Why this LGBT synagogue is moving beyond its 40-year mission – Jweekly.com

Posted By on August 24, 2017

At Congregation Shaar Zahav in San Francisco, Rabbi Mychal Copeland leads Shabbat services with a rainbow tallit around her shoulders. The synagogue newsletter is called The Jewish Gaily Forward.

But the shul that has been known since its 1977 founding as San Franciscos gay synagogue is now reaching out to a broader community and de-emphasizing its identity as an LGBT-specific congregation.

That reflects the Reform congregations changing demographics as well as the evolution in attitudes toward LGBT people in the greater Jewish community, in which other local shuls now also welcome homosexual, bisexual and transgender congregants and clergy.

This year were marking 40 years, and thats a significant number in Judaism, said Michael Chertok, Shaar Zahavs president and a member since 1993. Its hard to say weve come into the Promised Land, but were really in a new place as far as LGBT rights in this country.

Shaar Zahav while retaining its queer values core is focusing on how to serve a congregation that is increasingly of mixed gender, including residents of the Castro who are not gay.

Arthur Slepian, who joined Shaar Zahav in 1989 and served as its president from 2003 to 2006, said hes proud of the synagogues leading role in the move to greater inclusiveness in the Jewish community and happy it can now broaden its appeal.

I think that there are always going to be people that feel a bit marginalized or not completely at home at other places, and I think Shaar Zahav is striving to always be the home for that part of the community, said Slepian, founder of A Wider Bridge, a S.F.-based nonprofit that supports Israels LGBT community. And I think its a great thing for the Jewish world that people who are not LGBT will walk through the doors of Shaar Zahav and celebrate its history.

The changes dont mean Shaar Zahav is ready to toss out its rainbow flags or stop participating in Pride week events. Occasions such as the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance will continue to be a congregational focus.

The stained glass on one side of Shaar Zahavs ark has the Hebrew inscription: Hinei mah tov umanayim, shevet achim gam yachad (How good and pleasant it is to sit together as brothers). On the other side of the ark, the inscription is the same except the word achot (sisters) replaces achim (brothers).

So much has changed in 40 years, especially in the Bay Area with regards to inclusion of LGBT people, said Copeland, whose tenure as Shaar Zehavs spiritual leader began July 1. At the same time, I see this as not necessarily a break in any way in what this community has been doing for so many years.

I want to be sitting with and praying with and learning with anyone who wishes to be in a Jewish space exploring life together.

Founded four decades ago as a home for gay and lesbian Jews, the synagogue was a leader in the 1980s in caring for those with AIDS and in recent years has openly welcomed people who are transgender.

Leaders of the 250-family congregation decided in 2012 to begin a strategic planning process to guide it forward in a Bay Area that had become younger, less religious and more diverse using surveys, town halls, discussion groups and brainstorming sessions.

In 2015, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund awarded Shaar Zahav a grant to further explore its evolving identity and the synagogue hired interim Rabbi Ted Riter, who specializes in transforming synagogues, to lead it through the process.

When we look back at our history, we recognize that our synagogue has committed to a multigenerational exploration of what it means to be queer, reads a case study of the changes. The Shaar Zahav that is emerging is nourished by our LGBT-specific roots, while also recognizing that what unifies us runs so much deeper than sexual orientation and gender identity.

Both Chertok and Copeland say queer values emphasize a refusal to conform and a questioning of authority, even while honoring tradition. Those values include support for refugees and reaching out to interfaith families.

Its hard to say weve come into the Promised Land, but were really in a new place as far as LGBT rights in this country.

Queer values overlap with some deep-seated Jewish values such as otherness, always looking out for whos not being treated well, whos being oppressed, Copeland said. Those values were imbedded in the founding of Shaar Zahav as a place where gay and lesbian Jews could come and pray at a time when that was very difficult.

The changes at Shaar Zahav epitomize an evolution taking place around the country.

For example, high-profile Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City now identifies itself as an LGBTQS shul with the S standing for straight that serves Jews of all genders and sexual identifications, according to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. The synagogue was founded in 1973 as a home and haven for LGBTQ Jews, according to its website.

But Kleinbaum, who has served Beit Simchat Torah since 1992, said focusing on self-identification misses the point: Shaar Zahav doesnt have to worry about gay Jews flocking to other San Francisco shuls, she said. The big problem is that most LGBT Jews avoid synagogue altogether. So in struggling to create a spiritual home that is meaningful and appealing, Shaar Zahav is in the same boat as any other synagogue.

Our competition is not other synagogues that are opening to LGBT folks, Kleinbaum said, our real competition is the fact that most LGBT folks dont care about synagogues. So the issue is how were going to make ourselves relevant for the 90 to 95 percent of LGBT Jews who dont go to a synagogue.

Though there have been changes at Shaar Zahav such as the fact that all three new board members installed this July do not identify as LGBT that doesnt diminish the role the synagogue played in helping lead an evolution within the Jewish community.

Shaar Zahav was born out of a sense of necessity that there wasnt any other place LGBT people could go and feel included, Slepian said. But out of that necessity, something holy was created. Shaar Zahav and many other gay shuls really elevated the Jewish world by setting an example of what it meant to be inclusive.

I think [de-emphasizing its identity as an LGBT-specific congregation] is just whats needed today, and I think it is a sign of progress that there are many places that LGBT people can go in the Jewish world and feel welcomed and celebrated, he continued. I dont know many LGBT people in their 20s and 30s who feel compelled to be part of an all-LGBT community. We live in a very different world.

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Why this LGBT synagogue is moving beyond its 40-year mission – Jweekly.com

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