Celebrating 25 years of a spiritual ‘safe space’

Celebrating 25 years of a spiritual ‘safe space’

Members of New Jersey’s Lesbian & Gay Havurah stand under a huppa held by members of Temple Emanu-El in Edison to celebrate the “marriage” of the two before the synagogue’s annual Gay Pride Shabbat in June 2011.
Members of New Jersey’s Lesbian & Gay Havurah stand under a huppa held by members of Temple Emanu-El in Edison to celebrate the “marriage” of the two before the synagogue’s annual Gay Pride Shabbat in June 2011.

Twenty-five years ago, New Jersey’s Lesbian & Gay Havurah was formed as a place where members could find a spiritual home and a “safe space” they felt they could not find in many conventional synagogues.

It drew members from throughout central Jersey and as far away as Staten Island and Bergen and Essex counties and once boasted a membership as high as 150. 

Then the world began to change.

As it celebrates a quarter-century of fellowship, the havurah finds itself a victim of the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians in many Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative congregations.

“Because of the openness of so many synagogues, it is not as much of a necessity,” acknowledged copresident Scott Gansl of Trenton, who estimated the group now has between 85 and 90 members.

Although the group faces a “geographic challenge” that other synagogues do not grapple with because its members are so dispersed, they do share the common problem of attracting young people.

“I’ve been a member since the early ’90s, and there have been a lot of changes in the world since then,” said Gansl, a commercial photographer. “The Jewish world has changed for the better. That’s the beauty of Judaism. Judaism has shown in so many ways that it is a living religion compared to other religions that are not as pliable as we are.”

Beyond synagogues, Gansl has noticed a concerted outreach to the LGBT community by Jewish social service agencies, college Hillels, and Jewish federations.

In fact, the havurah sometimes has trouble getting enough people for its monthly Shabbat services at members’ homes because they are increasingly involved with their own synagogues.

“That’s a plus for the Jewish community, but a negative for the havurah,” said Gansl, who formerly served as president of Keshet Ga’avah, the World Congress of GLBT Jews. “For people my age, 50, we never expected this to happen, and now it’s happened so quickly. As late as 2003 we were fighting the Jewish community. I know it seems slow, but it happened very quickly for us.”

Gansl said most gay Jews are pro-Zionist. He himself has worked with StandWithUs, the pro-Israel advocacy organization.

“Israel is a young nation that stands for human rights, and gays and lesbians fit into that model,” he said. “The IDF accepted gays and lesbians way before the United States military did. But, for us as Jews, we feel the most important issue is Israel’s security.” 

In addition to holding services, havurah members pay shiva calls, gather for lifecycle events for themselves and the children and grandchildren of members, and pay bikur holim calls to the sick. Its members maintain a strong social bond.

The havurah’s other copresident, Michele Rabinowitz, a clinical psychologist from Millstone, said when she became active in 1997, she was “newly out and looking for a place to go where I’d feel comfortable because I was Jewish.”

“I said to someone, ‘I know how to be Jewish. I’m just not sure where to go to be Jewish,’” she recalled. “With the havurah, I found a group of people with whom I could spend holidays and do Jewish activities. We all became good friends and socialized….”

Rabinowitz, who also served a previous term as havurah president, said that in 1995 the Conservative synagogue she belonged to “probably wasn’t going to accept me as a gay Jew.”

“No way was that going to happen,” she said, so she aligned herself with the havurah.

She and her partner, with whom she had a civil commitment ceremony in Vermont and has two children, have been warmly accepted at a Reform synagogue in the Freehold area, which she declined to name. 

But the need for the havurah was demonstrated just days before when Rabinowitz said a 21-year-old sent a note looking for a comfortable place to be Jewish. 

“We directed her to Hillel because she is only 21 and we’re mostly middle-aged people,” said Rabinowitz. “There is clearly still a need.”

While the havurah holds many of its own social gatherings and celebrations, it formed an alliance with Temple Emanu-El in Edison and its former religious leader, Rabbi Alfred Landsberg, not long after its inception.

Ilene Meiseles, who serves as copresident of the temple with Casey Horgan, is also an original havurah member.

She said that a little more than 25 years ago, Landsberg organized a panel to explore the place for gays and lesbians in Jewish life, “and that became the genesis for the partnership.”

“Rabbi Landsberg just had a vision,” said Meiseles. “He was a trendsetter who believed we should welcome gays and lesbians and transgender people and that the temple should be a safe space.”

Meiseles said as a result, about 10 percent of havurah members also belong to Emanu-El, including the congregation’s executive vice president, Colin Hogan.

While the havurah’s membership is multidenominational, spanning Orthodox to Reform Jews, its members always felt comfortable calling the Reform temple in Edison its “home away from home” because of its welcoming stance at a time that LGBT Jews was often shunned, said Meiseles. The havurah was honored for reaching the 25-year milestone at the synagogue’s annual Gay Pride Shabbat on June 17.

The group has held such events as gay liberation seders at the temple and has cohosted the Selihot program before Rosh Hashana for the last couple of years. Many members have been joined in commitment ceremonies or marriages by temple clergy, and their children attend the temple’s religious school. 

As its way of giving back, the havurah participates in the congregation’s annual mitzva day and has partnered on its community garden to help feed the poor. 

Meiseles, an Edison resident, has been a temple member for 19 years.

Landsberg, now retired and living in Lakewood, said in a phone conversation with NJJN that in retrospect, while it may seem as if what they were doing at the time was “kind of avant-garde, we thought what we were doing seemed right and proper and decent and Jewish.” 

“Things are really improving in the United States at both the federal and state levels,” said Landsberg, “and as I’ve often said, a day will come when we won’t have special-interest groups like gays and lesbians. They’ll just be people — end of conversation.” 

Landsberg said Reform Jews have had an easier time accepting LGBT people because they view the Bible as being written by humans “with their fears and prejudices” over hundreds of years rather than being the direct word of God.

However, he said, observant Jews, who view the text as having come directly from God, have a more difficult time getting around the biblical injunction forbidding men to lie together. 

But, just as eruvim around Orthodox enclaves allow activities otherwise prohibited on Shabbat and holidays, and Israelis “sell” their land to Arab neighbors every seventh year so they can plant despite it being an agricultural sabbatical year, Landsberg said he believes even the observant will find ways to have some measure of acceptance of gays.

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