewish law: The rules are clear, and a student who wanted to live an out gay or lesbian life at the Orthodox high school would run into trouble.

“This would be inconsistent with the atmosphere — for a kid to say, ‘I’m gay, I’m acting out on it and I want to be a member of Valley Torah in good standing,’ ” he said. “It’s inconsistent from a halachic viewpoint.”

Asked whether such a student could, for instance, lead prayer services or school activities, he answered, “In 31 years, it hasn’t happened. But honestly, let’s just sort of change the question. I’d have the same dilemma if a kid came to me and said, ‘Rabbi, I love Valley Torah but I’m just eating at McDonald’s every night. That’s who I am.’ ”

At YULA Girls High School, the policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual students is in flux.

“We’ve had internal discussions, but we haven’t yet formulated a policy,” said Head of School Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who plans to leave YULA Girls this summer after leading it since 2008. “It would obviously include the greatest amount of respect for the students and understanding of whatever they’re going through.”

He said the heads of the area’s Orthodox schools — including YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Valley Torah and Shalhevet — meet periodically to discuss important issues, including this one. As of now, they haven’t formulated a conclusion. But Lieberman expects that soon most local Orthodox schools will provide statements or policies on the matter.

As attitudes about homosexuality have shifted, with gay rights and narratives becoming more mainstream, hard-line positions have become more difficult to maintain.

Thau recalled telling his grandfather that he was gay and getting a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘So?’ ” Thau recalled. “And he said, ‘If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have had a very different reaction.’ ”

Thau went on, “As much as the Orthodox community tries to isolate itself from the secular world, there are always cracks in the wall — no matter how high the wall is. Culture will always bleed through.”

Caught in the middle

But ensconced behind the walls of a Torah-observant lifestyle, many teens still face an awful choice between God and love.

“When you’re living in the Orthodox community, being gay and being religious — they’re not cohesive,” said Jeremy Borison, 25, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Los Angeles. “So me, if I had to choose one, I was gonna stay with the religious side of it.”

He said he’s now able to balance his faith and sexual orientation — but only because he found a welcoming community in B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, where Senior Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky has been outspoken in favor of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Others, like David, a gay man in his 20s who grew up in an Orthodox family in Los Angeles, no longer feel like they have a place in the Orthodox community.

Some of the gay and lesbian individuals interviewed for this story, including David, asked not to be identified by their real names or even the schools they attended, fearing they and their families would face sigma and untoward gossip. David still is wary about sharing his story publicly, for that reason.

At the Orthodox high school he attended in L.A., he knew he was attracted boys, but thought it was a phase, something all teenagers go through. There were no Orthodox Jews who were gay, as far as he knew; it simply wasn’t conceivable.

He had a good time during his high school years, though, enjoying his religious education and even getting close to some of the rabbis. But by the time he found himself in yeshiva in Israel, in a completely different environment, he realized his feelings weren’t going to go away. His first reaction was to treat them as something wrong with him that needed to be fixed.

A good deal of therapy later, David is leading an out gay life, but he finds that he’s uncomfortable in Orthodox spaces. His experience didn’t make him hate Judaism; he’s still finding his place in the religion. But he no longer considers himself Orthodox. How could he feel welcome in a community that considers who he is to be a great sin?

Every problem begs a solution

From time to time, students approach Stulberger, the head of school at Valley Torah, struggling with feelings of attraction to members of the same gender. Stulberger said he has “helped many students over the years in their struggle — but in a private way.”

His first reaction when students come to him with this issue is to assure them, “We are here to talk to; we are here to help you.” But after that he draws a line: “What I won’t do is give the indication that giving into your same-sex attraction is something that’s acceptable.”

To these students, he presents two options. One is celibacy. The other is to “get help, find the right professional who can help you to reorient.”

Stulberger alleges there are thousands of young men who have changed their sexual orientation with professional help. While the scientific and LGBT communities dispute its effectiveness, the internet is filled with testimonies from people who claim to lead happy, heterosexual lives as a result of “reparative therapy.” Stulberger even knows a handful of them, he said.

One of those is Naim, an Orthodox man in his early 30s who attended Valley Torah and who asked to be identified only by his middle name. For years, he struggled with his attraction to men but rejected the idea of living an out gay life.

“I didn’t want that lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted to get married. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to do what men do — period.”

Photo by Eitan Arom

By the time he was 28, he said, he’d been in and out of rehab for drug addiction and was addicted to gay porn. Then, he made an electrifying discovery on the internet.

“There’s a whole community out there — Jews and non-Jews alike — that don’t want to live that lifestyle and have struggled with it and gotten help, and now they’re married,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible, God is talking to me right now. Why did it take 28 years to tell me this?’ ”

He enrolled in reparative therapy designed around what he called a “gender wholeness model.” He identified factors such as a troubled relationship with his father and an unhealthy identification with traits he admired in other men as the cause of his same-sex attraction, which he referred to as SSA. He treated it like a condition that needed to be fixed, he said, and he began to heal.

“My attraction for men has diminished significantly,” he said. “Usually, my SSA, on a scale of 1 to 10, is at a 0.”

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

“There are still days when I struggle every once in a while,” he said. “Thank God it doesn’t happen very often.”

Taking a pledge

Told that a Los Angeles high school recommends reparative therapy, Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, a West Hollywood-based Jewish LGBT support and education organization, was horrified.

“What it does is, it encourages people to kill themselves,” she said. California law bans the practice for mental health providers.

David moved away from his Orthodox community after high school and hasn’t returned, but some of its stigmas and taboos lingered with him. He sought out reparative therapy while in college, and while he didn’t find it particularly traumatizing, he said it made him hate himself. Since then, he’s blocked much of it out in his mind.

Now, Segal and Thau at Shalhevet are asking other Jewish schools to affirm in a pledge, written jointly by Thau and the administration, that they “will not recommend, refer, or pressure students toward ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion therapy.’ ”

“We believe that’s damaging,” Segal said of the practice.

The pledge includes five other points — which Segal insisted schools can adopt altogether or individually — including an assurance that gay, lesbian and transgender students won’t be excluded from school activities and will be provided with support services. The full statement is available online at jewishschoolpledge.com. As of now, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it.

Asked about the pledge, Lieberman, the head of YULA Girls, said, “It’s very powerful,” adding that if YULA Girls were to issue a policy about LGBT students, “it would definitely gravitate toward that.”

The idea of the pledge has its origins in Thau’s coming out to Segal and Weissman.

“What could we do?” Segal said he asked the teen. “What could we have communicated to you, Micha, that would have helped?”

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The administrators realized that communicating anything at all would have been a good start. Even though both men assumed a gay student would be welcomed, Thau struggled through years of uncertainty because they had never said as much publicly.

“Schools and communities and shuls should have this conversation and decide what they believe, and then publish it,” Segal said — even if it is less progressive than what Shalhevet came up with.

Bat-Or said she hopes other schools will follow Shalhevet’s lead and take steps toward inclusiveness, for instance by circulating JQ’s helpline for LGBT Jews and advertising their counselor’s offices as safes spaces for students questioning their sexual orientation.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 150,” she said of Shalhevet’s efforts. “I really mean that. It took huge courage for [Segal] and for Micha to get together and to do this.”

A movement in the making

Cases like Micha’s make it increasingly difficult for Orthodox communities to ignore issues faced by their lesbian, gay and bisexual members.

“Centrist Orthodoxy is conflicted and not admitting the conflict,” said Greenberg, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who came out years later and co-founded Eshel, a Boston-based organization that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox communities. “They are pulled by much more traditional frames, and they are pulled by the human realities they’re facing.”

At least in some communities, that conflict has meant a long, slow drift toward acceptance.

Elissa Kaplan, a clinical psychologist who came out as lesbian 15 years ago while living in an Orthodox community in suburban New Jersey, has watched attitudes change before her eyes.

“The world has changed since then,” Kaplan, 55, said. “Gay marriage is legal now in the civil world. That’s enormous, and it has an impact. It matters. Even people who say they are not influenced in their attitudes by what happens in the secular world — it’s just not true.”

She’s felt the impact of those changes herself, she said.

“My wife and I would go into one of the kosher restaurants in the area and might get dirty looks from people,” she said. “That really doesn’t happen anymore.”

In Los Angeles, that change has played out in parlor meetings where community members get together to grapple with the issue of inclusiveness. In March, some two dozen Jewish teens and parents gathered in the dining room of a Beverlywood home, sitting on folding chairs and nibbling on cookies and cut fruit as they listened to Greenberg speak.

The parlor meeting was the work of Eshel L.A., a local group allied with the Boston-based organization. It first convened in June 2015, when Harry Nelson, a local health care attorney, invited community members to his home to meet Greenberg and Eshel’s other co-founder, Miryam Kabakov, the group’s executive director.

From there, they formed a steering committee. That December, they had the first of many parlor meetings on topics like how to curb homophobic comments at the Shabbat table and how to talk to their children about same-sex couples.

“The thing that struck me most with this issue is that the Orthodox tradition that I so value and the Orthodox lifestyle I so love were creating pain, intolerable pain, for people who are gay,” said Julie Gruenbaum Fax, one of Eshel L.A.’s principal organizers and a former Jewish Journal staff writer.

Fax and her peers are looking to create Orthodox spaces where lesbians, gays and bisexuals can exist openly and comfortably. Sometimes, that entails actually grappling with Jewish law. At the parlor meeting in March, Greenberg, 60, who has salt-and-pepper stubble and a professorial air, moved fluently through the halachah and commentary on the topic of homosexuality.

On the face of it, the law as it is appears in the Torah seems clear enough. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

But Greenberg pointed out to his Beverlywood audience that the rabbinate has created work-arounds for all kinds of mandates and prohibitions, such as those against carrying objects outside the home on Shabbat or farming during a jubilee year. The laws governing these exceptions are complex, but the point is, they are negotiable — unlike homosexuality, for most Orthodox rabbis.

During his presentations, Greenberg is careful to allow room for dissent and questions, and community members frequently take him up. One woman at the meeting, who wore a long black skirt and said she’d adopted Orthodoxy later in life, admitted that the concept of full acceptance for gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community makes her uncomfortable.

“I did this to bring boundaries to my life, to my kids,” she said of her decision to begin strictly observing Jewish law. “So when we start to open things up,  it scares me.”

She continued on the topic of boundaries: If you’re going to toss out the prohibition on gays and lesbians, she suggested, why not let women wear jeans instead of skirts?

Thau was sitting in the front row. As the woman went on, he turned around and began to cut her off, looking upset, but Greenberg gently put a hand on his shoulder, and Thau sat back in his chair. During an interview a week later, Thau said he was grateful to Greenberg for stopping him from saying something he might regret.

“I’m always in the hot seat as the poster boy for gay people, answering all the questions,” he said. “And it’s not a role I’m unwilling to take, but it is very difficult to be perfect all the time.”

Inching forward

Becoming a poster child is exactly what Nechama wants to avoid if she decides to come out.

A student at Shalhevet who asked that her real name not to be used, Nechama said she’s only questioning her sexual identity. But if she were to come out, she would be hesitant to speak about it with too many people at her school.

“I just feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being gay in a Modern Orthodox school,” she said.

While the school itself is progressive enough, some students come from more conservative backgrounds, she said.

She said she hopes to remain Orthodox, even though she struggles with some of the Jewish laws she’d be obligated to observe. To the community at large, her only plea was for empathy.

