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A Haven for Gay Jews

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 1999; Page B1

Nearly 25 years ago, a small group of gay Jewish men in Washington decided to end their exile.

Feeling uncomfortable and unwanted in local synagogues, they began meeting once a month for Sabbath services in their living rooms. Sometimes, they had barely enough for a minyan, the 10-person minimum required by Jewish law for a service.

But like the ancient Hebrews, whose exodus from exile in Egypt is being commemorated this week at Jewish Passover seders, the tiny congregation prospered.

Today, Bet Mishpachah, or House of the Family, is a thriving congregation with more than 300 gay men and lesbians. Its High Holy Day services draw 600 to 800 worshipers, and unlike its humble, private beginnings, its weekly Sabbath services are now held at a local Jewish bastion -- the D.C. Jewish Community Center in Northwest Washington.

The area's only gay and lesbian synagogue, Bet Mishpachah provides members with religious and social fellowship and a place where they can integrate their sexual orientation with their religious heritage.

"It's offered me a wonderful place to . . . bring together my gay and Jewish identities," said Lee Walzer, of Arlington, a lawyer for the federal government. "I even met my partner there."

Sarajane Garten, of Alexandria, who became less observant as a Jew after coming out as a lesbian, said that since finding Bet Mishpachah five years ago, she has returned "to the faith of my youth."

The synagogue has been "a place in the Jewish community that I have never experienced before," said Garten, education director for a District-based medical nonprofit group. "It's given me a place to worship, an opportunity to make some very good friends and to be involved in community service. It's done what a congregation is supposed to do."

Bet Mishpachah, one of about 40 gay and lesbian Jewish congregations in the country, is led by its dues-paying congregants, whose average age is 35. They are active on a slew of committees concerned with liturgy, bereavement support, volunteer work and organizing such religious ceremonies as adult b'nai mitzvah and same-sex "commitment ceremonies," of which there are about three a year, Garten said.

The congregation also includes 23 children, including those of members who were previously married or who adopted. But since most members do not have children, Garten added, the congregation is considering ways members can support and care for one another "as we get older."

The synagogue has a monthly newsletter, Mishpachah Matters, a speakers bureau and a Web site (, which describes the synagogue as "open to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or sexual orientation." Initially all men, the congregation is now about 40 percent women.

Weekly Sabbath services, which usually draw about 100 people, are led by a man and a woman who stand before an ark sheltering the synagogue's two Torahs. One scroll was rescued from the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The congregation's prayer book was written by members and uses inclusive, gender-neutral language.

About eight years ago, the congregation hired Bob J. Saks as part-time rabbi. A Reform rabbi who is not gay, Saks also serves as associate rabbi at Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia.

Bet Mishpachah "offers a way back into Judaism for people who at an earlier time in life may have felt that the tradition was not welcoming," Saks said. Its members "are deeply dedicated . . . to a serious Jewish life for themselves."

To understand the congregation's 1975 origins, said Bet Mishpachah President Joseph M. Pomper, "you have to cast your mind back to that time period" when gays and their needs were invisible in a mainstream synagogue.

"You kept quiet, or you faced being ostracized," Pomper said. "People felt shut out of it and turned off."

After three years of meeting in homes, the congregation's 60 members elected their first board of directors and began holding services in local churches, said Jerald Goldberg, a retired federal government worker who joined in 1976 and was Bet Mishpachah's first vice president. They were using National City Christian Church at Thomas Circle two years ago when the D.C. Jewish Community Center opened its new building on 16th Street NW -- and asked the congregation if it wanted to rent space for services.

"They are good tenants and good people, and we've received no calls or letters or concerns from the broader Jewish community," said Arna Myer Mickelson, the center's executive director. "It has been a very easy process."

That would not have been true 20 years ago, Mickelson said, but now "people believe in a more diverse community."

Today, many area Jewish congregations actively reach out to gays and lesbians. And although Orthodox Judaism -- like some Christian churches and Islam -- regards homosexuality as a sin, Judaism's three other major movements have become more accepting of gay men and lesbians.

The Conservative movement declines to ordain practicing homosexuals and advises its rabbis not to officiate at commitment ceremonies. But it has not disciplined rabbis who have declared their homosexuality or presided at such ceremonies.

While not calling homosexuality a sin, same-sex marriage "is clearly problematic and not on a par with heterosexual marriage," said Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen, regional representative of the movement's Rabbinical Assembly. But gay men and lesbians, he added, "are very welcome in our synagogues and should not hesitate for a moment to come in."

The Reform movement -- to which most American Jews belong -- and the Reconstructionist movement don't consider homosexuality a sin and do not exclude gay men and lesbians from ordination. Reconstructionist rabbis preside at commitment ceremonies, and the Reform movement is discussing whether to endorse that position, even though many Reform rabbis already officiate at such ceremonies.

Overall, Bet Mishpachah members said, Jewish attitudes appear to be more tolerant of homosexuality than those of some Christian denominations.

Only last week, a United Methodist pastor in Chicago was suspended for having blessed a same-sex marriage. And Christian conservatives have made gay rights a political issue, denouncing homosexuality in newspaper ads that suggest lesbians and gay men can be healed of their "sexual sin" through therapy and spirituality.

"Nobody ever suggested expelling a rabbi because he presided at a commitment ceremony," Goldberg said. "Orthodox rabbis will tell you [homosexuality is] a sin and an abomination, but they haven't been running any ads in newspapers."

Despite such changes, Bet Mishpachah members believe congregations like theirs are still needed.

"This space makes sense and will continue to make sense as long as there is discrimination out there," said Jocelyn Kaplan, the first woman to serve on the synagogue's board and a former president of the congregation.

Some members, fearful about their jobs, still prefer that only their first names and last initial be used in the newsletter, she explained. Also, Bet Mishpachah allows members to freely express affection with their partners and to escape social pressures.

"If I went to a traditional congregation, the first thing they'd want to do is find a good Jewish man for me," Kaplan joked. "There is some comfort in not having to deal with that."

Passover observances, which began at Bet Mishpachah with a communal Seder last night, hold much meaning for members like Joyce Singer, the congregation's vice president for religious affairs.

Noting that the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzraim, also means narrow places, Singer said she and her fellow worshipers "will talk about our own mitzraim" during Passover celebrations.

"We each have one," she said. "It may be prejudice or fear or ignorance, but we each are constrained by our own mitzraim. And getting out of those narrow places is the whole idea of redemption."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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