Same-sex unions roil Jews in former Soviet Union

The resignation of a longtime leader of one of the largest Reform congregations in Ukraine has thrown the spotlight on a bitter controversy over homosexuality within the post-Soviet Reform movement.
Boris Kapustin, 70, founder and chairman of the Reform congregation in the Crimean town of Kerch, quit his post in September.
While Ukrainian Reform leaders cite Kapustin’s age and health concerns as reasons for his resignation, Kapustin said his resignation stemmed from his opposition to the movement’s acceptance of same-sex commitment ceremonies.
“I don’t want to participate in a movement that has organized a chuppah for lesbians, which happened in Moscow this year,” Kapustin said.
He was referring to Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who officiated at an April 2 commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. It is believed to be the first Jewish, same-sex commitment ceremony in the former Soviet Union.
A strong backlash greeted the move by Shulman, who insisted she officiated at the ceremony on her own private initiative and was not backed in any way by her group, OROSIR, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in Russia.
In a strongly worded statement, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest stream in the former Soviet Union, urged a boycott of the Reform movement. There were also repercussions within the Progressive movement, as Reform Judaism is referred to in the region.
In late April, Zinovy Kogan resigned as chairman of the movement’s Moscow-based umbrella group. In August, a Reform congregation in the Ukrainian town of Pavlograd wrote to all Reform synagogues in the country, urging them to “renounce all religious contacts with the people who committed that crime,” a reference to the lesbian ceremony.
Responding to the wave of criticism from their communities, the six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have agreed to ban such ceremonies for the time being, saying that post-Soviet citizens, including Jews, are not yet prepared to accept the Reform movement’s liberal approach to homosexuality.
Homosexuality was only decriminalized after the fall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago. According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.
Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the Kiev-based leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, said that Reform Jews who criticize the ceremony “completely misunderstand Reform Judaism, which teaches tolerance and respect toward the choice of each and every individual.”
Nevertheless, when Dukhovny is approached by same-sex couples who want to arrange such a ceremony, “I tell them that neither our community nor society is ready for this.”
Esfir Mikhailova, recently appointed as Kapustin’s successor in Kerch, refused to speculate on this aspect of Kapustin’s resignation.
“At our board meeting, Kapustin told us he decided to retire because of his age and problems with health,” Mikhailova said.
Dukhovny praised Kapustin’s role in building a “strong congregation” in this Crimean town of 160,000.
The Kerch Progressive congregation, which Kapustin founded in 1997, has 1,000 members, virtually all the town’s Jews and their families. It is considered a leading light among the 70-odd Reform communities in the former Soviet Union.
A retired Soviet navy officer, Kapustin is credited by many local Jews with building a strong and unified Jewish community. That is a rarity in a region where Jewish life is often plagued by infighting among Chabad, non-Chabad Orthodox and Reform groups.
Also rare is the congregation’s monopoly over local Jewish life. Kerch is one of a handful of Reform communities anywhere in the former Soviet Union that owns its own building, a 19th century synagogue returned to the congregation as part of a government program of religious property restitution. The community restored the building and reopened it in 2001.
Chabad does not have a presence in the town.
“This is one of the largest and the best functioning, congregations in Ukraine,” said Alexander Gaydar, executive director of the Association of Progressive Jewish Congregations of Ukraine.
The congregation runs religious, cultural, educational and charitable programs; youth and women’s clubs; senior center; family Sunday school; Jewish museum, and theater group. Funds come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Almost everyone in the Kerch community credits Kapustin’s leadership for the congregation’s success.
Kapustin’s son, Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, 26, was ordained a year ago at the Leo Baeck College in London. The youngest of the six Reform rabbis in the former Soviet Union, he serves the Reform congregation in Kkarkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Neither he nor Reform Jews in Kerch believe the elder Kapustin’s resignation will harm the congregation he built.
“Boris Kapustin has retired, but he built a good basis for the congregation, which will continue to develop,” Dukhovny said.

