Reform rabbis install first openly gay president, Denise Eger


The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the Reform movement, installed its first openly gay president, Rabbi Denise Eger.

Eger, 55, was inaugurated on Monday morning at the CCAR’s annual convention in Philadelphia. She succeeds Richard Block.

The founding rabbi of the Kol Ami synagogue in Los Angeles, Eger has been on the CCAR board of trustees for four years. She was ordained in 1988.

Eger came out in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1990. She is engaged to be married.

She also was the first female and openly gay president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, and the founding president of the Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Interfaith Clergy Association. Eger officiated at the first legal wedding in California for a lesbian couple, the Philadelphia Daily News reported.

Monday’s inauguration was scheduled to be followed by a session celebrating the 25th anniversary of CCAR’s Resolution on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, which called for the ordination of gay rabbis.

Meet Joel Simkhai, the Israeli foundr of Grindr


“Everybody knows Grindr. If you’re a gay man and you don’t know what Grindr is, then you’re lying.”

Steve Levin may be head of sales at — you guessed it — Grindr, but he isn’t speaking hyperbole. 

Late at night at a drag bar in West Hollywood, a table of seven gay men in their 20s all discussed the social app, which has revolutionized how gay men meet each other since it launched in 2009. All but one of them had the app downloaded on their phone. When the odd man out was asked why, he said that he used to be on the app, but a year ago he opted for Scruff (a Grindr spinoff designed specifically for men with facial hair). Regardless of the app, though, he continued, “Being gay, there’s no way around it — apps are the best way to meet guys.”

Grindr was started as the first social app exclusively for, as it advertises, “gay, bi and curious guys.” Now embarking on its sixth year, it boasts staggering stats with nearly 14 million downloads in more than 192 countries. 

Founder and CEO of the social phenomenon, Joel Simkhai, never expected Grindr to be such a success. Born in Israel, raised in New York and now living in Los Angeles, Simkhai first got the idea for Grindr as a way for him to meet guys — simple as that. 

“As a gay man, you’re always wondering who else is gay,” Simkhai, 38, told the Journal. “The problem is pretty inherent and [there] has never been a good solution. For years I’ve been thinking about this problem.” 

Finally, when the second-generation iPhone came out in June 2008, he came across an answer. The technology is fairly straightforward: The app uses a geolocation device that allows users to view a selection of profiles categorized by location (the nearest Grindr user is pictured first). Tapping on a profile picture allows the user to read a brief profile and, if he so chooses, send a pic, message or share his own location. The next step, if both parties agree, is an official meet-up.

So what separates this social network from all other social networks? 

“It can help you get out of the house,” Simkhai said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the social networks don’t do that. They’re asocial in a lot of different ways. With Grindr, you interact with the goal to meet, and that’s something that I’m very proud of.”


“[W]e’ve been fighting for our equality and against persecution for a long, long time. Gay men and women are still fighting back now.”
— Joel Simkhai

Simkhai called the app “magic vision” for guys, referring to how it’s changed the dynamic of how gay men meet each other. 

“You sit in your office, you sit in your house, you sit on the bus or wherever, and there’s all these people around us, but it’s pretty hard to figure out who else is gay,” he said. “It really gives you a way to see everyone who is gay around you.”

Sure, the app originated as a hook-up app, but it’s become much more than that, especially in smaller communities, according to Levin. He said that in major cities, “There’s a million ways for gay guys to meet each other, but in other countries and Middle America or rural areas, it doesn’t exist, and it’s terrifying to come out.” 

It’s in cases like those, where gay men are virtually isolated from a larger gay community, that Grindr makes its biggest impact, Levin said.

There are pages and pages of testimonies on grindr.com where users share their success stories. There’s Mario from Sulzberg, Germany, a place he described as “very conservative”; Min and Paopao found each other in Suzhou, China; and Skip, who’s currently serving in Iraq, met fellow Grindr users in Baghdad. The stories are endless. 

Simkhai said Grindr adopts a bigger role in the lives of secluded gay men throughout the world, especially in countries where homosexuality is criminalized. 

“From our perspective, in a lot of these countries, there are no gay bars or gay communities, no real gay life, and so for our users, that’s really gay life for them,” he said. “This is their main media to meet other gay men, to interact and to not feel alone, to not feel like they’re a weird creature, that they’re very normal and very human.”

In 2013, Grindr was officially banned in Turkey. Simkhai immediately responded by issuing a public statement: “We are very upset to hear that the Istanbul Anatolia 14th Criminal Court of Peace blocked Grindr as a ‘protection measure.’ Grindr was created to help facilitate the connection between gay men — especially in countries where the LGBT community is oppressed.”

Instances like these are why the company founded Grindr for Equality in 2011, an outreach initiative that mobilizes Grindr users across the globe to bring LGBT equality issues to the forefront. In 2014, its “Get Out Safely” campaign partnered with Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration International, the only international organization devoted to advocating for LGBT individuals seeking refuge from persecution based on their gender and sexual preference. Grindr distributed a message to app users living in countries such as Egypt, Russia and Uganda, providing step-by-step information that would ultimately help them leave their countries and escape persecution. More than 7,000 users clicked on the link to seek help.

“We’ve done a bunch of things around the world to push governments into new things and to warn users of the dangers that they’re facing. We try to figure out what can be done,” Simkhai said. 

Simkhai said that as a Jew he’s a minority already, and “we’ve been fighting for our equality and against persecution for a long, long time. Gay men and women are still fighting back now. I’d love to see that greater equality and greater love for different people and different sexual orientations.”

Coming to this country as an immigrant — not to mention being diagnosed with dyslexia as a child — he is proud to have overcome significant challenges.

“To think that you could build something from scratch that becomes international and is used by millions of men all the time, to have such an impact, is really exciting,” he said. “Hopefully I serve as a role model,” he said.

After a few quiet moments, Simkhai continued, “The word ‘role model’ comes off a little strong. Hopefully, somebody could look at me and say, ‘If he could do it, then I could do it.’ ”

Amendment allowing Israeli gays, singles to use surrogate mothers advances


An Israeli government committee approved an amendment that would allow same-sex couples and singles to use surrogate mothers in Israel.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the amendment to the surrogacy law on Sunday by a vote of 7 to 5. Under the current law, only heterosexual couples can arrange to have a surrogate mother in Israel.

