Gay rabbis getting married—and marrying

t’s almost 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 17, and the line at the West Hollywood Park snakes around itself, as some 400 people wait to obtain marriage licenses on this first official day that the State of California is issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples (aside from one wedding on Monday).

Some men wear tuxedoes, some men wear suits, a few women are in white (a few women are in suits), but most of the couples are decked out in California casual on this momentous day. By far the most interesting – and photographed — group is situated in the middle of the line, holding up a white chuppah on bamboo poles and the banner of their synagogue: Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC).

The first gay and lesbian synagogue, located on Pico Boulevard, has brought 10 couples here to get marriage licenses. Some, like the Hales – Cara in a bridal outfit of an ivory lace top and trousers, and Heidi in a gray pinstripe suit and silver tie — have had Jewish weddings already. Others, like Davi and Bracha Cheng, were married before (in San Francisco four years ago, annulled by the court two months later). Itay Seigel and Tony Gregory Smith had never been married at all — not out-of-town, out-of-state or Jewishly.

“For us, it’s the right time and the right place,” they said. Another was the rabbi of BCC, Lisa Edwards, who was both obtaining her own license and marrying five couples in the park afterward. In the summer, she will perform more than 20 weddings — and have a civil ceremony with her partner, Tracy Moore.

It is a momentous day for gay and lesbian couples — but doubly meaningful for rabbis in same-sex relationships: Not only can they marry, but they can perform legal marriages for other same-sex couples, too. And as Jewish leaders — who have fought a number of battles for civil rights, first for acceptance in the Jewish community and then for acceptance as rabbis — this is one of the most important steps in the fight for equality. (The next hurdle would be to see gay marriage made legal and available in every state).

Three L.A. rabbis have taken different paths to solidifying their unions, and each has different feelings about the State of California’s legal sea change. For Edwards, who will marry her longtime partner in a civil ceremony this summer, it was her Jewish wedding 13 years ago that was most meaningful. For Wilshire Boulevard’s Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein, who just celebrated a 10-year commitment renewal for his Jewish wedding and will have a civil ceremony and party on July 13, the newfound right to a civil marriage offers much satisfaction. But for Rabbi Don Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea, the new law is meaningful, but he won’t have to do anything. He already married his partner, in Canada four years ago. The California Supreme Court decision simply means that his marriage will now officially be recognized.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Tracy Moore

As the leader since 1994 of the first gay and lesbian synagogue, Rabbi Lisa Edwards couldn’t be happier about the California court’s decision to grant couples marriage licenses. Every day that led up to the decision — whether the court would grant a stay, whether gay marriage would finally happen in California — Edwards approached with bated breath, along with her partner, Tracy Moore and the whole of her Reform community. And then bam! The week before Shavuot the ruling came down, and “everything happened in a flurry,” Edwards said.

“Our time has come!” she wrote in an e-mail to the community inviting them to the June 17 celebration. “Singles, couples, no intention of marrying — no matter — this is a momentous day in the history of our LGBT civil rights movement. Join the celebration!”

While Edwards and Moore, who have been together for 23 years, also obtained a license on Tuesday, and will have a civil ceremony “sometime this summer,” Edwards looks back on their 1995 Jewish wedding as the event that moved her most.

“At the time, I said that that was more important — and in my life, day-to-day, it probably still is more important,” Edwards said last week as the couple sat for an interview on the sofa in her office at BCC, beneath a kitschy poster of “The Ten Commandments.” Edwards, 54, was casually dressed in a sweatshirt and Crocs, with her signature bucharian kippah cap and Harry Potter black circle glasses. Moore, 64, came from her job as capital campaign manager at public radio station 89.3 KPCC wearing a crisp, linen white shirt and tan pants and silver jewelry to match her straight white hair, cut longer on one side than the other.

“We felt like this was community, that was becoming home,” Edwards said of the decision to have a chuppah in just after she began leading BCC.

The women met in 1983, working together at a nonprofit company in Iowa City. Edwards was not yet a rabbi — she wasn’t even in rabbinical school — and Moore wasn’t even Jewish. They moved in together the following summer.

“When we got together, it was mutually liberating — we were both able to follow what was authentic for ourselves,” said Moore, who went for her MBA.

Edwards decided to become a rabbi – which meant spending a year in Jerusalem.

“Tracy had no idea what she was getting herself into,” Edwards said.

It was 1988, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinical school for the Reform movement, did not have an open policy toward gay and lesbian students (the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis [CCAR] did not allow official ordination of gay rabbis until 1990), but Edwards and Moore were completely open about their relationship.

