David Green always loved the Jewish religion, but he stopped going to his synagogue a few years ago when he could no longer bear what he calls the "'have I got a nice girl for you' atmosphere."
"How do you tell a rabbi or a well-intentioned mother that you're gay?" he asked.
But now, the Library of Congress employe attends the weekly services of the Bet Mishpachah synagogue, which meets in a D.C. Methodist church.
Bet Mishpachah is a synagogue for homosexuals.
The synagogue, whose name means "House of the Family," is one of nine like it in major American cities.
It got its start four years ago when a small group of Jewish homosexuals, unhappy with their synagogues' emphasis on the family, began meeting in each other's homes to worship together.
Now, with a paid membership of 80 -- including many lawyers, doctors and other professionals -- the congregation meets in the basement or sanctuary of Christ Church, a United Methodist church at 900 Fourth St. SW.
At the start of the Sabbath on Friday evenings, members arrive for services more than 30 minutes early, to meet with their friends and pick up literature on gay causes.
Once the service begins, they recite the traditional prayers in Hebrew and in English, but change words like "king" to "ruler" and "fathers" to "parents."
"I'm gay, but I'm a Jew first," said one woman, when asked why she attends Bet Mishpachah. "All I want is to be able to worship where I don't have to hide my true feelings."
"I'm tired of wondering who knows and who doesn't know," added a male member. "I have to put up a front all day in work.I'm not going to do it when I'm worshiping, too."
Instead of a rabbi, a member of the congregation leads the services, a practice that is acceptable under Jewish tradition. He calls on members of the congregation by name to read passages throughout the service and when there is no guest speaker, he delivers a sermon -- usually based more heavily on his own personal experiences than on the Bible.
After announcements about synagogue finances and future activities, members wish each other a happy Sabbath and the service is over. But no one leaves. Instead, members linger for hours, talking and laughing over coffee and cookies.
Gay Jews have a more difficult time practicing their religion than gay Christians do, says Allen Bennett, who says he is one of about 40 gay rabbis in the country -- although the only public one.Bennett, who heads a synagogue for gays in San Francisco, visited Bet Mishpachah recently as part of an East Coast trip to promote better communication among gay synagogues and between those synagogues and the Jewish hierarchy.
"Christians put the church first and the family second. Jews put the family first, and since Americans don't see homosexuality as family-oriented, we're out in left field," he said.
Rabbi Seymour Siegel, chairman of the committee of Jewish law at the Rabbinical Assembly, the governing body of Conservative Judaism -- the largest in this country -- said that although homosexuals are not barred from joining synagogues, the assembly opposes organizing synagogues in which members have "unacceptable" behavior. "We consider homosexuality unacceptable behavior," he said.
Orthodox Judaism also disapproves of separate congregations for homosexuals. But the Reform movement approved the affiliation of a gay synagogue in Los Angeles six years ago and a Reform official said others would also be approved if they applied.
Bet Mishpachah's current president said that the synagogue enjoys a "pretty supportive" relationship with other local synagogues and rabbis, but so far, its members have not pushed to affiliate with a national Jewish movement.
Several women members said they were attracted to the Bet Mishpachah, because, as women, they feel alienated by traditional synagogues.
"Women are second-class citizens in Judaism," said Jocelyn Kaplan, an insurance saleswoman from Silver Spring. "They don't come to services and they're not accustomed to playing a role in the religion."
Another woman, who is the president of Washington's Gay Community Center, said there are many more women than men who "don't feel Jewish" because they [women] are not a big part of the religion.
But, they said, they're attracted to Bet Mishpachah because its women members participate equally with men.
The synagogue regularly features guest speakers -- Bennett one week, the parent of a former Bet Mishpachah member another week.
In his speech, Bennett told Bet Mishpachah members that for years, many Bible stories have been misinterpreted as having anti-homosexual themes. For instance, he said, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is usually told in terms of God setting fire to those cities because of the residents' orgiastic behavior -- the word "sodomy" is derived from the passage. Bennett, however, contended that the story really is about the Bedouin code of hospitality.
He also kept the congregation laughing with tales of life as a homosexual rabbi.
"In New York," he said, "they thought I was an anti-Semite, posing as a homosexual and a rabbi. In Philadelphia, they had the largest turnout ever at the synagogue to see the freak show -- the traveling gay rabbi."
Bennett said he was disappointed that many of the gay Jews in Washington prefer to keep "straight fronts." But he said he realized that Washington is not San Francisco, which for gays, he said, is "a suburb of Heaven."