Other couples and singles go abroad to have children through surrogacy, many to India and Thailand.

The amendment, which must pass three Knesset votes, is expected to face objections on moral, religious and legal grounds.

Israel has a shortage of women willing to be surrogate mothers.

The bill places limits on surrogate mothers, including allowing no more than three surrogate pregnancies per woman and raising the maximum age for a surrogate mother to 38. The prospective parents must be 54 or younger.

U.S., Israeli LGBT community leaders convene


In a first-ever seminar organized by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities from the United States and Israel met recently to explore possible collaborations and share knowledge.

“Israel has a lot to be proud of — there are a lot of LGBT community centers sponsored by the government — and the trip was about sharing and facilitating best practices,” said Myra Clark-Siegel, director of international communications at Project Interchange, which was founded in 1982 to bring leaders to Israel for a week of travel and learning.

It was a natural fit to connect members of the LGBT community through the seminar — which took place Oct. 28-Nov. 4 — given AJC’s commitment to advancing human and civil rights, she said.

The nine American delegates on the trip met with secular and Orthodox Israelis and Palestinians to explore the multiple facets of Israel that cross the political and religious spectrum. They visited with representatives of the Agudah, Israel’s national LGBT organization, and Gal Uchovsky, co-founder of the Israeli Gay Youth Association. The delegation also traveled to the West Bank. 

L.A.-based delegate Jorge Valencia, executive director and CEO of Point Foundation, the nation’s largest LGBT scholarship organization, said there is much the two countries can learn from each other. 

“For example, the U.S. could stand to learn from the manner in which Israel accepts LGBTQ members into its military and see this as a strength, not a weakness to its safety,” he said, using a Q for “queer” or “questioning.” “And as a young country, Israel can learn from the advancements the U.S. has taken to support its LGBTQ youth in school through certain legislative actions and publicly funded youth organizations.” 

Nurturing unity between the LGBT communities in both countries is vital to the equal treatment of people around the world, Valencia added.

“Most recently, we’ve seen the importance of solidarity in our community surrounding Russia’s anti-gay propaganda and the upcoming Olympics,” he said. “We owe it to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Russia to raise awareness across the world of the hatred, harassment and violence that they’re suffering under the current leadership and of our disapproval of such treatment.” 

Another delegate, Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law dedicated to conducting research on sexual orientation law and public policy, said there’s great value in learning about how countries, such as Israel, handle LGBT rights. 

“Interacting with professors and lawyers engaged in LGBT rights in other countries is helpful in thinking how LGBT rights have evolved here and reflecting on U.S.-specific barriers and opportunities with regard to LGBT rights,” he said. 

Future plans at the Williams Institute include inviting individuals to speak about LGBT rights in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

“The seminar allowed me to meet and talk with lawyers and scholars working on LGBT rights and consider them to come to UCLA and speak,” Sears said. 

Israel’s position on gay marriage helped influence the Equality Forum, an LGBT civil rights organization that recently filed a federal marriage recognition lawsuit, according to executive director Malcolm Lazin, who attended the recent seminar. 

“Most states do not recognize lawful same-sex marriages. As such, you are divorced against your will in 32 states even though legally married int California,” he said. “In 2006, Israel’s highest court decreed that lawful same-sex marriages in foreign countries would be recognized in Israel and treated with equality. As a result, there are a large number of same-sex married Israelis who were married abroad. That case helped spur our thinking about a U.S. federal marriage recognition lawsuit.”

Equality Forum also coordinates LGBT History Month in October. Lazin said his Israeli counterparts now will make use of the organization’s free, online resources as a result of their interactions at the seminar.

“We also provided our Israeli counterparts with U.S. LGBT organizations that could be of assistance to their organization and its members,” he said.

Clark-Siegel said that the program by Project Interchange, which pays for delegates’ trips and receives the majority of its funding from donors, is a great opportunity for a two-way dialogue with Israelis who are adept at getting to best practices. 

“The young leadership is very encouraging in Israel,” she said.

West Hollywood’s tzedakah mayor


In any town across the country, a city council meeting can feel a lot like ground zero for American democracy: One by one, residents approach the podium and address the decision-makers with suggestions or grievances. With a few changes, a similar scene could have played out in a medieval English shire or a 19th century Polish shtetl.

At the July 15 session of the West Hollywood (WeHo) City Council, with more than 100 men and women of all ages in the audience, Mayor Abbe Land and the councilmembers sat behind a curved dais and listened to their constituents’ concerns: One speaker requested “more fiscal responsibility”; another, a business owner, complained about rising costs for leased parking spaces; still another, a homeowner, worried about a rehab clinic (“sober living center”) on her street.

There were also comments particular to WeHo, a city of 35,000 people with a large LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) population. These included a request for the rainbow flag to be flown next to the state banner and applause for the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.

Land — who is Jewish, 57, slim, with short black hair and glasses — was the only woman at the dais, flanked by several councilmen, all of whom take yearly turns being mayor. An old hand at this — it’s her fifth time as mayor — Land ran the meeting with good-natured efficiency, listening and responding to everyone.

Some WeHo residents heaped praise on their city’s governance. Land mentioned, with evident satisfaction, a recent survey that shows 90 percent of WeHo residents who responded said their quality of life is either good or excellent, a clear sign the city’s government is successful — in sharp contrast to several other L.A. County cities plagued by poor management and corruption. 

But in an interview, Land said that, for her, WeHo’s success also poses one of the city’s biggest challenges as it moves forward. 

Land, who is married to artist Martin Gantman, has lived in West Hollywood since 1979 and, according to her official bio, was “part of the successful campaign to make West Hollywood an independent city in 1984.” Since then, she has been involved in one leadership position or another in the community, which has thrived in recent decades.

Throughout her tenure, Land has kept her eye focused on progressive causes (single-payer health care, affordable housing, diversity issues), on economic growth (promoting small business, absorbing immigrant populations), on safety and health (gun/ammo control, women’s issues, the environment, preventing domestic violence) and on improving the quality of life (increasing resources for children, ensuring seniors’ needs).

Over the years, she has received many awards, including being named “Woman of the Year” in 2005 by the L.A. County Commission for Women, and, notably, the “Remarkable Woman” award from the National Council of Jewish Women’s L.A. chapter.