“We’re teenagers and we’re going through confusing times,” she said. She urged peers and parents “just to hear everything out, because it’s kind of hard to be alone in something like this.”

For his part, Greenberg is clear-eyed about the work in front of him: Creating a fully accepting Orthodox community will be neither quick nor easy. But he holds it as the responsibility of Orthodox leaders to sympathize with members of their communities who struggle with their identities.

“If you’re not willing to suffer with that kid who is caught in the crosshairs of this cultural and religious conflict,” he said, “if you’re not willing to be with that kid, then you don’t deserve the role of leadership.”

Jewish group condemns new Ugandan anti-gay law


After Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday signed into law a bill assigning a life sentence to some forms of homosexual activity, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has made LGBT rights its foremost issue, swiftly responded.

“By signing this draconian bill into law, President Museveni has demonstrated his disregard for the fundamental human rights of Ugandan citizens and has sanctioned hate and discrimination toward LGBT Ugandans,” AJWS president Ruth Messinger said in a Feb. 24 press release.

Under the law, someone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” could face life imprisonment, and the law defines “aggravated homosexuality” as sexual activity with a person who is disabled, or under 18-years-old, or instances in which the offender is HIV positive, according to the New York Times report.

New York-based AJWS leader Messinger called Ugandan leader’s signing of the bill a “cynical maneuver…[designed] to consolidate his political power at the expense of the lives and dignity of LGBT Ugandans.”

AJWS, an international development and human rights organization, has been pushing back against the legislation for several years. On Feb. 10, believing that the Ugandan president would be susceptible to United States pressure and in attempt to cultivate support from American officials, representatives of AJWS and allied groups convened at Congresswoman Karen Bass’ (D-37th district) Los Angeles headquarters at Wilshire boulevard and Highland avenue, to voice their disapproval of the legislation.

The group represented the intersection of Jewish L.A.’s social justice and LGBT communities; participants carried signs that read, “We Believe Love is Not a Crime. Stand with LGBT Ugandans” as they marched into Bass’ L.A. office that afternoon.


On Feb. 10, an AJWS-led delegation expresses solidarity with the LGBT community of Uganda. Photo by Ryan Torok.

They met with Jacqueline Hamilton, the L.A.-based field representative of Congresswoman Bass, and they presented a letter that called on the Ugandan president to veto the law. AJWS had gathered the signatures of more than 300 rabbis for the letter.

Bass’ Web site illustrates her interest in the law, through a statement from December:  “I am deeply concerned regarding the harassment, discrimination and violence that Uganda’s LGBT community will certainly face should this legislation become law,” the congresswoman said in December.

Bass could not be immediately reached for comment on Feb. 24.

The bill is a revised version of a 2010 bill, which included a provision for the death penalty in connection to acts of “aggravated homosexuality.” The version that was signed into law this week does not include the death penalty provision.

Social justice organizations inside of Uganda plan to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in court, according to the AJWS press release.

Gay candidate blazes new trail in Israel mayoral race


As a candidate to become the Middle East's first openly gay mayor, Nitzan Horowitz is hoping his bid to run Israel's famously liberal city of Tel Aviv will help homosexuals across a region where they are widely frowned upon.

The left-wing legislator is not predicted to defeat the incumbent, the well-established ex-fighter pilot Ron Huldai, in an October 22 municipal vote.

But the 48-year-old remains upbeat, pointing to an opinion poll his dovish Meretz party commissioned last month that gave Huldai only a five-point lead.

A survey in the Maariv newspaper last week predicted a Huldai victory, but found 46 percent of voters were still undecided.

“I'm going to be not only the first gay mayor here in Israel, but the first gay mayor of the entire Middle East. This is very exciting,” Horowitz told Reuters.

Horowitz's prominence in Tel Aviv is not altogether surprising. In a region better known for its religious and social conservatism, it is dubbed the “city that never sleeps”.

With a population of 410,000, it was also ranked in a poll by Gaycities.com last year as a top gay destination.

By contrast, more than 800,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews wearing black coats and hats poured on to the streets of Jerusalem last week for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a divisive figure whom critics called “Israel's ayatollah.”

Huldai, Tel Aviv's mayor since 1998, already apportions city budgets for its annual beachfront gay pride parade, and there is a gay film festival and municipal center for the gay community offering cultural and athletic programs for teenagers and young adults.

“You can't take away the fact that gay life has blossomed in the city under Huldai,” said Itai Pinkas Pinkas, 39, a onetime city councilor who worked with the mayor.

DISCRIMINATION

As a measure of how far Tel Aviv has come, rabbis who held sway in the Mediterranean city in 1955 blocked a bid by a woman to win election as mayor. Golda Meir later went on to become Israel's first woman prime minister.

“That's why his (Horowitz's) candidacy is not raising a firestorm, because many already see Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East,” Israeli political blogger Tal Schneider said.

But Horowitz, a former television journalist who as a lawmaker has largely championed social issues and advocated for African migrants who have flocked to Tel Aviv, says discrimination against gays in the city lingers on.

Just last month, Horowitz said, a landlord cited a party colleague's gay lifestyle in refusing to rent him an apartment.

The task of improving policy toward gays in the Jewish state is “very challenging, because this is a country, a region with a lot of problems concerning the gay community, discrimination, even violence,” the candidate said.

Israel's military made inroads decades ago by conscripting gay men and women alongside other 18-year-olds for mandatory service.

And even the holy city of Jerusalem, with a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, holds an annual gay pride parade.

But the gay community hits a roadblock when it comes to the issue of marriage.

Gay marriage — and civil ceremonies in general — that take place in Israel are not recognized by the authorities. Horowitz, who has lived with his partner for more than a decade, wants that to change.

“I hope once I'm elected this will contribute to tolerance and understanding, not just in Israel, but in the entire region,” Horowitz said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mike Collett-White

Obama welcomes Pope Francis’ remarks on gays, abortion


President Barack Obama on Wednesday welcomed Pope Francis' recent remarks that the Catholic Church must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuals, saying the pontiff was showing incredible humility.

“I tell you, I have been hugely impressed with the pope's pronouncements,” Obama said in a CNBC interview.

Obama has worked to expand gay rights as president and last year backed same-sex marriage. He also supports the use of contraception and a woman's right to an abortion.

Pope Francis told the Italian Jesuit Journal last month that the Church had “locked itself up in small things” by its obsession with abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

Obama said the pope seemed to be someone who “lives out the teachings of Christ” and shows “incredible humility” toward the poor.

“That's a quality I admire,” said Obama, who has yet to meet the new pope.

Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney

Convert: Rico Collins


Rico Collins, 39, was raised Southern Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., but could never relate to the messages he heard in church as a boy. “It’s very fire and brimstone,” he said. “I didn’t like it.” 

Collins said he didn’t fit in with the other kids at church and felt alienated because he was gay. “In the ’80s, there was a huge anti-gay movement, and at almost every sermon they were bashing” homosexuality, he said. “I found it to be so negative. I knew I was gay at a young age and that this wasn’t for me.”

Collins turned away from religion. “I always had my relationship with God,” he said. “I guess you can call it Ricoism, but I knew organized religion wasn’t for me. I thought that [religious people] needed rules, and they needed someone to tell them what to do, because they wouldn’t do the right thing on their own. I abandoned it.” 

In 1991, Collins, a software engineer, moved to Los Angeles, and six years after that, he started dating Mark Goodman, who at the time was working as an actor and singer. Then, as Goodman went on to become a cantor and then rabbi at Valley Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Sun Valley, Collins would attend synagogue with Goodman. Yet, they didn’t feel comfortable saying they were partners: “I wanted to make sure I didn’t put his reputation or job in jeopardy,” Collins said. “There were only a few people who knew who I was in reality, but it was very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

All that changed in 2006, when the Conservative movement declared that gay people could serve as rabbis and that it would be up to individual synagogues to decide whether to approve gay unions. 

That same summer, Goodman convinced Collins to check out Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s conversion program, which at the time was based at American Jewish University. Despite Collins’ resistance to religion, he went along with the idea, enrolled in the class, and began to study Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish rituals. Over months of study every Sunday, he began to feel at home with Judaism. 

“I saw that it was something I really could be a part of,” Collins said. “It was something that was in me all along, and my resistance was just because I knew better. I knew better than what they were telling me in church.”

Following the class requirements, Collins began to observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. Because he was already a vegetarian, keeping kosher wasn’t too hard. “I was used to having restrictions on what I eat, so it was not that difficult a transition,” he said. “The thing that was hardest was Shabbat. I like to run, bike, lift weights and play on the computer on Saturdays. These are all the things you’re not supposed to do on Shabbat. It is a constant struggle.”

Collins completed the program quickly, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he decided to go before the beit din (rabbinical court) to complete his conversion, where he had to pass a written and oral Hebrew test. He said recently that he “aced it” and that, in the end, converting was “one of the most positive experiences of my life. There is an academic aspect to being Jewish. You have to know your stuff.”

Although he felt welcomed at Valley Beth Israel, Collins said that some of his own relatives were not so accepting. “I had some born-again Christians in my family. You have to be strong when you deal with them. … I was told I would go to hell, in a polite way.”

Collins’ immediate family, however, were fully accepting. “My mom and grandma were so happy I chose any religion,” he said.

Collins and Goodman have adopted three sons together, all of them now in their late teens. Two of the boys converted when they were children and now go to Hebrew school on Sundays. 

The family, who live in Burbank, are proud Jews. “I tell other people about it because they’re so curious, especially in Southern California. When you tell someone you’re Jewish, it starts a conversation,” Collins said. 

Through conversion, Collins said, he discovered his true identity. “I appreciate the fact that Mark led me to this point. I had to think about our relationship, and if he wasn’t in my life, would I still want do this? I think that’s why I hit the accelerator and went full throttle. I wanted to do it, regardless. This is who I am.”

Madrid’s chief rabbi: Gays are ‘deviants’ who need re-educating


Madrid’s chief rabbi, Moshe Bendahan, called gays “deviants” who should be re-educated and said same-sex marriages are “monstrous.”

“Homosexuality is a deviation from nature,” Bendahan is quoted as telling the online news site Religion Digital in an interview published Wednesday. “It’s an anti-natural tendency and a sin. Contemplating allowing, consenting to what is known as ‘gay marriages’ would be a monstrosity.”

Over the last few years, several senior rabbis in Western Europe have gotten into trouble for their remarks on gays.

In January 2012, Amsterdam’s chief rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag, was briefly suspended by the board of the Jewish community for having co-signed a statement that described homosexuality as an inclination from which one can be “healed.”

Gilles Bernheim, France’s former chief rabbi, criticized the social effects of same-sex unions in a controversial document from 2012 and wrote that the “biblical view on romantic partnerships” is “exclusively between men and women.” But he also condemned “physical and verbal attacks on gays with the same intensity as I condemn anti-Semitic attacks.”

In the interview with Religion Digitial, Bendahan is also quoted as saying, “The plan of God knows no other pairing besides that of a woman and man. The pastoral duties with regards to homosexuals are focused on re-educating them about their tendencies to return them to normal.”

If techniques to “cure” gays of their sexual tendencies fail, he said “We don’t excommunicate the homosexuals from our communities but we continue to believe in their conversion. The Bible is and always had been for us our protocol, our point of reference.”

Jewish embrace of LGBT people recognizes the dignity of all


Attitudes toward same sex marriage in Judaism have undergone a dramatic change in the last quarter century. The prohibition recorded in Leviticus 18 has been affirmed by some, negated by others and reinterpreted by still others. Did the Torah intend loving same sex relationships? Did it understand homosexuality as a fundamental orientation rather than a choice?

