Rabbi Bill Kraus has been out and public as a gay man for more than a decade. But he’s kept a low profile in terms of his rabbinate, coming out only after leaving pulpits at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston and later Temple Knesseth Israel in Bound Brook and leading a quieter role doing pastoral work in a hospice setting.
But he’s about to take his own leap. Now 60, he’s in the process of forming an LGBT-friendly synagogue in Essex County, and he said he has a core group of about 30 people with whom he is meeting regularly to draw up plans.
It will not be “a gay and lesbian synagogue but a gay-friendly synagogue. It’s difficult to describe because it’s a new phenomenon,” said Kraus, in an interview in the living room of the West Orange home he shares with his husband, Brett Kats. On this particularly cold day, he has a fire going, and offers a guest coffee and pastries served on bone china.
“I don’t want to give the impression that it is tailored just for the gay and lesbian community,” he said of the new congregation. “It’s tailored for everyone, but especially for those who have not felt comfortable in a synagogue setting.”
With no similar congregation nearby, Kraus acknowledged, Manhattan’s gay-friendly Congregation Beth Simhat Torah attracts members of New Jersey synagogues who are gay and hold dual memberships. New Jersey’s Lesbian & Gay Havurah meets at Temple Emanu-El in Edison; other local synagogues welcome gay families, but lack a specific focus on the LGBT community’s needs, he said.
His congregation will provide not only a gathering place for social interaction, he said, but a place where he can offer a support group for gay and lesbian Jews who are anticipating coming out.
“That kind of community center just doesn’t exist in Essex County,” he said.
Asked to describe his vision for the synagogue, he said with a wink, “It would be a fabulous congregation that is warm and welcoming.”
He declined to say where the congregation would meet, other than somewhere in Essex County. He did say he expects it to be functioning by Passover, which this year begins the evening of April 14.
While he holds ordination from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Kraus prefers to take a post-denominational approach to the planned congregation. “It will follow the needs of the people who join,” he said.
As a start, he acknowledged that the plan is to hold Friday night services twice each month, with a core group living mostly in Essex County, but also from Somerset and Middlesex counties, along the Interstate-78 corridor. Kraus does not currently belong to a congregation, but worships at a number of area synagogues.
‘Our time has come’
Despite an overall decline in synagogue membership, Kraus is optimistic that he has a different model that will prove to be more relevant. “People say there’s no need for a small, new congregation with an emphasis on the LGBT community. But I say, what is the affiliation rate? Look at the Pew study,” said Kraus, referring to a recent Pew survey suggesting that non-Orthodox Jews are increasingly eschewing any religious affiliation. “No one can claim with any sense of authority that the Jewish community can’t use all the synagogues we can support.”
Kraus has already been tutoring the children of those who form his core group. “So many people feel the regimen leading up to bar and bat mitzva is useful but not necessarily workable for their families.” In addition, he has been asked to perform conversions, weddings, and funerals. NJJN learned about his plans for the synagogue while he was performing one of the first gay weddings in New Jersey, for a rabbi and a retired priest who were married on Oct. 21, just hours after the law allowing same-sex marriage took effect.
(Kraus gained some attention briefly, in 2012, when his son Gideon Lewis-Kraus published A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, which included his reflections on learning, at 19, that his father is gay. The pair appeared together on a number of TV talk shows, discussing the revelation.)
He reflected on the swift pace of change in attitudes toward gay people.
“There was a time when gay Jews could never have thought in a million years they could join a synagogue. And now, all of a sudden, they don’t have to go under cover, or under an assumed name, and sit in the back, and worry that someone you know will be sitting there.
“I have a sense that our time has come,” he said.
At 60, he worries people will think he’s too old to undertake building a synagogue. “I love what I do. I’ve taught and been on the pulpit and done administration, and I have plenty of pastoral experience. And at this point in my life, I see the need, and I believe I am uniquely able to fill the need.
“I don’t want a 1,000-person congregation,” Kraus said. “But my hope is that within five years, we will have 400 men, women, and families who are spiritually connecting through the synagogue with a major focus on being gay and Jewish or in a relationship with a Jew.”
And besides, he added, he’s in great shape, having run his first New York City Marathon this fall, following the example of his mother. She became the oldest person to run the marathon for the first time several years ago, at 82, he said.
“I’m not coming to this with a predesigned Jewish or spiritual agenda,” he said. “I’m coming to it with experience and the opportunity to help people do what they want to do, together.”