“I’m not a particularly religious person,” Land said. “I wasn’t raised in a religious household. I’m not a temple-goer, though I observe Jewish holidays and love the traditions. … But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about the Jewish religion, and to the degree that it’s about giving back, it’s certainly influenced me. … My grandmother used to tell me that you always have to give back. I can’t tell you for sure that she called it tzedakah, that she used that word, but she was all about giving back to others. 

“I hate the fact that equality isn’t for everybody,” Land added. “I just don’t like the fact that inequality seems to be rampant, and it’s all really the luck of the draw. I believe that everyone should have housing, everyone should have food, everyone should have health care, and everyone should be able to marry the person they love. Those are the things that drive me.”

Beyond her work for WeHo’s constituents, for which she gets paid $825 monthly, plus standard public employee benefits, Land also serves as executive director and chief executive officer of The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth, whom Land refers to as “LGBTQ.”

“The Q stands for ‘questioning,’ ” she said. “Many young people aren’t sure what their sexual orientation is. … It’s a time of discovery, and we want people to feel free to come to talk with us about that. We want any young person who’s feeling that they don’t have an option, we want them to reach out to us. We want them to know they have an option.”

Pointing to the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, she said, “We want all young people to know that they’re perfect just the way they are, and they deserve a chance to achieve their dreams. … They need to know there’s a safe place to go.” 

Land said that what’s most rewarding for her is that “when [government] works, you actually get to make things better for people.”

But even in West Hollywood, where the city is “thriving,” she admitted, “There are challenges: 17 percent of our people live below the poverty level; we have seniors fighting to find housing options that meet their needs as they’ve grown older.”

Nevertheless, she added, the city has focused on “providing lots of resources for public safety, for social services; we’ve spent a lot over the years on infrastructure. We just built a brand new library, we’re redoing our parks, we’re always investing, so the work that we do, and the work that the private sector has done, has really helped to raise land values. And that’s great.”

Great, yes, but the mayor acknowledged that rising property values come with a price: WeHo’s diversity is in jeopardy, because it’s harder and harder to afford to live there. She pointed to two new affordable-housing projects opening in the course of the next year. “One we refer to as ‘the Witkin Project,’ for older people, and one at La Brea near Santa Monica, for transitional-age youths as well as people of all ages. So we’re not only working on affordable housing, but also working on programs to maintain the quality of housing that’s already here.” 

“We want to make sure we continue to have a diverse community, that we continue to have young people in our community so they can thrive and eventually remain here and become the older people in our community,” she said.

“Our biggest challenge is to manage our success, so that we continue to hold on to our values.”

Edgar M. Bronfman: Jewish values dictate protecting gay marriage


In the early 1970s, while I was CEO of the Seagram Company, public dialogue about gay rights was largely nonexistent in corporate America. Social discourse had not yet even evolved into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos that dominated the following decades. Homosexuality was simply not discussed and therefore, by implication, was shameful.

During that time, as the head of a company with thousands of employees, personnel issues often came across my desk. One day, the director of human resources came into my office with a recommendation to terminate one of my brightest executives. I found myself puzzled that anyone would want to fire such a promising young man until the director leaned in and confided in a hushed tone, “Well, you know, he’s a homosexual.”

The declaration did persuade me — but not in the way he had hoped.

The promising young executive continued on to a distinguished career at Seagram, and the HR director was soon let go. Although my choice was shocking to the director, the decision was obvious to me: to fire a person because of their sexual orientation was not only wrong, it was bad business. It was discrimination, plain and simple, and would not be tolerated in the company I ran.

More than 40 years later, I still feel such discrimination to be unequivocally wrong, but my views on the subject of gay rights have evolved. Particularly today, as we celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the legality of gay marriage, I now see marriage equality as a moral imperative because of my Jewish roots.

Just as the high court has shown moral bravery in its recognition of gay marriage, the Jewish community should follow its example in our myriad communities. As Jews, we should remember that our tradition upholds the bond between two loving people and the families they create as a source of strength and commitment to the betterment of the world.

“Justice” is a word we are taught early in life, and we are reminded constantly that it is a principle we should uphold and promote. In Hebrew, the word tzedek is used to promote acts of loving kindness and righteousness. Its diminutive, tzedakah, is translated as charity, but it is much more. We are taught in the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” In Hebrew, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdorf.”

It is a vital, active imperative for the Jewish people to be on the front lines of issues protecting and promoting the rights of any group being treated unfairly. To take approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population and tell them they are second-class citizens is clearly unjust. As Jews we are instructed to seek justice for the stranger, the widow and the orphan because too often society discriminates against and takes advantage of those without advocates.

I have come to see the protection of gay marriage as a manifestation of the Jewish value of seeking justice for those who are enslaved. To those who cover their prejudice with reference to biblical injunctions against homosexuality, I ask if they are willing to live by every other law listed in the Torah. For such literalists, I submit that the very Torah portion of Leviticus that they so often quote also enjoins us to harbor no hatred against our brother and our neighbor.

To freeze Judaism in time because of ancient biblical edicts is to deny that Judaism is a mighty river that moves forward through time, a living entity that changes course and becomes renewed through what it meets on the banks. Like a river, it retains its essential character although it is constantly renewed and evolving.

Today, the Jewish pursuit of justice must channel itself against the denial of marriage equality. For Jews, who have suffered so much throughout history at the hands of prejudice, to stand idly by while any group is treated so unfairly is unequivocally wrong.

I have been inspired in my thinking on gay rights and marriage equality by a woman I have known since she was a teenager. She is now the leader of Keshet, a group that promotes equality for the LGBT community in the Jewish world.

Idit Klein first came to my attention when she was in high school. She was a student on a program I founded called the Bronfman Youth Fellowship that targets Jewish teens of exceptional promise from an array of backgrounds. In my conversations with her over the years, I have learned that the issues facing LGBT Jews are ones on which all Jews need to speak out.

Within the Jewish community we must endeavor to include and celebrate the diversity of families and couples within all aspects of religious, communal and institutional life. When our communities continue to open their tents as our forefather Abraham did, to include all who wish to participate in Jewish life, our people’s possibilities expand and gain strength.


