Louise Walpin and Marsha Shapiro were married under a huppa in a religious ceremony by a rabbi 19 years ago. Their ketuba, which contains both traditional language and words they wrote to each other, hangs on the wall of their Monmouth Junction home.
“There was something about hearing the rabbi say we were married,” said Walpin.
Added Shapiro: “There was something about having our relationship not only validated but celebrated. That wedding was extremely important for us.”
But in the eyes of New Jersey, they are not married. Although they have a civil union, they have learned through experience that it isn’t enough to get them through bureaucracy or to avoid circumstances where they might prefer to retain their privacy.
On Friday evening, Aug. 26, at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, a Conservative synagogue in Springfield, Walton and Shapiro will speak at Shabbat services about their fight for marriage equality in New Jersey.
The couple are among seven lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by Garden State Equality on June 29, 2011, demanding marriage for same-sex couples in New Jersey. It relies on a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples should be guaranteed the same rights as heterosexual married couples; however, it was left to the legislature to determine what that would mean. The legislature decided on civil unions carrying the same legal rights as marriage.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a failed January 2010 attempt in the NJ State Senate to pass a marriage bill similar to the one that passed earlier this summer in New York.
The speaking engagement is one of a series of programs that are part of a general outreach to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) families at Beth Ahm Yisrael over the last five years. The congregation has a committee devoted to LGBT issues.
While Orthodox synagogues strictly interpret the Torah’s ban on homosexual relationships and Reform synagogues have long accepted gay and lesbian unions and marriages, the Conservative movement is conflicted. A landmark ruling in 2006 by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, allowing the ordination of gay rabbis, did not rule on same-sex marriage or the rituals surrounding it under Jewish law.
“We need to bring greater awareness of this issue and the needs of this community to our general congregation,” said Beth Ahm Yisrael’s Rabbi Mark Mallach. “I was glued to the events in Albany” as New York’s marriage equality bill was passed, he said. “It occurred to me that we need to bring this issue to the forefront here.
“The reality is New Jersey has civil unions, but that falls short.”
The congregation had already invited New Jersey’s Lesbian & Gay Havurah, a Jewish fellowship that meets in Edison, to come to Beth Ahm Yisrael. The plans were postponed, and Mallach ultimately invited them to join the temple’s annual congregational barbecue before the service on Aug. 26. Walpin and Shapiro are founding members of the havura.
‘We want marriage’
For Walpin and Shapiro, speaking at a synagogue offers a different kind of interaction from other engagements and interviews they have done. Both women are deeply involved in Jewish life. Both grew up in an era when girls did not celebrate becoming banot mitzva; both had adult banot mitzva before they met. Their home life is full of Jewish ritual items and observances; Shapiro has served as a cantor for the havura, and she loves planning their annual Passover seder, working to engage every age group at the table.
“I’m just delighted to speak, not only as a gay woman, but as a Jewish gay woman,” said Shapiro.
Added Walpin, “It really brings together two very important pieces of our lives.”
But just because they are speaking at a synagogue, they said, they will not offer a soft approach. Marriage equality “is not ‘controversial,’” said Shapiro, bristling as she recalled the use of that term in the original write-up Beth Ahm Yisrael put out about their talk. “It’s a matter of civil rights.”
“People know what marriage is, but not civil rights,” said Walpin. “The term ‘civil union’ has no meaning,” said Shapiro. “We’re tired of being second-class citizens. Separate but equal has never worked. We want marriage.”
Beyond equality, Walpin also suggests “the term ‘civil union’ deprives me of my right to privacy.” Because she carries the health care benefits for the family, every time she goes on a job interview, she has to ask if civil unions are covered.
“As soon as I say that, I am outing myself to a potential employer,” she said
Shapiro pointed out that the consequences can be far more detrimental in a hospital environment. After bringing Walpin to the emergency room on one occasion, she had to register with an attendant at the desk. “I had to explain our status, show documentation — which I have to carry around with us — and in the end, she put down ‘single.’ That’s humiliating and upsetting, especially when you’re already in such a vulnerable position, being in the emergency room.”
They raised four children together, two with disabilities, and consider themselves married. But they have reached a point where they are “ready to fight” for their legal rights, they said. “To be told, to be promised we would not be discriminated against, to do all we’ve done, and still be discriminated against, it’s not fair; we have to do something about it,” said Walpin.
Watching New Yorkers gain the right to marry just as they filed their lawsuit was bittersweet for Walpin, a native New Yorker who moved to New Jersey 27 years ago.
New Jersey, she said, is “one of the most progressive states on LGBT issues in every other way. To look across the river and know over there they can get married — it has had an incredible impact on us.”
Mallach said he hopes the event will mark the beginning of a lasting relationship with the havura; Temple Emanu-El in Edison, a Reform synagogue, has been its home since the havura was established in 1991 with the encouragement of the congregation’s then longtime religious leader, Rabbi Alfred Landsberg.