Pride Week: Could Canadian shuls be more LGBTQ-inclusive?

Created in 1984, Holy Blossom Temple’s “rainbow chupah” was inspired by imagery from the story of Noah’s Ark.

Had they gotten engaged one year later, Orrin Wolpert and his husband, Mitchell Marcus, would have been married by the rabbi at the downtown Toronto synagogue to which they now belong, the First Narayever Congregation.

The traditional egalitarian synagogue changed its policy on allowing same-sex weddings in June 2009, 10 months after the couple planned their ceremony.

At the time, Wolpert and Marcus were involved with the Narayever, but weren’t members, unwilling to belong to a shul that disallowed gay weddings.

They asked a Reform rabbi they both knew to officiate at their August 2009 wedding, and subsequently joined Narayever in accordance with the synagogue’s new stance.

“I feel really strongly about the shul,” said Wolpert, who comes from a traditional background.

“It’s an amazing community of passionate Jews who are very traditional in their practice yet very inclusive in their approach… the membership is very intellectual, very socially progressive… we feel totally included there.”

Wolpert worked on the Narayever’s board for two years, ran its social action committee, helped draft the language on its website and attends services with his husband and their two-year-old twins about once a month. 

The congregation honoured them with an aufruf prior to their wedding, a brit milah for their son and a simchat bat for their daughter.

Wolpert and Marcus’ sense of total acceptance by their synagogue is not anomalous, but neither is it the norm.

Over the past decade or so, as Canadian legislation and large swathes of public opinion have come to recognize the rights of homosexual couples to marry and access attendant legal benefits, Canadian synagogues across denominations have been confronted with the expectation to assert where they stand on LGBTQ inclusion. 

Given the traditional Jewish view that homosexual sex is biblically prohibited, the issue continues to be sensitive for many synagogues, and, in some cases, one that requires an overhaul of entrenched values. 

And it’s not just the question of whether to allow same-sex marriage. Synagogues and rabbis across the board are increasingly establishing – both formally and informally – positions on their overall approaches to including LGBTQ congregants, in matters such as ritual participation, educational programming and use of language. 

While levels of acceptance tend to vary widely among synagogues and rabbis – even within the bounds of a given denomination – there appears to be a general shift toward emphasizing practical inclusion of LGBTQ congregants above rigid adherence to biblical text.  

Reform, Reconstructionist and progressive, non-denominational synagogues across North America have generally embraced LGBTQ members as equal participants, both by officiating at same-sex weddings and offering full involvement in ritual and executive proceedings.

In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal association of Reform rabbis in Canada and the United States, green-lighted same-sex marriages, but left the decision whether to officiate at them up to individual rabbis.

For some Reform leaders, then, change has been more gradual. 

This past April, Rabbi Yael Splansky became senior rabbi at Toronto’s Reform Holy Blossom Temple and the first rabbi in the synagogue’s history to perform same-sex weddings. 

“For years here [as an associate or assistant rabbi], I wouldn’t, out of respect for my senior colleagues, officiate at same-sex weddings.”

Rabbi Splansky said Holy Blossom has long supported the LGBTQ community in other ways. The shul is an ongoing sponsor of Jewish LGBTQ group Kulanu’s Pride Parade float and it supported gay Jewish men afflicted by AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The drawing of lines around “acceptable” and “unacceptable” forms of inclusion continues to be quite common among synagogues.

While gay marriage itself remains a sticking point for a lot of rabbis, there are many who nonetheless view the welcoming of LGBTQ Jews as both an ethical and practical imperative.

“If someone with an interest, commitment or curiosity about Jewish life knocks on our doors, we’ve got to let them in,” Rabbi Splansky said.

“Some [rabbis] do it with full pleasure while others do it grudgingly, but everyone’s got to do it… just looking at the numbers, we can’t afford to lose anybody.”

Her comment is in reference to the 2013 Pew report on American Jewry, a survey that indicates rising rates of secularism and intermarriage.

Perhaps for this reason as well, the modern Orthodox world has also seen a shift toward shelving views on homosexuality as sin and ushering LGBTQ Jews into the fold.

In 2010, close to 200 Orthodox rabbis signed a statement of principles regarding homosexual Jews. 