Edgar M. Bronfman, the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd., is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the author of “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli Press) created in conjunction with his wife, artist Jan Aronson.

California: the left’s laboratory


Our state of California has become a laboratory. The progressive party, the Democrats, holds every statewide office, from governor on down, and they hold super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Even if every Republican legislator in Sacramento votes against a bill, the bill will pass. Therefore the left has a state in which it can do anything it wants. 

In light of that, here are three laws recently passed by progressives in California. 

The first law makes California, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “the first state to require that school textbooks and history lessons include the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

Throughout American and Western history, there has been one overriding purpose to history textbooks: to relate as truthfully as possible what has occurred in the past.

For progressives, however, that is not the overriding purpose of history textbooks. Rather, it is to enable students of various racial, national, ethnic, sexual and gender groups to feel good about themselves. California Democrats have therefore passed laws dictating that textbooks include the contributions of, among others, women, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, European-Americans and American Indians. 

With regard to social policies, conservatives are more concerned with standards, liberals are more concerned with feelings. The standard here is historical truth. But historical truth matters less to those who are more concerned with feelings.

The historical truth, of course, is that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) males were overwhelmingly the most active participants in founding America. Of course women, Catholics, Jews, Latinos, blacks, Asians, atheists and gays made contributions, and when they merited mention in history texts, they were mentioned. 

Imagine if we applied the California law to musical history. German/Austrian males — such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner — were disproportionately the greatest composers of classical music. What would progressives say about a law that demanded that histories of classical music must include composers of a dozen nationalities and not devote most of their discussions to those of German/Austrian lineage?

Actually, we have an answer. A few years ago the chief New York Times music critic, Anthony Tommasini, a progressive, published his list of the top 10 composers. He didn’t include Haydn, who, among other achievements, was the father of both the symphony and the string quartet. Why? Because, he wrote, he wanted a diverse list. Diversity, too, is a greater progressive value than historical truth. So Debussy (French), Bartok (Hungarian) and Stravinsky (Russian) made the list, but not Haydn or Handel. 

With this California law we have truly entered a Twilight Zone of the absurd. Have transgendered Americans who have made significant contributions to American history been heretofore left out of history textbooks? Have American Indians? Or bisexuals? Can you name one who has been deliberately omitted because of ethnicity or sexuality?

A second example took place this month when the California State Assembly passed a new bill. 

As described by the progressive Huffington Post: “A bill that would provide transgender students equal access to facilities and programs based on their gender identity cleared California’s state assembly. … The bill would explicitly allow students to use public restrooms and join sports teams that correspond with how they identify, regardless of their biological gender.”

In other words, if this bill passes the California State Senate — as it presumably will, given the progressive majority — students — even first-graders — will choose the restroom (or sports team) not according to their sex, but according to how they feel about their gender. No longer will a student’s biological sex determine whether he/she enters a men’s or women’s bathroom or joins a men’s or women’s team. 

And third, California has already passed laws prohibiting any business in the state from refusing to hire or firing an employee based on how one expresses his/her gender identity. That means that if one of your salesmen decides to wear a dress to work — as a man, not as a transsexual woman — no employer may demand that he show up at work in men’s clothing.

I have described only three of California’s progressive laws — those regarding sexuality. There are equally radical laws in all other realms of our lives. To cite but one, the California legislature is now considering passing what it calls the Homeless Bill of Rights. This bill, introduced by Tom Ammiano, the same San Francisco assemblyman who introduced the Transgender Bill of Rights, will allow anyone to sit, sleep, eat and otherwise live in any public place, including in front of stores and homes. It includes “the right to panhandle, the right to occupy public spaces, the right to fish through trash receptacles in search of recyclables … and the right to taxpayer-funded legal counsel if a municipality issues a citation to a homeless person for any of the protected activities.” 

This is what happens when the left does what it can. 

Welcome to California. Once the Golden State, now the Left’s Laboratory.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

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.

A more modern view of homosexuality


The American Modern Orthodox community has just entered uncharted territory. Last week, our largest rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) formally withdrew its support of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality). JONAH has long been the Orthodox community’s address for reparative therapy, a process that is intended to cure people of their homosexual attractions and to replace these with heterosexual ones. The recently announced lawsuits against JONAH brought by four of its former clients, accusing JONAH of both fraud and abusive practices, was apparently the last straw for the RCA. 

Strictly speaking, the RCA’s statement rejects only JONAH. It, in fact, goes on to say, “We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients [and that these professionals] should be able to work on whatever issues [their] clients voluntarily bring to their session.” This is, of course, indisputably correct. But the statement’s acknowledgement of  “the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation” represents a paradigm shift. It is a rejection of the very premise that JONAH and all reparative therapy is built on, namely that sexual orientation is subject to change, and that any client who works hard enough at it can become heterosexual. This may not strike many readers as being a revelation at all. But through this RCA statement, the Modern Orthodox community has formally crossed into a brave, new world. 

[Related: Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage]

Any discussion about what the practical implications of this might be needs to be grounded in an understanding — even an appreciation — of the context out of which it emerged. Any of us who grew up in Orthodox institutions in the 1980s or earlier knows firsthand that homosexuality, and, in particular, male homosexuality, was spoken of with disgust and revulsion, and that homosexual slurs were de rigueur. (In our own defense of course, the larger social landscape wasn’t much different.) And even as the campaigns for gay rights and recognition played out over the ensuing decades, Orthodoxy remained largely unmoved and unchanged. There was only one serious grappling with the issue during this period, and that was the essay written by Rabbi Norman Lamm in 1974 which, while utilizing language that is offensive in today’s context, took the unprecedented step of distinguishing between the “sin” and the “sinner,” asserting that while “the act itself remains an abomination, the fact of illness lays upon us the obligation of pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy.”  

