Tachlis of Inclusion: Congregation Beth Shalom of Seattle

Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country.

Rabbi Jill Borodin
Rabbi Jill Borodin

We spoke with Rabbi Jill Borodin of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Seattle, WA, to find out how this congregation has evolved on the issue of LGBT inclusion, to become a place where the rabbi performs same-sex marriages and speaks publicly in support of marriage equality. Learn more about Congregation Beth Shalom’s LGBT inclusive offerings here.

What does Congregation Beth Shalom do for same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings? I’ve read that in 2001 your predecessor took a year to deliberate whether or not to perform a commitment ceremony. I know you weren’t at Beth Shalom then, but can you speak to where you are as a community now? What did the process of that evolution look like? Was there community support?

You’re right – we do both commitment ceremonies and same-sex weddings. My predecessor did one, but I think that’s because he was only asked once. I’ve done three in the last eight years, and I’ve got another one on the calendar.

Same-sex weddings are basically the same at Beth Shalom as other weddings, except the couple has more leeway in choosing the language for what we call the ceremony: do they want to refer to it as a wedding, as a huppah – meaning not as a weddingand so on. Everything else is basically as it is for straight couples: we have the huppah, the
, the
sheva brachot
. We even mark anniversaries the same way, because couples are generally invited up for an
 together on their anniversaries. I guess there’s a small difference there, because we let same-sex couples determine their anniversary, in case they had a commitment ceremony and later a wedding, or something similar.

Until Washington passed marriage equality [in November 2012], I couldn’t do civil marriages as a clergy member. Now I can, and that’s great! Unlike straight couples, for whom I obviously require a civil marriage, for right now I’ll perform a religious wedding without a civil marriage. That’s just because it can be much more complicated for same-sex couples, given that they can’t get married on the federal level.

Happily, we’ve had very little pushback from within the congregation, as we began to do more same-sex weddings. It’s really clear to everyone that this is just who we are – we just don’t distinguish between gay and straight couples. I think it probably helps that we have a number of very high-level lay leaders who are out. It makes visibility very natural.

With marriage equality becoming a reality in Washington quite recently, what will change, if anything, about how Beth Shalom approaches weddings and commitment ceremonies?

Really, the only thing that will change is that I’ll be able to be the civil officiate for couples, too, which is definitely something I’m looking forward to!

Congregation Beth Shalom signed on to Washington United for Marriage. Were you active in the fight for marriage equality in other ways? Can you speak a little bit about why?

We had an amazing person running the effort for the Jewish community here in Seattle, so we were able to coordinate with the larger effort. We were involved in the marches, we helped the organizers of the phone banks, and supplied volunteers from within the community. We had a member give a dvar torah on the issue, which was great. And I spoke publically on the issue, too – I not only urged people to vote, but I wanted people to understand that marriage equality is an issue that we can understand in terms of Jewish values, so I spoke about how we can do that.

Especially as a part of the Conservative movement, which is still figuring out what lifecycle events for LGBT individuals and families might look like, we’re hoping you can share insight to help other congregations. Can you discuss some of the tachlis, the nuts-and-bolts, of how you work to actively include LGBT Jews?

We do LGBT programming – we’ve have a lot of success including LGBT relationships in our series on healthy relationships – but we don’t necessarily do a consistent amount of LGBT programming. I prefer to determine what the congregation’s needs are in any given moment, or see if there hasn’t been any specifically LGBT programming for a while, we’ll make sure to do some to send a consistent message of inclusion.

One of the things that has been really helpful for us is that we have a large population of out LGBT Jews who come to shul really regularly, so we’ve been able to tap into and make use of informal networks really well. People know us as an LGBT-inclusive space because of who comes to synagogue before anything else, is our sense.

We’re also careful to really use that LGBT lay presence. We have a mentorship program for people actively exploring Judaism, and we make sure to offer to match LGBT folks who are involved in this process with LGBT members.

We also did sensitivity training as part of a larger diversity training, and we focused a lot on the plurality of what families look like. This obviously includes LGBT families, but also single-parent families, multi-generational families, and others. One of the steps we found very helpful was switching our membership form, so now it says “Adult 1/Adult 2” instead of something like “Husband/Wife.” We wanted to make sure that our materials matched the reality of our community.

How do you let congregants or future congregants know about LGBT focused events or inclusive initiatives?

You know, we added the word “inclusive” to our mission statement, hoping people would know what that meant, but we’ve actually had the most success through just advertising our programming, and also through word-of-mouth. When we have something big coming up, I can ask people to put the word out, and everybody knows!

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