When other liberal congregations were still struggling with including gay Jews, New Jersey’s Lesbian and Gay Havurah and Temple Emanu-El in Edison had already launched what became a beautiful friendship.
The fellowship held its first service at the Reform synagogue in 1991 and has been meeting there and joining with temple members in celebrations and social action projects ever since.
“We do all sorts of things together,” said Bonnie Kantor, who served as the havura’s first president and is its current treasurer. “We have our own services in members’ homes, but we do some holiday celebrations with the temple and are pretty integrated into temple business. Many of us have duality and serve on the temple board and committees.”
In addition, the Metuchen resident said, the havura links with Emanu-El on its annual Mitzva Day, and members are active participants on the synagogue’s environmental “green team.”
The union between the congregation and havura was marked June 17 during the temple’s annual Gay Pride Shabbat, which this year celebrated the havura’s 20th anniversary and Emanu-El’s 50th.
“It was a terrific celebration, and I think it’s been amazing to look back at how far we’ve come in light of what just happened in New York,” said Emanu-El’s Rabbi Deborah Bravo, referring to the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in that state. “The havura feels it is very much a part of our congregation, and our members feel very much a part of their community.”
The group’s membership has reached at times 150; it now stands at about 120, and although many members are from central Jersey, some come from as far away as Bergen and Essex counties and Staten Island.
“Some of our members have children; some don’t,” said Kantor. “Some are young; some are not. Some are liberal Reform; some are Orthodox. We’ve always realized we were never going to be one group.”
That diversity has never posed a problem for anyone, said current havura president Mary Jean Weston of Highland Park.
“Our motto is ‘A circle of friends celebrating our Jewish heritage,’” she said. The group was established “at a time when there weren’t many places a gay or lesbian person could organize in the Jewish community.”
‘Do what’s right’
While a Gay Pride Shabbat raises few eyebrows in 2011, it was something of a milestone when the temple hosted the state’s first such service in 1991.
Kantor recalled a June 1991 meeting at Emanu-El organized by the Jewish Family and Vocation Service of Middlesex County to address welcoming gays and lesbians into congregational life.
The synagogue’s former longtime rabbi, Alfred Landsberg, “handed me a pen and paper and said, ‘Take names and numbers,’” Kantor recalled. “This was in the days before the Internet and cell phones. He insisted the first service and meeting be held at Emanu-El.”
Landsberg, who retired in 2006, was already sensitive to the needs of the community. He officiated at the “marriage” of Kantor and her partner, Linda Readerman, 27 years ago under a huppa at the temple. The couple now has a married son.
“In a sense I have never performed commitment ceremonies, but I have performed marriage ceremonies,” explained Landsberg when reached by NJJN at his Lakewood home. “In my mind marriage has nothing to do with a state sanction, but rather the relationship of the people involved.
“If the couple is gay and have that relationship, in my mind they are married.”
Landsberg said the relationship between the synagogue and havura “just kind of flowed naturally with no objection from the congregation — much to its credit.”
“My philosophy is simple,” he said. “You do what’s right and fits in with the general majority. The rest will catch up in due time. I look forward to the day when we won’t need a Gay Pride Shabbat because it will be totally accepted.”
Kantor said that while acceptance is not universal, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative congregations have moved to welcome gays and lesbians into their fold.
“Things have definitely changed over the years, and people seem to have less and less need to be associated with a Jewish gay and lesbian group,” she said. “Back in the day, I would get calls every day from people who didn’t know what to do or where to go. The Internet really helped to change everything.”
However, for some the need is still there, as evidenced by a call she said she had just received from a young woman from a fervently Orthodox home.
“She needed a Jewish family,” said Kantor. “While there is much more acceptance in the world, there are still people out there looking for support.”
For more information about New Jersey’s Lesbian and Gay Havurah, call 732-650-1010 or visit njhav.org.