Though Rabbi Lamm’s words undoubtedly, and with good cause, arouse anger, pain and resentment in many contemporary readers, understanding why he used them is crucial to understanding the true significance and implications of last week’s developments. The “illness” paradigm for explaining homosexuality (which was, indeed, the American Psychological Association’s paradigm as well until 1973, just one year prior) was Rabbi Lamm’s — and Orthodoxy’s — legal and theological lynchpin. Legal in that it provided access to the legal category of “transgression as a result of compulsion,” a category that elicits a more generous judgment. Theological in that it provided a response to the conundrum that God, who is all-knowing, just and kind, could not possibly prohibit that which cannot humanly be resisted. As long as homosexuality was an illness, a person’s failure to resist its temptations need not be ascribed to a Divine failure, but to an unfortunate human one. Needless to say, the “illness” paradigm also led inexorably to the obligation to seek therapeutic intervention. And while the most modern end of the Orthodox spectrum began to eschew reparative therapy some years ago — see, for example, the July 2010 “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/) — the balance continued to insist upon it. (See, for example, the 2011 “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality” — www.torahdec.org.)

The statement of the RCA however, quietly, boldly and courageously breaks new ground. In recognizing that there is no evidence that reparative therapy is effective, and that there is, consequently, no obligation to pursue it, our community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku, one whose answer still needs to be determined. But one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes. 

It is not realistic to expect that Orthodoxy will some day recognize homosexual relationships as being equal to heterosexual ones, or to authorize gay marriage, or even to drop the idea that gay sex is a transgression of biblical law. Orthodoxy’s foundational beliefs concerning the Divinity of Torah and the authority of halachah (received Jewish law) preclude such developments. In other words, if the Torah declares a particular action prohibited, it’s not within our authority to say otherwise. But we can regard homosexual acts as we do other forms of nonobservance, as we do, for example, the nonobservance of kashrut, both in the sense that it doesn’t carry the charge of immorality and also in the sense that it doesn’t harm our ability to have a normal familial relationship with someone. The shift from Rabbi Lamm’s “sympathy” to the RCA’s recognition of the reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own. 

Within our community, it’s a brave, new and better world.


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg talks to Pasadena shul about homosexuality, welcoming the stranger


When Rabbi Steve Greenberg was a young rabbinical student at an Orthodox Yeshiva near Jerusalem in the mid-1970s, he was attracted to a fellow (male) student. He wanted to talk about his feelings of homosexual desire to a respected old rabbi — but was afraid to. So Greenberg fudged by telling the rabbi he was “attracted to both men and women.” The venerated old rabbi shrugged: “So you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.”

Greenberg recounted this anecdote to an audience of about 100 at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), a Conservative synagogue where he was warmly received this past weekend. He talked about his remarkable personal journey, carefully using his “power of love” — his rabbinic insight, humor and dynamic lecture style — to impart what he’s learned about inclusiveness, having navigated the tricky waters of being a gay rabbi in the Orthodox world.

Greenberg cited the passages from Leviticus that caused him anguish when he was young: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” 

During Greenberg’s rabbinical student days at New York’s Yeshiva University, reciting these passages — especially since they’re said on Yom Kippur — caused him so much pain that he covered his head with his tallit so that others wouldn’t see his tears or emotions. He’s struggled much of his adult life to explain this basic question: How can one be an Orthodox Jew, believing and following what is written in the Tanakh, and be homosexual?

In 1999, in his 40s, he decided that “it’s worse for a man to have to live with the shame and depression of not being who he really is than to suffer the consequences of being himself.” He came out, writing a published article about his sexuality.

At PJTC, Greenberg talked about how he reads those Leviticus passages now. First, he analyzes the reasons for the condemnation of homosexuality. 1.) Reproduction: A homosexual will likely not be a parent, which goes against the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply. 2.) Social confusion: When relationships go against traditional behavior, people have limited tolerance levels. 3.) Gender confusion: Many feel discomfort in the presence of cross-dressers or feminine boys, for example, because it throws traditional gender definitions into disarray. He refuted all these reasons as a basis for condemning homosexuality.

Then Greenberg zeroed in on reading the Leviticus passages in a novel way. 

He said that the passages are really about sexual violence. He cited how the words of the passages are used elsewhere and concluded they’re about someone exerting power over another by violent, forcible penetration: “Abu Ghraib-type sexual violence.” Because anal rape of a man is a way of emasculating him, the Leviticus passages are a condemnation of violence, rape and sexual debasement.

Greenberg acknowledges that he interprets the passage this way “because it offers me a way of coming back to Judaism. It’s a radical reading, but if you believe that God hates what you are, why would you go to such a temple?

“Imagine someone going to an Orthodox synagogue and saying, ‘Rabbi, I’m gay. What does Hashem want from me? Lifelong celibacy?’ A rabbi can’t say: ‘OK, we welcome you, but our God thinks that what you are is abhorrent.’ Instead, he might say: ‘OK, keep the other 612 commandments, and we can let that one go.’ ”

Whatever the Orthodox community’s attitude toward homosexuals, Greenberg believes that’s not enough reason for him to leave the fold. 

“Choosing a religious commitment,” Greenberg said, “is similar to choosing a life partner or shul to belong to. We base that decision on those things we love — and there are plenty in Orthodox Judaism — and on the weaknesses we can live with.”

For nearly 30 years, Greenberg has been working with CLAL, National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where he’s now Director of Diversity Project and Senior Teaching Fellow. 

“There are two different tasks when it comes to inclusiveness and diversity,” Greenberg said. “One for the Orthodox, one for the liberal community.” 

Liberal communities have issued welcoming statements, he said, but they should do more. Welcoming the stranger should be more than political correctness. 

“It means thinking through how the curriculum is built for the Hebrew school, how the policy works in synagogue membership, what kind of anti-bullying program has been put in place in the school, what is the language teachers commonly use when dealing with questions of gender and sexuality, and do they make room for two dads or two moms when they’re teaching preschool and kindergarten kids?”

For the Orthodox community, Greenberg said, the task is to “broach the problem with an awareness of the human circumstances. There’s reason to believe that, in time, perhaps in 20 or 30 years, the Orthodox community will recognize our Jewish responsibility for welcoming ‘the other,’ the person who doesn’t ordinarily fit, the person on the margins. I think there’s a great deal of hope that will change, so we can at least stop the witch hunt and find a way to make our community broader and richer and more caring of everyone.”

Index measures Jewish communal groups’ LGBT sensitivity


A new survey of Jewish communal organizations found that 50 percent of them have taken significant steps to welcome gays and lesbians and their families.