Drafted by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, a member of one of the largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, it affirms that although same-sex unions are “antithetical to Jewish law,” individuals with “homosexual inclinations should be treated with the care and concern appropriate to all human beings,” including acceptance in synagogues. 

It further acknowledges that homosexual Jews in the Orthodox community often face serious emotional and psychological challenges and that, especially among teenagers, the risk of suicide is greater. 

Rabbi Aaron Levy, a modern Orthodox rabbi at Makom, a non-denominational, grassroots Jewish community congregation in downtown Toronto, won’t perform gay marriages, but he said Makom is “a very queer-inclusive community,” with a number of active LGBTQ members.

Last summer, Makom held a Shabbaton to honour the upcoming same-sex wedding of two members, which included an aufruf and learnings on queer issues and Judaism.

“In terms of where I am vis-a-vis my own approach to traditional Jewish law and my understanding of where the Orthodox community is in grappling with LGBTQ issues… I don’t think I can perform a gay wedding,” said Rabbi Levy.

Still, he noted, “Nature provides a minority of people whose sexuality is different, and Halachah has to, at some point… come up with a credible response… Even if communities aren’t thinking as much about queer issues on the level of possible reinterpretations of Halachah, they’re thinking about the social dynamic of becoming more welcoming.”

Boston-based Rabbi Steve Greenberg has garnered recognition for being the only known, openly gay Orthodox rabbi, and one willing to officiate at same-sex Jewish weddings. 

Author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition and executive director of Eshel, an American organization that functions as a national support network for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews who wish to remain committed to tradition, he has performed a same-sex, halachically observant wedding for a Toronto couple and will officiate at another one in Toronto in August.

“I do it because, being gay myself, I feel a responsibility for young people, that there should be some way to commit in a fashion that’s real and that your family can celebrate,” Rabbi Greenberg explained.

“But I think it’s a mistake to presently expect [other] Orthodox rabbis to do this… it’s premature to expect the Orthodox world to sanctify or celebrate what most in it still believe is a prohibition… I think it’s sufficient to have Orthodox rabbis support a same-sex couple’s Jewish life once they’re married.”

He emphasized that Orthodox rabbis have a responsibility not to dismiss LGBTQ individuals by telling them to pursue a heterosexual marriage or to opt for a life of celibacy. 

Such responses, can, particularly for young people, cause extremely harmful outcomes, such as depression, self-harm or substance abuse, he said. 

“This cannot be a process by which we throw arguments at each other. We need to take a human read of what it is to discover oneself to be gay, lesbian or transsexual and figure out if the community can find ways – either within halachic norms or within a sense of responsibility to shift them – to make way for people who aren’t choosing their sexual or gender identity, but living it.”

Rabbi Greenberg suggests that Orthodox rabbis can instead say things such as, “God is merciful. There are 612 mitzvot you can still try to do to the best of your ability… join my shul.”

Aviva Goldberg is the ritual leader at Shir Libeynu, an unaffiliated, inclusive congregation that formed in the late 1990s in Toronto as a place for LGBTQ Jews to worship comfortably.

Raised in a modern Orthodox home, she turned to Reconstructionist Judaism as an adult and came out as a lesbian at age 38 (she’s now 65). 

Goldberg recalled how, two decades ago, even at a Reconstructionist synagogue, she and her partner weren’t allowed to come up for an aliyah together to mark their anniversary. 

While great strides have been made, she said, the community still has a way to go overall.

“Toronto’s Jewish community is generally very conservative… I’ve heard some rabbis say, ‘Anyone can come to our shul.’ Sure, but do you talk about issues affecting LGBTQ members? Do any of your liturgies relate to them? Do you perform same-sex weddings? The answer is, of course, no. It’s more like, ‘You can come to our shul, but leave your life behind.’” 

For some LGBTQ Jews, this perception sparks a rejection of “mainstream” synagogues in favour of wholly inclusive, non-denominational congregations like Shir Libeynu. 

For others, like Wolpert, a more traditional synagogue that accepts LGBTQ congregants, but doesn’t strictly define itself as a “gay shul” holds greater appeal.

“My gay identity is only one part of me. The rest of me also has to be satisfied by my religious home.”