Philly’s Gay Congregation Expected to Merge With Rodeph Shalom

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Philadelphia's sole gay congregation no longer sees a need for a separate community.

Congregation Beth Ahavah, an LGBT synagogue, is expected to merge with Congregation Rodeph Shalom sometime next spring, and the most noteworthy thing about the move is how little distance there now is between the two groups, members say.

The two congregations have not finalized an agreement — Beth Ahavah members must still vote to approve the deal and both sides must still work out the financial details — but it seems inevitable. The LGBT congregation moved into the Reform synagogue on North Broad Street more than seven years ago and stopped holding separate services about a year ago. 

"Merging seems like the right thing to do now," said Joan Levin, the president of Beth Ahavah. "The world has changed, and we are welcome in many mainstream synagogues."

The dissolution of Beth Ahavah means that there will no longer be a congregation dedicated to a particular sexual orientation or gender identity in Philadelphia. And that, says Levin, is because there is no need.

Congregations around Philadelphia have gradually increased their outreach efforts to the LGBT community, and many rabbis outside the Orthodox community now officiate at same-sex weddings. In May, a federal judge struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, and a Jewish lesbian couple was the first to obtain a marriage license in the state. Earlier this month, at Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Elkins Park, about 100 Jews from the area heard LGBT advocates discuss topics such as what practices they could implement at their congregations to ensure that people of various sexual orientations and gender identities feel welcome. 

"Younger LGBT people do not need separate synagogues," said Levin, 67. "They look at the world differently and they do join Rodeph Shalom," or other synagogues. "They may come to our events but they don’t see the need to belong to separate synagogues. This is the culmination of acceptance — the need not to be apart." 

The congregation was started in 1975 by a handful of Philadelphia Jews, some of whom had been traveling to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, which served the gay community. 

"It was a time when people were ashamed to be openly gay and synagogues were far from accepting," said Jerry Silverman, a founding member and past president of Beth Ahavah, which he described as the third LGBT synagogue to open in the United States after ones in Los Angeles and New York. 

Levin said there was great need for a congregation like Beth Ahavah during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

"Our memorial board has names of men who died all too young. As a synagogue, we were serving people who were not well," said Levin, a clinical social worker. "Funeral homes did not know what to do; they didn't treat dead, gay mean who had died of AIDS; they didn't treat them well. No one knew what to do and it took time to make change in that way."

Now, she continued, "the intensity of all that is no longer there." The congregation's membership has declined from a peak of 150 members to about 40 now.

Other LGBT synagogues around the country have also merged or affiliated with mainstream congregations in recent years. In 2012, Etz Chaim Congregation began to use the facilities at a Conservative congregation in South Florida, making it what was believed to be the first LGBT congregation in the country to meet at a Conservative synagogue. 

Beth Ahavah, which affiliated with the Reform movement in 1989, moved into the Rodeph Shalom building in 2007 after losing members and new ownership of its building in Old City increased the congregation's rent. Members of both congregations said the connection has had a significant impact on changing attitudes and practices — and not just in regards to sexual orientation. 

Levin recalled Erev Shabbat services with Rodeph Shalom, when during the prayer Lecha Dodi, Beth Ahavah members in the last verse turned to the back of the room, which is the traditional custom, to welcome the Shabbat bride, and "everyone was staring at us. It was shocking to them; they never did that."

Then about a month ago, Levin said, "I was sitting in the front row and we turned" during the prayer "and we didn't see any faces; they had all turned."

She described it as "a wonderful metaphor."

Beth Ahavah stopped holding separate services, in part, because they often preferred those led by the clergy at Rodeph Shalom rather than those led by student rabbis, said Levin. They would hear about sermons — sometimes on topics such as marriage equality — during Rodeph Shalom services that they had missed. 

Despite no longer holding separate services, there is still a room in Rodeph Shalom with an ark, a memorial board and memorabilia from Beth Ahavah. Silverman, who has long been connected to Rodeph Shalom and other congregations through his work as a Jewish educator, said he never expected Beth Ahavah to merge with Rodeph Shalom or any other congregation. 

"In my wildest dreams in 1975, I never expected to be talking" about having "little need for a separate synagogue," said Silverman, 64. "I spent half of my life heavily involved in the synagogue, so it was tough for me to personally get used to the reality of us not having a separate organization."

Rodeph Shalom president Lloyd Brotman said that hearing Levin discuss the history of Beth Ahavah and why there had been a need for such a congregation made a powerful impression on him. He said he had considered the struggle of the gay community in larger society — in terms of issues such as employment discrimination  — but not in regards to Judaism and other religions. 

"Of course, they were having the same struggle in their religious communities that they were having everywhere else," said Brotman.

"It's kind of a dream come true that the LGBTQ community, represented by Beth Ahavah, that they no longer feel that need to have a separate place," Brotman continued. "I think it's a sign that we've opened ourselves and helped them to feel welcome."

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