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Synagogue Greets 30 With Evening Bash

June 23, 2005 By:
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Federation President Harold Goldman and Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
Hoping, quite literally, for some kind of miracle, Jeff Landsman slipped a desperately scrawled note into a crevice in the Western Wall. On his first visit to Israel five years ago, the married father of two teenagers asked God for the strength to come out to the world as a gay man.

"Everything I knew was unraveling faster than I could imagine," said Landsman, now 48, whose eventual revelation shortly after his trip prompted the breakup of his marriage. For the better part of two years, it also seriously strained his relationship with one of his daughters.

Friends and family implored him to seek out people who had gone through the same thing or something similar. Landsman found such support in Congregation Beth Ahavah, in Old City, which caters primarily to the gay and lesbian community.

"To tell you the truth, the congregation probably saved my life," acknowledged Landsman, taking a break from the festivities at Beth Ahavah's 30th-anniversary party, held last week at Top of the Tower in Center City.

More than 100 men and women, decked out in tuxedos and evening gowns, gathered June 18 to mark the date, back in 1975, when a handful of gay men met in a Center City apartment and decided to start a shul. Since then, the existence of Beth Ahavah ("House of Love"), and similar such synagogues in major cities throughout the United States, has served as a statement to the Jewish world that being gay and religious is not a contradiction in terms.

A Place of Comfort
"When I first came out in my early 20s, I thought Judaism was over for me," said 35-year-old David Wohlsifer, who met Landsman at the synagogue, and now is his partner. "Now, I have more of a Jewish life than many of my heterosexual counterparts."

A prime example: He can offer Landsman a "good Shabbas" kiss without eliciting stares.

The evening got under way with the presentation of two honoree awards. The first went to Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a synagogue member who also serves as director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Pennsylvania Council; the second to Harold Goldman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Both are openly gay.

Following a buffet dinner, everyone in the room joined in a circle around the dance floor for a melodic recitation of the Havdalah prayers. Shortly afterward, the disc jockey popped in Cole Porter's classic "Night and Day," and the floor filled with dancers.

Giving her feet a brief respite, Rabbi Susan Falk - who just graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, as well as completed a three-year-stint as Beth Ahavah's rabbinic intern - said she felt that society as a whole, and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in particular, has grown more accepting of gay couples. Still, she added, this can work against Beth Ahavah, especially as members with children are forced to look for other congregations due to the synagogue's lack of a Hebrew school.

Falk, a self-described lesbian, also believes that even Judaism's most liberal streams have a long way to go in meeting needs.

"It's one thing to follow the lead of your movement. But if you don't do anything beyond adopting the policy, you don't know what it means to serve the community," she said.

For example, Abbe Forman, a member for more than a decade, said that membership forms for Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues often still have "Mr." and "Mrs." on them.

"At this synagogue, we don't have to ask about it. It's not a constant question and answer," she said, though the synagogue does have a handful of straight individuals in its membership roster. "It's a place where we can be ourselves."

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