For many traditionalists such questions are essentially irrelevant if not marginally blasphemous. That which God has decreed cannot be set aside. For most Jews however, Judaism is a tradition that is both evolving and eternal. The role of women, to take the most obvious example, has changed in dramatic ways in the past century. A female colleague of mine, rabbi of a synagogue for many years, had a young girl approach her and ask, “Can men be rabbis too?”

If you are a partisan of the infallibility of tradition there is no room for accommodation. There are many, however, who would permit the tradition to change in many other ways but draw the line at LGBT acceptance. The question of same sex marriage is admittedly new: it has been a scant twenty-five years since the first arguments appeared arguing for its recognition. But the velocity of social change reminds us of the comment that Hillel once made on a question of Jewish law — go out and see, he said. Trust the people. If you observe what they are doing, you will know what should be done. The rapid acceptance of same sex marriage affirms an American people with open arms.

Those who argue for civil unions but not religious ceremonies, proposing some ritual short of marriage, often ask why a different sort of ceremony is not sufficient. Clarification comes if we turn the question around: the same reason that opponents wish to call it anything but marriage is why proponents demand it be called marriage. A man in love with another man — or a woman in love with another woman — wants love acknowledged and sanctified, not merely tolerated. For many of us this is new and jarring but underneath is something we all treasure: commitment, passion, love.

As a rabbi I cannot countenance sitting before people who can fully love one another and insisting that the Jewish tradition has no place for them simply because they are of the same sex. Surely no people understands rejection and marginalization better than the Jewish people. The Torah repeatedly advises us to care for the stranger precisely because he is strange — that is, we react with suspicion or distance or uncertainty to one who is not like us. Fight against that feeling, teaches the Torah. All of God’s creation is holy and every human being in God’s image. K’vod Habriot, the dignity of all, is a fundamental Jewish principle.

When I sent a letter to my congregation stating that the clergy had unanimously decided to perform same sex marriages I received a good deal of reaction. Some people were angry, some bewildered, some hurt. The letters I most treasure were those from women and men who had felt marginalized, who were grateful that their home was at last welcoming them home. Reading those letters and having those conversations, witnessing the healing after hiddenness and estrangement I could only recall the reaction of my 16 year old daughter when I told her I was sending the letter: “What took you so long?”

What indeed.

Feeds and reads: Jewish responses to same-sex marriage decisions


Much of the Jewish world is celebrating today’s Supreme Court ruling on two same-sex marriage cases.

But two Jewish groups aren’t joining the party. We devoted a separate post to the brief response of the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel. The Orthodox Union weighed in with this longer and more balanced take which, while noting that that Judaism “forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages,” concludes thus:

We also recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic and we do not expect that secular law will always align with our viewpoint. Ultimately, decisions on social policy remain with the democratic process, and today the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.

The Orthodox Union is proud to assert its beliefs and principles in the public forum, and will continue to do so in a manner that is tolerant and respectful of all of our nation’s citizens, but which is also authentically based upon our sacred ancient texts and time-honored traditions.

Beyond the Orthodox world, though, the rulings were cause for celebration. At Tablet, Wayne Hoffman wrote a poignant response which he ends, “Why is today different from all other days? Today I am legally married. Truly. At last.”

At the heart of the DOMA case is Edith Windsor, a Jewish widower who was forced to pay extra taxes because the federal government did not recognize her marriage to the her partner, Thea Speyser. New Yorker contributor Ariel Levy was with Windsor when the news broke and captured emotional pictures that you can see here.

The Twitterverse has blown up in response, and so far, perhaps this subject line from an email from Bend the Arc takes the cake: ”Now Everyone Can Marry a Jewish Doctor”


TWEETS


Jewish Community Relations Council celebrates Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality

JCRC Supports Supreme Court Decision on Proposition 8 in California and Defense of Marriage Act; This is a Historic Day for Civil Rights and Equality in the United State.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013, The Jewish Community Relations Council, 121 Steuart Street, San Francisco – The Jewish Community Relations Council applauds the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down the key provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act and leave standing California’s ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. These are landmark decisions for the State of California and the United States as a whole, and an important step toward ensuring equality, liberty and justice for all American citizens.

JCRC President Jerilyn Gelt and Executive Director Rabbi Doug Kahn celebrated the decision, saying: 

 “The organized Jewish community overwhelmingly supports marriage equality out of an abiding commitment to civil rights in our society and therefore applauds today’s Supreme Court decisions as a major step forward. The Jewish Community Relations Council has advocated for same-sex civil marriage for many years as an essential step to eliminate discrimination faced by same-sex couples.   We are also committed to maintaining the right of religious denominations to set their own requirements for religious marriage.   

The Court’s decision that will permit same-sex marriages to resume in California will, we believe, lead to many more states recognizing that denial of such rights is incompatible with our society’s commitment to equal rights for all citizens.   The Supreme Court’s companion decision striking down the key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act eliminates a major barrier to equal rights protection.   

It is bittersweet that the ruling comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to significantly weaken the Voting Rights Act – an act that has played an historic role in safeguarding one of our society’s fundamental rights.   Today, however, we join with many communities in celebrating the end of discrimination for same-sex couples seeking to marry in our state.”


Rabbinical Assembly celebrates Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage

In response to the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions today calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and dismissing an appeal supporting an anti-gay marriage law in California, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis, released the following statement:

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, RA executive vice president, said,

Judaism views marriage as a sacred responsibility, not only between the partners, but also between the couple and the larger community. Our Movement recognizes and celebrates marriages, whether between partners of the same sex or the opposite sex. We therefore celebrate today’s decisions on gay marriage by the Supreme Court.

RA president Rabbi Gerald Skolnik added,

On behalf of the 1,700 rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, I Join with Jews across California and the United States in acknowledging today’s Supreme Court decisions as opening the way for loving and committed same-sex couples to enjoy the rights and privileges of marriage. This is most clearly modeled in the case of Edith Windsor, a Holocaust survivor who enjoyed a loving relationship with her wife of many decades, and had been unable to inherit her partner’s estate as her spouse.

The Rabbinical Assembly is the international association of Conservative rabbis. Since its founding in 1901, the Assembly has been the creative force shaping the ideology, programs, and practices of the Conservative movement, and is committed to building and strengthening the totality of Jewish life. Rabbis of the Assembly serve congregations throughout the world, and also work as educators, officers of communal service organizations, and college, hospital, and military chaplains.  More information is available at www.rabbinicalassembly.org.


OTHER LINKS: 

Three arrested in 2009 attack on gay club in Tel Aviv


Three suspects were arrested in connection with a 2009 shooting attack at a youth center for gays in Tel Aviv.

The suspects, who are Jewish, were arrested on Wednesday and are scheduled to appear in court on Thursday.

A teenager and a youth adviser were killed in the Aug. 1, 2009 attack on the Bar Noar club for gay, lesbian and transgender youth.

A gag order remains on the details of the investigation in which more than 1,000 people have been interrogated.

Jewish scouts say lifting of ban on gays is ‘momentous’


Jewish scouting leaders say they are “overjoyed” after the Boy Scouts of America passed a resolution lifting a ban on gay youth.

A.J. Kreimer, the outgoing chairman of the Nation Jewish Committee on Scouting, said Friday the decision reached at the BSA’s national convention in Dallas on Thursday was “momentous.”

“Anything we can do to get more young people, especially Jewish youth, involved is a great day for Judaism and for scouting,” he said.

Members of the Boy Scouts of America’s national council passed the contested resolution by a majority vote of 61 percent.

NJCOS and other Jewish groups had been vocal in their support for lifting the ban.

Rabbis to Boy Scouts: Lift ban on gay members


More than 500 rabbis and cantors urged the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on homosexual members when the youth group’s National Council convenes in Dallas this week.

Representatives of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements signed the letter, which was coordinated by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and sent to the BSA leadership on Tuesday night.

“Many of us are former scouts, the parents of scouts or children who aspire to scouting, and admirers of the mission and purpose of the BSA,” the religious leaders wrote. “Each of us, however, opposes the BSA’s discriminatory policy that excludes gay scouts and leaders.”

A spokesperson for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism said it did not know if any of the signatories were Orthodox.

Some 1,400 leaders from the National Council are scheduled to have their final vote Thursday on changing the long-standing ban on openly gay boys in the scouting movement.

The National Jewish Committee on Scouting has been vocal in calling on the BSA to drop the ban.

In their letter, the rabbis and cantors expressed their dismay that the current proposal would lift only the ban on gay youth and called on the BSA to end the exclusion of homosexual adults as well.

Jewish Scouting leaders vocal on gay inclusion


Jewish Scouting leaders are taking a vocal role in efforts to pass a historic resolution that would partially lift a ban on gays in the Boy Scouts of America.

In a meeting of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting in February, members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution lifting the BSA's longstanding ban on gay members. Now the Jewish Scouting group is working to shore up support for a resolution to be voted on at the Boy Scouts of America's annual convention in Dallas later this month that would prevent the Scouts from denying membership to anyone younger than 18 on the basis of sexual orientation. The resolution would not change the BSA's ban on gay adult leaders.

“I am advocating for complete change and inclusiveness,” NJCOS Chairman A.J. Kreimer told JTA this week. “I'm speaking with other people and as an area president, one of 26 in the country, I have advocated for fellow Scouters to do the same.”

The struggle over the BSA's position on gays has divided the national youth organization at a time when public opinion has grown markedly more accepting of homosexuality. Most recent public opinion polls show a majority of Americans supporting the right of gays to marry — a right the U.S. Supreme Court could grant as early as this summer. Meanwhile, the number of states recognizing such unions has grown to 11 — Delaware became the most recent on Tuesday — along with the District of Columbia.

As in the wider debate, BSA religious groups, which make up about 70 percent of Scouting units, are bitterly divided. Southern Baptist and evangelical churches are adamantly opposed to changing the organization's policy, while Presbyterian, Lutheran and Jewish Scouting leaders have come out in support of gay inclusion.

The Mormon and Catholic churches both officially denounce homosexuality, yet their Scouting branches — the largest and third largest within the BSA, respectively — have signaled a willingness to endorse the current proposal lifting the ban on gay youths only.

Kreimer said the proposed compromise is a deeply flawed one. The notion that a gay Scout would be expelled upon turning 18, or that a gay rabbi might be barred from hosting a Scouting unit at his synagogue, is “untenable,” he said. Still, Kreimer said most Jewish delegates will back the resolution as a temporary compromise.

“We are going to hold our nose and vote for it because it's the best we can do today,” said John Lenrow, BSA's Northeast Region executive vice president and a former chairman of the NJCOS. “But it doesn't mean the fighting is over.”

Jews have a long history in American Scouting. One of the group's first vice presidents was Mortimer Schiff, a German-Jewish financier who joined with Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller to help found the BSA in 1910.

With 7,000 teen Scouts meeting at synagogues, Jewish community centers and B'nai B'rith lodges across the country, NJCOS is tiny compared to other religious Scouting groups. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, the BSA's largest chartered organization, counts 420,000 Scouts under its aegis. NJCOS does not even represent a majority of Jewish Scouts.

“Most are not registered with Jewish organizations and belong to units that are public, nonreligious or are organized by churches,” Kreimer said.

Still, as one of the oldest BSA charters and the sole representative of a major religion, the NJCOS, which was founded in 1926, has been forced to rebuff opponents of gay inclusion who try to sway the Jewish Scouts by quoting biblical passages.

