Sea of change: LGBTQ inclusion finds smooth sailing in Jewish Pittsburgh

Sea of change: LGBTQ inclusion finds smooth sailing in Jewish Pittsburgh

When a group of Beth El Congregation’s leaders met last week to discuss how they could better include those with disabilities at the synagogue, Rabbi Alex Greenbaum was happy to see the conversation veer in a broader direction.

“With inclusion, we are usually talking about people with special needs,” said Greenbaum, spiritual leader of the Conservative South Hills congregation. “But at this meeting, we also were talking about the need to work on including other people who may have felt excluded, people in the LGBTQ community. We have to go beyond tolerance. We have to go past acceptance. We have to go on to welcoming and embracing.”

The congregation’s new website would be a good place to start, he said, by announcing to the public that LGBTQ individuals are welcome at Beth El.

“It’s got to be in all of our advertisements,” Greenbaum said. “If we are truly an inclusive and embracing synagogue, people need to know that.”

Having a deliberate policy welcoming LGBTQ Jews into mainstream congregations is steadily becoming the norm throughout Jewish Pittsburgh. Earlier this month, Temple Sinai — a Reform congregation — hosted an LGBTQ Pride Friday evening Shabbat service. That same weekend, the Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom held an educational session entitled “A Conversation on LGBTQ Inclusion in the Jewish Community” following its Saturday morning Shabbat service. Just a few days later, Beth El was having a similar conversation in its inclusion meeting.

 But whether the inclusion efforts of mainstream congregations are enough to meet the needs of Pittsburgh’s Jewish queer community remains to be scene.

Since 1988, Pittsburgh has been home to Bet Tikvah, a “welcoming, queer-centric, independent minyan,” according to its tagline. The congregation — which began with just a few people meeting at various locations around the city — has been holding its monthly erev Shabbat and holiday services in space has leased from Rodef Shalom since 1994.

Bet Tikvah’s membership has held steady at about 40 member families for the past couple years, said Deb Polk, who is a member of both Bet Tikvah and Rodef Shalom. Polk does not see many members leaving Bet Tikvah to join inclusive mainstream congregations, although several have dual memberships.

Some Bet Tikvah members join a second congregation, she said, for reasons such as religious school for their children, which Bet Tikvah does not offer.

On the flip side, Polk noted, many straight Jews find that Bet Tikvah is a better fit than Pittsburgh’s mainstream congregations, and about 25 percent of Bet Tikvah’s membership is composed of straight families.

The question of inclusion in mainstream synagogues has been “a nonissue for me personally,” Polk said, adding that she has always “found a welcoming home” in congregations affiliated with the Reform movement.

Bruce Hyde has been an active member of Bet Tikvah since 1995. He joined the congregation, and left the Orthodox Poale Zedeck, after he came out, he said.

Although he found that Rabbi Yisroel Miller, PZ’s rabbi at the time, was very welcoming, Hyde did not feel comfortable as a gay man in an Orthodox congregation.

“Rabbi Miller was the second person I came out to, after myself,” Hyde said. “He was warm and welcoming, and he encouraged me to retain membership. He stood up and gave me a hug, and said, ‘I would lead the line of friends welcoming you to the congregation.’ He said, ‘Just because you are having trouble with observing one mitzvah of the Torah, that doesn’t preclude you from observing the others.’”

But because of the emphasis on family in the Orthodox congregation, Hyde said, he was uncomfortable remaining a member there.

“If I were a heterosexual person, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable as a single, middle-aged male there,” he said. “It just felt uncomfortable at the time. It may have been me more than them.”

Although he is pleased about the trend toward inclusion in mainstream congregations, he is not inclined to join one, finding that Bet Tikvah fulfills his Jewish spiritual needs, he said.

Bet Tikvah member Jamie Phillips sees a vital role for Bet Tikvah in Pittsburgh, even in the face of the inclusionary policies of mainstream congregations.

“As a queer person, it would not be entirely evident to me that a mainstream congregation could serve my needs as a single, queer, Jew,” she said.

