First Name, Last Initial



by Stan Notkin
Beth Chayim Chadashim, Los Angeles, CA

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The June 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York’s Greenwich Village jump-started the modern gay/lesbian rights movement. (Now, in part to commemorate Stonewall, Gay Pride Month is celebrated every June.) Shortly thereafter, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) was founded in Los Angeles in 1972, and two years later the fledgling congregation joined the UAHC, now the URJ.

While the Stonewall riots put an end to the police raids of gay bars in New York, enactment and enforcement of anti-gay laws continued elsewhere, including Los Angeles. Plainclothes police still entrapped unsuspecting victims, who were charged with a violation of 647(a), Lewd or Dissolute Conduct in Public, just for suggesting a late night tryst. If convicted, they were required to register as sex offenders.

In that environment, Beth Chayim Chadashim (House of New Hope) was indeed a place of safety and refuge, as well as spiritual inspiration and camaraderie. Nevertheless, congregants were understandably wary of having their identity publicly revealed.Even if they weren’t going to be arrested for attending a synagogue with a gay and lesbian outreach, there was still the possibility of losing their jobs, their security clearances–even their families–should their sexual orientation be discovered.

Some courageous members and leaders of BCC used their last names, but there was an understanding that, to protect the identity of those who were concerned, last names were not required in congregational rosters, publications or in the temple newsletter. The use of a first name and last initial soon became the norm.

The practice went on into the mid-1980s, by which time police harassment calmed down and there was a growing acceptance of the LGBT community in general, particularly in the Los Angeles area, to a point where most BCC members finally felt comfortable using their last names.

A very notable exception involved one of the more prominent and devoted members of BCC’s Board of Directors who happened to teach at one of the religious schools down the street, and was therefore afraid that he would be fired if they found out he was gay. So an exception was made, allowing the continued use of just his initial–even as he became president of the congregation!

Fortunately, those bad old days are now a thing of the past, and young BCC members are probably not even aware of the terrible fear that led LGBT people to identify themselves as First Name, Last Initial.

Stan N. has been a BCC member since 1975.

Spotlight on Diversity: This June, the URJ highlights a variety of resources to help congregations welcome and support diverse members. Learn more on our website.

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5 Responses to “First Name, Last Initial”

  1. avatar

    Thank you Stan for preserving a part of BCC’s and lgbt history that otherwise would go undocumented.
    BCC’s Wikipedia page is all of 3 paragraphs. Perhaps you could add your post here to that? Might encourage others to expand it as well.

  2. avatar

    First and foremost, a big hello to Stan.
    In 1975, I had the privilege of being BCC’s first student rabbi. It was a life-changing experience for me and the ‘first name/last initial’ was a critically important element of my learning process. Being able to understand the fears and sense of isolation that my congregants shared was a first step to my commitment to being part of the change in our society that would make those fears and isolation become, we hoped, obsolete. The courage and determination of all of BCC’s members to insist on being included in Jewish life – fully and without discrimination – was then and is now, a source of inspiration for me.
    Even 36 years later, I have so many wonderful memories of the kindness, patience and wonderful sense of humor that BCC shared with me. I will always be grateful that BCC was the first congregation that I served. What they taught me helped make me the rabbi that I’ve become.

  3. avatar
    Crystal Van Horn Reply June 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I am so pleased to see these articles in this month’s URJ journal. The spotlight on diversity brings back so many memories of my mother, Lorena Wellington, founding member of BCC in 1972. She and her partner were living in Hollywood at the time, and my mother found that there needed to be a place for gay and LGBT people to worship. With several others who felt the same, the Temple was born. Though I was not a member, I remember all the pride and pleasure that my mother derived from being a member and davening there. Her family had founded the first Conservative Shul in San Diego in the early 20th Century. And she went on to help found the first Reform Temple in Klamath Falls, OR in the 1990s. She always felt that this was something that was “in her blood” and therefore required of her. For whatever reason, Mother had the hope and chutzpah to do what she knew was right. I am eternally proud of her, of blessed memory. And congratulate BCC on their continued success.

  4. avatar

    As demonstrated by the need for first name, last initial, congregations like BCC and Or Chadash in Chicago were founded out of need. Even twenty years ago, it was hard for anyone to be “out” in the typical Reform congregation. Today, at least in my 750-unit congregation, the gay and lesbian couples and singles among us are welcomed like any other congregant, so, to some extent, congregations with special GLBTQ outreach can now be communities of choice.
    In a somewhat analogous situation, a congregation in which I was once active debated “signing” our services for the hearing-impaired, and the argument against doing so was that it would be competitive with and perhaps detrimental to a nearby congregation whose special outreach was to the hearing-impaired community. On the grounds that many hearing-impaired preferred being mainstreamed to being segregated, signing was instituted and well-publicized — but after two months, we determined that we were serving no-one except the (paid) signer.
    Diversity comes in many forms, and all of our congregations should be welcoming to diverse populations. Only in large metropolitan areas is there the critical mass for “niche” congregations. And we have seen many examples of congregations that set out to serve a niche, but have served their communities so well that those outside the niche wanted in, and the once-specialty congregations have become part of the all-things-to-all-people mainstream.
    At this time, when it’s broadly recognized that the Jewish community is operating in an environment different from that in which our current institutions developed, our congregations have the challenge of re-inventing themselves with a proper balance of community-wide programming and programming for subsets, so that the origins of congregations like BCC have the possibility to become historical footnotes as diversity and commonality learn to exist side by side.

  5. avatar

    Great commentary on the FIRST Gay Congregation to be esgtablished and admitted to the UAHC but you omitted the names of those of us who were the advocates form their admission to the Union. Remember Rabbi Erwin Herman, Regional Director of the PSW Council, William Israel, Pres. of PSWC and the entire regional board!

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