The Rainbow Center, the organization that evolved into SOJOURN, was founded over a decade ago. Shortly after I founded it, The Rainbow Center joined Congregation Bet Haverim at Atlanta Pride 2002 - doubling the number of Jewish organizations participating in the parade to two! Now this year joining SOJOURN are 25 other Jewish groups and counting (more sign on everyday). We have come a long way!
Long before SOJOURN, gay and lesbian Jews in Atlanta started a synagogue for gays and lesbians, Congregation Bet Haverim. Rabbi Marc Wilson, my childhood rabbi, recently reminded me that when it was founded, no local synagogue would loan CBH a Torah. For years CBH used a small toy-like Torah made of paper until the mother of a gay son who had died of AIDS donated our Torah. What would follow would be a number of parents who would find solace at CBH because they couldn’t mourn their sons’ deaths of AIDS in their own synagogues. During this time, CBH asked to join the Atlanta Synagogue Council. CBH was denied with the excuse that they had no rabbi (the council was made up of rabbis and presidents). When CBH finally hired their first part-time rabbi, they were denied again and told that they must not identify as a “gay and lesbian” synagogue to be considered. Resolute in its identity, CBH refused and the resulting contentious conversation between the members of the council concluded with the dissolution of the Atlanta Synagogue Council altogether.
In the first month of my arrival in August 1999, I attended an Atlanta Rabbinical Association dinner to welcome the many new rabbis coming to Atlanta. Our spouses were invited. Partnered at the time, I brought him. Though a handful of Reform rabbis welcomed me, there were a number of other rabbis who, in a greeting line, either walked away from me or turned their back publicly. For my first few years, I had colleagues ignore me even when I spoke to them directly. At one public forum, I was accused of destroying the Jewish people by a fellow rabbi. All of these things paled in comparison to the death threats I received through the mail during my first two years. Instead of thwarting me, I emboldened my desire to further establish CBH as a thriving place for Jewish life and to make Atlanta a more inclusive and welcoming place for queer Jews and our loved ones.
Where there was disregard, animosity or fear, there was also welcoming, support and the request for help. In my first year, it became clear that there were many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews in Atlanta. They were Orthodox and Secular and everything in-between, children and adults, closeted and married and out and harassed or bullied. Colleagues wanted guidance on commitment ceremonies and on counseling families. The need for a communal response was obvious. People were thirsty for education, in need of support or repulsed by fear. With a groundbreaking grant funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, Jewish Family and Career Services partnered with Congregation Bet Haverim to create The Rainbow Center. Once established, The Rainbow Center joined CBH at its booth for Pride. For years, it was just the two of us at Pride.
Slowly, under the leadership of Rebecca Stapel-Wax, more congregations and Jewish organizations have joined us for Pride. With The Rainbow Center’s piloting the Welcoming Synagogues program, strong connections were born. As we expand our services, SOJOURN builds on this great foundation as we strengthen our numbers for Pride, increasing year after year. In 2011, we had 8 partner organizations for Pride. In 2012, we had 16. In 2013, we have 25 partnering Jewish organizations, including many synagogues.
In 2014, we are honoring two rabbis, Loren Lapidus from The Temple and Brad Levenberg from Temple Sinai, at Purim off Ponce for many things including garnering the support of their synagogues at Pride. In a quarter of a century, Atlanta has transformed. 26 of us marching together. We have come on a long way, bubbeleh—and together we can make our city even more inclusive. I hope to see you there!