According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.

Cool Songs? It’s a Miracle!

For all the nice Jewish boys looking for other nice Jewish boys, has come to the rescue.

The popular Jewish online dating site expanded its search capabilities this month to allow gay men — and also lesbians — to seek matches. The Web site now asks people for their gender and the gender they’re searching, allowing men to search for men and women to search for women.

When his sister didn’t marry a Jewish boy, Gary Pinsky was told by his mother that he had to. Pinsky, 32, joined JDate several weeks ago, after returning to New Jersey after living in South Africa for several years. He said he thinks he can find more serious suitors on the Jewish dating site.

“I’ve gotten three responses since I’ve joined,” said Pinsky, a production stage manager. “They’ve all been very nice and seem to have a good head on their shoulders.”

That’s a big difference from other gay and lesbian dating sites, he said, where potential matches are less serious, and largely not Jewish.

“I didn’t find a lot of Jews out there,” Pinsky said.

Gail Laguna, vice president for communications at Spark Networks, JDate’s parent company, said the Web site’s revision came at the request of many Jewish singles.

With more than 600,000 active members, JDate has become one of the standards for niche online dating sites. The profiles of two Jewish congressmen have even been spotted on the site.

JDate officials say the original Web site did not intentionally exclude gay searches, but there was not a demand for it when the site was unveiled in 1997.

The new site includes other requested features, including a better system for identifying non-Jews. The site has become popular with non-Jews seeking Jews, and non-Jews now can express a willingness to convert as part of their online profiles.

But the expansion to gay searches has had the most immediate impact. In less than a month, 700 members have registered for same-sex searches, Laguna said.

She added there are no plans to market to the gay community or to include gays and lesbians in JDate’s current media campaign.

The Jewish world’s policies on gay rights and gay marriage vary wildly. Reform rabbis may perform gay unions, and the issue has been a hot topic within the Conservative movement, which unlike the Reform movement, does not permit the ordination of openly gay rabbis.

Orthodox groups oppose homosexual acts. The struggle of gay Orthodox Jews was the subject of a 2001 documentary, “Trembling Before G-d.”

Straight people will not receive profiles of gay members or vice versa. But, alas, there’s not yet a filter for screening out members of Congress.

On Dec. 13, The Leevees ( open for Barenaked Ladies at 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. For tickets, call (213) 480 3232. On Dec. 15, The Leevees play “Hanukkah Rocks!” at 8 p.m. at the Knitting Factory L.A., 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 209. $15 (21 and older only). For tickets, call (866) 468 3399. 

Gay Jews Line Up to Wed

Rabbi Yoel Kahn originally married 13 years ago, but on Monday he tied the knot again — to the same man.

Kahn, who leads a congregation in Sonoma, first wed his longtime partner Dan Dellm under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy), but on Monday they finally secured a marriage license from the City and County of San Francisco.

Kahn joined a deluge of more than 2,400 same-sex unions the city began sanctioning last week. The move came in the wake of an attempted amendment by the Massachusetts legislature to reverse a state Supreme Court ruling allowing gay civil marriage.

They also are among the many Jewish gays and lesbians who hope to have civil weddings after being allowed for years to hold Jewish ceremonies in Reconstructionist or Reform synagogues.

For many, the motivation to marry is as much about gaining equal civil and legal rights associated with marriage as it is about principle.

"I don’t need the state to bless my marriage; I had a chuppah and a ketubah [Jewish wedding contract]," said Rabbi Denise Eger, of the largely gay Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, speaking of the hallmarks of Jewish wedding ceremonies. "[But] don’t deny me my equal rights as a citizen."

Kahn and Dellm waited with their 12-year-old son and hundreds of other gay and lesbian couples for hours in the rain to wed legally, because "it was important to show the world we wanted this," Kahn said in a telephone interview the following day.

Their original religious ceremony "was our first act of religious commitment and civil disobedience," Kahn added, "but we didn’t expect [this move allowing gay civil unions] to happen in our lifetime."