“I respond by saying until you tell me you keep kosher, don't try to tell me you read the Bible in its entirety and do everything it says,” Lenrow said.

Kreimer said the vote on gay inclusion was too tight to call. But whichever way it goes, he said it will certainly have a long-term impact on the Boy Scouts of America.

“It's a defining moment for Scouting,” Kreimer said, “and a test for the character and future of the movement.”

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage


Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.


Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Orthodox gay activist sues cousin for assault


An Orthodox blogger sued his cousin, whose family owns a large New York Judaica store, for assaulting him.

Chaim Levin, now a gay activist, has sued cousin Sholom Eichler in a Brooklyn court, according to the New York Post. Eichler’s family owns Eichler’s Judaica Store in Brooklyn.

Levin claims that Eichler assaulted him weekly beginning when he was 6, from 1996 to 1999, at the Eichler family home and at a synagogue.

Gad Beck, the last known gay Holocaust survivor, dies at 88


Gad Beck, the last known gay Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, died in Berlin. 

Beck, 88, who was a resistance fighter during World War II for Chug Chaluzi, an underground Zionist resistance youth group, died on June 24, just six days before his 89th birthday. Chug Chaluzi played a major role in saving German Jews and homosexuals during the war.

After he was betrayed by a Gestapo spy, Beck was taken to a German concentration camp in the waning days of the war. He was freed when the Allies liberated Europe.

Beck moved to Israel in the 1950s but returned to Germany in 1979. Following his return, he was appointed director of the Jewish Adult Education Center by the first post-Holocaust head of Berlin’s Jewish community.

He was the son of a Jewish father and a mother who converted to Judaism.

Conservative rabbis approve same-sex marriage ceremonies


The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards—which sets halachic policy for the Conservative movement—has voted unanimously to provide the approximately 1,600 Conservative rabbis with guidelines on performing same-sex marriages.

The move is an official sanction of the ceremonies by the movement.

The CLJS approved the documents Thursday by a 13-0 vote with one abstaining ballot. For years, the Conservative movement has debated how to approach same-sex unions. Traditionalists often opposed such relationships while urging respect as progressives—particularly some rabbinical students—pushed for full equality.

In 2006, the CLJS officially sanctioned gay relationships. At the time, it stressed that rabbis were not obligated to perform such ceremonies, but could do so and not be violating RA standards.

Rabbis Daniel Nevins, Avram Reisner and Elliot Dorff created the new ritual guidelines. They offer two types of gay weddings, as well as gay divorce.

“Both versions are egalitarian,” Nevins told the Forward. “They differ mostly in style—one hews closely to the traditional wedding ceremony while the other departs from it.”

The templates do not include kiddushin, the ceremony in which the groom presents his bride with a ring. However, they do detail a ring exchange that is based on Jewish partnership law, an established halachic concept, Nevins told the Forward.

Jewish groups back Obama on gay marriage


Jewish leaders praised President Barack Obama’s statement that he personally supports gay marriage.

“I am pleased that the President has made a decisive statement in support of marriage equality,” said National Jewish Democratic Council chair Marc R. Stanley in an emailed statement. “President Obama has admirably continued to demonstrate the values of tikkun olam in his work to make America a better place for all Americans.”

For some Jews, the reaction to Obama’s statement was deeply personal.

“Tonight for the first time I’m going to be able to go home to my six month old son and tell him that the president of the United states, Our president, thinks that we’re a family,” said Alan van Capelle, chief executive officer of Bend the Arc. Van Capelle, who is gay, the former executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.

The president told ABC News that he supports gay marriage in a May 9 interview.

Read more at Forward.com.

California gay marriage ban overturned, appeal planned


A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday found California’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional in a case that is likely to lead to a showdown on the issue in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Proponents of the ban said they would appeal the ruling, and the Protect Marriage coalition that sponsored the ban called the judgment “out of step with every other federal appellate and Supreme Court decision.” The appeal is likely to keep gay marriage on hold pending future proceedings.

But gay marriage supporters celebrated. Outside San Francisco City Hall, Breana Hansen stood smiling by her partner, Monica Chacon. “We’re so happy. It’s a validation for us as a couple,” Hansen said.

The majority in the 2-1 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not address whether marriage was a fundamental right available to same-sex couples as well as heterosexuals. But the two judges ruled that California’s Proposition 8 ban did not further “responsible procreation,” which was at the heart of the argument by the ban’s supporters.

California joined the vast majority of U.S. states in outlawing same-sex marriage in 2008, when voters passed the ban known as Proposition 8.

That socially conservative vote by a state more known for hippies and Hollywood was seen as a watershed by both sides of the so-called culture wars, and two gay couples responded by filing the legal challenge currently making its way through the federal courts.

A federal judge in San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 in 2010, and gay marriage opponents appealed that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage both have said they are ready to appeal the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opponents of gay marriage have not decided whether to ask a larger 9th Circuit panel to hear the matter, or appeal directly to the Supreme Court, Andrew Pugno, general counsel for Protect Marriage and a lawyer on the team defending Prop 8, said by email.

The 9th Circuit’s rules allow at least two weeks before a ruling takes effect, so same sex marriages cannot immediately resume in California, court spokesman Dave Madden said.

BROADER QUESTION NOT AT ISSUE

The 2-1 decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals featured two judges appointed by Democrats ruling against the ban, while a Republican-appointed judge dissented.

In the ruling, Judge Stephen Reinhardt focused on the unique circumstances of Prop 8 in California.

“Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable,” Reinhardt wrote, “it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently.”

“There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted,” Reinhardt wrote.

Backers of Prop 8 had said that it would advance better child-rearing, but Reinhardt said the only effect of the measure was to deny same-sex couples the right to describe their relationship as a “marriage.”

“Proposition 8 therefore could not have been enacted to advance California’s interest in childrearing or responsible procreation,” he wrote, “for it had no effect on the rights of same-sex couples to raise children or on the procreative practices of other couples.”

Judge Michael Daly Hawkins joined Reinhardt’s opinion, while Judge N. Randy Smith dissented from the main constitutional findings.

“The optimal parenting rationale could conceivably be a legitimate governmental interest” for passing the gay marriage ban, wrote Smith. “I cannot conclude that Proposition 8 is ‘wholly irrelevant’ to any legitimate governmental interests.”

About 40 of the 50 U.S. states had outlawed gay marriage before a California state court ruled in 2008 that a ban was unconstitutional, leading to a summer of gay marriages. But California voters that November decided to change the state constitution to limit marriage to a man and woman.

It provoked some gay rights activists to take a matter that had been waged on a state-by-state basis to federal court, essentially staking the entire agenda on one case. Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies – attorneys who represented George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively, in the legal case that decided the 2000 presidential election – joined forces to take on Proposition 8 in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen as a more conservative body than the lower courts that have been considering the case. Should the high court eventually decide to hear the case, much may depend on Anthony Kennedy, a Republican-appointed justice who has written important pro-gay rights decisions but has not explicitly endorsed gay marriage.

Six states – New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa – allow gay marriage, as does Washington, D.C.

In addition, New Jersey and Washington state are considering legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, and gay rights activists in Maine say they plan to bring the issue to voters in a referendum in that state.

Homosexual Israeli soldiers claim harassment


Gay and lesbian soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces said they have been sexually harassed during their military service.

Forty percent of the homosexual soldiers said they were verbally abused and 4 percent said they were physically abused, according to a new survey by the Israel Gay Youth organization.

Some 45 percent of respondents in the study said they heard homophobic remarks frequently or very frequently in their units, while 59 percent of soldiers in combat units said they heard homophobic remarks frequently.

Sixty-three percent of respondents said they had come out to their family, but only 32 percent had told fellow soldiers or their commander about their homosexuality.

Some 364 gay and lesbian soldiers currently serving in the Israeli military or discharged within the last year were surveyed for the report.

The IDF would not comment on the data but told Haaretz that all abuse claims are handled in an appropriate manner.

Preparing for Same-Gender Weddings


All eyes will still be on New York in the coming weeks as the state prepares for marriage equality. I learned a lot in the run-up to wedding mania here in California in 2008, so I thought I would share some tips with those in New York.

Clergy, officiants and recorders: Meet together with your county registrars, who will issue the licenses. Help form a task force to work out the first days, when the big rush will happen. Help them think through their own bureaucracy and, yes, how the forms should and must change. We did that here in Los Angeles County. Our County Clerk Dean Logan and his team met with us and worked directly with a group of us to help ease the rush of the first weeks.

Clergy and other officiants: Know how you will change or modify the words of the ceremony. Will you say husband and husband? Partners for life? Spouses? Will you keep antiquated vows, like love, honor, cherish and obey? Does anyone really still use obey? I certainly don’t.

Couples who plan to get married: Consult an attorney and a tax professional.  There are many fiscal implications in getting married. Sign a prenuptial agreement; it doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. In fact, just the opposite. It does mean you love one another enough to imagine that if it didn’t work out, you have the basics outlined.

The federal government doesn’t yet recognize our unions, and so while you might be married in New York, your federal income tax is as a single. Being in love and getting married doesn’t mean you have to be financially stupid.

Even if you have been together for a long time, consider some premarital counseling. That piece of paper and that ring change things. Don’t just assume it will all be the same. It won’t! You will see yourselves differently, and others will see you differently.

One of the most interesting phenomena of the marriage ceremony is that it takes two unrelated people and makes them next of kin — like blood family. So, poof! You are related! It is a different way to think about this marriage bond. That is why others see you differently. You are a family in a new way, even if you have been together for decades.

Remember, if you are having a wedding ceremony — complete with flowers and cake and maybe a rented hall and caterer — your officiant should be given an honorarium as well. Don’t just assume the local pastor will be available. He or she will have many weddings to perform. The officiant may have a fee. Be prepared. It is not a free service. This is how people make their living, just like the baker, the travel agent who books your honeymoon and the guy in the tuxedo shop who rented you the tuxedos. There is paperwork that has to be completed.  So don’t bristle if your rabbi, cantor, minister or priest has a financial requirement for this service.

Expect everyone to want to attend! In my almost 25-year experience of being a rabbi and performing hundreds of weddings for gay people (both legally recognized and not), the gay weddings are better attended than the straight weddings. Everyone wants to be there! So plan your numbers and your guest list accordingly!

These are just a few tips. But there are many others. On my blog, which can be found at rabbieger.wordpress.com, I will cover a few more. Happy weddings!

Synagogues Working to Be More Open to Gays


[UPDATE]

NEW YORK (JTA)—The newsletter sent out last month by Temple Israel of New Rochelle contained the usual sort of announcements, including a reminder about the synagogue’s upcoming Purim carnival, mazal tovs and condolences, and information about a social event at a local steakhouse.

But a small notice about a screening of the film “Hineini: Coming Out In a Jewish High School” reflected a quiet change at the Reform synagogue in suburban New York.

The screening is part of an overall push by Temple Israel to be more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews. In recent months, the synagogue has edited its membership forms to accommodate diverse family structures, and it now advertises in the gay press and with gay advocacy groups. It also plans to train teachers to be sensitive to issues related to sexuality.

Prompted by the experience of a teenager in the community who was teased when he revealed his homosexuality, momentum built last year when the synagogue hired a new youth director who is openly gay.

“On some level, I kind of view myself as a poster child and that these kids and the adults need to see somebody in the community who fits the description,” said Barry Shainker, the youth director.

