Last Friday, the SG and me were foiled by the usually competent public transportation system. The bus we were going to take to go to "Da Minyan" (more on that another time) blew a tire, and another one seemed a long time in coming. So we tried to walk to catch another bus to get to Beth Elderly. No luck, just as we got to the stop, the damn thing peeled off.
Great. So we decided we'd go to a new shul, one that I'd heard about but hadn't gotten a chance to visit yet: Temple GLBT, or, as a high school friend once called it (in whispered tones) "The Gay One." Of course, not knowing its exact address, we had to be assisted by Shiska Girlfriend's kid sister way back in another timezone. Let me tell you, there is nothing like yelling transliterated Hebrew into your cell phone in a crowded bus station to get attention from the old Chinese ladies.
So we hop on the next bus and head down. The architecture was very cool; the shul is a giant rectangle and the sanctuary is on the third floor, giving it a great vaulted ceiling and pretty cool windows. It was nice seeing the sun set as we went through Kabbalat Shabbat.
But, I admit it, I was kind of weirded out about going to "that shul," particularly as the GF and I are, as she puts it, "painfully straight."
Let me explain. I have gay godparents, I have bisexual and transgendered friends and acquaintances. Sure, for a while I was uncomfortable with my brother painting his toenails, but he grew out of it. So it's not an issue of not being ok with GLBT people having their own space or activities, it's a question of whether the shul is "GLBT-friendly", or specifically for GLBTs. Just like the term "Gay-Straight Alliance" can either mean exactly what it says, or can be a code for, "this is where the queer kids hang out, everybody else just beat it." Those were some of the anxieties running through my head as we headed inside.
For the most part, my fears were unfounded. There were same-sex couples there, but we weren't the only male-female pairing, either. We didn't get any dirty looks; in fact they were among the friendliest folks we've encountered so far. And I was very impressed with their prayerbook: giant Kinko's tomes with a ton of Shabbos songs in the back, a bunch of which I'd never heard of, and fascinating commentary on a lot of the liturgy from a GLBT perspective. Originally, I was sort of turned off by the (IMO) strange decision to offer three or four different versions of prayers (traditional, "mystical," gender neutral or alternative, etc...) which just seemed sort of confusing and reinforced the fact that everybody wasn't on the same page, literally, but about halfway into the service it stopped being so noticeable. I also appreciated that their custom is to not take out any traditional liturgy, only add new and optional stuff (with the possible exception of some gender stuff, I think). Particularly moving was mentioning AIDS in a Misheberach prayer, and a special prayer for "our GLBT brothers and sisters" that suffered in the Middle Ages, Holocaust and today, that gave a whole new spin on the concept of suffering and persecution in Jewish history. It was a real insight into how it must be for GLBT Jews to have their history and suffering not be acknowledged in liturgy or popular Jewish consciousness, and made me all the more appreciative of the fact that they had figured out a way to include this without getting dragged into the reverse; ignoring or excluding straight Jews because they didn't quite share in the same narrative.
Also, SG really liked that their siddur had Hebrew, transliteration, AND English translation, so that she had something to read while the rest of us were doing our thing.
What I like most about these guys was that they seemed to have achieved a nice balance between their gender or sexual orientation identities and a strong background in Jewish practice and tradition (at least in the context of the service). It wasn't so much, a "If you think about it, Moses was probably gay, man" thing as the congregation having their own particularistic bent on Judaism and Jewish history. And once you got past the initial liturgy weirdness, it was essentially a fairly traditional service, much more traditional than, say, Temple Touched by God's re-enactment of the Levites' serenade (plus a violin for that "Old Country" flavor).
The cantor's drash was pretty interesting. She spoke about health care (there was some tie-in to Isaiah I didn't quite catch) and how the shul was working, in concrete ways, to get affordable healthcare for every city resident. I was happy to hear about some actual Reform tikkun olam in practice, as opposed to say, Temple Touched by God, which mostly consisted of bitching about Republicans and then talking about how we could supposedly raise awareness about global warming by "checking out" some website.
Things that bugged me:
- Kabbalat Shabbat lasted, literally, all of fifteen minutes. Just a personal thing, but I think those psalms and melodies are really beautiful, and I was annoyed that they skipped most of them or excerpted the hell out of them. It left more time for Maariv, but the reality is, I strongly prefer K.S. to Maariv, for exactly the reasons given above.
- Having 10 different versions of the Amidah. I realize this verges on the hypocritical, given my usual liberal Judaism bias. Maybe it was just seeing them all together that did it. Anyway. I don't object on principle, it just seemed weird in practice. Not sure what the answer is there.
- The siddur having like, ten million eclectic and obscure Yiddish & Hebrew songs is somewhat undercut when the cantor picks one and then has to stop halfway through because she doesn't know the tune.
- This is the second drash in a Reform temple I've visited that's incorporated a popular movie. I know Sicko is in theaters, but that's not why I come to shul. I also, incidentally, didn't come so you could tell us about all the great work you guys do and how I need to come to your town hall meeting. This is a drash, not an announcements section of your newsletter. Less plugging, more Torah. Come on, guys, it's not like Jews don't have anything in the tradition about healing the sick.
To conclude, nice bunch of guys, I'd definitely check it out again, and I'm glad to see there are Reform shuls that aren't quite as "off" as Touched by God. But I don't think I'd make it my regular stomping-ground.