Indeed, while waiting on line to marry, Kahn and Dellm met a gay Jewish couple from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose wedding Kahn officiated at after his own. Now Kahn and many other gay and lesbian Jews hope the San Francisco gay wedding parade will spark a legal battle to overturn the state’s ban on gay civil weddings and lead the way for other states to follow.

"This is going to force the hand of history," Rabbi Camille Angel of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Angel, who has officiated at more than 200 Jewish weddings for both heterosexual and gay couples, also joined the throngs heading to San Francisco City Hall, waiting five hours to wed her longtime partner, Karen Segal.

Back in 1999, Angel and Segal married at a ceremony at Congregation Rodef Sholom in New York, and they display a ketubah from that event in their home.

But the couple jumped at the chance to claim the kinds of legal rights civil marriage affords, which "heterosexuals just take for granted," Angel said.

"We’re high, we’re married, we have a license," Angel said. "I felt like we should have been singing ‘Shehecheyanu,’" the Jewish prayer of thanksgiving said at singular occasions.

Instead, Angel said she celebrated by officiating at eight civil weddings in the past few days, uttering for the first time since being ordained the phrase, "By the power vested in me…."

Meanwhile, more than 40 other gay and lesbian couples at her synagogue, which was founded as a gay congregation but has expanded into the general community, also marched to City Hall to wed.

Others from around the nation who also have celebrated Jewish unions joined them.

Eger said many members of her 300-family synagogue in West Hollywood took flight to the Bay Area to secure a civil marriage license before the state could jump in and stop the city from issuing the licenses.

"People were trying to get to San Francisco all weekend," said Eger, who wasn’t able to get there herself.

Many Jewish homosexuals say that even if they have had Jewish commitment ceremonies or religious unions, civil marriage remains key to securing more than 1,000 ancillary state and federal rights, ranging from tax breaks to adoption benefits.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based coalition of groups that promote gay civil marriages, said civil marriage "is the gateway to a vast array of tangible and intangible protections that matter in every area of life."

Wolfson said his own Jewish beliefs in tikkun olam (healing the world), helped shape his longtime battle for gay civil marriage.

When political opposition to a 1996 Hawaiian high court ruling allowing gay civil marriage reversed the original legislation, many gays joined the fight, Wolfson said.

In the years since, many members of Congregation Bet Haverim, an Atlanta synagogue with many gay members, headed to Vermont to wed under the state’s same-sex civil-union laws, and some have traveled to Ontario to take advantage of the Canadian province’s gay civil-wedding laws, Rabbi Joshua Lesser said.

This past weekend, some of the rabbi’s friends flew to San Francisco. Others plan to go to Massachusetts this spring to campaign against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would overrule the state Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay civil marriage.

"For the majority of people, it feels oppressive not to have the same rights as anyone else," Lesser said.

Like other rabbis of largely gay congregations, Lesser has officiated at gay unions at his Reconstructionist synagogue, performing 18 gay and lesbian ceremonies as well as 50 heterosexual weddings in the past five years.

Gays and lesbians see these events as important public signs of their lifelong commitment to one another, Lesser said, "not play weddings" meant to replace the real thing. Still, he said, "it doesn’t nearly come close [to offering] the same kind of protections as legally married couples have."

Kahn said, "Civil marriage is an economic event as well as a romantic and spiritual event."

Underscoring that sentiment, several liberal Jewish rabbinic groups have come out for gay civil weddings.

Last week, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis also called for Massachusetts to uphold gay civil weddings.

Also last week, 95 Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative rabbis in Massachusetts took out a half-page advertisement in the Boston Globe saying they oppose any attempt to reverse the high court ruling.

Producer Channels

Gays weren’t even on the radar in Ilene Chaiken’s Jewish community in Philadelphia back in the 1960s.

The creator of Showtime’s lesbian drama, "The L Word," grew up in a home of "good liberal Jews" and belonged to a Reform temple.

