On Being Straight in the World’s First Gay Synagogue
by Maggie Anton Parkhurst
Beth Chayim Chadashim, Los Angeles, CA
When asked to write a post about my “experience belonging to a diverse community” for the RJ Blog, I took this as asking for my experience as a straight woman at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first gay synagogue. Although more than 90% of the congregation identifies as LGBT, my husband and I, along with my daughter and son-in-law, have been members since 1999, making us the “odd man out.”
So what are we doing here? What Jews do in other synagogues – only more so, because for many of our members, BCC is not just their shul; it’s also their family. Unfortunately, homophobia has forced some of our most dedicated and highly educated Jews out of less diverse and welcoming communities and into BCC, where we can learn and daven together.
We are diverse in more ways than sexual orientation. Yes, we are a Reform congregation, but our members have all sorts of Jewish backgrounds, from converts and Workman’s Circle yiddishists, through mainline Conservative to Orthodox yeshivah bochers. Despite these differences, we share a commitment to gender neutrality and equality at services, along with lots of singing.
We also represent Los Angeles’s varied ethnicities, which is abundantly clear when members read from the Book of Esther in fourteen different languages at Purim. Tolerance and embracing the stranger are BCC’s hallmarks, especially the latter, as everyone walking in on Shabbat receives a warm welcome. Even and especially people who feel excluded, or worry about feeling excluded, at other synagogues.
At first, all this diversity was uncomfortable compared to the suburban temple where our children grew up. But sooner than I expected, I didn’t find it odd when men kissed men “Shabbat Shalom,” and eventually, I didn’t notice that I didn’t find it odd. To this day, one of the nicest compliments I’ve received at BCC was, after reading from the M’gillah in Klingon for Purim, “You may not be gay, but you’re definitely queer.”
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.