What is the Welcoming Shuls Project?
With the generous support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation Eshel has embarked on a multi-year project to explore which North American synagogues and leaders would welcome LGBT people and to what degree.
We began this project when we started to receive calls and emails from LGBT members who wanted to know which Orthodox communities would openly welcome them and their families and fully embrace them.
We have conducted interviews with nearly 50 congregational rabbis of Orthodox synagogues so far. Our questions are those that Orthodox LGBT people, couples and their families want to know the answers to when looking for a synagogue in which to belong.
Resources for Shuls
Every community has its own history, unique culture, traditions, leaders and religious ethos. For this reason, we do not provide a cookie cutter approach to the questions raised by LGBT inclusion.
Instead, we invite shuls to explore with us what they see as their goals or their needs and help them shape an ethos of inclusion that feels appropriate for them.
The process of becoming a more welcoming synagogue community begins with a conversation.
These conversations are hard to begin and can be difficult to pursue. If you are ready to begin exploring the questions of LGBT inclusion as a rabbi, board member or congregant, we invite you to be in touch with us. We can help your synagogue get the discussion off the ground or facilitate a process of exploration; we can just get you started or we can shape a dialogue or bring a program for your community that will help surface the issues and the possible solutions. Our goal is to help you articulate how you can welcome LGBT people within halakhic parameters in a way that suits your community.
Principles of Inclusion
We know there is not a single way to approach LGBT inclusion in an Orthodox setting, but to start the conversation, here some general guidelines.
These principles are based in part on language in “The Statement of Principles” that was published in 2011 and signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis and educators.
1. All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kavod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgender. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism. The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic or environmentally generated is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with dignity and respect.
2. Whatever the origin or cause of homosexual orientation, the psychiatric community does not feel that orientation can be changed with therapy. Since most mental health professionals feel that these therapies are either ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically for many patients, it is not halakhically acceptable to demand that gay people attempt to change their sexual orientation. Consequently, we affirm the religious right of gay people to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous. The Rabbinic Council of America has affirmed that therapy of any type “be performed only by licensed, trained practitioners and…that no individual should be coerced to participate in a therapeutic course with which he or she is acutely uncomfortable.”
3. LGBTQ Jews who live in the Orthodox community confront serious emotional, communal and psychological challenges that cause them and their families great pain and suffering. For example, homosexual orientation may greatly increase the risk of suicide among teenagers in our community. Rabbis and communities need to be sensitive and empathetic to that reality. Rabbis and mental health professionals must provide responsible and ethical assistance to congregants and clients dealing with those human challenges and should communicate their openness to providing respectful pastoral counseling to LGBTQ individuals.
4. Jews struggling to live in accordance with halakhic values need and deserve support. The demand that LGBTQ people remain closeted is an unacceptable burden that has socially and psychologically destructive consequences. Nonetheless, the process of coming out is one that should not be forced upon anyone, and it is certainly wrong to “out” an LGBTQ member of the community. Clearly we should leave up to an individual the timing and context of a decision to share their sexual orientation with family, friends and community. We support the honesty and grasp the relief of coming out for the gay members of our community, but leave up to them the timing and context of their decision to share their sexual orientation with family, friends and community.
5. LGBTQ Jews should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community. They should participate and count ritually, be eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally be treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic and hashkafic framework as any other member of their synagogue. Conversely, they must accept and fulfill all the responsibilities of such membership, including those generated by communal norms or broad Jewish principles that go beyond formal halakha.
6. At present, an often-recommended halakhic “solution” for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews is life-long celibacy. Clearly, this is a demand that can be followed by very few individuals, whether hetero- or homosexual. Since, under these circumstances, the vast majority of young LGBTQ Orthodox Jews will either leave Orthodoxy or find same sex companionship and endeavor to remain in this community, the Orthodox world is challenged with finding a way within halakhic parameters to welcome these Jews as well as their partners and children.
A welcoming shul accepts certain principles that will bind the rabbi, LGBTQ congregants, and the community as a whole in a covenant of inclusion. We welcome you to use these principles as a guide in creating a more LGBTQ inclusive Orthodox community.
Which synagogues are part of the Welcoming Shuls Project?
As of March 2017, we have interviewed 60 synagogues and rabbis across the US and Canada. Each week we add to our list of the synagogues that have engaged in this dialogue and consider themselves welcoming to LGBT people.
If you are an LGBTQ person, do you want to know if there is an Orthodox synagogue near you that will open their doors to you, embrace you and include you fully in rituals and the life of the community like they do with all of their members? Do you have children and wonder where you can have a lifecycle event such as a simchat bat or a bris, or a bat or bar mitzvah?
Are you a parent of an LGBTQ child who want to know where your child will be welcome so they don’t feel compelled to leave orthodoxy when they come out?
Are you a parent of a trans child wondering which rabbi can help you with your halakhik questions of your child; or a synagogue where they can sit on the side of the mechitza that feels appropriate to their gender expression?
The Welcoming Shuls Project is designed to help you find those places.
To find out if a synagogue is a part of the WSP, contact the WSP coordinator, Sunnie Epstein.
What about schools?
We are also gathering information about schools where an LGBT person will feel welcome. If you are wondering where you can place your child, contact us.
Welcoming Shuls List Highlights
Every few months we will highlight some of the synagogues we have interviewed who are among a growing number of halakhically committed congregations that consider themselves welcoming to LGBT Jews. If you would like your synagogue to be highlighted, be in touch!
Highlights from Our Welcoming Shuls List (as of 3/9/17)
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, MD; Rabbi Hayim Ovadia
Beth Shalom in Providence, Providence, RI; Rabbi Barry Dolinger
Bais Abraham in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO; Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Riverdale, NY; Rabbi Steven Exler
Makom in Toronto, Toronto, ON; Rabbi Aaron Levy
Stanton Street Shul, Manhattan, NY; Rabbi Aviad Bodner
Beth David Synagogue, West Hartford, CT; Rabbi Yitzchok Adler