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Walking in Our Ways: A Reflection on CBH@30 – In the Beginning

06/30/2016 11:33:41 AM


A Reflection on CBH@30 – In the Beginning by Rabbi Joshua Lesser


 When I experienced Andy Segal's "Live Documentary" about CBH's early years (May 1, 2016 event), I was inspired, humbled and grateful. I also was left with some challenging thoughts. There were some nagging questions, "Should CBH have remained an exclusively LGBT synagogue? Have we lost our way? Have straight people been selfish in making their home at CBH?" Here are some of my reflections and thoughts about these questions. You do not need to have been at the event to understand this d'var. 


If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is to keep walking. So says a well-known Zen proverb. While this proverb makes it sound easy, the real challenge is knowing when we are indeed facing in the right direction.

This week we conclude the book of Leviticus, which also contains a powerful metaphor of walking. The portion reiterates the covenant between the Israelites and God, and contains a list of blessings for honoring it and curses for breaking it. The section with the blessings begins “Im bekhukotai teleikhu,” “If you walk accordingly with my laws and follow my commandments…” The section ends with God pledging that when the Israelites follow the covenant, “b’hithalachti b’tochechem,” “I will walk amongst you, I will be your Source and you will be my people.” Poetically, this walking together happens when the covenant is upheld on both ends. The curses for not obeying the covenant are dramatic, gruesome and devastating.


It is essential to understand this in a symbolic way. To me, it is about alignment.  If we are aware of our purpose and mindfully pursue it, we often experience a grace-like flow where things unfold organically and with great connection. Of course, there will be obstacles, but when we are aligned with our purpose, we can traverse them with less anxiety. When we are purposeless or driven by whim, urges or base desires, then we may find ourselves out of alignment, sometimes with dramatic and devastating consequences.  


As leaders in our community have contemplated Bet Haverim’s next strategic plan, one significant aspect of the process that I have been involved with is updating our mission and mission statement. This work is culminating after two years. When I arrived at Andy Segal’s CBH@30 Live Documentary: In the Beginning, I was eager to discover parts of the community’s origin of which I was unaware and hear his retelling of our history. I knew that our unfolding mission would be in conversation with this new narrative of our past. This would offer a chance for our past to speak powerfully to our present and our future. What I did not expect is how much our present speaks just as powerfully to our past.


Hearing about the work of the pioneers who envisioned Congregation Bet Haverim made me incredibly proud. I was humbled by their chutzpah and courage. I felt great appreciation for this community and the people who walked with steadfast purpose to manifest Bet Haverim in the face of a world that opposed its very existence.  I was touched by their earnest desire to build a Jewish community that welcomed and celebrated the lives of gay and lesbian Jews and their loved ones. I was angered by the senseless hatred that they encountered. I was saddened by the reminder that the specter of AIDS and HIV made the warmth and safety of this community necessary.  And I felt triumphant at CBH’s success navigating important decisions like affiliating with the Reconstructionist movement and forming a Hebrew school.


With our new mission statement and strategic plan in mind, I thought that this synagogue’s history is a powerful example of what every nonprofit consultant will tell you: Mission-driven organizations excel. They make incredible achievements. Who knew that long before there was a 501c3 status, the Torah was communicating the same thing. When you are clear about your direction, taking one step after another will get you to your destination. To use the Zen proverb’s phrasing, the founders of CBH faced the right direction and, with great clarity, together with our earliest members, kept walking. And when you do that, as we learn from a great civil rights anthem, ain’t gonna let nobody turn you around.  


I felt a rush of gratitude for the blessings that had been bestowed upon the founders and in turn on us, gratitude for all that they persevered through to give Bet Haverim roots and create the vibrant community that we have become.


And then, as Andy Segal had warned me, I felt a punch in the stomach.


Before I share with you that punch in the gut, for the integrity of history and for my own personal truth, let me say I do not want anyone to think that CBH in its first 15 years was so aligned that everything came easy or perfectly. Andy alluded to moments of pain and challenge that our community weathered, but he admittedly (and understandably) chose not to focus on them. Creating a new narrative always unearths narratives; myths are broken; new information comes to light. Things that some held as important are overlooked and other things accentuated that some found unnotable – and that is just with the positive parts of our history. As unpleasant and as complicated as the painful parts of our history are to discuss, I think it can be a mistake to diminish them. It is important for us to know that we may veer off course and, as this portion warns, meet harsh consequences. Moreover, it is instructive that we survived times of great distress: there are valuable lessons to be learned. Glossing over the difficult bits also omits the important work of our leaders in those times and in the following 15 years who were able to turn the community back in the right direction.  