The Jewish Organization Equality Index provides benchmarks for gauging and improving policies regarding gay, lesbian bisexual and transgendered persons at North American Jewish communal organizations. The index was released Sunday by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights organization.

Some 204 Jewish communal organizations, or about 10 percent of the organizations invited to take part, participated in the survey.

The index found that 98 percent of participating membership-based organizations offer same-sex couples family memberships; 90 percent use inclusive terms in their publicity materials; and 73 percent have a written non-discrimination policy.

The index also found that 75 percent of participating organizations have not specifically recruited LGBT individuals to their lay leadership board in the past three years, and that 79 percent have not targeted the LGBT community in workplace recruitment efforts.

“We applaud the organizations that participated and are taking important steps to foster LGBT inclusion, but we still have a long way to go until LGBT Jews — indeed, all Jews — are embraced as full and vital members of the Jewish family in every aspect of communal life,” said Lynn Schusterman, a major Jewish philanthropist and one of the index's funders. “We have an opportunity to use these findings to truly commit ourselves to the vital but challenging work of forging a culture in which inclusivity, diversity and equality are paramount. The question is: will we?”

Other funders include the Morningstar Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor.

Conservative day school cancels Boy Scout troops over exclusion of gay leaders


A Conservative Jewish day school will not renew its Boy Scouts charter because of the organization's policy excluding gay and lesbian adults as leaders.

The Golda Och Academy in West Orange, N.J., said in a letter to parents last week that the Scouts' policy presents a “problematic image for many families.

“To exclude same-sex families from membership and adult volunteerism is in direct contradiction of school policies, which place high value on inclusion,” reads the Oct. 17 letter signed by head of school Joyce Raynor, the New Jersey Jewish News reported.

The Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed its ban on gays and lesbians over the summer.

There has several same-sex families at Golda Och, according to Raynor.

The day school's scout and pack are now in search of another location in which to meet. Thirty of the school's families have children in Boy Scout Troop 118, which started in 1995, and Cub Scout Pack 118 for younger boys.

Since 2001, the Reform movement has recommended that member congregations withdraw sponsorship of packs or troops over the issue, according to the Jewish News.

New Tel Aviv center aiming to reduce anti-gay violence


Israel’s association for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is launching a center in Tel Aviv to combat anti-gay violence.

The center, which opens Wednesday, will collect data on violence against gays and offer members of the LGBT community legal and psychological support, according to Haaretz. It also will aim to have people available to accompany LGBT individuals who go to report anti-gay crimes to the police.

“Unfortunately, we still undergo difficult experiences of physical and verbal violence in every government institution,” Shay Deutsch, chairman of the LGBT association, told Haaretz. “Everywhere, we get complaints from members of the community who suffer from discrimination or humiliating treatment.”

The center is opening on the third anniversary of an attack on a gay club in Tel Aviv that left two people dead. The center will be named for Nir Katz, one of the victims. It is expected to cost approximately $100,000 per year to run.

LIVE BROADCAST: Beth Chayim Chadishim Shabbat Services – June 8, 2012


On Friday night, June 8 JewishJournal.com will be airing a live stream of Beth Chayim Chadishim’s Shabbat services.  Founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today BCC is an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual Jews, our families and friends.

Broadcast to begin at 8pm (PDT)

Lesbian couple can both be child’s mother, Israeli court rules


Both members of a lesbian couple who had a child together can be recognized as the child’s mother, an Israeli court ruled.

The egg of one of the women was fertilized with donated sperm and implanted in the second woman’s uterus. Only the woman who gave birth to the baby boy was allowed to register as his mother. The second woman was told to start adoption proceedings, Ynet reported.

Instead the woman sued for recognition as the boy’s mother. On Sunday she was granted her maternity rights by the Ramat Gan Family Court. The boy is now 5 years old.

Israel’s Health Ministry outlawed the transfer of eggs from one woman to another in 2011, according to Ynet.

Meanwhile, Likud Party activist Moshe Feiglin called off a planned meeting with a homosexual group within the party after some of his American supporters complained, The Jerusalem Post reported. Feiglin, who told the newspaper that he did not believe the group has legitimacy, especially not in the party, offered to meet with members of the group individually.

He had told the group’s leader that he would meet with them, the paper reported Sunday.

Making it easier for LGBT Jewish kids to be open, honest


Someday, maybe every gay Jewish youth will have as easy a time coming out as Elias Rubin did.

“I came out a few days after I figured it out myself,” said the 11th-grader from Valley Village. “Everybody was totally supportive and accepting.”

That was when he was in eighth grade. Rubin, now 17, didn’t see the point in keeping it a secret, whether at home or at school.

“Everybody knows, everybody’s OK with it, and we just go on with our daily lives,” he said.

Not all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are so lucky. Nine out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school, and more than one-third have attempted suicide, according to the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org), a collection of video testimonials in support of LGBT youths and in response to harassment and bullying.

A number of Jewish schools and youth organizations in the area are doing their part not only to provide resources for students struggling with their sexuality, but also to ensure inclusive environments where they can thrive.

At New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, about 15 students attend weekly meetings of the B’tselem Elohim / Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The Hebrew refers to the idea that humans are created in God’s own image. Members of the group, now in its second year, have discussed articles from current events and watched videos from the It Gets Better Project.

“The mission is to raise awareness about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender issues today, all the while encouraging acceptance in our community today,” said Sivan Lipman, the NCJHS group’s faculty adviser.

Milken Community High School in Bel Air has a GSA as well. Members are organizing a Day of Silence on Nov. 18, modeled after a national day of action in which students take some form of a vow of silence to call attention to bullying and harassment of LGBT youth in schools, according to Stephanie Monteleone, Milken’s group adviser.

“The students who started the GSA felt there was a need for increased awareness about homophobia and how that impacts our community as well as establishing a support network for students who identify as LGBTQ,” she said in an e-mail.

Milken’s middle school also includes a unit on diversity during which the film “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School” is shown.

Simply providing access to information is one easy way to help LGBT students, said Joel L. Kushner, director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. Based in Los Angeles, it has a massive online collection of resources at huc.edu/ijso.

“It’s really important for Jewish settings … to have the information so that a child can … know that ‘oh, I can be Jewish and not an abomination — you know, from the Leviticus 18:22 verse — and my community will still accept me,’ ” he said.

