In life, everyone wants a place to belong. No matter what age we are, there is this ever present need to be included, whether it be in the sandbox, in school, with co-workers, in a community – or for the spiritual Jew of faith – in a shul. In Bereshit that acknowledgement of our need for one another, is made clear soon after mankind’s creation: “It is not good for man to be alone.” This is especially true for the observant Jews who build a community within walking distance of a shul. It is the shul that becomes the epicenter of our existence and we ripple out around it, just far enough for, we hope, a comfortable walk to shul on Shabbos. We become neighbors and friends, children run in and out of our homes on Shabbos and holidays, we break challah together, cook for each other, we care for one another in sickness and in health, we are each other’s help mates through life. The loss of such a world can be devastating; just watch the Netflix original movie One of Us,to understand what it is like for people to lose the only Judaism they know; whether by choice or by being pushed out by their former community. Something, sadly, which I truly understand.
Despite this reality, my journey has been much like that of any human being; moving through life at each stage of my development and finding a place for myself. I found dear friends along the way, built a family, became a mother, found a life-partner, and became a member of an amazing community on Long Island. Why amazing? Well, life as we all know it is not perfect, or free of suffering. And within my own community I did suffer, I became a lonely Jew of faith with no shul to call my own. I have previously written about the whys and how that happened, but this blog is not about those events. This blog and these words are about a community who made sure I and my family would be lonely no more. This community included people who wished to heal pain, people who wished to do no harm, people who love their fellow Jew, and a Rabbi who did not fail me or my family. Their light, their faith, their inclusiveness is with what I wish to fill this blog.Their kindness, their support and their coming together with us to build a new shul in our town that welcomes every Jew; a shul aptly named Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael (see our Facebook page).
But more amazing than all of this, was how quickly this shul became greater than me and my story; how quickly it became greater than one lonely Jew of faith, whose struggle with internal communal homophobia poured out onto the virtual pages of The Blogs:The Times of Israel, these last few years. It all started with a gathering of a few hopeful and excited souls; five women and two men, one of which is a true leader and humble man, our Rabbi. We sat around my dining room table and discussed our hopes and dreams for what we could create together. Surely a place for LGBTQ Jews was paramount – and yes people snidely call us the gay shul or erroneously think we are egalitarian because women hold prominent positions. I am sure none of them could actually envision a shul that held fast to Modern Orthodox ideals, had the first openly gay female shul President, and probably the only Modern Orthodox shul in the United States, let alone the world, that was formed and incorporated by three female trustees! I am simply sorry for them that their vision of Modern Orthodox shuls could not be broadened. We hope to change that. In fact our little shul made the local papers, when the outside world noticed that something new and hopeful was growing in our town (Long Island Herald). Change is coming to our town.
What we envisioned however, was exceeded by the reality of what occurred once we started the shul. People ran to do mitzvot, to donate chumashim, siddurim, talleisim, a shtender, a chazzan’s siddur and a book of Haftarot. A dear friend, lovingly built for our shul, with his bare hands, a beautiful and holy Aron for our rented Torah (one day we hope for one of our very own). People sponsored a beautiful kiddush for our opening day, and our local restaurant owner and caterer put out a beautiful spread for us to share together, after our Rabbi made kiddush for all to hear. Although we expected a small number of people, so many came and surprised us. Of the approximately 70 souls that came that first day, the men made minyan on time, so many women showed up and only a handful of all there were actually gay, including my partner and I. So I of course wondered, as I am sure many others, why did all these straight people come? Who are they? Why did they want to build something with us? Because they too were lonely Jews of faith; each in their own way.
Our shul may have started because I and my family were looking for a safe place to stand before the heavens and daven to the Almighty who created us, but it clearly became a place where everyone who had not yet found their place was welcomed, or who simply wanted a more intimate and quieter setting. Others, I learned, came because they had been truly disappointed by the actions of the other Rabbis towards my family and simply wanted to support us, by practicing Ahavat Yisrael; they believe that the true way of worshiping Hashem is rooted in Kvod Habriyot – a respect for all of G-d’s creations. Others saw the opportunity for women to actually matter, to have a voice and to not simply be hidden behind a mechitza. The simple act of bringing the Torah around to the women’s section caused their faces to light up, and the entire women’s section to shift with love towards the Torah, reaching out to hold fast to our tree of life! Thank you Rabbi, for it was he who made sure this was done, it was he who helped create a space that included all of us – men and women. I personally had not been allowed to kiss a Torah in my community for nearly 22 years!
As I watched all of this unfold, I thought back to what one of my friends had said to me about Simchat Torah – that it was not a woman’s holiday. Another friend told me that it was a boring chag because all the women did, was watch the men dance with the Torah from behind the mechitza, and that she and her daughter simply left shul rather than stand around and do so. To this I simply say, G-d willing, should we continue to grow – come to our shul, come dance with us women on Simchat Torah, because on our side of the mechitza their will be a Sefer Torah too!
What we witnessed on our opening day – on Shabbos Chanukah – was a shul filled with light and love for one’s fellow Jew. Jews gathered from all walks of life, with a mechitza right down the middle between the men and women, and a Sefer Torah carried through our shul for women to reach out to and kiss as well – for we too were at Har Sinai! We opened a shul which gave women a voice – an opportunity for women to say a public prayer for the State of Israel and Israel’s Defense Forces, and a place for a woman to be heard from the bima after davening – because we women can knowledgeably, lovingly and passionately speak words of Torah wisdom too.
I watched as our shul became a place where women were given a forum to be heard, while out in the world so many others were trying to not only silence our voices, but to erase the images of women from magazines and public spaces; the most egregious example of all of these recent attempts to obliterate women, can be found in an article in Mishpacha magazine that covered up the face of a female Holocaust survivor, while only allowing her male twin brother to be seen. How can we scream to the heavens “Remember” and “Never Forget” while other Jews erase memory for us? Shameful to say the least.
While so many others are trying to return Judaism to a place of darkness, to shame women in the name of tzniut, to silence us, to exclude those different from them, I watched as our Rabbi, our leader, created a space filled with light and Ahavat Yisrael. I watched as our Rabbi created a place of warmth by starting a new tradition where we each took a moment to turn to one another, to acknowledge each other’s presence, right before the Torah reading, and wish each other a Shabbat Shalom; a practice I had never seen before in a shul, but which created a connection for every Jew there – no one in our shul would be a lonely Jew of Faith. I too was lonely no more.