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Laying Out The Welcome Mat

Shaarey Zedek reaches out to LGBTQ+ community.

Congregation Shaarey Zedek is making a concerted effort to reach out to marginalized communities, starting with those who identify as “LGBTQ+”: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and any sexual or gender minority that doesn’t yet have an initial.

Rabbi Aaron StarrRabbi Aaron Starr announced the initiative in his May 26 Shabbat morning sermon, followed by a letter to the congregation.

Many listeners and readers felt the rabbi was not breaking new ground but was rather acknowledging and publicizing the Southfield congregation as a welcoming community.

LGBTQ+ people had never been shunned at Shaarey Zedek, they “just weren’t there,” said board member Nicole Eisenberg, 48, of Bloomfield Hills, who was part of an “inclusion committee” that recommended affirmative outreach to LGBTQ+ Jews.

“No one was talking about it. Now we’re saying, ‘Hey, we are here. We are the inclusive congregation,’” she said.

In his May 26 sermon based on the Bible verse in Numbers, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,” Starr said the Jewish community as a whole has neglected to welcome all people. “We’ve done just the opposite of what we were supposed to have been doing over these last many years. What can we do to open our tent wider and to whom must we work even harder to open our tent?” he asked.

One sign of a congregation’s welcome is clergy’s willingness to perform same-sex marriages. The Reform movement recognized the validity of same-sex unions in 1996. The Conservative movement did so with reservations in 2006 and again more wholeheartedly in 2012, though some rabbis use a different ritual from the one traditionally used in heterosexual marriage. Orthodox Judaism remains opposed to same-sex unions.

Jeri Fishman

Jeri Fishman

Jeri Fishman of Southfield, current congregation president, formed the inclusion committee after she and other Shaarey Zedek leaders attended the biennial conference of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism last December. Participants were challenged to practice “radical hospitality” toward those who had traditionally been excluded.

“I wondered if we had members who felt isolated and had a fear of not being accepted if it was known they were LGBTQ+,” said Fishman, a retired court caseworker.

Starr acknowledged that Shaarey Zedek has a reputation of being cold, formal, even unfriendly but says it’s an outdated stereotype. At Shabbat services, newcomers are warmly welcomed, and there’s always a sit-down lunch afterwards. “We are an open, non-judgmental family,” he said.

“I’m beyond proud to be part of a community that not only welcomes but encourages LGBT youth to be who they are … ” — Noah Eisenberg

Starr admitted that Shaarey Zedek’s membership has declined from a high of more than 1,800 families, mirroring a national trend in Conservative congregations. But with 1,000 families now, he’s not worried about the numbers. The inclusion effort is not intended to be a membership booster.

“Any responsible organization needs to self-evaluate to stay current,” Fishman said.

Committee members are reaching out to LGBTQ+ organizations and individuals to let them know they are welcome. In his sermon, the rabbi asked members to spread the word personally and on their Facebook pages, and to share a link to the sermon.

Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg

Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg

A few days after the sermon, the inclusion committee sponsored a well-attended panel discussion on “LGBTQ+ and Judaism.” Speakers included Sam Dubin of NextGEN Pride; Roz Keith of Stand with Trans; and Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg, rabbi emeritus of Temple Shir Tikvah, and his husband, Robert Crowe.

Sleutelberg said those in the LGBTQ+ world appreciate Shaarey Zedek’s efforts.

Many congregations over the years have claimed to be welcoming but were unwilling to permit what he described as the “litmus test of welcome,” same-sex weddings on the bimah, he said. That Starr and Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen will do such weddings means “they are truly a congregation of welcome,” he said.

Noah Eisenberg

Noah Eisenberg

Nicole Eisenberg’s son Noah, 19, said Shaarey Zedek’s action is “absolutely phenomenal.”

“I’m beyond proud to be part of a community that not only welcomes but encourages LGBT youth to be who they are and does not condemn them for things beyond their control,” said Eisenberg, who will be a sophomore musical theater student at University of Michigan in the fall.

“Growing up as a gay person, I never really knew how Shaarey Zedek felt about homosexuality and what stance it would take if I were to ever marry a man. Starting the dialogue can only do good things, and I am overjoyed that it’s begun.”

Karen Couf-Cohen

Karen Couf-Cohen

Shaarey Zedek Sisterhood Co-President Karen Couf-Cohen of Franklin said Starr’s sermon simply puts into words the values that Shaarey Zedek has long supported. “We are responsive to the world around us and continue to grow as a community,” she said.

Fishman says outreach to the LGBTQ+ community is just the beginning and that the congregation’s inclusion committee will look at ways to welcome other Jews who may feel marginalized, such as those who are intermarried, single or divorced. The committee’s next project will be ensuring that the synagogue building is fully wheelchair-accessible. “Members might see us cruising the halls in wheelchairs,” she said.

Other Conservative rabbis agree with a policy of inclusion.

Rabbi Robert Gamer

Rabbi Robert Gamer

“At Congregation Beth Shalom, we have been welcoming to the LGBTQ community for years,” said Rabbi Robert Gamer. “We have families that are intermarried that have celebrated b’nai mitzvah here; we just partnered with SPARC (a single parent group) for Shavuot, and we have a special reader’s table so we can do Torah readings off the bimah to welcome and accommodate people that cannot walk stairs.”

Rabbi Shalom Kantor

Rabbi Shalom Kantor

Congregation B’nai Moshe’s rabbi, Shalom Kantor, said he will continue to engage in “radical hospitality.”

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“As members of the Jewish community we are expected to recognize and respect the spark of the Divine inside every human being,” he said. “We must do everything we can, within our communal halachic boundaries to ensure that there is a place in our community for anybody actively seeking to connect with God, holiness and the Jewish community.”

Barbara Lewis

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