The first gay and lesbian synagogue in the world, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), was founded in 1972 in Los Angeles. The second synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), was founded a few months later in New York. Both congregations are still in existence and are thriving. In the interim 35 years, several other congregations with special outreach programs to lesbian and gay Jews (and later to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews) were formed. Of those synagogues, some could not sustain their membership over the years and folded. Others merged with larger mainstream congregations and became more of a chavurah in the larger congregation. And, some like BCC and CBST are alive and thriving.
In this new millennium, it will be interesting to see how these synagogues evolve. The last synagogue that was formed specifically with a mission to LGBT people was created over 15 years ago. Even those that exist today are very different from their original incarnation. In 1972, gay and lesbian synagogues did not have preschools. Now, a preschool and a religious school are essential parts of several LGBT synagogues. In addition, as these LGBT synagogues have thrived with dynamic rabbis, cantors and educators, heterosexual individuals and families have joined and become part of the community. How is this demographic shift affecting the congregations?
Finally, while there have not been any new LGBT synagogues created in recent years, there has been a large growth of out gay and lesbian clergy who have been ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. These gay and lesbian (and a much smaller number of bisexual and transgender) clergy are not usually serving an LGBT population. They are working in every aspect of the Reform Movement and beyond. Yet, when one of these clergy starts a new congregation that happens to have a proportion of LGBT members but is inclusive and welcomes all Jews, what category does this new congregation fit into?
These are some of the questions that the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation is interested in. If you have thoughts about this that you want to share, let us know. Also, if we have missed a congregation that is LGBT or Welcoming, send us an email tell us about them.