Why Straight People Go to Gay Synagogues: Holy Chutzpah

I came across an article in HaAretz that spoke to me on so many levels.

The title reached out and grabbed me first, Why Straight People Go to Gay Synagogues, and it went into the communal life of majority GBLT congregations like Beth Simchat Torah in New York City and Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.

These are communities that started as sanctuaries for GLBT Jews who were forced out or, shall we say, smoked out of traditional congregations. Years later, they are thriving, vibrant, growing communities — bringing in families of all different sorts — in a time when when congregations elsewhere are preoccupied with dwindling membership and involvement

The GLBT congregations became what they are by putting inclusion front and center. And not just in words but in action — gutsy, public risk-taking that could be seen, heard, and felt.

The fact is, everyone likes to feel included, not just minorities. Especially outside New York, less-affiliated Jews have felt excluded for many, many reasons – not knowing Hebrew, not feeling religious enough – and what they find at most gay synagogues is a community that welcomes them warmly and effectively, with fewer judgments, raised eyebrows or grumbles about political correctness.

A second reason that gay synagogues are attracting so many straight members is that they are voluntary communities. Their members are people who have every reason to leave the Jewish world and never come back. They – we – have been scorned, vilified, marginalized, reduced to sexual beings, and analogized to perverts and deviants and worse. And that’s just by our rabbis.

Even today, there are foundations and federations to which my GLBT not-for-profit organization is discreetly advised not to apply (rather like Jews were advised not to apply to certain country clubs). Yet despite all this, you can walk into a gay synagogue and find dozens, or hundreds, of people filling the pews and singing at the top of their lungs.

What struck me is how well this describes the community Brian and I were fortunate enough to find and recently to join, Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis.

CRC didn’t set out to be a majority-GLBT community but has gone to extraordinary lengths over its twenty-five years to reach out to GLBT Jews, Jews-by-choice both actual and potential, and families of all stripes.

All this started long before broader society was anywhere near the level comfort with out GLBT people you find today. I’m told the brave people who made CRC a sanctuary, Rabbi Susan Talve among them, faced death threats — along with more than a little antipathy from other Jewish congregations, some of which are now working hard to become known as more GLBT-inclusive.

Finding such a spiritual home has been an enormous blessing for us. Like a long-held breath, finally exhaled.

But the community also goes and has gone much further along the same road, reaching out to forge relationship with historically African-American churches, Hebrew Israelite congregations, and, in a move that resulted in many ruffled feathers, hosted the ordination of a group of female Roman Catholic priests in 2007.

This is holy chutzpah, as Rabbi Susan calls it. Walking the walk. Not letting the risk of ruffled feathers — or worse — stand in the way of widening the circle of grace, of gutsy, all-embracing acceptance.

And as it happens, that’s just where we ended up in the Torah portion that came to a close last week. Here’s the singalong version courtesy of G-dcast.com

And here’s the hook, what Rabbi Susan describes as Moses’s “best moment.”

The spirit of YHWH, the mysterious Hebrew name for God, has descended on a gathering of seventy elders and given them the gift of divine prophesy. They lose it eventually, but two elders, Eldad and Meldad, hold on to it and start spreading prophesy — presumably in a messy, ritually unorganized fashion, in the midst of simple tent-dwellers.

27. The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

28. Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!”

29. Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”

Torah study drives me crazy sometimes. So much of it is just plain alien, even repellent at times.

And then there are moments like this in the middle of Numbers — with all its endless census taking, bizarre ritual detail, and divine homicide — a moment of deep humanity, a message of inclusion, a light that shines laser-sharp into the present…


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