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World’s First LGBTQ Synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, Turns 50

In the early 1970s, there was no synagogue that members of the LGBTQ community could call home.
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April 21, 2022

In the early 1970s, there was no synagogue that members of the LGBTQ community could call home. There was a church, however. It was the Metropolitan Community Church, and it did outreach to the LGBTQ community. Even though they weren’t Christian, LGBTQ Jews would gather there to connect with one another and to their faith. 

But because they didn’t want to convert to Christianity, they never became members and didn’t have a say when it came to church matters. They asked the leader of the church, Reverend Troy Perry, what to do, and he encouraged them to form a temple on their own. 

They took his advice, and on June 9, 1972, the first services were held in a member’s home, with 15 people in attendance. Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first LGBTQ synagogue, had officially opened.

BCC started as that gay and lesbian refuge, but evolved into a celebratory, brave space for all.” – Rabbi Jillian Cameron

“BCC started as that gay and lesbian refuge, but evolved into a celebratory, brave space for all … for everyone on the diverse spectrum of sexuality and gender as well as everyone who wants a Jewish home with a wonderful chosen family,” said BCC’s Rabbi Jillian Cameron. “We prioritize the blending of LGBTQIA+ identity with Jewish identity.”

Beth Chayim Chadashim is a Metropolitan Community Temple located in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Now, the clergy and members are celebrating 50 years in existence and looking back at all the uplifting moments and challenges the synagogue has faced over time. 

In 1983, BCC hired Rabbi Janet Ross Marder to lead the congregation, at a time when the AIDS crisis was in full swing and members of the LGBTQ community – including those at BCC – were dying in droves from the disease. About 30 congregants passed away from AIDS-related causes, before any treatments became available, according to Larry Nathenson, long-time BCC member and former vice president. 

The synagogue responded by forming an HIV+ support group and sponsoring monthly Persons with AIDS dinners. Marder and BCC member Dr. Les Zendle also founded Nechama (comfort), a Jewish response to AIDS.

“Our congregation buried dozens of beloved members,” BCC’s Rabbi Emerita Lisa Edwards, who served the synagogue for 25 years, wrote in Lez Spread the Word magazine. “We grieved together and our grief brought challenges to our congregation, as well as a deep familial bonding that has held us up ever since. We remember the relief and joy when our weekly kaddish list (the names of people who have died) contained no new names for a whole year.”

The BCC community also faced setbacks in 2008, when Prop 8 passed in California and gay marriages were halted. BCC mourned with neighboring faith communities after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 and then, in 2020, like all other synagogues, they had to find a way to adapt to the pandemic. 

“We have had to adjust and learn how to keep connected in new ways,” said Cameron. “We created a variety of Zoom-based opportunities for our members to connect, to celebrate Shabbat and holidays, to learn and just be together. It has been difficult, but we have found ways to comfort one another, to check in on those who feel isolated and to live our values when they were needed the most.”

The community has celebrated together over the past five decades, including when they purchased a building on West Pico Boulevard in 2011, founded their religious school, Ohr Chayim, hired Juval Porat, the first cantor ordained in Germany since WW II and when gay marriage became legal.

“Our Friday night Shabbat services were flush with wedding blessings for the many BCC couples marrying each weekend,” wrote Edwards. “After services, we danced.” 

So much has changed in the world when it comes to LGBTQ issues. BCC was founded three years after the Stonewall Riots. Back then, sex-same acts were illegal and homosexuality was considered a mental illness.  

“It was important for the LGBT community to have a sacred space of its own because true spirituality requires honesty and integrity,” said Nathenson. “One cannot achieve this while in the closet, in a place where one cannot be true to all parts of one’s identity. Mainstream synagogues at the time were not likely to be accepting of LGBT congregants unless they kept their identities secret.”

Now, gay marriage is legal and the LGBTQ community is gaining acceptance. Plus, much of the Jewish community has embraced LGBTQ people. More LGBTQ synagogues have been established and LGBTQ rabbis have been ordained. 

“What I think BCC represents for so many of its members is that it’s a chosen family,” said Porat. “In finding this acceptance and support within BCC, the healing that occurs for so many who’ve faced rejection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is a power I feel to this day when I witness the community of BCC come together in times of great joy or sorrow.” 

Cameron, who started at the synagogue just recently in the summer of 2020, is hopeful about what’s next for her community as it continues to evolve and grow. 

“We look to the future with the same passion we had at the very beginning 50 years ago, hoping to care for our members as their needs evolve, and welcome in new individuals and families looking for a warm and joyful queer space, to joyfully combine our Jewish identity with all of our other identities,” she said. “Moving into our next 50 years, we will continue to be a brave space for all, a Jewish and LGBTQIA+ community, always striving to be at the forefront of creativity, learning and inclusion.”

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