Bucks County shul affirms gay marriage

Bucks County shul affirms gay marriage

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg performs a same-sex Jewish wedding ceremony in New York City in 2010 for a Bergen County couple.     
Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg performs a same-sex Jewish wedding ceremony in New York City in 2010 for a Bergen County couple.     

The board of Congregation Beth El in Yardley, Pa., unanimously approved a measure allowing same-sex wedding ceremonies to be performed in its sanctuary. 

The vote, on Oct. 20 at the Conservative synagogue, comes on the heels of the May 20 U.S. federal court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in Pennsylvania.

Same-sex relationships have been sanctioned by the Conservative movement since 2006, when it began ordaining openly lesbian and gay rabbis. 

“The synagogue in the past has shown itself to be accepting and inclusive, but we did not entertain this discussion because it was not legal in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Beth El’s Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg. “Now that it is officially legal in Pennsylvania, it’s a question we can actually answer.” 

The move was announced in a press release issued by the congregation on Oct. 29, which stated that Beth El “unanimously voted on the right to openly marry Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) people” in its sanctuary and “now feels proud to be at the forefront of Bucks County Judaism on this issue and takes pride in being an inclusive congregation.”

“About five minutes after the [court] decision came down,” said Gruenberg, “a couple at the synagogue texted me to request me to officiate at their marriage at the synagogue.” 

The synagogue’s religious affairs committee took up the issue at its next regularly scheduled meeting in early fall. 

The Conservative movement issued guidelines for rabbis to perform same-sex ceremonies in 2012. Two years earlier, in 2010, Gruenberg officiated for the first time at a same-sex wedding. The men’s civil ceremony took place in Connecticut, and a Jewish ceremony was held in New York City. Same-sex marriage became legal in Connecticut in 2008, 2011 in New York.

That wedding became a cause celebre: The couple was from New Jersey’s Bergen County, whose local Jewish weekly, The Jewish Standard, agreed to run the wedding announcement. Following an uproar from traditionalist readers of the paper, the newspaper retracted the announcement one week later, angering supporters of gay marriage.

Gruenberg said Beth El sought to avoid such controversy in reaching its decision. Having the leadership of the synagogue go through the process and then issue its decision, he said, would be more effective “than me just putting my foot down.” Referring to his authority as mara d’atra, or religious decisor of the community, he said he didn’t think it was the right moment to go it alone. “I think using mara d’atra is the most serious responsibility a rabbi has. I guess it’s something I see a rabbi executing in only the most extreme cases.” 

While some congregants felt the synagogue should not widely publicize its decision, Gruenberg disagreed.

“The only opposition I had was around issuing a statement. I think it’s important not as a statement of our uniqueness or specialness, but a statement of our community and its values.”

Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pa., who just took the pulpit in August, said that his Conservative synagogue is discussing the issue.

“We are in discussion about a variety of policies and statements, including one about whether or not to allow same-sex weddings at Brothers of Israel,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As a congregation, we want to ensure all people have the opportunity to marry the love of their lives, and [we] applaud Pennsylvania for allowing it under state law.” 

Rabbi Adam Feldman of the Jewish Center in Princeton said he had announced he would perform same-sex weddings when the law changed in New Jersey last year. He said he doesn’t think it is “such a newsworthy story here in New Jersey anymore.” 

Other Conservative synagogues in the Princeton Mercer Bucks area did not respond to questions on the issue from NJJN.

Beth El has about 325 members. Gruenberg estimated that “a handful” of them are part of the LGBT community. The couple who approached him after the state law changed will be married there in September 2015. The couple did not want to be named or quoted in this article, according to Gruenberg. 

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