The end of gay shuls in America?

They have their own siddur, but many gays are migrating to ‘straight’ synagogues


By Jeremy Gillick, New York, June 11, 2009
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The leading gay congregation in New York has published a formal edition of its siddur, which is sensitive to the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews.

B’chol L’vavcha (With your whole heart), published by Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, or CBST, includes prayers for coming out and for celebrating transgender experience; an Aids section; and an extensive “pride” section, including a specially formulated Al Hanisim prayer.

Its publication marks a unique juncture for America’s gay and transgender Jewish community. On the one hand, CBST’s siddur, one of several prayer books published recently by major LGBT synagogues, symbolises the weighty accomplishments of their community.
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College, has said that the siddur offers “a message of tolerance, inclusion and inspiration… for all Jews”.

At the same time, a slew of recent reports have suggested that many members of such synagogues are, in fact, straight, and that many members of that community now feel comfortable davening in mainstream synagogues. Ironically, B’chol L’vavcha is being published at the very moment when the need for these synagogues seems to be diminishing.

According to Peter Kessler, the openly gay rabbi of Temple Ohev Sholom, a Reform synagogue in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, mainstream synagogues are vastly more hospitable to gays than they were in the 1970s, when he helped launch Congregation Ohr Chadash, an early synagogue, in Chicago.
For example, he says, the Reform movement’s new siddur, Mishkan T’filah, “is not only degenderised, but is void of gender stereotypes”.
The phrase “Rejoice with bride and groom,” for instance, has been replaced by “providing for the wedding couple”.

Caryn Aviv, the director of research at Jewish Mosaic: The National Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity, says that other denominations have become more welcoming too.

“Just because they’re gay doesn’t mean they’re Reform. So, the Conservative movement and other denominations have much to gain by becoming more inclusive.”

Still, the identity-based congregations have persisted.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of CBST says that the situation is complicated. “We think gender is important,” she says. “We don’t de-genderise.”

Moreover, her congregation is “more traditional” than Reform synagogues, but many of her congregants do not feel comfortable in Conservative or Orthodox shuls. And LGBT synagogues are singularly positioned to offer specialised services to their audience.

“Rarely will there be a critical mass of gays in mainstream synagogues to provide the kind of social connection that makes for culture,” she says.

“And there is such a thing as gay culture. Asking why there should be a gay

    Last updated: 12:51pm, June 11 2009