It was the controversial piece of our history that Andy did choose to focus on, however, that was “the punch to gut.” In the language of this d’var, I felt that CBH@30 raised the question: “Did CBH walk in the right direction or the wrong direction when it chose to boldly welcome straight members?”

Let me share with you a transcribed clip, perhaps one of the most honest and raw parts of the evening. This footage begins with Ellen Mazer, a member of one of those first straight families who joined the synagogue, being filmed for the especially for the historic event. In the mid-2000s, she was a part of the design team that was planning for the community. In this recent interview, she read responses from a survey sent to the congregation.


Voiced by Ellen: These are quotes that were gathered. One gay member said: “Intermingling of gay and straight people is great right now. But what about the future? CBH can start out gay but be overrun by straight.”


But contrast that with another gay member: “It felt good when straight families started coming in. I was struck with how wonderful it was to have children there to pass this congregation on to.” One straight person said: “I’m unsure if I’m a guest or at home.” And some gay members were pretty okay with that tension. One of them said: “Gays and lesbians bend over backwards to help straights feel comfortable. It would be okay for straights to feel discomfort. We feel it on an everyday basis.”

Some gay members even went on to question the motives of straight people coming in to join the congregation. One of them said: “I want straights to have a commitment to CBH because it is gay and lesbian, not because it is Intown and has cheap dues.” And yet there was this outpouring. One of them [straight members] said: “I’m proud to tell people I belong to a predominantly gay and lesbian congregation.” And another one said: “Prior to CBH I didn’t feel part of the Jewish community.”


And I’ll end with two quotes. One lesbian members said: “With the increase in heterosexual families, I feel isolated and unwelcome. I stand on the outskirts Friday night to Friday night.” And this final one really hit me [Ellen] hard: “To say there is no difference between gays, lesbians, and straights is to erase my life.”


Andy Segal in a voice-over asks Ellen on camera: “When you look back at these quotes, do you think you were being selfish about intruding at this synagogue?” She answers:


Yes. I actually do think there was an element of selfishness. We were a family that was looking for a Jewish home; we couldn’t find it anywhere else. And we really felt that this was the congregation for us. And we also felt – maybe selfishly – we could make this work. After all, we were the “good” straights, not the “bad” straights that so many gay people had been burned and rejected by in the past. So, yes, there was an element of being self-serving about it, but I think it worked out okay.


Did it work out okay? I thought I even detected a tinge of doubt in Ellen’s voice, but that may have been my reading. Hearing some of these members’ feedback felt like an important witness of tension and pain. It was indeed like a punch – and it was followed by an uppercut when I began to think about my personal role and responsibility for this change. Throughout the second of half of the evening, this question was raised again and again. Some even suggested that the queerest thing about CBH was its rabbi. What would happen to CBH if the rabbi were to leave?


The nostalgia of the first part of the presentation felt bolstered by the repeated suggestion that in welcoming straight folks we might have lost a certain sense of who we were and might have been. For me, the evening ended with a knot in my stomach. And it did not subside as I left.  

Then it dawned on me Andy had created a brilliant Sliding Doors moment we could use to reflect. For those unfamiliar with the movie, Sliding Doors is a 1998 British-American dramedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The film alternates between two parallel realities, based on the two paths the character Helen’s life might have taken, depending on whether or not she caught a train. Each path had significant consequences.


It is seductive to reminisce on what might have been, a history that never happened. When raised in a communal forum, the alternate reality is hard to rebut.  At first, I was enticed by a vision of what a gay and lesbian spiritual utopian community this could have been. I imagined the pioneering spirit and unfettered commitment that would have seen CBH blossoming even further. A place where Jewish gay and lesbian folks would find their partners, with an abundance of ripe, smart successful women and men to choose from. Where brunches and Shabbat dinners would be punctuated with witty repartee and political insights, and where books like Torah Queeries and Queering the Text would be discussed and debated with gusto. It was a delightful mental trip to take – but my reverie was burst when a bit of reality intruded.  


My friend and colleague Rabbi Cindy Enger emailed me to share that her congregation Or Chadash, a gay and lesbian synagogue in Chicago that was founded  in 1976, a decade before us, was celebrating its last service in a few weeks, ironically with a Pride Seder. This congregation, set in the city with the nation’s third-largest Jewish population, was folding into a large Reform Congregation as a havurah. Remaining nearly exclusively gay and lesbian, it had not been able to sustain itself, even in this very Jewish and very gay city. The same thing happened in Philadelphia years ago – and in Dallas and in many other cities around the country. Gay and lesbian synagogues have declined over the last decade, either getting absorbed into larger Reform congregations or disbanding altogether. Those that remain in all but the largest cities are struggling to survive, like Aytz Chaim in Fort Lauderdale. I am unaware of any other LGBT-founded synagogue outside of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco that has the quantity or diversity of services, resources or programming that we offer. In contrast, and on our own terms, we are flourishing. But have we been walking in the right direction?  