"But I think the closest one ever came to acknowledging that homosexuality existed was that ‘queer’ was an insult," said Chaiken, 46. The poised, cerebral executive producer spoke to The Journal in her publicist’s Beverly Hills office. "For years, I was conditioned to think of myself as heterosexual and to measure myself in terms of how I fared in the heterosexual world."

After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, the 22-year-old Chaiken obtained a job as an agent trainee and a steady boyfriend, with whom she shared an apartment. But despite the external stability, she felt out of sorts.

"I sensed it had something to do with my sexuality, but I didn’t confess that even to myself," she said.

The change came when she began hanging out at a West Hollywood cafe owned by several lesbians; eventually she struck up a friendship with one of the women, with whom she had her first same-sex affair.

While the relationship didn’t last long, she said, "it let me know that this was a possibility, and once I became aware of it as a possibility, suddenly life seemed a bit more right. The process was scary, but it was much more just a revelation and a relief."

Chaiken channeled that experience and others into "The L Word," which centers on a circle of hip lesbians in West Hollywood. The first television series to revolve around lesbian characters, it joins gay-themed TV shows such as HBO’s "Six Feet Under," NBC’s "Will & Grace," Showtime’s "Queer as Folk" and Bravo’s "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Although "The L Word" has been well-received by TV critics, some observers worry that the series and others like it will enhance the allure of "bisexual chic" among teenage girls.

"Children, in particular, are vulnerable to messages they receive from the popular culture," said Robert Peters, president of the interfaith watchdog group, Morality in Media.

Chaiken, who dismisses such thinking as "archaic," insists the show "is not going to make something happen that is not already happening in the zeitgeist." In fact, she conceived the show while writing an article for Los Angeles magazine four years ago on the gay and lesbian baby boom, a trend she had personally experienced when her partner, Miggi, gave birth to their twin daughters in 1995.

"I suddenly realized that I was very much writing about my life and my community, and that there were so many more [lesbian] stories that hadn’t been told," she said. "I figured the best way to tell them was to do an ensemble TV show."

She brought elements of her own life to several of the characters, including the fictional Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirschner), a passionate, bookish Jewish writer, who is new to Los Angeles and living with a boyfriend, albeit sexually confused.

While Jenny soon questions her heterosexual relationship, the more hesitant Chaiken continued dating men for a year after her first lesbian experience. It took her even longer to come out to her parents, which happened when she was 24 and living with Miggi, an architect, whom she described as her roommate. But a few days after her mother came to visit around 1984, Chaiken knew she had to come clean.

"Things got very tense and awkward, because it’s unpleasant to live a lie," she recalled.

Over the course of 12 years, the Chaikens began including Miggi in family seders and calling her their daughter-in-law.

Each "L Word" character also tells her coming-out story, which Chaiken calls a seminal experience in every gay person’s life.

Charges that the steamy sex in the series is a ploy to draw male viewers irk Chaiken.

"The whole notion that we did this just to titillate men is just so off the mark," she said. "The sexuality portrayed in the show … speaks directly to gay women starved for representations of themselves on TV."

Although Chaiken’s primary concern is telling meaningful, universal stories, she also hopes the show reaches lesbians who feel as lost as she did during her early years in Los Angeles. "I hope it helps them come to terms with themselves and to feel less alone," she said.

"The L Word" airs Sundays, 10 p.m., on Showtime.

Not Exactly Blanche and Dorothy

Ruthie Berman and Connie Kurtz seem like your typical 60-something Jewish ladies from Brooklyn. And they are in many ways, but they just also happen to be lesbians.

As married women living conventional lives in the early ’60s, the best friends raised their kids together and worked as community leaders. But everything changed when Kurtz’s family moved to Israel in 1970. The sadness the women felt in leaving one another, and their joy upon Kurtz’s return, made it clear to them that there was more to their relationship than simple friendship. By 1974, the women had left their husbands and children and moved in together.

