Distant Origins

On Rosh Hashana at Congregation Achduth Vesholom, Rabbi Javier E. Cattapan stressed the common heritage of Muslims and Jews. His sermon for Yom Kippur spoke of the need to extend forgiveness every day, not just on that day, which marks the Jewish new year and leads up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The recent High Holy Days services were the first for the Argentine-born Cattapan as head of Fort Wayne’s Reform tradition synagogue. Named to head the 162-year-old congregation in July, Cattapan, 42, will be installed as Achduth Vesholom’s 21st spiritual leader Oct. 15.

Cattapan, who most recently headed Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek in Lima, Ohio, grew up in Buenos Aires, where his father was a textile manufacturer and his mother a homemaker. His grandparents immigrated to Argentina from northern Italy in the 1920s, he says.

Cattapan says although his background might seem exotic in Fort Wayne, it is a common one in his homeland. Argentina has the largest Jewish community in South America because it was one of the few nations open to immigration from Europe, especially Eastern Europe, in the 19th and early 20th centuries and accepted displaced European Jews from Poland and Germany after World War II.

“I have no Spanish connection whatsoever – well, 40 percent of people in Argentina have no Spanish connection,” he says with a laugh at what he calls a common misconception.

“Jews were expelled from every Spanish domain by the 16th century, so there are very few Jews in Latin America,” he continues, drawing on knowledge of medieval and Renaissance European history developed while in college and seminary.

Cattapan earned his undergraduate degree in classical and medieval philosophy from the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 1993 and has completed course work for a doctorate with a specialty in medieval Hebrew literature in Renaissance Italy from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, which houses the Reform tradition’s seminary.

He came to the United States in 1994 to study at Hebrew Union. He received a master’s degree in 1997 and was ordained in 1998. Like all candidates, he spent a year in Israel and served in several student rabbi positions.

He then was named to lead the Lima synagogue, and recommendations from congregants there heavily influenced the local search committee, Schreier says.

The Lima congregation, the nearest Reform congregation to Fort Wayne, is an aging one that is dwindling in numbers and could no longer support a full-time rabbi, she says.

“The congregation he came from in Lima, they absolutely love him. They were sorry to see him go,” she said, adding the local temple has seen an increase in attendance by former congregants who have been driving from Lima.

He succeeds Rabbi Marla Joy Subeck Spanjer, who was Fort Wayne’s first female rabbi when she was named in 2007. Cattapan represents a first himself: He’s the city’s first openly gay rabbi.

Congregation leaders say they don’t view the appointment as a political statement and call their new rabbi’s sexuality “not an issue” – unlike in other faiths where allowing homosexual clergy has been controversial or a flash point for division.

“In Reform Judaism, we do not discriminate, and it was not an issue in the selection process,” says Jaki Schreier, congregation president, of the new rabbi’s sexual orientation.

“We didn’t select him because he was gay, or not select him because he was gay. We felt he would be an excellent spiritual leader for our congregation,” Schreier says.

Cattapan says his first priority, besides arranging holiday services and starting a new adult education forum, has been to get to know the 180 families in the congregation.

He says he is aware of only a few gay or lesbian members. He and Schreier say they are unaware of anyone having left the congregation in protest.

The Reform movement, Cattapan says, “has ordained openly gay, lesbian and transgendered rabbis for 20 years, maybe longer,” thanks to a “spirit of inclusiveness” and liberal interpretations of Jewish law and Scripture.

The tradition also allows individual rabbis to determine whether they will conduct same-sex marriage services, he says, and he and his partner, Kris Gray, a Postal Service supervisor, formalized their relationship at what he called “a Jewish wedding” in 2008.

“It’s not just that we allow that (same-sex marriage). It’s celebrated. We are not just tolerated. We are part of the community,” says Cattapan, who has spoken at university forums in Ohio on sexuality and religion and taught Hebrew at Miami University and at Hebrew Union.

Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, chief program officer for the Union of Reform Congregations in New York City, says the Reform movement adopted a resolution allowing ordination of gays in 1990 and the marriage stance in 2000.

Kleinman says Reform Jews approach verses in the book of Leviticus – seen by some Christian denominations and other Jewish groups as condemning homosexual activity as an abomination before God – from a broader perspective.

“Frankly we try to put the Bible in a modern context,” he says. “If we took everything the Bible says from a literal perspective, we would still be stoning people for adultery.”

The concept of “abomination” or “abhorrence” was viewed in the Bible as “something that was seen as something that produced a larger moral evil, and we know today that it (homosexual behavior) does not,” Kleinman says.

“We know people are in wonderful, loving, monogamous relationships, and they can produce wonderful stable children. That’s the reality we know now.”

Doris Fogel, executive director of the Fort Wayne Jewish Federation, says she was consulted on the hiring as a two-time past president of Achduth Vesholom.

Cattapan did not make an issue of his sexuality but answered questions when asked, she says.

“He has been as straightforward about this as anything,” she says, adding that the rabbi’s partner’s name and gender were included in an announcement of his appointment in a recent federation newsletter.

She says she has received “absolutely no” negative comments about it, adding that the search committee chose Cattapan from among “tons of résumés.”

“We had absolutely wonderful holiday services. He is quite engaging, and … he’s young and he brings wonderful ideas.

“The acceptance has been wonderful,” she says.

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