“I think it’s true to say that we were the first out couple — not the first gay people,” Moore said. “There was a huge consciousness-raising among students and among the administration — there were some real ‘big’ conversations, and Lisa was the leader of a lot of that and continues to be, in a way,” said Moore, who spent her time in Israel working on a project that later became the book, “Lesbiot: Israeli Lesbians Talk About Sexuality, Feminism, Judaism and Their Lives,” (published by Cassell Press, in 1995). She had no plans to convert at the time. “It didn’t occur to me,” she said.

But when the couple came to Los Angeles, where Edwards resumed study at HUC-JIR, the issue came up again.

“I want to point out what’s really funny: We thought our fight was going to be about being gay,” Moore said, but it turned out that the fact that they were an interfaith couple was a bigger problem. (Then, as now, most rabbinic schools prohibit interfaith relationships for rabbinic students).

Rabbi Laura Geller, a groundbreaker in the world of women rabbis, who at the time was at USC Hillel, told Edwards and Moore, “Look, you’re working on the whole gay issue, you’re pushing the movement in that area. You can’t take on another issue.” So Moore decided to convert.

“Lisa needs to be a rabbi — she’s born to be a rabbi. So make me a Jew,” Moore remembers thinking. “I had no idea what it meant.”

Perhaps it was the fact that Edwards was so invested in moving the Reform movement toward acceptance of gays that made a Jewish wedding so important to them. After Edwards took over BCC in 1994 — she had been ordained at HUC-JIR in New York and Moore had already converted — they began to plan the wedding.

“I think a small part of the motivation was to model it for the congregation,” said Edwards, who in the 1990s conducted more “AIDS funerals” than weddings.

“We also felt in an indefinable way that having a chuppah would deepen and expand our relationship, that something ancient and Jewish would change us somehow,” Moore said.

“And it did,” Edwards added.

Ten of their friends organized a potluck party with 300 friends, relatives, congregants and rabbis, officiated by Geller and Edwards’ brother, also a Reform rabbi. They had to create many of their own rituals, including liturgy, as at the time they were one of the firsts.

“You go into the chuppah as individuals, and you come out a couple,” Moore said. “The purpose of ritual is to change your status in the some way, in the eyes of other people, who look at you in a way they haven’t before.”

Edwards added: “I think it deepened the bond. It made us feel more secure. This was who we are,” she said.

What about a civil marriage? Did they have their eye set on what would take another 12 years to arrive — on June 17, 2008?

“I want to paint you a picture,” Moore said to describe the mid-1990s. “There were no civil rights organizations that were working on gay marriage: They were working on discrimination in the workplace, gays in the military and other issues.”

At the time, both said they never would have dreamed this would happen, and a Jewish wedding was so meaningful.

“Jews have sort of lived outside the law in lots of places and at lots of times in their lives. So I think that Jewish marriage has a different meaning, or a different importance,” Edwards said.

That is why they will have a civil ceremony next month, after they obtain a marriage license on Tuesday, after Edwards performed at least five weddings.

So even though when they met more than two decades ago, they never dreamed this day would come, it was like Lisa’s 80-something-year-old mother said to her older sister at her chuppah: “If you live long enough, you see everything.”

Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein and Stephen Ariel Miller

Whatever you do, don’t say marriage to Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein unless you mean civil marriage. That’s because the Wilshire Boulevard Temple rabbi is very particular about nomenclature.

“We had a Jewish wedding,” Stein said with his boyish smile about the chuppah that he and Stephen Ariel Miller had 10 years ago, as well as the renewal of vows they took this Memorial Day. “We had a wedding — we made it very clear we couldn’t have a marriage. We desperately wanted one because it wasn’t legal anywhere.”

Stein, 50, is insistent on the wording (just as he prefers being called a “rabbi who is gay” rather than a “gay rabbi” – “I’m Jewish first”). “We have to be this way, because this is the reality of life as a gay couple in America.” Stein said.

“It’s been frustrating for us,” said Miller, 52, who manages the litigation support department of a law firm. “If you say you’re married, you have the same rights as [married people]. When you make a point we are ‘wedded’ we don’t have the right to be married, it sets a different tone.”

Of course they were happy with the tone of their Jewish wedding in 1998.

They sat relaxing, barefoot, with a glass of red wine in the living room of their Spanish-style house on Miracle Mile (“our first home together”) as their two dogs tussled on the shag carpet before they were sent to the back of the house, and recounted in that intricate and familiar way of long-term couples how they met 12 years ago.

