Alternative Synagogue Provides Home for Lesbian and Gay Jews

By Michael J. Mazza

According to Larry Stone, the words of the biblical prophet Micah sum up Judaism the best: "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." This same threefold guide also exemplifies the mission of Bet Tikvah, a Jewish congregation established to serve the needs of Pittsburgh's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Jews, along with their family and friends. As a member of Bet Tikvah, Stone is one of the many individuals that have established this congregation as one of the greater Pittsburgh area's most dynamic and diverse spiritual communities.

Bet Tikvah, whose name means "House of Hope," was founded in 1988 by a group of individuals who wanted to establish a spiritual home for Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals in the Pittsburgh area. From the original collective of three individuals, the congregation has grown to over 65 individual and family memberships. Member Bruce Hyde noted that an average of 25 to 30 people have been attending Bet Tikvah's monthly shabbat service, which is held the first Friday of every month at Shadyside's Rodef Shalom Congregation. More than 40 turned out for the Bet Tikvah's Yom Kippur service, which was held at the First Unitarian Church in Shadyside on October 10.

A key to Bet Tikvah's growth has been the congregation's success at balancing the spiritual and the social. In addition to holding shabbat and holy day services, the congregation has gone to baseball games, held bowling nights, attended plays, and taken trips to the Kennywood amusement park. Many congregational events combine the social and spiritual at a deeper level. Bruce Hyde notes that the community has come together for such observances as baby-namings and memorial services. They have also had a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

A core component of Bet Tikvah's mission is outreach to both the larger Jewish community and to the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities. Bet Tikvah member Dinah Denmark has been one of the leaders in this area. She regularly organizes a panel of Bet Tikvah members who participate in panel discussions as part of a course in Judaism given by the Jewish Education Institute in Pittsburgh. Denmark notes that her congregation has been participating in this program for five years, each year reaching more than 100 individuals from the larger Jewish community. Observes Bruce Hyde of this program, "It gives us a chance to present ourselves to the 'straight' Jewish community as real people. I think that's a real achievement for us." Denmark is committed to continuing such outreach efforts: "I think it really helps to open doors and open minds." Another milestone for the congregation was the inclusion of two films with lesbian and gay subject matter in the Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival this past February. After the films, which were attended by over 70 people, Denmark had the opportunity to speak to the audience in collaboration with Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai.

The congregation's outreach to the larger gay community has been similarly multifaceted. Bet Tikvah members were actively involved in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's 1998 Creating Change conference in Pittsburgh. This year the congregation is sponsoring a film about gays during the Nazi Holocaust for the Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Because Bet Tikvah is at its heart a religious community, much of its outreach to the larger gay community takes the form of interfaith activities. Bruce Hyde noted that the members of the Pittsburgh chapter of Dignity, a support group for gay Catholics, have been welcomed to Bet Tikvah's Passover seder. Bet Tikvah members have also participated in interfaith services during Pittsburgh's gay pride celebration each June. Hyde is particularly enthused about interfaith cooperation between the area's predominantly gay religious communities: "I think our organizations have a lot more in common than we do apart. There's that common bond we have. It bridges any religious gaps." Adds Dinah Denmark: "There's a lot of potential [in interfaith work]. I see it as just beginning and very promising."

Much of Bet Tikvah's success in its outreach activities can be attributed to the unique character of the congregation. Dinah Denmark notes that diversity and acceptance are at the heart of the group's value system: "There are no boundaries. There are no labels. It's an ongoing work-in-progress." Member Terry Starrett adds, "Not only are we lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered, but we're also 'alternative.'" This openness has made Bet Tikvah a welcoming home for straight couples, interfaith couples, and interracial families, as well as to single members. Bruce Hyde expressed his pride that the members have built up a truly multigenerational congregation which functions as a loving extended family.

Member Terry Boots noted that as a gay Christian man who has enjoyed a 20-year partnership with a Jewish man, he feels a strong sense of belonging at Bet Tikvah. Adds Terry's partner, Bill Cohen, "Terry is so totally welcomed here. It's very clear that Terry is as important a member of the congregation as I am." Carole Stone, a straight member of Bet Tikvah, echoes the sentiments expressed by Boots and Cohen: "I'm here because I choose to be here."

The diversity of Bet Tikvah encompasses not only the social, but also the spiritual. Because the congregation is not formally affiliated with any of the four major branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist), its members maintain an openness to individuals from any of these backgrounds, as well as to non-Jews like Terry Boots and to 'cultural Jews' whose Jewish identity is more ethnic that religious. This theological pluralism is appreciated by members like Jonathan Robison, who proudly describes himself as "half Jewish, half Buddhist, and half radical humanist." But despite this pluralism, Bet Tikvah remains true to its religious mission. Says Carole Stone, "This is one of the most spiritual congregations I have ever been to." Adds Terry Boots, "This is truly a congregation of faith."

All of Bet Tikvah's members agree that diversity is one of the congregation's greatest strengths. Also characteristic of the group is its participatory, non-hierarchical structure. With no rabbi and no president, Bet Tikvah is entirely led by its rank-and-file members, who take turns leading services. Member Deb Polk notes of this arrangement, "I/m just so glad when I listen to the sermons. It's so neat to hear everybody's diverse perspectives. It's fun and exciting to be pushed and challenged and to hear a perspective that you might not have thought of yourself." Larry Stone observes that this collective responsibility is a blessing to those who participate. While leading Yom Kippur services, he told the congregation, "Speaking is easy when you're in a room where you love the people and the people love you."

Bet Tikvah members stress that while theirs is a Jewish faith community, grounded in the Hebrew scriptures and the historical experiences of the Jewish people, they are welcoming to all. Says Bruce Hyde, "If you come to Bet Tikvah you will not be ignored. People are important to us." Adds Terry Boots, "This is a warm, caring, sweet group of people. And the food is wonderful!"

Individuals interested in attending Bet Tikvah's services or social activities can find the times and locations at the congregation's web site (