Synagogue holds forum on Jewish LGBT concerns



Congregation Beit Simchat Torah on West 30th Street. Photo: Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar.

Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a Jewish and LGBT synagogue in Midtown, hosted a special class on discrimination that was open to the public.

The event, which was the last session of a three-part series on the intersections of Jewish civil law and American politics, took place on August 25. The group of 13 students primarily discussed the history of violence experienced by Jews.

“People, especially those who are LGBT and Jews are apprehensive of the upcoming presidential elections,” said Alexander Weissman, the rabbinical intern who led the class. “The political imagery of a Trump-dominated government reminds many of Hitler during the Holocaust.”

Formed in 1973, CBST congregation remains the oldest Jewish synagogue for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. With approximately 800 active members, the synagogue is open to all traditions of Judaism, and engages the community with events focused on U.S.-Middle East relations, gun violence, homelessness, HIV AIDS and mental health counseling.

For this series, Weissman sent out ballots with a few topics for members to choose from, and the class titled “When is the Law of the Land not the Law” garnered the most votes.

Rick Landman, an activist and lawyer who attended the class, is also a child of a Holocaust survivor. Having started one of the first gay liberation advocacy groups at the University of Buffalo in 1970, Landman said the situation for LGBT Jews is improving but at a slow pace. “For every step we take forward, there are two steps backward, and if Trump becomes President, it is three steps backward,” he said.

While the Pride parade held last June united the country in support of the LGBT community, the shootings earlier that month at the Orlando, Florida, gay bar, Pulse, drew attention to the increasingly unsafe public spaces for vulnerable groups like the Jewish LGBT population.

The most recent FBI Crime Statistics from 2014 revealed that out of the 5,462 single-biased incidents reported, 20 percent had a gender identity and sexual orientation angle. The data also indicated that out of 1,140 anti-religious hate crimes, 58 percent had Jewish victims. And since 1996, Jews and LGBT remain among the most targeted groups after racial minorities, according to the FBI.

Laurie Magid, a lawyer from Philadelphia who participated in the class, said the recent violence against LGBT couldn’t be controlled by legislation. “You can’t get out of a problem by just making more and more laws,” she said.

Bethamie Horowitz, a professor of Jewish education at New York University, said there needs to be more dialogue about marginalized communities in this election season.  “I think the civil society discourse is the ethos of the United States that makes it different from what it was 100 years ago,” she said, “and I feel this election is challenging those very norms that make our civil society.”

For Weissman, the answer is transforming relationships between groups that have traditionally been in conflict with each other. He explained how a community like the LGBT, once fearful of the police, now operates next door to the New York City Police Department’s Traffic Control Division.

“I once overheard a police officer talk about the need for gender-neutral bathrooms, and it made me think that the attitude of the police towards gays is now changing,” he said.

Assistant Rabbi Yael Rapport, who works at CSBT, said these classes provide a sense of belonging and safety for members of the Jewish LGBT community.

“The intent of such discussions is to let people express themselves and voice opinions without fear. When the world is feeling very chaotic and people feel lost, they need a safe space to think out experiences, try out new sentences and hold themselves accountable,” he said.

Chaz Macrina, assistant to the executive director of the synagogue, said CSBT is offering more classes this fall and spring. “We are very socially conscious, and believe that responding to issues in the society is organic to the character of the congregation.”