Programming geared toward the LGBTQ community is still largely missing from mainstream Jewish organizations, according to Phillips.

“I never see them host a gay singles event,” she cited as an example.  “Maybe synagogues are not really prepared for this. What happens when you have a transgender teen? Do they have a bar or a bat mitzvah? How do you honor their identity change as a Jew?”

Phillips would like to see mainstream congregations offer support programs for their LGBTQ members on topics such as fertility challenges.

“Queer couples have a hard time getting pregnant,” she noted.  “It’s especially hard for two men.”

It is for reasons such as these that LGBTQ congregations remain relevant, according to James Cohen, acting executive director of Keshet, a national organization committed to the full inclusion and equality of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life.

“While of course we applaud the efforts of mainstream synagogues to be more inclusive, there always will be some who feel most comfortable in LGBT synagogues,” he said.

One problem is that although many mainstream congregations have the “intention to be inclusive,” Cohen said, “that intention is not always felt on the ground.”

In addition to adding programming for its LGBTQ members, he said, congregations — and other mainstream Jewish institutions — should be sensitive to their organization’s culture and how that culture affects LGBTQ members.

For example, to be more inclusive in practice, routine forms — such as those to register children for religious school — could list “parent one and parent two” rather than “mother and father,” Cohen suggested. Partners of LGBTQ members should be recognized and called up for joint aliyot. Photos of LGBTQ families should be featured on the congregations’ websites.

Some local congregations have already employed some of these suggestions.

Rodef Shalom Congregation, for example, changed its religious school forms in 2000 to be gender-neutral when identifying parents, according to Rabbi Sharyn Henry.

Like Beth El, Rodef Shalom’s inclusion committee expanded about eight years ago to examine whether its efforts at including the LGBTQ community were working, said Henry.

While Rodef Shalom has always been “internally supportive” of the LGBTQ community, it will now “be a little more public,” said Henry. To that end, the congregation is planning to put photos of “different kinds of families in our publicity and on our website to make people feel welcome.”

The congregation held a Pride Shabbat last year, and since May 2014, when same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania, Henry has performed three such ceremonies

Where her congregation, and others, could benefit from education, Henry said, is on the topic of the transgender community, especially given the reality that there are “gay kids and transgender kids who are not out yet, and some who don’t know yet,” she said.

Henry is already working to be inclusive and sensitive to those children. Recently, when teaching a prayer that traditionally calls for identification of the speaker as male or female, Henry instead told her students that “if you call yourself a girl, then you will say modah, and if you call yourself a boy, you will say modeh.”

While Bet Tikvah’s membership has not been affected yet by the inclusionary efforts of mainstream congregations, such is not the case for Nehirim, a national organization that provides programming — including several retreats each year — to “cultivate and empower LGBTQ Jewish souls,” according to its website.

Nehirim, which was founded in 2004, will be closing in the coming months, but some of its programming will be outsourced to other groups, said Rabbi Deborah Kolodny, executive director of Nehirim.

“The landscape has dramatically changed, “Kolodny said.  “Mainstream congregations are making efforts to address our needs, and there are lots more [local] LGBT organizations in cities. More and more, people are not just getting their spiritual needs met, but also their social and political needs.”

The “financial landscape” has also changed, Kolodny added. “Some of our funders are moving on. The sexiest funding is for students and clergy. For our general retreats, we’re just not getting the funding we used to.”

Changes she has seen over the years include mainstream congregations becoming more comfortable in hiring LGBTQ rabbis to serve in Reconstruc-

tionist, Reform, Conservative, Renewal and unaffiliated congregations.

There is also a “growing ease” among non-LGBTQ rabbis in mainstream congregations to officiate at LGBTQ weddings, baby namings and adoptions and to create rituals for gender transitioning.

“Orthodoxy is the lagging data point,” Kolodny said. “And yet, in modern Orthodox environments, there also is a degree of welcome. There has been a sea change from 20 years ago.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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