Two Jewish Journeys to Build One Jewish Family
By: Meagan Bilus
Two Jewish Journeys to Build One Jewish Family Bu Meagan Bilus I grew up Catholic in Cleveland but always had a large circle of Jewish friends. Shabbat dinners and Hanukkah celebrations were all fun and familiar to me. When I moved to New York after college, I mostly dated Jewish men but had lost the familiar Judaism that I once had growing up. After moving to Atlanta however, I yearned for a sense of community. It led me to things like joining volleyball leagues and even going to Church again. I enjoyed the fellowship but the teachings didn’t resonate. When I met my future husband Mike, we quickly grew close and I recall asking him several times what he was doing for Christmas. After dodging the question on a couple of occasions he finally said “I’m Jewish, so my family doesn’t do anything for Christmas.” His answer set us off on a wonderful journey, both as individuals and together.
The reason Mike had avoided the question entirely was because he had experienced anti-Semitism growing up and was hesitant to share that he was Jewish, even to friends, for fear that he would be judged. His Jewish foundation was built on spending time with his grandfather who was a Holocaust survivor or attending synagogue with his family, and very present in who he was. As our relationship progressed we started having more serious conversations about our future, including how we both wanted to raise Jewish children, once that time came. It launched spiritual journeys for both of us. For Mike, it was to find Judaism once again. For me, it was to really learn more about Judaism besides the Hanukkah candles I had lit with friends growing up.
When we started attending Jewish events around Atlanta it became clear that we had an incredible Jewish community we did not know existed. At one of the events we met my soon-to-be mentor Rabbi Brian Glusman, who asked me to join his Introduction to Judaism class at the MJCCA. It was there that I made the decision to convert to Judaism. The process was rigorous and it was challenging to question a lot of the core beliefs I was taught as a child, but I knew in my heart that Judaism was more than a religion; it was a true foundation for the future of our family. When the time came to complete the conversion process I went into the mikvah (ritual bath). It was one of the most incredible and emotional experiences I ever had in my life.
I completed my conversion shortly before our wedding and was able to go into the nuptials as a Jewish woman, signing the ketubah with my Hebrew name. While the ceremony was beautiful we faced challenges along the way. Most importantly my parents had difficulty accepting and supporting my conversion. Thankfully my parents grew to understand my decision and have since been beyond supportive in accepting my choice to be Jewish. despite my not being raised that way. I was also able to navigate a lot of the interfaith family challenges by participating in Rabbi Malka Packer’s Love and Religion class at InterfaithFamily Atlanta. After our wedding, we traveled to Israel together through Honeymoon Israel and quickly became friends with other Atlanta couples just like us. The trip coincided with the U.S .decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem and it was eye opening for me to hear the conflicting ideas of others on our trip. I loved that Judaism is expansive enough to accept multiple political and religious points of view.
We’ve just celebrated our one-year anniversary. I’m Jewish. I’m taking Hebrew classes at AA Synagogue. We’re talking about children. And Mike’s people are my people!
Radical Welcome: A Process, Not a Destination
By Rabbi Joshua Lesser
I used to joke that straight people need welcoming synagogues, too! But over the years as Congregation Bet Haverim has transitioned from being a synagogue comprised of almost entirely LGBT members to an LGBT-founded synagogue serving a diverse membership with a straight majority, welcoming people is no laughing matter. In fact, it is intentional and on-going work. While most Jewish organizations describe themselves as inclusive or welcoming, the numbers of unaffiliated Jews and loved ones who say otherwise is daunting. Even many of our own members point to feelings of being excluded. While we are far from perfect, part of the commitment to the practice of being welcoming is a commitment to seeing it as a perpetual process and not a destination.
At Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH) our evolution is firmly grounded upon our beginnings, and our commitment to inclusivity emerged organically. Haverim, a social group for gay men and lesbians, preceded CBH by two years. In 1985, Haverim held a Passover seder where during the telling of the Israelites’ journey from oppression to liberation, a parallel discussion began. Feeling like the Jewish community was a narrow place, they realized they did not need a social group, but a Jewish spiritual home — a place where they felt free to be themselves, a welcoming and open synagogue. This is an origin story ripe with symbolism, which remains a touchstone as we change and emerge, no longer a gay synagogue, but something altogether different.
From the inside out, they soon discovered the challenge present in most of our Jewish communities. Was CBH truly open and welcoming to others or just to people like themselves? In the early 1990s, leaders in the Jewish community discovered that gay Jewish men dying of AIDS were having to turn to Christian ministers to bury them. An Atlanta Jewish Community AIDS conference was organized by Federation, JF&CS and CBH. This was the mainstream Jewish community’s first substantive encounter with CBH and a funny thing happened. A few of the straight Jews participating liked the people they met from CBH, and began to attend services. One of them asked for permission for his family to join and said that they would not come silently; they would invite others to this community where they felt at home. And so, welcoming the newcomers began.
In time, CBH voted to establish the first supplementary school for children at an LGBT-founded synagogue. Having a place where children could be educated made it possible for more straight folks to consider CBH a viable option. The process was not without tension. Were straight members equal? Debates ensued about whether straight members could hold leadership positions. While there was no consensus (even among straight members), ultimately the congregation rejected the notion of second-class citizenship. All should be equal. Valuing the egalitarian standing for all members, along with an emphasis on grassroots democratic leadership, required significant accommodations and understanding. Part of what helped us deepen a sense of welcoming was to shift from language that was “us vs. them” (even in a well-meaning way) to an “us and them” which allowed a new “us” to emerge. Our narrative was that CBH was grand experiment in how a community of difference could pray, learn and grow together.
We realized that the founding LGBT-held values had universal application: inclusion, accessibility authenticity and dignity. This helped the community take on the idea of approaching welcoming as a value to practice and not just a checklist to accomplish. We take seriously the commandment to know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers. Beyond welcoming, we have become allies to one another as we have thrown in our lot with each other.
We are no longer an experiment but a community that honors and expands the vision and intent of our founding members. Their desire was to create a place that welcomed Jews who did not feel welcome. We continue to open our home to Jews and their loved ones who have been ignored or are invisible. Thus, we take seriously being a community that celebrates its LGBT and Jewish values by examining how we can be welcoming to interfaith families, single parents, Jews of color, multiracial families and people of all economic means. We have become a values-based community rather than an identity-based synagogue.
As we strive to create a Jewish version of a beloved community, we cannot ignore that we know the heart of the stranger. This is where our experience, though inverse, can apply to all communities, not just LGBT-founded communities.