Shainker says that while changes are programmatic, the goal is to make such inclusiveness routine.

“Of course in some ways, our goal is to put ourselves out of a job,” he said. “In a few years this will be a no-brainer. What could be a 30-minute discussion at a board meeting becomes a 30-second vote in the future.”

Temple Israel is not alone: A recent conference in New York attracted a cadre of about 60 rabbis, educators and activists from across the denominational spectrum who shared “best practices” for becoming more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews.

The conference, organized by Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was part of the “Welcoming Synagogues Project,” which seeks to develop a model for inclusiveness to be implemented this summer by 10 pilot congregations.

“We’re trying to come up with a process that’s scalable,” said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. A similar program took place March 1-2 in Los Angeles.

“There isn’t going to be one size fits all,” he said.

Findings from the 2009 Synagogue Survey on Diversity and LGBT Inclusion, presented at the New York conference, underscored what Kushner described as a need for congregations to be more welcoming. The survey found that 73 percent of the 760 rabbis polled think their congregation is welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews, although only 33 percent of the 997 synagogues that responded offer programs aimed specifically at gays and lesbians.

The impetus for adopting a more welcoming approach comes from a critical mass of gay members or from policy questions such as the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Caryn Aviv.

“It has shifted people’s perceptions because they’re having personal interaction with gays and lesbians,” said Aviv, who co-authored the study with Steven Cohen.

To be sure, some synagogues have consciously welcomed sexually diverse Jews for years. For example, Temple Israel in Boston, a Reform congregation with 1,700 families, made such a decision based on what members believed was “right.”
“It was untenable to them that gay and lesbian Jews wouldn’t have a home,” Rabbi Stephanie Kolin said.

The synagogue is working with the Boston-based advocacy group Keshet to become a so-called “safe school,” meaning it will train teachers to address bias and promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion.

Temple Israel recently conducted a focus group with some of its LGBT members to find out what as a community the synagogue could improve. Last year the synagogue hosted a program on transgender and gender expression. In the past there was a LGBT chevra, or social group, and the synagogue sent dozens of people to rally at the Massachusetts State House in support of equal marriage.
“Acting publicly around justice issues is another way that we are proactively welcoming,” Kolin said.

At the conference in New York, representatives of other synagogues shared their “best practices.”

At Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn, b’nai mitzvah students discuss gender diversity in Jewish texts. Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta has adopted a “brit,” or contract, that stipulates the inclusive values of the community. Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s synagogue for GLBT Jews, has published a new prayer book in which the prayers for life-cycle events—including marriages and baby namings—are not printed in the conventional order, so as to promote the idea of diverse family life.

According to Debra Kolodny, the executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a critical part of being inclusive is to have leadership that reflects diversity in sexual orientation, and that LGBT perspectives are heard and integrated into teaching and services.

“So it’s just kind of normative,” she explained. “I think inclusion presumes that there is an ‘in group’ and ‘out group.’ ”

At Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in Piedmont, Calif., the congregation’s inclusiveness was on display last summer when seven same-sex couples married in a group ceremony staged in reaction to the state’s Proposition 8.

Sandy Bredt, Kehilla’s executive director, said the ceremony “was kind of a marriage of our political and our spiritual values.”

For gay and lesbian Jews, having programs and sermons targeting them—combined with a generally welcoming attitude—make congregations more inclusive.

When Joseph Antenson was shopping for a synagogue several years ago, he sought a congregation that had obvious participation from gay and lesbian members and where there was no “separate but equal” status. His desire to hear a rabbi take a proactive stance from the bimah was part of his attraction to B’nai Jeshurun, a liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Sure, we’re welcoming,’ but just don’t talk about it,” he said.

In general, Antenson noted with regret, the Jewish community has not been at the forefront of welcoming gays and lesbians into synagogue life.

Antenson, a lay leader and member of the marriage equality, membership and interfaith committees at B’nai Jeshurun, said that when he told fellow congregants about his partner, “I never got a reaction.”

Half of the members of the marriage equality chevra are straight and at B’nai Jeshurun, it is common to celebrate the anniversary of a gay couple, or to see a gay or lesbian couple celebrating an aufruf.

“It’s public evidence that we welcome gays and lesbians, and they are full members of the congregation,” Antenson said.

But according to Aaron Weininger, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a change in cultural assumptions must accompany concrete actions.

“There are so many ways to engage the issues,” he said, citing films such as “Hineini” and programs like LGBT Shabbat dinners. “It is not ‘either-or,’ it’s ‘and.’ ”

While Weininger noted there is no “one size fits all” model, he said synagogues should be asking whether they are engaging all members of the community.

“Because LGBT Jews have been marginalized and alienated for so long, there does need to be a certain level of awareness,” he said. “The more messages our synagogues send that are pro-inclusion, the more younger people coming out and identifying as LGBT feel safe.”

Still, he and others noted, a shift in attitude in Conservative congregations is linked to the movement’s policies regarding gay rabbis and cantors.

Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., said his congregation was ahead of the curve and had been since the mid-1990s, when the synagogue was asked to participate in a gay marriage ceremony.

“I think that the Conservative movement in its official capacity sort of caught up to what we’ve been doing,” said Allen, who served on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Human Sexuality in the early 1990s.

Allen said in lieu of programs targeting LGBT members, his congregation has adopted a welcoming mind-set.

“We didn’t make a special gay slot on our board,” he said.

Gay members serve on the board because they are involved and supportive of the synagogue.

“For many years, people did not feel they could talk about the core of who they were,” Allen said. “I think all we’ve done is open the door and allow people to walk in.”

Marriage is a Jewish issue


This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is the biblical equivalent of JDate. After Sarah’s death, Abraham gets busy trying to find the right wife for his son, Isaac. He sends his servant, Eliezer, to Abraham’s hometown to make the match. Eliezer prays that the right girl will show up at the well and that she will make herself known to him through her generosity, gentleness and beauty. And sure enough, everything unfolds the way it was supposed to, and Eliezer brings Rebecca home to Isaac.

As they approach on their camels, Rebecca sees Isaac off in the distance. The translation says: “And she alighted from her camel.” But the Hebrew word can also mean: “She fell off her camel.” I’ve always loved Rebecca for that — just at the moment when you want to make the best impression, you trip. I can identify with that. Still, Isaac loved Rebecca from the moment he saw her.

A lot has changed since the biblical period about how we find a marriage partner. And our ideas about who might be an appropriate partner have changed, as well. But as we saw from the recent passage of Proposition 8, not everyone agrees.

Why is Proposition 8 a Jewish issue? After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “One who lies with a male as one lies with a female is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22)? If we read the Torah as fundamentalists do, this and other verses would indeed present a problem. (Should we really execute people for working on Shabbat?)

That’s not how most Jews read the Torah. We read it through the lens of commentary and with the understanding that certain laws, which might have made sense in biblical society, are no longer relevant now.

As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson wrote in “Gay and Lesbian Jews: A Teshuvah,” “We have reviewed a range of rabbinic reasons given for opposing same-sex acts. We have concluded that homosexuality is not intrinsically unnatural … destructive of family life, devoid of the possibility of children, or hedonistic. We are dealing, therefore, not with a previously considered and previously outlawed phenomena, but with a situation never before encountered in Jewish law. Modern homosexual love and stable homosexual couples are different in significant respects from anything known in Torah or rabbinic Judaism.”

In other words, what the Torah proscribes has nothing to do with contemporary gay or lesbian relationships and therefore is irrelevant to the current discussion. What does matter are core values that emerge out of Jewish tradition, including the fundamental notion that all human beings are created in the image of God and mishpat ehat yihe’eh lachem, that law should be applied equally to all.

Proposition 8 is a Jewish issue because we know what it is to be victimized because we are different. We need to stand up and defend the civil and human rights of other minorities. And it is a Jewish issue because it is also about us.

Gays and lesbians are part of our family. They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our cousins and nieces and nephews. Gay and lesbian families are in our synagogues, their children are in our day schools, our religious schools and our early childhood centers. They are part of our community. “They” are “us.”

Reform Judaism has taken the lead in the Jewish community in supporting the civil and human rights of gays and lesbians. The Reform movement welcomed the first synagogue for gay and lesbian Jews into what is now the Union for Reform Judaism in 1974. The Reform movement began to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis in 1990, and, in 1996, the Reform movement went on record to “support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage.”

Thirteen years ago, I stood under a chuppah with my friends Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Tracy Moore. It was a powerful ceremony — without a marriage license. They were and still are such fitting partners for each other, still in love after all these years. Last month I stood with them again under their chuppah, this time with speaker of the state Assembly, Karen Bass. This time with a marriage license.

When Bass signed the license and declared them married according to the laws of the state of California, the congregation burst into applause. It was a historic moment.

Now the status of that marriage is unclear. This is a Jewish issue. The right to marry is a Jewish issue because we believe that all human beings, male and female, gay and straight, are created in the image of God. The right to marry is a matter of civil rights; each of us has the right to choose a fitting partner for ourself and enjoy the same protection that the law provides to any married couple and their children.

Few of us meet our marriage partners at the well anymore. Our world has changed. But some things never change. God is present when two people commit their lives to each other and become one family. We need to continue the struggle for marriage equality, because it is a Jewish issue.

Rabbi Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation.

It can’t happen here


A coalition of black and Mormon leaders have begun laying the groundwork for a 2012 California ballot initiative that would ban Jews from marrying Jews.

Flush from the passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state, the leaders say they want to extend the ban to Jews whose emphasis on in-marriage, they say, contravenes Scripture and promotes intolerance and segregation.

“In-marriage is against Scripture,” said one organizer. “We are all God’s children. It sends a message that one group’s blood is too good to mix with another group’s blood.”

“What are we,” the organizer added, “chopped liver?”

Defending what is bound to be a controversial measure, the organizer said strong support for the passage of Proposition 8 in the black, Latino and Mormon religious communities proved that, in four years, more “so-called civil rights” could be reshaped by popular will.

As evidence, he cited pro-Proposition 8 statements from Dr. Frederick K.C. Price, who leads the 22,000-member Crenshaw Christian Center.

“Marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Price on behalf of Proposition 8. “Let us stand with God in saying the definition of marriage must not change.”

At the urging of their church leaders, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called the Mormon Church, donated an estimated $22 million to promote Proposition 8 and backed Web sites urging voters to support it.

A letter sent to Mormon bishops and signed by church President Thomas S. Monson and his two top counselors called on Mormons to donate “means and time” to the ballot measure.

“Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan for His children,” Monson wrote.

The authors of the anti-Jewish marriage initiative say when leaders believe they have Scripture on their side, they can get their followers to fix any flaws in any constitution.

“People choose to remain gay, and people choose to remain Jewish,” said an organizer. “Why should the majority of us be forced to honor that choice?”

The Jewish prohibition against intermarriage is commonly attributed to a biblical passage, Deuteronomy 7:3: “Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.”

But one church leader said they have an entirely different interpretation of this passage.

“It only applies to Hitties and Amorites,” he said, “and I don’t see a lot of them around.”

By his calculation, the Torah only prohibits intermarriage if the children that result from such a union are turned away from their Jewish faith.

“Moses married Tziporra, who was the daughter of a Midianite priest,” said the preacher. “Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, was a convert. Queen Esther, who saved the Jews from Haman in the Purim story, was married to the Persian, non-Jewish King Ahashverus.”

“Don’t tell me the Bible doesn’t understand intermarriage.”

