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Mon Jun 28, 2021, 03:19 PM

LGBT synagogues confront a changing landscape

The first known LGBTQ synagogue was formed 51 years ago, when the House of David and Jonathan held services in the upstairs of a Brooklyn church during the fall of 1970. At the time, Rabbi Herbert Katz told the newspaper GAY that most of his fellow clergy denied that there were any gay Jews. And with little support from New York City’s organized Jewish community, the experiment lasted less than two months.

But the demand for religious spaces where gay, lesbian and other queer Jews could gather didn’t disappear. Two years later, Beth Chayim Chadashim was founded in Los Angeles with more robust support — including an assist from the Reform movement — and became the first sustained “gay synagogue.” By the mid-1980s there were at least two dozen synagogues serving LGBTQ Jews not only in meccas like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles but in cities like Denver, Cleveland and Houston.

Today, many of those institutions have disappeared altogether and those that remain have spent recent years grappling with how to define themselves now that most non-Orthodox synagogues across the country openly welcome LGBTQ members and straight Jews are increasingly interested in historically queer congregations.

“The best problem for an LGBT-founded synagogue is that too many straight people want to join that it prompts a conversation like, ‘Are we still queer?,” said Rabbi Caryn Aviv, who co-edited an anthology about queer Jews 19 years ago, at a time when she said some community leaders insisted “there are no gays here and they’re not welcome,” and others said “everybody’s welcome — but don’t hold hands in the pews.”

“It’s been pretty amazing to see that change in the span of just one generation,” Aviv said.

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