First Gay and Lesbian Synagogue in the United States Is Formed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Six Jewish churchgoers, who felt disconnected with the established Jewish community because of their sexuality, formed Beth Chayim Chadashim, a GLBT synagogue in Los Angeles, the first in the United States and the first GLBT synagogue to become a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Also, the synagogue was the first religious congregation to write a gender-neutral prayer book, which eventually served as a model for Reform Judaism.

Summary of Event

Judaism is a dispersed religion that includes three branches—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. The Reform movement of Judaism is the most receptive and is committed to gender issues and inclusive language. In the early 1970’s, a fear of and hostility toward gays and lesbians in society in general was not uncommon, and organized religion was certainly no safe haven. In fact, many people felt unable to practice their Judaism in a synagogue for fear of being outed as gay or lesbian to family or employers. [kw]First Gay and Lesbian Synagogue in the United States Is Formed (Mar., 1972-Mar., 1973) [kw]Gay and Lesbian Synagogue in the United States Is Formed, First (Mar., 1972-Mar., 1973) [kw]Lesbian Synagogue in the United States Is Formed, First Gay and (Mar., 1972-Mar., 1973) [kw]Synagogue in the United States Is Formed, First Gay and Lesbian (Mar., 1972-Mar., 1973) [kw]United States Is Formed, First Gay and Lesbian Synagogue in the (Mar., 1972-Mar., 1973) Religion;Judaism Judaism, and gays and lesbians Synagogues, first GLBT [c]Religion;Mar., 1972-Mar., 1973: First Gay and Lesbian Synagogue in the United States Is Formed[0880] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar., 1972-Mar., 1973: First Gay and Lesbian Synagogue in the United States Is Formed[0880] Marder, Janet

There were no organized Jewish places of worship in the early 1970’s that provided outreach to the GLBT community. This would change, however, as six individuals who were Jewish investigated their common bonds at a meeting at the Metropolitan Community Church Metropolitan Community Church;and first GLBT synagogue[GLBT synagogue] (MCC) in Los Angeles. (MCC is a nationwide church whose stated mission, since 1968, has been to provide outreach to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgender persons specifically.) Ultimately, the six wanted to bring together and balance their Jewish religion and their sexuality. They began to worship together at MCC, forming a group called the Metropolitan Community Temple. Later, they met in other venues, including group-member’s homes, a dance studio, and, after a fire at MCC, the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.

Encouraged by Reverend Troy Perry, minister of MCC, the Jewish group discussed organizing a synagogue. They had a difficult time attracting a rabbi to their new synagogue, however, so the worshipers led their own Sabbath services. Rabbinical interns from Hebrew Union College would later come to lead the group.

In 1973, in order to distinguish itself from MCC, the Metropolitan Community Temple took the name Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), which means “house of new life” in Hebrew. The name is symbolic of the giving of new life to GLBT Jews, who had no religious home to call their own. BCC wrote religion’s first gender-neutral prayer book, which eventually served as a model for all of Reform Judaism.

In 1974, the synagogue became the first GLBT synagogue to become a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and first LGBT synagogue (UAHC), which is the umbrella organization of the Reform movement. Rabbi Erwin Herman, Herman, Erwin then director of the Pacific Southwest Council of UAHC, encouraged the synagogue to pursue membership in the organization.

In 1977, the synagogue purchased a permanent building; it then hired its first rabbi, Janet Marder, in 1983. Their first full-time rabbi was Denise Eger Eger, Denise (hired in 1989), and Lisa Edwards Edwards, Lisa served as a rabbinic intern in 1991. From 1992 to 1994, Marc Blumenthal Blumenthal, Marc served as the rabbi. Edwards, after her ordination, joined BCC as the rabbi in 1994, and she has remained in that position for more than twelve years.

Significance

At its inception, the idea of a GLBT synagogue was innovative, radical, hotly debated, and unsupported by most Reform Judaism leaders. Since the formation of Beth Chayim Chadashim, approximately thirty other GLBT synagogues have formed in the United States. BCC was soon followed by Congregation Beth Simhat Torah Beth Simhat Torah (New York) in New York City, Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco)[Shaar Zahav] Beth Ahava Beth Ahava (Philadelphia) in Philadelphia, and Beth Mishpaha Beth Mishpaha (Washington, D.C.) in Washington, D.C.

As mainstream synagogue membership becomes more blended, gay and lesbian synagogues may fall out of favor. Synagogues with a predominantly GLBT membership have straight, gay, or lesbian rabbis, just as synagogues with a mostly traditional membership have gay or lesbian rabbis. Clearly, the gay or lesbian rabbi in a GLBT synagogue does not have the same burden as a gay or lesbian rabbi in a traditional synagogue of convincing his or her congregation that he or she comes as a spiritual leader with no other agenda.

As society continues to accept lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender persons, the lines of distinction between who is homosexual or bisexual or who is heterosexual begin to blur. Furthermore, it is the presence of an educational component, and not the rabbi’s sexual orientation, at a given synagogue that often determines its attractiveness to, especially, parents of school-age children. Parents, GLBT or not, with children tend to be drawn to synagogues with a Hebrew school.

In 1980, the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews: Keshet Ga’avah Keshet Ga’avah, World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews[Keshet Gaavah] World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews: Keshet Ga’avah (rainbow of pride) was formed and currently boasts sixty-five member organizations worldwide. The congress conducts conferences and workshops around the world on issues relative to GLBT Jews.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have been at the forefront of change and inclusiveness within Judaism. Conservative synagogues vary in their level of acceptance. As of the early years of the twenty-first century, no Conservative GLBT synagogues existed. Though there are gay and lesbian Conservative rabbis, they are not ordained if they are known to be gay or lesbian. The Orthodox movement does not train women as rabbis, and, currently, it does not allow out gays in leadership roles.

The impact of the formation of BCC is simultaneously monumental and incremental. It was a monumental event in that BCC was the first to consider breaking from the accepted constraints of Judaism, as it had been known. Forming the first GLBT synagogue did not come without resistance from established Jewish leaders, yet BCC garnered support in places it had not fathomed. Membership into the UAHC, specifically, marked a huge step that paved the way for the formation of other GLBT synagogues. BCC’s formation is an incremental event in that gay and lesbian rabbis still need to consider if they will be out as gay or lesbian and if “straight” congregations will accept them. Religion;Judaism Judaism, and gays and lesbians Synagogues, first GLBT

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alpert, Rebecca T., Sue Levi Elwell, and Shirley Idelson, eds. Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
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    xlink:type="simple">Balka, Christie, and Andy Rose, eds. Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
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    xlink:type="simple">Jewish and Queer Youth Web site. http://www .jqyouth.org/.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lamm, Norman. “Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality.” In Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook. Jerusalem: Encyclopedia Judaica, 1974.
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    xlink:type="simple">Raphael, Lev. Journeys and Arrivals: On Being Gay and Jewish. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shneer, David, and Caryn Aviv, eds. Queer Jews. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

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    Trembling Before G-d. Documentary video recording. Directed by Sandi Simcha Dubowski. New York: New Yorker Video, 2001.

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October 9-12, 1998: First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held

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November 29, 2005: Roman Catholic Church Bans Gay Seminarians

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