Asked whether he wasn’t simply asking voters to impose their interpretation of the Bible on a minority group, one black church leader countered, “Well, what do you think we did with Proposition 8?”

The organizer admitted that the initiative to ban Jewish-Jewish marriage was the first step toward other initiatives to ban kosher slaughter and ritual circumcision, two widespread Jewish practices that the Christian gospel does not follow.

Defending this plan, one organizer cited Pastor Beverly Crawford of Bible Enrichment Fellowship International’s defense of her support for Proposition 8: She wasn’t saying no to gays, she told the press, but “yes to God” and doing what “the Lord Jesus Christ” would do.

“We think the same rule should apply to all laws, not just marriage laws,” said one organizer. “We’re not saying no to Jews. We’re saying yes to Jesus.”

Organizers know they will face a tough battle — but just among Jews. Some 78 percent of Jewish voters in Los Angeles opposed the ban on gay marriage, and just 8 percent supported Proposition 8, according to exit polling by the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Meanwhile, a relative handful of Mormon, black and Catholic leaders stood against their churches on Proposition 8. Contacted by The Journal, these leaders said their position was rooted in Scripture and the principle of the separation of church and state. They said they hoped their small example would convince more of their church members to oppose future attempts to curtail civil rights.

But Proposition 8’s supporters said they feel the wind at their backs, and they are going forward with their next initiative. Asked how he could possibly succeed in denying the civil rights of a minority based on one narrow interpretation of the Bible, one organizer summed up the feelings of the Jewish-Jewish marriage opponents.

“We did it once,” he said. “We can do it again.”



Yes, this is satire. No such proposition is in the works, or even a gleam in any group’s eye. The Jews have not been singled out for discrimination, just homosexuals. So why worry?




Frank Zappa/The Mothers of Invention: ‘It can’t happen here!’

Two out of state rabbis offer two opinions on anti-gay-marriage Prop. 8


Op-Ed: Prop 8 goes against God’s love for every person

By Rabbi David Ellenson

NEW YORK (JTA)–As a rabbi, I would urge all residents of California to vote No on Proposition 8, the state ballot measure that would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.

In voting No on Prop 8, Californians would be upholding a fundamental right of the California constitution and issuing a moral, religious proclamation about fairness and equal rights of all persons in our nation and the larger world.

When my 15-year-old daughter and her high school classmates performed “The Laramie Project” some years ago–a play about the 1998 murder of a gay student, Matthew Shepherd, near that Wyoming city–I thought of the revulsion our society so often displays toward gays and lesbians that at times has led to the type of violence Shepherd suffered.

I am painfully aware that this attitude stems from the rule contained in Leviticus 18:22 that defines homosexuality as an “abomination.”

The power played by this biblical passage in shaping the attitudes of so many–particularly those who define themselves as religious–is undeniable. This may be why a study conducted four years ago by the Pew Center found that those with a high level of religious commitment oppose gay marriage by a margin of 80 percent to 12 percent.

The Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, which often has taken the lead in attacking same-sex unions, celebrated this finding. Indeed, religious fundamentalists generally have claimed a monopoly on the stance that religion takes toward same-sex marriage.

Yet I refuse to allow such negative judgments regarding gays and lesbians to go unchallenged from a religious perspective. As Catholic scholar Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza has maintained in her powerful book “In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins,” the divinity of any passage in Scripture that diminishes the humanity of another – as the one in Leviticus does – surely can be questioned.

The thrust of one such passage should not override an overarching biblical ethos that teaches us that God loves and affirms the full humanity of each human being.

I see no reason why religious believers like me have any less right than my more fundamentalist brothers and sisters to speak for religion in the public square. Votes against same-sex unions discriminate against gays and lesbians and run counter to the ethos of love that the Bible teaches. It also discriminates against those of us whose religious beliefs mandate us to perform same-sex weddings.

As a rabbi, I applaud the California Supreme Court for affirming the legal right of same-sex couples to marry, thereby asserting that gays and lesbians should receive the same rights, dignities and privileges afforded to heterosexual couples. It is unconscionable that many rights heterosexual couples take for granted are inaccessible to homosexual men and women. Same-sex couples display the same capacity that heterosexual couples do to create warm and loving relationships, and those blessed with children surely possess the same ability to care for and nurture their children that heterosexual couples do.

The time has come for such recognition to guide our culture, and religious people should not be hesitant in stating this truth – that gays and lesbians are human beings created in the image of God, are no less holy than their heterosexual brothers and sisters and deserving of full rights, including marriage.

When the day arrives that this truth is completely fulfilled, no more Matthew Shepherds will be scorned or tortured. By voting No on Proposition 8, the voters of California will proclaim that all persons regardless of sexual orientation are equally loved by God, and will allow righteousness to pour down like a mighty stream.

Rabbi David Ellenson is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Op-Ed: Calif. proposition would violate Torah, undermine traditional values

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

NEW YORK (JTA) — Along with the new Jewish year we welcomed a new cycle of Torah readings. For Californians, the first post-Sukkot Sabbath reading was particularly timely, coming as it did a mere 10 days before the 2008 elections. It should have given pause to Jewish opponents of Proposition 8, the measure aimed at amending California’s constitution to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in state law.

An assortment of arguments can be made in support of Proposition 8–from the deep and abiding connection of marriage with procreation, to the healthful effects for children of having both a mother and a father, to the endangerment of religious freedom lurking in societal sanction of same-sex unions, which will all too easily be used to tar conscientious objectors as unlawful discriminators.

Such arguments aside, though, Jews with respect for their religious tradition will perceive in the first chapters of Genesis the clear template for marriage: the first man and the first woman. As the text in Genesis 2:24 declares: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife [literally ‘his woman’] …”

In fact, the Torah, both in its written dimension (what we call the Jewish Bible) and its oral one (the “rabbinic” material that determines Jewish law), goes on to forbid the sexual union of two men. (The issue of female same-sex unions, while in a different category, is prohibited as well.)

What is more, and here more to the point, societal “officializing” of such unions–i.e. calling them “marriages”–is particularly condemned by unimpeachable and authoritative Jewish sources. They consider a society that “writes marriage documents for men” to be endangering its very existence.

A Jewish case can certainly be made for a libertarian approach to matters of personal behavior, for a “live and let live” attitude that for all its morally objectionable yield can help ensure the protection of religious and other fundamental freedoms. In any event, the behavioral issue is legally moot; the highest U.S. court has declared unconstitutional laws that criminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults.

Proposition 8, however, is not about legislating personal behavior–be it same-sex, multi-partner or incestuous, all of which have their proponents. Rather it is about preventing a twisting of the time-honored and timeless definition of marriage, a definition whose upholding the rabbis of the Talmud considered to be one of humanity’s saving graces.

We Jews as a people have a tendency toward “progressive” movements and tend to welcome all societal change as inherently healthy and good. Some such change, of course, is indeed so, and Jews can be rightly proud of having been at the forefront of social causes like racial equality and employees’ rights. But headlong rushes to a “more enlightened future” have landed some Jews in some unsavory places, like the forefront of communism in the early decades of the previous century. Or, centuries earlier, among the Hellenists of ancient Greece. Or even earlier, dancing in celebration of a golden calf.

Our pining for progress comes from a holy place, the deep and inherent Jewish desire for a perfected world. But the secret and essence of Judaism is its conviction that we are not the judges of good and bad, but rather look to the Torah for its guidance.

“We will do and [then perhaps] hear [i.e. understand],” declared our ancestors when they were given the Torah.

Our mission is not to pronounce what we mortals think is good but rather to accept the decisions of the Divine.

Much of the world considers reformulating the meaning of marriage to represent progress. Many Jews, as in past “progressive” movements, are giddily jumping on the burnished bandwagon.

Jews, though, who understand what it means to have been chosen by God to stand for holiness, which the Talmud teaches has a primary meaning of “separation from immorality,”–know that all that glistens to a liberal eye is not gold, or even good. Those Judaism-aware Jews who live in California will, against the societal tide, vote Nov. 4 to have their state retain the true meaning of marriage.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Religious “No!” to Proposition 8


“My Christian friends say homosexuality is a sin. Isn’t Judaism based on the same Old Testament bible?  How does our synagogue welcome homosexuals with acceptance and equality?”
 
I was substituting for our rabbi in our 10th grade confirmation class.  Homosexuality is not a curriculum subject.  The student asking the question, though, obviously struggled with conflicting messages.
 
On the one hand, Leviticus says when a man lies with another man like a woman, it is an abomination and they shall be put to death.  On the other hand, the Union of Reform Judaism, the denomination in which our synagogue affiliates, officially responded in 1989 to “gay rights’ as a civil rights issue and wrote a policy of inclusion statement.  
 
Included in the statement was a specific reference to “gay” and “lesbian” Jews, inviting them directly to become future prospective temple members and potential Reform denomination leaders.  The direct invitation indicated Reform Judaism was officially extending acceptance and equality to previously excluded Jews.  How could Union leaders pass a resolution that contradicts the Torah?  The question is easy to answer.
 
Reform Jews often do not read the bible literally.  In the Torah (the first five biblical books) the death penalty is mentioned as punishment for a number of crimes no one would implement today.   In Deuteronomy, the ‘wayward and defiant son’ (the teen boy disrespecting parents) should receive capitol punishment.  In Numbers, the Sabbath violator should also lose his life. In these two cases, no one argues the punishment fits the crime.  Why disregard or re-interpret the bible in these instances but take literally the sin of two men engaging in homosexual activity?  
 
The Torah is a holy document. It is not, though, a perfect work.  Reform Jews believe the sacred books in our literary cannon were written not by God but by people.   In other words, biblical and rabbinic authors may have been divinely inspired but they were still fallible human beings.  The written word, therefore, always reflects human imperfection.  The context of time a text was written should always be taken into consideration. 
 
Child sacrifices, animal cruelty, and inhumane slavery were inherent features of the pagan cult. In biblical times, it’s easy to understand how our Israelite ancestors strived to disassociate themselves from nations that performed horrific cultic practices.  It is easy, in establishing an ethical monotheistic covenant, to understand how our biblical ancestors could over-state their condemnation of particular pagan behaviors.
 
Rabbi Bradley Artson, a friend and mentor, is Dean of the Rabbinic School at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.  When Bradley Artson was a student studying to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he did an interesting academic project. 
 
He looked up every reference he could find to homosexual activity mentioned in ancient Greek and Latin writers.  Every citation he found described an encounter between males where one party, the master, physically abused another, the slave.  Rabbi Artson could not find a single example where one partner was not subservient to the other.
 
“Homosexual relationships today,” Rabbi Artson says, “should not be compared to the ancient world.  I know too many homosexual individuals, including close friends and relatives, who are committed to one another in loving long-term monogamous relationships.  I know too many same-sex couples that are loving parents raising good descent ethical children. Who’s to say their family relationships are less sanctified in the eyes of God than mine is with my wife and our children?”
 
“We are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.” Reform Jews frequently look to this popular refrain as guidance when making important ethical decisions.
 
On the one hand, by standing on our ancestors’ shoulders, Reform Jews know we have roots to the past that help place in proper context our visions of the future. On the other, by standing on past shoulders, we can see further and clearer in their horizon’s future than previous generations could imagine.
 
Proposition 8 is California ballot initiative that legally restricts marriage to only a relationship between a man and a woman, depriving gays and lesbians a state mandated constitutional civil right.  In opposing this ballot-measure, I know I am optimistically standing on firm religious ground. 
 