He said he has seen progress when it comes to openness and awareness in schools and camps, but it needs to be taken to the next level. That means doing education for teachers and not waiting until high school to talk to kids about LGBT issues, he said.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles has taken that to heart. Its middle school offers a human development class that starts by teaching sixth-graders about bullying, teasing and how people get targeted for their differences. By the eighth grade, students are sharing their personal stories and smashing stereotypes, from racism to LGBT issues, said counselor Inez Tiger, who teaches the class.

“We just want to create an open, inclusive dialogue,” Tiger said.

Students watch “Straightlaced,” a documentary that examines gender biases, and there are gay speakers who are part of panel discussions. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school, also discusses the biblical issues surrounding homosexuality.

Much has changed since Tiger first offered the class.

“I would say it has transformed from when it started 10 years ago, when some parents wouldn’t let their kids come to this section of the class, to now, when they don’t even opt out at all,” she said.

One of the next challenges is turning tolerant spaces into inclusive ones, according to Asher Gellis, executive director of JQ International, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides programs and services for the LGBT Jewish community.

“Understanding that LGBT community members can come and participate and won’t be discriminated against is ‘tolerant.’ Being inclusive is offering LGBT-specific services. They have particular needs,” Gellis said. “Do you have a welcoming page on your Web page? Do you have LGBT role models? Are you offering support for parents of LGBT kids? It’s a complicated dynamic.”

Sara-Jean Lipmen, Southern California regional programs manager for the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), understands this. While part of the group’s response has been simple — “We have an intolerance for intolerance,” she said — leaders realize there’s more to consider.

“For example, we’re looking at doing one event, possibly this year, that is gender-segregated. The regional board is already talking about what happens with the teens who may want to be with a different gender than they are biologically,” Lipmen said, referring to transgender identity. “It’s something that we’re keenly aware of.”

JQ’s Gellis said he has worked with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, NFTY and Pressman Academy on LGBT issues. Overall, he’s pleased to see how far things have come in the last 25 years.

“The changes are quite dramatic,” he said. “It went from a period of growing up in the ’80s and having no queer Jewish role models — it was a subject that was never discussed — to a conversation that is happening at Shabbat dinner tables, happening on the pulpit and happening in the classroom.”

Lesbian couple ejected from Gertude Stein exhibit


A lesbian couple was reprimanded by a guard for holding hands and asked to leave an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

The museum apologized to the couple, who were attending the exhibit “Seeing Gertude Stein” on July 17. The exhibition about the famous American lesbian writer, poet and art collector includes photographs, paintings and sculptures, and focuses on Stein’s personal life, according to the Forward.

The guard worked for a private security company and was not representing museum policy, a museum spokesman said. The Guardsmark company reprimanded the guard and said it would provide sensitivity training to guards assigned to the museum, according to reports.

“The guard’s behavior resulted in an event that cannot be allowed to happen again,” Connie Wolf, the museum’s director and CEO, said in a letter. “Please let me be crystal clear that the CJM has a zero tolerance policy concerning any type of prejudiced or racist word or action— whether directed at CJM visitors or staff.”

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!

BCC Looks to Future With New Home, Programs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.Y. gay center rapped for renting space to anti-Israel group


A gay community center in New York is facing controversy again for renting meeting space to an anti-Israel group.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center announced Wednesday that it would allow Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to rent meeting space in its building. The center said it “provides space for a variety of LGBT voices in our community to engage in conversations on a range of topics.”

“The Center does not have a position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, nor does it endorse the viewpoints of this group or any others that use rooms here,” the center said in its statement. “This is a complex issue, and there is a tremendous diversity of viewpoints within the LGBT community.”

Michael Lucas, a gay pornography producer and pro-Israel activist, responded by calling for a boycott of the center.

“Everyone who believes in the state of Israel, please stop any support for the Center,” Lucas said in a statement. “Please stop your financial support, please stop meeting there. Do not ally yourself with evil.”

In February, the center came under fire from Lucas and some other gay supporters of Israel when a pro-Palestinian group called Siege Busters arranged to rent meeting space. The center revoked the group’s rental, explaining that Siege Busters was “not LGBT-focused” and that the event “began to distract from our core mission.”

The decision also was controversial within the gay community and drew pickets from pro-Palestinian activists.

Jewish groups to be vetted for LGBT workplace policies


A national initiative is underway to examine gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workplace policies at Jewish non-profit organizations.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which advocates for LGBT equality, announced this week an extension of its workplace equality project in the Jewish non-profit sector. Organizations will be examined for their workplace policies regarding LGBT employees, and areas that need education will be highlighted.

The HRC notes that employees can be fired for their sexual orientation in 29 states, and for their gender identity or expression in 38 states. Information on current practices at nonprofits is largely unavailable. This project will serve as a pilot to expand workplace equality into other non-profits and small employers.

“The continued marginalization of LGBT Jews in some quarters is especially disheartening for those of us who believe in the power of a fully inclusive Jewish community that embraces every person as having equal and infinite merit,” said Lynn Schusterman, chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which provided the lead grant for the project.

Supporting grants come from Morning Star Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor.

An initial report is expected to be released in 2012.

LIVE VIDEO: Diversity and LGBT Inclusion in the Jewish World


UPDATE: This a recording of a live broadcast which aired Sunday night, March 1, 2009.

On Sunday night, March 1, JewishJournal.com will broadcast LIVE from the American Jewish University. Tune in at 7 p.m. to watch a panel discussion from the “Welcoming Synagogues Project: Strategic Convening.” 

Introductions by Dr. Joel L. Kushner, Director, Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Gregg Drinkwater, Executive Director, Jewish Mosaic. 

Moderated by Dr. Caryn Aviv, Research Director, Jewish Mosaic; Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture, Center for Judaic Studies, University of Denver.  The panel will discuss diversity and LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community, emphasizing success stories, challenges, and lessons learned.

If you are having difficulties viewing the feed, try refreshing the page.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The evening’s panelists will include:

Rabbi Denise Eger – Congregation Kol Ami
Dr. Bernard Schlager – Interim Deputy Director and Development Director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CGLS)
Rabbi Harold Schulweis – Congregation Valley Beth Shalom
Rev. Rebecca Voelkel – Program Director for the Institute for Welcoming Resources

This program is co-sponsored by the ” title=”Jewish Mosaic”>Jewish Mosaic.

