In 1972, a small advert in Gay News attracted 190 people to a meeting to launch a UK organisation for gay Jews.
This weekend, the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group celebrates its 40th anniversary with a chavurah led by three rabbis, a party for 150 members and supporters and a Jewish East End walking tour.
Also welcoming bisexuals and transgenders, the JGLG currently has around 150 members. They hail predominantly from the London area and reflect all shades of the religious spectrum. There are regular social events and services, plus spin-off activities for parents and children of members.
JGLG publicity officer Karen Newman explains that the toddler group serves to show the youngsters “that they are not the only ones with two mummies or two daddies. My child goes to religion school every week — she’s a better attender than I was.”
Living in north London but retaining her Brighton and Hove Progressive membership, Peggy Sherwood has been the JGLG president for 12 years. She met her partner through the group and they had their civil partnership five years ago.
Ms Sherwood says that acceptance of gays and lesbians has improved within the community, citing the backing of the Reform and Liberal movements. Their support will be evidenced by the presence of leaders Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner and Rabbi Danny Rich at the anniversary party, at which a number of gay and lesbian rabbis will also be present. However, she points out that people within the Orthodox or Charedi world and young Jews contemplating coming out can still face heartrending dilemmas.
Now a regular at Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood, services, Ms Newman was a “three times a year” congregant at the United Synagogue her family belonged to and could find “no reason to attend more”.
She stresses the importance to participants of the monthly Friday night JGLG chavurah at Liberal Judaism’s Montagu Centre in central London. “For some, it is their only direct interaction with a rabbi. The one thing people are concerned about is that they will lose their Jewish identity. It’s often the reverse. They hold on to their heritage but a model that speaks to how they are living.”
Ms Newman notes with satisfaction that when discussing the Holocaust, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks routinely makes reference to the Nazi persecution of gays. She also believes that Orthodox synagogue groupings are now at least embarrassed by their stance on homosexuality. “They don’t like to manifest themselves as that intolerant.”
However, Lord Sacks last week opposed government plans to introduce gay marriage, which the JGLG noted with “regret but not surprise”.
The group is self-funded and is reliant on volunteers. Most of its members are in the 30s-to-50s age category and Ms Sherwood hopes the proceeds from the anniversary events will fund a youth-related project. She is concerned by the lack of provision for Jewish teenagers considering coming out.
Ms Sherwood has been invited to three Downing Street receptions in recent years, recognising the group’s standing in the Jewish and wider community. And a JGLG contingent will take part in the World Pride parade next weekend. Ms Newman recalls that at a previous rally “some guys in leather were in front of us. One turned around and said: ‘Great to see you. I was at JFS.’”