For a D.C. LGBT Synagogue, Gay Rights Success Brings New Challenges

An LGBT synagogue in Northwest Washington, D.C., sees “graying” membership as traditional congregations become more LGBT welcoming.

By Idit Knaan

In 1973, then 22-year-old Sarajane Garten was invited to Beth El Hebrew Congregation, a reform synagogue in Alexandria, Va., to speak about being a Jew – a gay Jew.

Today Garten, 60, is president of the 215-member synagogue Bet Mishpachah, which means “house of family” in Hebrew. Bet Mishpachah, an egalitarian congregation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, was founded in 1975.

Back then, Garten said, the idea of being openly gay was still new. Talking about it at a synagogue’s Friday night service was “revolutionary,” she said.

But these days, an increasing number of D.C.-area Jewish congregations welcome LGBT members. Once the only option in town for openly gay Jews, Bet Mishpachah now struggles to attract young members.

On a recent Friday night, Shabbat Services at Bet Mishpachah were dedicated to Transgender Remembrance Day. Photo by Idit Knaan.

On a recent Friday night, Shabbat service at Bet Mishpachah was dedicated to Transgender Remembrance Day. Stories and photos of transgender individuals murdered in 2011 were placed on the back of each chair. Photo by Idit Knaan. (Click on image for larger view.)


Progress brings new challenges

Allan Armus, 67, is Bet Mishpachah’s treasurer and a member since 1983. While Bet Mishpachah doesn’t keep track of its members’ ages, Armus said the congregation is aging, with most of its members over 40.

Jews in their 20s and 30s have an easier time being openly gay these days, Armus said, so they don’t necessarily feel like they have to belong to an LGBT-specific congregation.

Armus said that the more open attitudes in area congregations are, at least in part, thanks to Bet Mishpachah’s own outreach efforts over the years.

New York City native Alex Carter, 51, said that when she joined Bet Mishpachah in the early ‘90s, options for gay Jews seeking a religious congregation seemed limited.

“There was much more of a sense of not having anywhere else to go,” Carter said, which fostered a stronger sense of community for the congregants. Today, she said, Bet Mishpachah is a “graying” congregation.

Bet Mishpachah's two Torah scrolls. On left, a holocaust-rescued scroll. On right, a scroll written in 1917 in Tzarist Russia. Photo by Idit Knaan.

Bet Mishpachah's two Torah scrolls. The scroll on left is a holocaust-rescued scroll that belonged to the 500-year-old Jewish community of Dolni Kounice in Czechoslovakia, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. The scroll on right was written in 1917 in Tzarist Russia. Photo by Idit Knaan. (Click on image for larger view.)

The doors of Bet Mishpachah's Torah ark show a Star of David with a lambda in the middle. Photo by Idit Knaan.

The doors of Bet Mishpachah's Torah ark were carved into a Star of David with a lambda in the middle. The scrolls are wrapped in mantles featuring a rainbow motif with a quote from Genesis 9:13, "When I see the rainbow, I will remember My covenant." Photo by Idit Knaan. (Click on image for larger view.)

Halley Cohen, 32, is the director of GLOE, an LGBT outreach and engagement program at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

While “not everyone is along for the ride,” Cohen said in an email, the number of groups contacting GLOE for guidance on how to become more LGBT welcoming is on the rise.

With mainstream congregations competing for the attention of young LGBT Jews, Carter said Bet Mishpachah can no longer assume gay Jews would join just because this is the only gay synagogue in town.

“We spent a long time saying: we’re gay but we can be just as Jewish as you are,” Carter said, “so the challenge used to be fit in — now the challenge is to differentiate.”

‘Beyond a non-issue’

One mainstream congregation that actively welcomes LGBT members in recent years is the decade-old egalitarian congregation DC Minyan, which means “prayer group” in Hebrew.

DC Minyan’s website includes specific language to welcome LGBT members, and the congregation has appointed an “LGBTQ Liaison.”

Rivka Friedman, 28, a DC Minyan steering committee member, joined the congregation in 2008.

Friedman, who identifies as gay, said the LGBT-inclusive language was added recently, after some suggested LGBT Jews may not feel “intuitively welcomed.”

Bet Mishpachah seems geared toward a different generation, Friedman said. At DC Minyan, she said, sexual orientation is “beyond a non-issue.”

Out of place

In the last decade, Chad Appel, 30, says he visited almost every synagogue in town in hopes of finding the right fit.

At a recent young professionals’ event hosted by a mainstream synagogue, Appel said he couldn’t help but feel out of place. The point of the event, he said, was clearly “for Jewish girls and Jewish boys to meet and make more Jewish babies.”

During the recent High Holidays, Appel attended Bet Mishpachah’s services for the first time. He said he felt welcomed, not like “an outsider.”

A different era

Joel Wind, 67, a Bet Mishpachah member since 1980, is the congregation archivist. Bet Mishpachah is also where Wind met Al Munzer, 70, his partner of 31 years.

Thinking of the earlier days, Wind said he and other longtime members lived in a different, closeted world.

Joel Wind, 67, has been a Bet Mishpachah member since 1980. Wind met Al Munzer, his partner of 31 years, at Bet Mishpachah. Photo by Idit Knaan.

Joel Wind, 67, has been a Bet Mishpachah member since 1980. Wind met Al Munzer, his partner of 31 years, at Bet Mishpachah. Photo by Idit Knaan. (Click on image for larger view.)

In its 36 years, Bet Mishpachah evolved from an informal, small group of primarily gay men to a diverse, structured congregation.

In the early ’80s, some members started reaching out to the lesbian community, said Wind. With many more women joining, in 1981 the congregation changed its tagline from “The Gay Synagogue of Washington, D.C.,” to “The Gay and Lesbian Synagogue of Washington, D.C.,” Wind said.

At first, the change “didn’t go over well” with some of the members, Wind said, due to tension between some of the men and women. But, as time went by, the congregation became more integrated. In 2001, the congregation changed its tagline to include bisexual and transgender individuals.

Wind talked about the Philadelphia LGBT congregation Beth Ahavah, which means “house of love” in Hebrew. In 2007, Beth Ahava merged with a mainstream congregation. Does he see this sort of merge in Bet Mishpachah’s future? “God, I hope not!” Wind said, smiling.

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