Stein was the conductor-in- residence of the Houston Symphony “in the midst of wondering if there was a different career path to follow,” when his rabbi introduced him to Miller, a man in their Torah study group.

“We met in Torah study on Shabbat in a synagogue…That is beshert.” Stein said, using the Yiddish word for “meant to be.”

The meeting also came at a time of change in their lives. Stein had decided to leave his illustrious career and become a rabbi, which meant going to Israel — by himself.

“It was important for me to have a wedding before he left,” Miller said. “It was important we go through things together.”

But what kind of Jewish wedding would they have?

“Did we want to utilize our wedding in order to make a public statement?” Stein recalled — after all, Miller was well-connected in the Houston Jewish community, and Stein had performed for 13,000 people. “But instead we decided in order to maximize the sense of kedusha we wanted this to be our closest community of family and friends,” he said about the sense of holiness.

They had 175 guests, and gave the seventh wedding blessing to the entire community.

“I will never forget hearing those sacred words and the power of that communication under our tallitot,” Stein said about his experience under the prayer shawls under the chuppah.

The minute the glass was broken and the music started playing, he said, “Let’s do that again.”

Again they did – 10 years later, on May 24, 2008, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. They’d been planning the party for a year, but by the time it occurred, the California Supreme had already sanctioned gay civil marriages.

“I think the best present for our 10th anniversary is to get legally married.” Miller said.

“We’re getting married!!” Stein said exuberantly, as if he still could not believe it. “It’s very important to the millions who happen to be lesbian and gay, and to a growing number of people who see it as a civil rights issue,” he said. “We’re both of an age where we understand that things politically take time, and we’re thrilled we’re going to get married next month — although we sure wish it was 10 years ago. We look forward to a time it will be legal in all the United States of America.”

But in a way, he said, “we are glad it worked this way: we both really believe in the separation of Church and State.”

That’s why on July 13, they will have a “very American civil ceremony” — reading bits of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of the California ruling — and serve brunch for 50 at their home.

“We had a Jewish wedding but it wasn’t a legal marriage,” said Stein, noting that for the last 10 years they could introduce each other as “partner,” “other half,” “domestic partner” or “spouse.” But after they actually get married, “God willing, there will be one and only one term: ‘He’s my husband,” Stein said. “As Americans, we’re really looking forward to that.”

Rabbi Donald Goor and Cantor Evan Kent

When Rabbi Donald Goor decided to hold his auf ruf (the groom’s Torah reading the week before his wedding) on the bimah of Temple Judea in Tarzana, where he serves as senior rabbi, a number of members had problems with it.

“One long-time member who always knew I was gay but didn’t want to see it publicly, quit the temple,” said Goor, 50. “I felt sad for him — I’m always sad when someone leaves the congregation that’s been his congregation for a long time. I was also sad for him that he couldn’t recognize our joy and the values for which our community stands.”

For the most part, the community was very supportive of his kiddushin – as he calls a Jewish wedding to separate it from a civil marriage — to Cantor Evan Kent, of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles. (One of the biggest challenges for the couple, who met when they were both studying at HUC-JIR in 1986, is finding time to spend together.)

Although the Reform movement officially approved gay Jewish weddings in 1992, like many gay couples, Goor and Kent decided to wait to be able to have a civil marriage before having a chuppah. So they wed in Canada in 2005, and then had a chuppah.

“It was important in our minds that the state was going to see it as a legal relationship, in addition to Judaism,” Goor said, noting that he was sad to have to leave the country for the certificate. The public celebration with his community was also important.

“Having a chuppah and a wedding celebration enabled other people to celebrate our relationship — there’s a certain joy in going to someone else’s wedding: you do that as part of a community. Jews don’t elope,” he said. “The chuppah speaks about the holiness in our relationship.”

And as a rabbi and cantor couple, there was an extra element to the process.

“Leaders need to be willing to model their values and their beliefs,” he said.

Now, four years later, as California’s new law ratifies his Canadian marriage – Goor says he thinks his congregation is more accepting, that people have “really changed and grown from seeing gay couples in their everyday life. The fact that having same-gender couples married doesn’t threaten their marriage, or threaten society, that having same-gender marriage expands the place for love in society; for loving and committed relationships.”

For Goor, the whole issue is one of dignity.

“There are people who say, ‘Why do you need a marriage, why not just have domestic partnerships?’ And the answer is on one level, legally one wants the same protection that marriage provides, but on another level one wants the same dignity that every other relationship has.”

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