Elliot Fein, a graduate of the American Jewish University and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is Education Director at Temple Beth David in Westminster, California. 

Torah Judaism has no concept of ‘ex-gay’


Since 2002, when I started becoming open about my personal religious choice to stop having sex with men, liberals on gay issues have repeatedly accused me of being a Jewish “ex-gay.” But I am no such thing, because Torah Judaism doesn’t have a concept of an ex-gay.

I have no doubt that some people’s sexualities change. I have met many people who say it has happened to them. But I’m skeptical of the ones who credit their “reorientation” therapists. I just don’t see the evidence that it works.

Can prayer change one’s sexuality? I don’t see why not. As an Orthodox Jew, I certainly support people praying for any change they want, from a new sexuality to more patience.

If I didn’t believe God listens to prayers (although not always responding like a genie), I wouldn’t see the point in praying at all. And anyone struggling to bring his behaviors in line with his values could benefit from a good therapist.

But that’s not the focus of the “reparative therapy” promoted to many Jews struggling with same-sex attractions. People pay hundreds of dollars to people like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who tell them their homosexuality stems from problematic parenting, but that they can release their inner-heterosexual self through resolving trauma; hypermasculine or hyperfeminine role-playing; “gender-appropriate” activities, like baseball and sewing; and other things I don’t have the stomach to describe.

If the Jewish ex-gay advocates knew anything about Judaism and homosexuality, they wouldn’t endorse Christian psychoanalytic ideas, such as “healing same-sex attractions” and “becoming heterosexual” and the “false identity of homosexuality.” Their offer to help gays “recover their heterosexual potential” has much in common with Nicolosi’s Catholic natural law philosophy.

While Jewish law certainly calls for sexuality to be channeled into opposite-sex relationships, no notion that we’re all inherently straight appears in any Jewish text. The Torah knows no sexual orientations which is the point of Rabbi Joel Beasley’s important 1998 Jewish Spectator article, “Why Neither Homosexuality nor Heterosexuality Exist in Judaism.”

Many outspoken Jewish supporters of the ex-gay movement are nonobservant Jews. One Jewish woman who wanted to encourage me to become ex-gay sent me an e-mail on Shabbat to suggest some reparative therapy Web sites.

I wrote her back to let her know that (and I confirmed this with an Orthodox rabbi) if she had to violate one commandment, it would have been better for her to engage in lesbian sex than for her to e-mail me on Shabbat.

The main Jewish ex-gay group is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). JONAH’s confusion about Judaism and homosexuality is most evident in its promotion of Christianity.

Disturbingly, eight times JONAH’s Web site recommends a book titled, “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,” by Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a Jewish psychiatrist. I read that book in 2002 when my rabbi told me it was JONAH-endorsed.

Satinover quotes the New Testament far more than any Jewish source. The views of the Apostle Paul (the founder of Christianity, who Satinover told me in an e-mail had “remarkably many deeply Jewish characteristics”) appear on more than a dozen pages.

JONAH’s Web site even quotes Jesus’ thoughts about conversion to Christianity as expressed in the Gospel of Luke. The executive vice president of one organization JONAH has promoted used to have a policy (until I demanded its reversal) of refusing to talk to any Jews, no matter how observant, unless he was allowed to evangelize them for Christ.

Why is JONAH so intent on introducing Jewish strugglers to Christian ideas about homosexuality? Surely it’s not advocating the path of ex-gay Richard Cohen, a man highlighted by JONAH’s Web site more than a dozen times, who left Judaism in the 1970s to become a Moonie and now claims to be a more mainstream Christian. Committed Jews should challenge such apostasy, not admire it.

I would love to see a Torah-true organization for same-sex-attracted Jews, who on their own seek help in following Judaism’s guidelines for family and bedroom life. Alas, such an organization does not yet exist.

David Benkof is a doctoral student in American Jewish history at New York University. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

Islamic tales of forbidden love, lovers


produced by Sandi Simcha Dubowski, we meet Mazen, a 20-something Egyptian man who has fled Cairo for Paris to avoid the three-year prison sentence authorities want to impose on him because he is gay.

“I was in jail a year before my trial,” Mazen says as he watches a video recording of the judicial proceedings where he and 51 other men were convicted of crimes related to their sexuality. “And I was raped while I was in prison. I couldn’t go back.”

After Mazen is granted refugee status by the French government, he is able to rent an apartment and begin to cobble together a life for himself. Soon after he moves into his new home, he calls his mother in Egypt to share his bittersweet news with her.

“There is no god but God,” we hear the woman say at the end of their tearful telephone conversation.

“And Muhammad is His Prophet,” her son replies.

That brief exchange captures Sharma’s intention in making “A Jihad for Love” — which will screen on July 17 as the documentary centerpiece at Outfest, Los Angeles’ gay and lesbian film festival, and during the first week of August at Laemmle’s Sunset 5.

“When we started cutting ‘ Jihad,’ the editor asked me, ‘ Is this a film about Islam or homosexuality?'” said Sharma, a respected print and broadcast journalist in his native India and, more recently, a producer at Democracy Now! in the United States.

“Together we decided to edit the film to be about Islam,” he said, “which means the gay and lesbian characters in the film are really coming out as Muslim.”

The intense religiosity of the film’s characters was transformative for Sharma, who said that while at the beginning of the project he felt a lot of anger — toward conservative Muslims who openly say they want to kill their homosexual brothers and sisters and toward the conflation of Islam and terrorism in most mainstream Western media outlets. He acquired a deeper respect for his religion by the end of the project.

And that religious intensity resonated with Dubowski, whose 2001 documentary, “Trembling Before G-d,” examined the struggle between spirituality and sexual identity among gay and lesbian Jews in Orthodox communities.

“Jews have very recent memories of being refugees — of fleeing persecution and crossing borders,” Dubowski said. “But that’s what’s happening right now for gay Muslims. Michelle, one of the Orthodox women in ‘ Trembling,’ said to me after she saw ‘ Jihad,’ ‘ I had it bad, but I never had to flee my country.'”

Dubowski met Sharma in 2002 at an interfaith panel in Washington, D.C., and quickly saw their conversation evolve into a collaboration that was both personal and professional.

“Parvez’s idea for the film was rooted in my struggle, as well,” Dubowski said. “Being gay but not being a secular Jew presents me with a distinct set of challenges. By the end of the year, I had gone from playing the role of advice-giver to being the producer for the film.”

Though “Jihad” has only been screening for seven months, the geographically diverse profile of the film’s audiences — including festival dates and panel discussions in India, South Africa, Canada, Europe, Turkey, Mexico and the United States — and the feedback Dubowski has received so far suggest that “Jihad” could have the same impact in the Muslim world that “Trembling” had in Jewish communities.

“I’m in awe of the movement that ‘ Trembling’ sparked,” Dubowski said. “It led to policy change in Conservative Judaism, which now ordains gay and lesbian rabbis and recognizes same-sex marriages, and made sexuality a legitimate issue for public discussion in the Orthodox community. That kind of change is just beginning to happen with ‘ Jihad.'”

Dubowski cites as an example of that change an encounter he had with an Iranian woman after a screening of “Jihad” in Toronto.

“She told me she came to see the film with her fist clinched,” because she feared the documentary would be just another Western misrepresentation of Islam, Dubowski said. “And when she spoke to me afterward, she said her hand and her heart were open.”



Five Jewish films at Outfest

“A Jihad for Love” is a longer version of a 20-minute segment called, “In the Name of Allah,” that Parvez Sharma first screened at Outfest in 2002.

It is one of five feature-length titles screening during Outfest’s week of Jewish programming — the others are “Citizen Nawi,” a documentary that examines the social activism of a gay Israeli who advocates for the rights of Palestinian farmers; “Antarctica,” a sexy dramedy that depicts the lives and loves of a group of gay men and lesbians in Tel Aviv; “Seeds of Summer,” director Hen Lasker’s documentary of her relationship with a woman she met while serving in the Israel Defense Forces; and “The Secrets,” a haunting and lyrical drama that explores the place of women and sexuality in Orthodox Judaism.

The screenings of Jewish films at Outfest are part of a first-ever collaboration organized by JQ International and include Congregation Kol Ami, Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.



Gays get married and I’m still single


I hate gay men. OK, so I don’t literally hate them — some of my best … no, actually my best friend is a gay man — but I hate that there’s yet another group of guys who are unavailable to me. Married people, actors, Republicans and other men who don’t like women: Gay men.

In this town, it’s not like you run into that many — I’m talking about Republicans and married men. But gay men are everywhere. Forget the regular challenges of being single amid the bevy of anorexic beauties who migrate to Hollywood. The single woman’s real plight is: Who among the available men is gay? And who is just really, really good looking?

Right now, at this very moment, I am staring at a pleasant man in what could only be described as a lime green polo shirt — with the actual polo player guy in lavender. His collar is flipped up, his sunglasses are tucked into the open collar, and peeking out beneath his loose and trendy Joe’s jeans are brown leather flip-flops with a flower on them.

“You or me?” I ask Jeff, my best friend, who is gay. It’s a game we play: Guy walks by, we both look, and I — of no gay-dar whatsoever — must ask in coded language if the man is gay or straight. Is he for you (gay) or me (straight)?

“You, you, you!” Jeff proclaims. How can he tell? Apparently gay men have a secret Spockian eye-blink language that communicates “I am gay. Death to straight people. Wanna play?”

Jeff is right, because despite the outfit, the man walks over to a pretty, peppy woman with a baby carriage. His girlfriend. Wife. Baby Mama. Whatever: He’s taken, so I don’t care.

One of the beautiful things about having a best friend who is gay is that it lets me witness an alternate dating world. It’s as if the rules of gravity there have been suspended.

For example, some gay guys don’t want committed relationships, and they date just to have fun (unlike straight women who say this, they actually mean it).

Or they have a boyfriend and date at the same time (none of this staying-with-the-wrong person thing because you are worried about never meeting someone else — you already have someone else).

Or maybe “Fidelity is just a goal,” Jeff says. “Not a rule.”

It’s quite refreshing for someone like me, coming from the very straight-laced Jewish community where you date, you become exclusive, you get engaged, you get married (hopefully you fall in love along the way) — and it lasts forever and ever, till death — death! — do us part. It’s a lot to live up to, if you think about it.

So maybe that’s why I’ve found it somewhat disconcerting these last few weeks, witnessing the gay community’s response to the California State Supreme Court’s ruling allowing gay marriage. As a civil libertarian, I am all for it. I truly believe that every human being should have equal civil rights, especially in the United States of America, which prides itself on it.

So of course I believe gay people have the right to get married.

But, after meeting, talking and waiting in line with couples to get their marriage licenses, my question is, do I believe in marriage at all?

“This is something that every woman has dreamed of since the day she was born!” one woman in a white dress told me as she waited in line for her marriage certificate at West Hollywood Park last week.

I nodded, but I didn’t agree.

Dream about marriage since the day we were born? Not I. I am glad that she can have something she has always dreamed of. I am glad people can fulfill a right that has always been denied them (making it even more desirable).

But after witnessing the sheer joy of the couples waiting to get licenses, I realize it’s not marriage I’m against but the whole wedding culture. The whole hoopla, the pomp and circumstance, the dressing up, the everyone-has-to-wear-whatever-we-tell-them and the play-whatever-silly-bridal-shower-and-bachelorette-party-games-no-one-likes kind of attitude.

