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Expanding the Vision of “Welcome”

05/08/2018 11:38:35 AM

May8

Radical Welcome: A Process, Not a Destination

By Rabbi Joshua Lesser
I used to joke that straight people need welcoming synagogues, too! But over the years as Congregation Bet Haverim has transitioned from being a synagogue comprised of almost entirely LGBT members to an LGBT-founded synagogue serving a diverse membership with a straight majority, welcoming people is no laughing matter. In fact, it is intentional and on-going work. While most Jewish organizations describe themselves as inclusive or welcoming, the numbers of unaffiliated Jews and loved ones who say otherwise is daunting. Even many of our own members point to feelings of being excluded.  While we are far from perfect, part of the commitment to the practice of being welcoming is a commitment to seeing it as a perpetual process and not a destination.

At Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH) our evolution is firmly grounded upon our beginnings, and our commitment to inclusivity emerged organically. Haverim, a social group for gay men and lesbians, preceded CBH by two years. In 1985, Haverim held a Passover seder where during the telling of the Israelites’ journey from oppression to liberation, a parallel discussion began. Feeling like the Jewish community was a narrow place, they realized they did not need a social group, but a Jewish spiritual home — a place where they felt free to be themselves, a welcoming and open synagogue. This is an origin story ripe with symbolism, which remains a touchstone as we change and emerge, no longer a gay synagogue, but something altogether different.

From the inside out, they soon discovered the challenge present in most of our Jewish communities. Was CBH truly open and welcoming to others or just to people like themselves? In the early 1990s, leaders in the Jewish community discovered that gay Jewish men dying of AIDS were having to turn to Christian ministers to bury them. An Atlanta Jewish Community AIDS conference was organized by Federation, JF&CS and CBH. This was the mainstream Jewish community’s first substantive encounter with CBH and a funny thing happened. A few of the straight Jews participating liked the people they met from CBH, and began to attend services. One of them asked for permission for his family to join and said that they would not come silently; they would invite others to this community where they felt at home. And so, welcoming the newcomers began.

In time, CBH voted to establish the first supplementary school for children at an LGBT-founded synagogue. Having a place where children could be educated made it possible for more straight folks to consider CBH a viable option. The process was not without tension. Were straight members equal? Debates ensued about whether straight members could hold leadership positions. While there was no consensus (even among straight members), ultimately the congregation rejected the notion of second-class citizenship. All should be equal. Valuing the egalitarian standing for all members, along with an emphasis on grassroots democratic leadership, required significant accommodations and understanding. Part of what helped us deepen a sense of welcoming was to shift from language that was “us vs. them” (even in a well-meaning way) to an “us and them” which allowed a new “us” to emerge. Our narrative was that CBH was grand experiment in how a community of difference could pray, learn and grow together.

We realized that the founding LGBT-held values had universal application: inclusion, accessibility authenticity and dignity.  This helped the community take on the idea of approaching welcoming as a value to practice and not just a checklist to accomplish. We take seriously the commandment to know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers.  Beyond welcoming, we have become allies to one another as we have thrown in our lot with each other.

We are no longer an experiment but a community that honors and expands the vision and intent of our founding members. Their desire was to create a place that welcomed Jews who did not feel welcome. We continue to open our home to Jews and their loved ones who have been ignored or are invisible. Thus, we take seriously being a community that celebrates its LGBT and Jewish values by examining how we can be welcoming to interfaith families, single parents, Jews of color, multiracial families and people of all economic means. We have become a values-based community rather than an identity-based synagogue.

As we strive to create a Jewish version of a beloved community, we cannot ignore that we know the heart of the stranger. This is where our experience, though inverse, can apply to all communities, not just LGBT-founded communities.

First published 5/2018 by The  Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Mon, July 16 2018 4 Av 5778