When three-time Oscar-nominated documentarian Deborah Dickson heard their story, she knew she wanted to put it on film. The result is, “Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House.” The title refers to a line in the film, “What was a friendship in the kitchen … became a love affair which included the bedroom.” Drawn to stories of people “who are struggling against odds or against society or against prejudice,” Dickson says she also “loved their love story.”

But the story was complicated. Their decision to give up their children has never stopped being painful for Berman or Kurtz. And though they have made peace with their children for the most part, Berman is still estranged from her youngest son. “That’s what I call the price they paid,” says Dickson, “you know, to be who they are. I think it’s just tragic.”

The flipside is, of course, the extraordinary love between these two women. Together for more than 25 years, Berman and Kurtz say they are beshert, or soul mates. They still dance together, and flirt. Poolside, we hear Kurtz exclaim to a bathing-capped Berman, “I should take a picture of you now. You’re a real beauty.”

“Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House” screens as
the centerpiece film at Outfest, July 16 and 18. For more information, visit

Women Who Don’t Need Men

When Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen shared bunk beds at a 1996 Catskills theater workshop, they swapped stories about Mars-Venus angst.

Westfeldt, an Upper West Side Jew, was breaking up with her college boyfriend and dating for the first time. Juergensen, a downtown bohemian, was juggling three guys and feeling guilty. Their girl talk led to a 1997 play and a movie, "Kissing Jessica Stein" (now in theaters), in which two women escape heterosexual hell by dating each other.

The frothy if sometimes clichéd romance, a lesbian take on "Sex and the Single Girl," puts a new spin on the saga of the befuddled single woman ("Annie Hall" meets "Bridget Jones’ Diary"). Stein (Westfeldt) is a prudish Upper West Side Jewish copy editor with a mean ex-boyfriend and an overbearing mom (Tovah Feldshuh), who thinks she’s too picky. On a whim, she answers the perfect personal ad — except it’s in the women-seeking-women section. She meets Helen (Juergensen), a promiscuous, "bi-curious" Chelsea gallery owner. The comedy veers into bedroom farce when Jessica’s mom invites Helen to Shabbat dinner.

Westfeldt dates her relationship woes to her childhood in a WASPY Connecticut town. "My mom would say, ‘Why don’t you date a nice Jewish boy, and I’d say, ‘Because this one’s ugly and that one’s crazy,’ she recalls. "That’s how many Jewish boys there were around."

When the family shleped into Manhattan to B’nai Jeshurun services — today the ultimate singles’ synagogue — led by Westfeldt’s esteemed great-uncle, the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer, mom pointed out cute guys for young Jennifer to check out. The memories inspired a "Stein" Yom Kippur scene in which Jessica’s mother is so obnoxious, Stein finally blurts: "Will you shut up? I’m trying to atone!"

Though the characters’ dating histories are loosely based on the authors’, Westfeldt and Juergensen, both "30-ish" say they’ve never dated women (including each other). But Westfeldt insists the concept isn’t far-fetched. "While writing the story, we interviewed dozens of women, straight, gay, crossed-over, crossed-back," says the actress. "Plus, we all have these wonderfully close women friends, and lots of us wonder, ‘What if my girlfriend made the perfect b.f.?’"

The film also features hilariously exaggerated versions of the authors’ crummiest dates: The lech who suggestively rubbed his chest; the nerd who meticulously split the check; the malaprop-prone doofus who declared he was a "self-defecating guy." "Like Jessica, I’m something of a wordsmith, so that was absolute torture," says Westfeldt, a Yale theater grad.

Less icky was rehearsing her first girl-on-girl smooch, courtesy of Juergensen, though "We were both nervous," she confides.

Juergensen, an earthy lapsed Protestant, agrees: "I knew there wasn’t a man attached to those lips, but eventually our professionalism kicked in," she says.