I’m like Mr. Big in the “Sex and the City” movie, who is all for getting married but doesn’t want to get carried away by the obnoxious bad taste of a big wedding.

But wait. There’s hope. Not to be stereotypical, but (many) gay people don’t often have bad taste. Maybe there won’t be any let’s-make-a-fake-hat-out-of-bridal-paper-wrappings games. Maybe there won’t be any more you-must-look-uglier-than-the-bride turquoise bridesmaid dresses you’ll never wear again.

Think “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” meets “Bridezillas.” Maybe gay marriage is just what the world needs to make weddings sane. Maybe it’s here to remind us what commitment is all about — not a wedding, but a license.

Last week I met two men in their 80s who had just gotten their marriage license.

“Mazal tov,” I told them, and they laughed: “People are only now wishing us congratulations, but we’ve been together 43 years.”

Big Bay Area Jewish turnout for gay weddings


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Three years ago, Sharon Papo and Amber Weiss stood under a chupah in a Santa Cruz redwood grove and recited their vows before 100 relatives and friends.

They stomped on a glass, stood nose to nose wrapped in a tallit and sipped from a kiddush cup—Jewish rituals that sealed them forever. But to the government, their union was invisible.

That changed this week in San Francisco when they added one word—lawfully—that was absent from their original vows.

“Amber, my bashert, my beloved,” Papo said to Weiss inside San Francisco City Hall. “… I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife.”

Just hours before, Papo and Weiss had taken their ivory-beaded chiffon wedding gowns out of the closet of their Berkeley home, hopped on local transit and walked into City Hall to exchange vows once more.

This time they had legal recognition.

On May 15, the California Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that all citizens have a constitutional right to marry. Consequently, the court said in its sweeping ruling, the state cannot prohibit gay and lesbian couples from legally marrying.

Papo, 29, and Weiss, 31, married June 17, the first day same-sex marriages were legally sanctioned by the state.

Hundreds of same-sex couples across the state legally married that day, including 152 at San Francisco City Hall.

Jews representing numerous organizations set up a chupah, made from a rainbow-striped tallit, near the steps of City Hall. Volunteers passed out plates of marble cake frosted with the phrase “Mazel Tov,” and invited couples to partake in the rituals of circling one another and breaking a glass. A klezmer band inspired many rounds of the song “Siman Tov U’ Mazel Tov.”

“It’s so nice to see our community celebrate around such positive energy,” said Lisa Finkelstein, the director of the LGBT Alliance in San Francisco.

Journalists followed Papo and Weiss like a bridal party, capturing the historic moment. About 30 photographers surrounded them in the City Hall rotunda, their camera shutters clicking so furiously that witnesses could barely hear the vows.

The women’s eyes glistened during the ceremony. Only when officiant Mariposa Bernstein said what they had never heard before—“By the power vested in me by the state of California”—did the joyous couple let tears dampen their faces.

For many couples married that day, the ceremony was not the first time they had pledged to love each other in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

Weiss and Papo, for instance, married in 2005 in Santa Cruz, with Rabbis Lavey Derby of Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar and Paula Marcus of Aptos’ Temple Beth El co-officiating.

“In our hearts, we’re married,” Papo said. “But now we’re married in the eyes of the state, and that means the world to us.”

Craig Persiko and Geoff Benjamin, both of San Francisco, spent a year planning a traditional Jewish ceremony, which they held in May 2000 at Buena Vista Park in this city, five years after first meeting through mutual friends in Chicago.

They married again one year later in Vermont, and a third time in 2004, when state Assemblyman Mark Leno married the couple at San Francisco City Hall while they held their then-7-month-old daughter, Serafina.

“As far as my relationship, I don’t feel any different,” Persiko said back in 2004, “but on a political level, it feels really empowering.”

The couple performed their vows for a fourth time Saturday in their backyard in conjunction with a joint birthday party for their son and daughter. Cakes for both occasions sweetened the afternoon.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland and Kirsti Copeland were married eight years ago by two rabbinic students on the New Jersey campus of Princeton University. The Jewish wedding was “a very powerful experience and awakened our friends and family to the permanency of our relationship,” Rabbi Copeland said, but “it meant nothing at all in the civic sense.

Since their wedding, they have become mothers and wed a second time at San Francisco City Hall.

On June 18, the couple celebrated their marriage with a third wedding ceremony at the San Mateo County Courthouse. Not wanting to overshadow their original vows, it was a civil ceremony.

“We already sanctified our union through the eyes of our religious tradition,” said Rabbi Copeland, who works at the Stanford University Hillel. “It makes me realize the irony that in some of our communities, Judaism was ahead of this country’s legal system by decades.”

Finkelstein said at San Francisco City Hall, she was proud to see representation from Congregations Sha’ar Zahav and Emanu-El, the San Francisco-based Jewish community federation and the East Bay federation, Jewish Community Relations Council, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Mosaic.

Near the chupah outside City Hall, “Energy 92.7” had set up a tent to broadcast live, interviewing “just married” couples and offering champagne flutes of sparkling cider.

Each time a couple walked outside—marriage licenses proudly raised in the air—the crowd erupted in applause. Supporters banged on drums and waved rainbow banners.

Members of the First Unitarian Church gave away nearly 400 cupcakes. Wedding photographers and pastry chefs passed out fliers and heart-shaped chocolates to advertise their services. A Mission Kids preschool class snaked through the crowd wearing green T-shirts. Their teacher, Abigail Sawyer, said she wanted to inspire “support for equality from a young age.”

Same-sex couples from around the country flocked to the Golden State this week, since unlike Massachusetts, marriage licenses were granted to California residents and nonresidents alike.

Mike Silverman and Dave Greenbaum traveled from Lawrence, Kan., to wed in San Francisco. They were married nine years ago at an Omaha, Neb., synagogue, an occasion that inspired them to scour Jewish wedding books and design a ceremony with “the right kavanah,” intention.

On June 17, they wed inside City Hall, one wearing a Hillel T-shirt from the University of Kansas. They then circled one another under the chupah outside.

“While the civil recognition was important, for me as a Conservative Jew it was real when I said the Shehechiyanu and properly acknowledged the source of this immense and profound blessing,” Greenbaum said.

Will Kansas recognize the Silverman-Greenbaum marriage when the couple returns to their home state?

“I’ll hold out for the Moshiach first,” Greenbaum joked.

The issue of gay marriage has been moving through the California courts since 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued the order to grant licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

The state Legislature twice approved bills giving same-sex couples the right to marry, but they were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In preparation for the marriage rush, San Francisco and other counties deputized numerous volunteer marriage commissioners.

Jared Scherer, 34, signed up and on June 17 officiated at the marriage of his friends Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones during an emotional ceremony. Scherer looked official in a black gown, which he last wore during his commencement at Brandeis University.

“It was absolutely incredible, a true honor,” said Scherer, who is Jewish, about presiding over the marriage of his non-Jewish friends. “I felt really lucky to be able to help move the cause forward.”

“The cause” could hit a brick wall in November when a ballot initiative—if approved by a majority of voters—would define marriage as “valid and recognized” only between a man and a woman.

In light of this vulnerability, Karen Erlichman, the Bay Area director of Jewish Mosaic, a national LGBT nonprofit, says it is especially important for individuals and organizations to show support for marriage equality.

Two of the 14 couples in the Supreme Court case are interfaith Jewish couples: Diane Sabin and Jewelle Gomez live in San Francisco; Robin Tyler and Diane Olson reside in Los Angeles and were the first couple married June 16 at the Los Angeles County Courthouse in Beverly Hills.

The 14 couples were represented by several legal nonprofits, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Vanessa Eismann, a lawyer and a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, worked on the case through the center.

Eismann said it was a professional privilege and a deeply personal pursuit. She and her partner, Cate Whiting, were married by a Los Angeles rabbi in 2005.

The absence of legality didn’t temper their joy, Eismann said, but since both are lawyers, the couple knew that “regardless of how lavish a ceremony you have, you’re only legally married when the license is signed.”

The 33-year-old San Franciscan gave birth to a baby boy in April, and the couple say they want their son to grow up knowing his parents are married. Eismann said that was a shared sentiment among many of the plaintiffs.

“Often the desire to marry isn’t just for the couples themselves but out of a desire for their children to be treated equally under the law,” she said.

Eismann and Whiting will take their marriage certificate with them to Los Angeles, so the rabbi who signed their ketubah, or Jewish marriage certificate, finally can sign their legal marriage license as well.

“This battle isn’t over,” Eismann said. “Unfortunately, our rights are being put up for a popular vote.”

Jewish couples are fighting for marriage equality in numerous ways.

Kathy Levinson and Naomi Fine of Palo Alto are choosing not to marry this summer. Instead, they will donate the money they would have spent on a formal wedding ceremony to organizations campaigning for marriage equality.

Papo and Weiss have asked friends and relatives in lieu of wedding gifts to “make a contribution to fight this hate bill,” suggesting that donations go to Marriage Equality USA or Equality California.

They have also decided to be as public as possible with their sexual orientation. Papo casually mentions her relationship to everyone she encounters—the clerk at Office Max, the salesman at the shoe store. Likewise, Weiss always introduces Papo as her wife.

“It makes it personal,” Weiss said. “It’s harder to vote against the civil rights of someone you know.”

Gay rabbis getting married — and marrying


It’s almost 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 17, and the line at the West Hollywood Park snakes around itself, as some 400 people wait to obtain marriage licenses on this first official day that the State of California is issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples (aside from one wedding on Monday).

Some men wear tuxedoes, some men wear suits, a few women are in white (a few women are in suits), but most of the couples are decked out in California casual on this momentous day. By far the most interesting – and photographed — group is situated in the middle of the line, holding up a white chuppah on bamboo poles and the banner of their synagogue: Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC).

The first gay and lesbian synagogue, located on Pico Boulevard, has brought 10 couples here to get marriage licenses. Some, like the Hales – Cara in a bridal outfit of an ivory lace top and trousers, and Heidi in a gray pinstripe suit and silver tie — have had Jewish weddings already. Others, like Davi and Bracha Cheng, were married before (in San Francisco four years ago, annulled by the court two months later). Itay Seigel and Tony Gregory Smith had never been married at all — not out-of-town, out-of-state or Jewishly.

“For us, it’s the right time and the right place,” they said. Another was the rabbi of BCC, Lisa Edwards, who was both obtaining her own license and marrying five couples in the park afterward. In the summer, she will perform more than 20 weddings — and have a civil ceremony with her partner, Tracy Moore.

It is a momentous day for gay and lesbian couples — but doubly meaningful for rabbis in same-sex relationships: Not only can they marry, but they can perform legal marriages for other same-sex couples, too. And as Jewish leaders — who have fought a number of battles for civil rights, first for acceptance in the Jewish community and then for acceptance as rabbis — this is one of the most important steps in the fight for equality. (The next hurdle would be to see gay marriage made legal and available in every state).

Three L.A. rabbis have taken different paths to solidifying their unions, and each has different feelings about the State of California’s legal sea change. For Edwards, who will marry her longtime partner in a civil ceremony this summer, it was her Jewish wedding 13 years ago that was most meaningful. For Wilshire Boulevard’s Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein, who just celebrated a 10-year commitment renewal for his Jewish wedding and will have a civil ceremony and party on July 13, the newfound right to a civil marriage offers much satisfaction. But for Rabbi Don Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea, the new law is meaningful, but he won’t have to do anything. He already married his partner, in Canada four years ago. The California Supreme Court decision simply means that his marriage will now officially be recognized.

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