Of course, when I begin to look at the most recent 15 years, I wonder. Of course, I am invested in saying yes we have. Being one of the first LGBT congregations to start a Hebrew school was the primary factor that enabled a robust and like-minded straight community to truly find a home for their children and a progressive approach to Judaism for themselves. Out of all of the other congregations in the United States, LGBT Jewish leaders have likened Shaar Zahav to us because we both founded Hebrew schools years before most other LGBT-founded synagogues. And yet, the percentage of straight folks there has been significantly less. Five years ago, a leader in their congregation shared that they were approximately 80 percent LGBT and 20 percent straight. This is more like what our numbers were when I first became the rabbi at CBH in 1999. Recently, some of their leaders scheduled a conference call with me to discuss the future of their congregation, which was wrestling with the need to welcome more straight folks for their survival and vitality. This is also slowly happening even in the largest congregations in New York and LA.  So isn’t more than possible, likely even, that the Sliding Door alternative of CBH choosing to be closed might not have turned out well – that tonight we might be meeting as a social group at the Temple instead of holding services in our own building?


I believe that over a decade ago, by extending the founding queer value of inclusivity to more than just the LGBT community, we at CBH shifted our mission. In doing so, we echoed what happened in feminism. Some say that the first wave of feminism was largely focused on gender equality and was specific to women. One characteristic of the second wave of feminism is that it began to take values that had been applied exclusively to women’s lives and expanded them to apply universally to all people. One way to understand our journey is that CBH was created in the first wave of an LGBT-centered movement, and boldly, before any other congregation in the U.S. (or maybe even the world?), launched a second wave of a Jewish LGBT movement. In the Forward around 2007, one gay historian referred to us a post-gay synagogue. I used to explain that I believed “post-gay” meant that we took the queer values of our founding and recognized that inclusivity, authenticity, inner-truth, combatting shame, and spiritual liberation were valuable for all people. Could this be the reason why, when we surveyed members in 2015 about the mission of our synagogue, we affirmed that our mission needed to remain LGBTQ- and ally-oriented. We did so with such a majority that the sentiment had to be coming from both straight and LGBT members!


At the end of June, if all goes as planned, some of our LGBTQ teens will be helping plan and lead our Pride Seder. Doesn’t that speak about a transformative community? Amazing, no? Don’t you want to be there to support them? Even having welcomed all people, are we really in that much danger of losing our mission? A congregation that continues to support SOJOURN, the nonprofit that its rabbi started to educate the entire Jewish community on becoming welcoming and celebratory of its LGBT members, is walking in the right direction. The right direction has just changed. We shifted the way we were facing to remain relevant and to reflect where the LGBTQ movement is walking today. To me, that is called survival and vitality. For that I am grateful and feel so much love for the straight members who have been staunch allies and proud flagbearers of CBH. For me, I choose the sliding door that opened to welcome all of you.


That said, the knot in my stomach has not completely released. It is true that too much of the responsibility for carrying out our mission continues to rest on too few people’s shoulders. It was reinvigorating to hear of the founders’ excitement at the start of CBH’s history; however, just as many of early members remain on the outskirts as remain in leadership. There are areas where we could be doing better in our commitment to serving the LGBT community, within the synagogue and outside of it. The hopes that I heard expressed at CBH@30 do not have to be dashed by the presence of straight members: let’s enlist them. And yet, we LGBT folk cannot expect our allies to do all our work for us. We must create and support the kinds of program and activities that we hope to see.


What is rightfully confronting is that in 2016, 30 years after our founding, we must face again the questions: What is our mission? What is our purpose? In what direction do we want to walk? How will we uniquely make our mark on the world next? We made our mark when we were founded and again when we welcomed straight folks. What does the next 30 years hold? It is time for us to look at our strategic plan, our new mission, and give our feedback and find what we can carry forward.


Our Torah portion offers one more word of guidance. The section of blessings does not end with just the reciprocity of God walking with the Israelites. It reminds us of our liberation: “I am Adonai your God who took you out from the Land of Egypt, from being their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright” – “va’olech etchem komemiyut.” Jewish teacher Lisa Exler shares a midrash that explains that the word komemiyut, upright – which appears only this once in Torah – means “with a straight spine and unafraid of any creature” (Sifra Bechukotai 1:7). This week’s portion underscores that even though the future might be uncertain, if we remember the gifts of the past, we can face the future no longer oppressed or living in fear, as people who can be steadfast and walk proudly, free to choose our own paths. We have walked proudly before, and with a renewed sense of purpose and direction we can be fearless in walking this next part of our journey.

Thu, December 3 2020 17 Kislev 5781