Ruthellen Landau and Kerry Smith made history on May 20 by becoming the first same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license in Philadelphia.
Just 15 minutes after the announcement was publicized that federal judge John Edward Jones III had struck down a ban against same-sex marriages in the state of Pennsylvania, the couple made sure they were first in line at City Hall. Smith, an attorney, left clients waiting so she could get there immediately.
“Jewish religion and custom always says to treat people equally,” said Landau, 45, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. “This is part of the way that we can make tikkun olam, that we can heal the world, that we can make sure that we’re treating everybody equally with the same rights and the same respect and the same benefits. And it’s important not just for the LGBT community, but for all of us and the entire Jewish community as well.”
Landau, who plans to wed Smith on May 27 at City Hall with Mayor Michael Nutter presiding, said the Jewish community has been “fantastic” in showing support for them. She and Smith are members of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia.
While Landau and others processed paperwork inside, a large and raucous crowd gathered in the plaza outside the historic building to show their support for the legal decision. Mark Aronchick, an active leader in the Jewish community who was part of the legal team chosen by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union to represent the plaintiffs in the landmark case, was among those who made public remarks.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge, we were up to that challenge,” Aronchick said. “We knew that we were coming to carry the dreams and aspirations and hopes and dignity and humanity of so many people on our shoulders. We knew that we were fighting for the most fundamental values that we have as people.”
Everret Gillison, Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief of staff who spoke on the mayor’s behalf, quipped that “love will always triumph, but you also need good lawyers.”
Jeffrey Saltz, a member of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne and an attorney for business disputes and litigation, held a large sign proclaiming Reform Jews’ support for gay rights.
“This is just fundamental to Judaism, we’re all created in the image of God and we’re all entitled to equal respect and dignity,” Saltz said.
Back inside, longtime gay rights activist Mark Segal was 10th in line to obtain a marriage license alongside partner Jason Villemez.
“I’m busy doing a lot of research and writing and one of the things I’ve discovered is how much Jewish family tradition plays into what the fight for equality is all about," said Segal, the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. "We’re all about family, we’re all about debating the Talmud and it all starts with creating a family, and how can you create a family without marriage?”
After picking up his own paperwork, Segal was symbolically sworn in to assist in issuing licenses to others at the marriage bureau in City Hall. Segal noted that his family has a history of combating anti-Semitism, which he said is “no different than homophobia.”
“I’m more of a cultural Jew than I am a religious Jew, but I see those roots are very deep. I never realized how important they were until just recently," he said. "The fight that I have in me, which keeps me going, is the fight that every Jew has in them to make sure that we have a homeland, to make sure that we survive.”