 

For updates on more JewishJournal.com live broadcasts, sign up

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. 

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.”

Gay marriage, Persian tragedy, Israel @ 60


Elias Eshaghian

Your story about Elias Eshaghian’s memoirs is a worthy reminder of the powerful commitment to education that Persian Jews brought with them to Los Angeles (“Memoir Recalls Educator’s Hardships, Success in Iran,” June 20).

As head of a Jewish day school, where a significant minority of students are of Persian background (at this point second and even third generation), I have seen firsthand this community’s warmth, as well as its determination to acculturate and participate fully in the larger community, while maintaining its sense of tradition.

As Persian, Ashkenazi and Sephardi children play, learn and grow up to achieve together in Jewish and secular institutions in America, clearly they are building on a foundation laid for them by Eshaghian and others like him.

Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin
Headmaster, Sinai Akiba Academy

Sderot

Rob Eshman wrote that during his visit to Sderot, “it became clear that the residents of Sderot reserve their anger for their government and for their fellow citizens” (“In Sderot,” June 13).

Unfortunately, Eshman did not mention one of the main causes for this anger: the increasing awareness that there is a better solution to the missile attack problem than either invading enemy territory or continuing to just accept the attacks. The better approach is to rapidly install an effective and currently available anti-missile system near Sderot.

It is hard to imagine that not a single person mentioned this possibility during Eshman’s visit, since Ha’aretz reported that in March 2008, a group of Sderot residents petitioned the Jerusalem District Court against the defense minister, requesting that the court instruct the minister “to install and operate in the city of Sderot, within six months from today, the laser-based intercept system (known as Nautilus).”

The Nautilus system (known as THEL in the United States) was jointly developed by the United States (Northrop Grumman Corp.) and Israel and very successfully tested against Katyusha rockets and mortar shells. In early 2007, the developer offered to put a system in place within 18 months to defend Sderot. After initially rejecting the idea, the Israeli government has recently begun more serious consideration.

The Jewish Journal missed an opportunity to inform Los Angeles readers concerned about Sderot, and Israeli security more generally, that there is a better option than invasion or indefinite acceptance of vulnerability to missile attack. Readers can learn more about this option from the Israel Missile Defense Association’s excellent Web site at www.imda.org.il.

Carl Sunshine
via e-mail

Israel at 60

Judea Pearl’s “Israel at 60: Confronting Denial” (June 20) is so true and so sad, too. We are talking about American newspapers who left truth, fairness and objectivity behind.

I thank Pearl for his article. It should be read by all.

Batya Dagan
Los Angeles

A Persian Tragedy

David Suissa, let me quote your own words from your article, “A Persian Tragedy” (June 13): “Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an arrow, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray.”

It seems like you don’t consider your words and writings as “speech.”

You wrote: “I came to this story and met Dora and her family….”

Have you met Bianca’s family? Why not?

I think it would have been prudent for you to meet Bianca’s family, too.

Hersel Babajoni
Brentwood

Just wanted to let you know that David Suissa’s entire article has been translated word [for] word in a Farsi magazine by the name of Tehran Magazine.

Thank you for such a beautiful and powerful article that will continue to inform and educate the people of this community.

Your words went beyond language barriers, as well as religious groups. It will reach everyone. Thank you.

Jasmine Afrahim
Los Angeles

Same-Sex Marriage

Watching the first legal gay marriage in Los Angeles be between two Jewish women, with their rabbi and their Jewish lawyer, fills me with extraordinary pride as a Jew (“Same-Sex Marriages and the Fabric of Society: What Does It All Mean?” June 20).

Our people have been at the forefront of this civil rights battle, just as Jews were at the forefront of black civil rights, women’s rights and so many other vital causes. In a few years, when society looks back with amazement that there was ever an issue about gay marriage, Jews will be able to stand up with pride to say that we were once again the vanguard of human rights.

This entire country should thank our rabbinic leaders, such as Denise Eger, for standing for morality, dignity and justice. Once again, we can take enormous pride in being Jews.

Grant Arthur Gochin
Winnetka

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.”

With this ketubah, I thee wed


While civil ceremonies abound up and down the California coast, those seeking a Jewish ceremony — complete with ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract) — have a few extra stops to make on the road to matrimony.

There are lots of ketubot to choose from — both in Los Angeles and online — to help solidify a couple’s love for one another.

At online ketubah store ” target=”_blank”title=”Commitment Ketubah”>Commitment Ketubah‘ for same-sex couples (see image below) comes in a variety of colors and styles ($99-$329) and can be purchased with or without a frame. KC Walensky, customer service specialist, said the company has had a increase in recent days of couples requesting it.

The top of the ketubah, written in Hebrew, is a translation of the English below it, not of the traditional Aramaic section one would find on an Orthodox or Conservative ketubah.

The ketubah for two males, for example, begins with: “On the ___ day of the week, the _____ day of _____, in the year ______, corresponding to the ______ day of ______, in the year______, in ______, ______, son of ______, and ______, son of ______, joined each other before family and friends to enter into a mutual covenant as equal partners, and with love and compassion each vowed to the other: Today I love you completely….”

The bottom has lines for the couple, two witnesses and the rabbi to sign.

Locally, both Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball Cultural Center and Gallery Judaica in Westwood offer same-sex ketubot from a variety of artists.

“For years we’ve been welcoming same-sex couples,” said Pamela Balton, store director for Audrey’s. “Before it was legal, couples were coming in to purchase pieces of art for commitment ceremonies.”

Delivery of ketubot, which range in price from $125 to $1,000, can take anywhere from a week to a couple of months (based on where it is being shipped from), and many can be personalized.

Although there is a ketubah specialist on site at the Skirball, couples don’t need to make an appointment to see the selection.

“We’ve done chuppahs, ketubot, the wedding glass, everything,” said Andrew Fish, marketing director for Gallery Judaica.

“The main difference is the wording of the ketubah,” he said, noting that some of the ketubot are gender neutral and some only come in English.

“We just like to help,” Fish said. “Whomever needs helps getting married — we’re going to help them get married.

” target=”_blank”>Skirball, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 440-4505 (closed Mondays).