It was a bar mitzvah like no other. A throng of Jewish men and women adorned with rainbow-colored prayer shawls and sporting pink kippot danced near the centerpiece of the simcha – a truck decorated with a gigantic Star of David emblazoned with the words “mazel tov.”
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Some 10,000 others joined the parade while hundreds of thousands watched, as Australia’s Jewish float marked its coming of age Saturday night at the 2013 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Twenty-four hours earlier, 75 people attended a gay Shabbat dinner at Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue, which incorporates Conservative, Reform and Renewal congregations, following a special service peppered with readings by gay members to mark the milestone.
Kim Gotlieb, the president of Dayenu, Sydney’s Jewish gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender group, acknowledged the support from Emanuel Synagogue in a letter last week. It is reassuring to know that “we belong to a gay-friendly synagogue which continues to walk beside us in addressing issues of inclusion and acceptance,” he wrote.
Emanuel's rabbi, Jacqueline Ninio, also made mention of the LGBT community in the congregation's weekly newsletter, writing: “During the years, we have used the process of interpretation and understanding to reimagine the laws of Judaism to be inclusive and welcoming of gays and lesbians. But there is still a long way to go – both legally and within our culture.”
'Stars of David Come Out'
Despite Rabbi Ninio's caveat, most of Sydney's gay Jews acknowledge their predicament today is a far cry from the first Jewish float at the Mardi Gras in 2000, which featured a three-ton truck adorned with a giant three-dimensional Star of David. The float has been an annual feature since then, with the exception of 2006.
Back then about 150 gay Jews and their supporters, including Holocaust survivor Susie Wise, celebrated alongside the float, under the banner “Stars of David Come Out.”
“We were the Stars of David glowing in the dark of homophobia,” recalled Dawn Cohen, the coordinator of the first Jewish float, in a reflective article. “We're saying ‘no’ we're going to invite you all to work through your internalized anti-Semitism and homophobia and to celebrate with us.”
Cohen and the other founders named themselves “Dayenu,” the Hebrew word for “enough” that is the common refrain of the Passover song of the same name.
However, “Dayenu” was also the response the group received from the Orthodox rabbinate, which was exacerbated by Vic Alhadeff, then editor of the Sydney edition of the Australian Jewish News. Alhadeff published a front-page photo of the first Jewish float on March 10, 2000.
“Of all the controversial positions I took as editor of the Australian Jewish News, the one of which I was proudest was going to the barricades on behalf of the right of Jewish gays to be gay,” Alhadeff told Haaretz this week. “Because I saw the impact it had – on human lives, on families, on individuals, on members of our own community.”
The controversy dominated the newspaper’s pages for weeks, including an ad signed by 28 prominent Australian Jews expressing support for gay Jewish rights and for the newspaper to reflect the community’s diversity.
“Overwhelmingly, the community spoke out in support of the newspaper,” Cohen recalled. “They didn’t want Jewish homosexuals to be invisible. It was not a vote in favor of lesbian and gay marriage, but it was an unprecedented warning to the Orthodox rabbinate about the limits of its control.”
Inevitably, the backlash soon followed. The Sydney Beth Din demanded Alhadeff explain himself at a rabbinic hearing. They also summoned Hilton Immerman, the chief executive of the Shalom Institute – which advances Jewish learning and leadership – for hosting a gay Shabbat on the Friday night before the 2000 Mardi Gras.
Neither Alhadeff nor Immerman agreed. Immerman said he would only consider it “after being able to peruse the charges that a particular individual had brought against us.”
“As these were never forthcoming, we did not appear,” Immerman told Haaretz. “I was lobbied by two or three Orthodox rabbis at the time to cancel the event. I explained that any Jews had the right to celebrate Shabbat and that I would protect their right to do so.
“It’s absurd to think that sexual orientation was even regarded as relevant,” Immerman said.
Among those who attended that Shabbat dinner was Ariel Friedlander, an American-born lesbian rabbi, and Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, the senior rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney.
The furor created “huge tension” among Australian Jewry, recalled Kamins, who was also a board member of Shalom at the time.
But gay Jews have become “hugely” enfranchised since then, Kamins said, noting that Emanuel was at the “vanguard and forefront.”
'Mutual respect regardless of sexual orientation'
Indeed, the former Californian officiated at Australia’s first same-sex Jewish commitment service at Emanuel in 2008 – between Scott Whitmont and Christopher Whitmont-Stein – following a May 2007 decision by the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand and Asia.
However, Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, president of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia, countered at the time: “While we may and should be tolerant towards individuals, we certainly cannot sanctify something that our Bible clearly prohibits.”
Haaretz recently has learned the names of several Orthodox rabbis in Sydney and Melbourne who welcome individual gay Jews, but their names cannot be made public.
“Do 612 mitzvot and we won’t worry about the 613th,” one Orthodox rabbi told a gay congregant, according to Dayenu's Gotlieb.
Kamins and Immerman agreed the general Jewish community is more open. “Gay Jews are less marginalized today,” Immerman said. “Most of the Jewish establishment has become more welcoming but I guess some segments of the community are more so than others.”
In 2010, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry adopted a resolution in 2010 calling for “mutual respect” regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But the elected leadership acknowledged there is still “much work” to be done to “remove intolerance of and unlawful discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in the Jewish community.”
Intolerance and discrimination were widespread in Melbourne in 1999 when Michael Barnett led the first attempt by Aleph Melbourne, a Jewish GLBT support group, to apply for membership of the roof body, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.
The move sparked an acrimonious debate ending with an impassioned plea by now-deceased Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky, who claimed if the motion passed it “may well be a turning point in our community,” and would result in the collapse of the council because Orthodox associates would be forced to resign.
“This JCCV has no right to meddle with the fundamentals of Judaism,” he said.
But Barnett argued that rejecting the group would be “a win for fear, intolerance and prejudice.” The motion was narrowly denied, 46-39, and the Jewish LGBT group has remained outside the tent ever since.
Barnett told Haaretz this week that the improved lot of gays in the general community affected the Jews as well. “The conversations seem to be less unacceptable now, given that homosexuality is more visible in wider society,” he said.
“It's not something that can just be dismissed as ‘not our problem.’ It's still taboo in the frum circles, and I suspect it's pretty much spoken about in disparaging terms,” he added.
But while Reform and Conservative Judaism in Australia has embraced the gay community, Gotlieb wants to “challenge” for more inclusiveness.
“I would like to see more inclusion at Emanuel, more awareness that most gay people are somewhat distanced from their families,” he said.
There are still many Australian Jews whose view on gays is “personal and heartfelt and accepting,” he said. “But then they apologize that they are not able to express that publicly.”