An Orthodox synagogue in West Hempstead is openly welcoming LGBT Jews, a rare public embrace that religious experts see as groundbreaking not only for Long Island but for the nation.
Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael opened in December and is holding services once a month that have drawn as many as 100 from both the LGBT and straight communities, said Shlomit Metz-Poolat, a lesbian who is the synagogue's president and a co-founder.
Orthodox Judaism doesn't condone homosexual relationships, which Metz-Poolat said keeps many LGBT Jews away from services. And those who do go to a synagogue, she said, usually stay silent about their sexual orientation because they fear either losing their membership or not getting an offer to join.
"You're welcome," she said, "just be quiet about it."
Metz-Poolat lost her own membership at a synagogue she had attended for nearly two decades after her marriage to another woman became public. Without a place to worship, she pushed ahead with a plan to establish a synagogue where everyone would be welcome. The congregation meets at Wing Wan, a glatt kosher Chinese restaurant, while it looks for a permanent location.
“LGBT Jews who are Orthodox want a place in Orthodox Judaism,” Metz-Poolat said. “Because this is the only Judaism we know, and it is beautiful to us.”
A top official of the Rabbincal Council of America, an organization of orthodox rabbis nationwide, believes Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael stands out because it is more vocal about its acceptance of LGBT Jews but doesn't see it as unusual.
“There are many synagogues around Long Island and even in West Hempstead that have members who are gay and welcome them and where members who are gay feel comfortable,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch.
But to others also knowledgeable about Orthodox Judaism, Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael is extraordinary.
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon of Commack compares the synagogue with the Orthodox Chabad movement, which reaches out to a wide variety of Jews including those who aren't observant, have left Jewish life altogether or are in interfaith marriages.
“It is very unusual for an Orthodox synagogue to have that type of outreach” to LGBTs, said Teldon, who is Long Island's chief Chabad representative. “Chabad, which is known for its outreach and has really been a pioneer in the outreach world and the Jewish world, would never do such a thing.”
Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael is one of about 120 Orthodox synagogues nationwide that — in varying degrees — are welcoming to LGBT Jews, said Myriam Kabakov of the Manhattan-based “Welcoming Shuls Project,” which tracks inclusive synagogues.
Kabakov called the Long Island synagogue “one of the most welcoming environments right now" because of its willingness to openly welcome everyone.
“So many synagogues and rabbis are afraid if they stand up and speak out for inclusion of LGBT that the rabbi will lose their job or the synagogue will lose members,” she said. “But this synagogue is being built on the foundations of inclusion of LGBT people, so they have nothing to fear. They are just boldly coming out and saying, ‘This is what we are all about.’ ”
The Orthodox branch has been slower to welcome gays and lesbians than the conservative and reform movements, said Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre, a conservative synagogue.
Over years, many conservative and reform synagogues have become inclusive as they have developed a greater understanding of the LGBT community, he said.
What Metz-Poolat and her synagogue are doing, Klein said, “is very unusual and I think really an extraordinary step forward and I would absolutely congratulate them on the courage they have displayed.”
Being open to the LGBT community “is a really important thing” to Jonathan Ezor, an attorney from West Hempstead, who attends Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael with his wife, Stacy, and their three children.
“For us, the appeal is first of all being a part of a small synagogue that is just getting started," Ezor said. "But also we really like the inclusive nature of it.”
Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael's Rabbi Boaz Tomsky stresses that the synagogue welcomes everyone.
“We are accepting of all people who wish to come and connect and learn about their Jewish faith, to find a place where they can pray and feel comfortable to do so,” he said.