After their 1997 play version of "Kissing," "Lipschtick," created a deafening Hollywood buzz, Westfeldt and Juergensen were barraged by studio offers. "Our play closed on a Saturday, and by Monday my agent’s phone was ringing off the hook," says Westfeldt, who previously starred in the ABC sitcom "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place."

"It was the classic Hollywood bull—- machine; people were like, ‘We need to sit down with these girls and option their play, but they hadn’t seen it or read it or met us.’" Eventually, the actresses sold the script and completed more than 100 rewrites, but decided to go independent when their dating-hell flick turned into development hell. Westfeldt’s favorite indie film moment: The time they shot in a cab with the sound guy locked in the trunk. &’9;

The filmmakers’ perseverance paid off when they sold "Stein" to Fox Searchlight and won the audience award for best feature at the 2001 Los Angeles Film Festival. Observers compared them to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who also jump-started their acting careers by writing a scrappy independent film (1997’s "Good Will Hunting").

Since then, the actresses have encountered criticism from people who charge that "Stein" suggests sexuality is a choice. "But we had no interest in a political agenda," Westfeldt says. "We just wanted to show how diverse we all are." That’s why she thinks "Stein " would have pleased her famously progressive great uncle, who welcomed gays at B’nai Jeshurun and chastised the Conservative movement for refusing to ordain homosexuals. "The movie is all about tolerance and acceptance," Westfeldt says.

During a lighter moment, she notes that viewers still assume she and Juergensen are lesbians (they actually live with their respective boyfriends in Los Angeles). "People ask us, and we say no," she says, with a laugh. "But we’re almost embarrassed to admit we’re not."

Open-Door Policy

They are your brother, your cousin, your lawyer, your best friend, or possibly yourself. Yet, while there are as many gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the Jewish community as in any other, they often feel like outcasts in their own faith, afraid that they can’t be open about their sexuality and a committed Jew as well.

Am Echad, a group that formally became part of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles in March, aims to help change both the perception and the reality of being homosexual or bisexual in the Southern California Jewish community. The organization, whose name means “one people” in Hebrew, will, for the second year, have a booth at the Christopher Street West Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival (CSW) this weekend (June 21-22), at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards in West Hollywood. The importance of visibility was underscored by Am Echad co-chair Bruce Maxwell.

“I think it’s very important that many gays, lesbians and bisexuals feel that they don’t have to go back in the closet to get involved with the Jewish Federation Council or with any other Jewish organization,” Maxwell said. “Many people come to [Jewish] events with their spouse or partner, but, if you’re gay or lesbian, you have to think twice about whether you can safely support something because you’re not sure if you can bring your partner.”

By providing a safe place for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to come out as committed Jews and be visible in their own community, Am Echad “puts a face to the stranger,” said Maxwell.

At last year’s CSW Festival, Am Echad gathered 250 names of people interested in volunteering and contributing money to the Federation. Some were already affiliated with synagogues and other Jewish organizations, but many were not.

“For some, for the first time, they felt that ‘maybe, I can be who I am and be part of the larger Jewish community,'” said Stuart Leviton, Am Echad’s campaign chair.

Several groups within the Federation are co-sponsoring the Am Echad booth at CSW, including the Federation’s Metro and Western regions, the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

“It’s a tremendous step the Federation has taken in recognizing this community,” said Jan Simons, who chairs Am Echad’s Public Relations Committee.

Am Echad is the first gay and lesbian outreach group that has been made an official part of any federation across the country, Maxwell said. At least three similar groups are beginning efforts to affiliate with federations in San Francisco, Philadelphia and South Florida, he said.

The initiative to bring this organization into the Los Angeles Federation came from the Metro region, said Federation executive vice president John Fishel.

“There are large numbers of residents of this community who are positively identified as Jewish and are part of the gay and lesbian community, and who would like to be more…active in Jewish life,” Fishel said. “We thought that it was a good thing, and we’re encouraging it.”

For more information about Am Echad, call the Federation’s Metro office at (213) 852-7759. n