By Tanni Deb
Chicago resident Sara Fischer was raised as a Christian, but she never felt quite at home at her church. In addition to finding some Christian beliefs hard to swallow, she felt unwelcome because she is lesbian. In 2004, she discovered Congregation Or Chadash, a synagogue that embraces gay and lesbian members. The experience was so profound she converted to Judaism.
“I found my niche as far as philosophical beliefs [go],” said Fischer, 64, smiling patiently as she waited for services to begin at Or Chadash. “And because I’m a lesbian, this kind of fit well for me versus going to a regular Jewish congregation where you don’t know who might be gay or not.”
A small group of gay men founded Or Chadash in 1976 in response to the discrimination that gay and lesbian Jews experienced in many synagogues, said Lilli Kornblum, the president of the congregation. Or Chadash is committed to ensuring that Jews do not encounter prejudice when practicing their religion. It also is a place where members build strong ties with each other while they are following the rituals of Jewish life such as praying and celebrating holidays.
The group held its first religious service in a bar with 40 gay and lesbian Jews in attendance. The following year, regular services were held at the Second Unitarian Church on Barry Street. That continued until 2002 when the congregation moved to its current location in Edgewater, 5959 N. Sheridan Rd. The synagogue currently serves approximately 100 members and holds services every Friday night. In addition to providing social gatherings and observations of Jewish holidays, the synagogue also holds classes on topics ranging from Judaism to homosexuality in the Jewish tradition.
The Jewish holy book, Torah, unequivocally condemns homosexuality. It states, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” However, that admonition needs to be analyzed in the context of the time it was written, said Rabbi Shoshanah Conover from Temple Sholom, another Chicago synagogue that welcomes gays and lesbians.
In the ancient world, Jews depended on increasing their population to survive. Because couples in same-sex relationships cannot conceive children, Jewish leaders may have felt an imperative to prohibit homosexuality, Conover said. She also noted that the understanding of sexual identity has evolved significantly in recent years.
“So in our day and age, we realize that sexuality is not a choice, but it’s actually a part of our identity,” Conover explained. “It’s part of what we are born with.”
To be sure, not all Jews support her view. While liberal Jews accept homosexuality, ultra-orthodox Jews continue to view same-sex relationships as sinful, said Claire Sufrin, a lecturer at the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.
“Ultra-Orthodox are groups of Jews or movements within Judaism that really seek to avoid the modern world as much as possible,” Sufrin said. “They continue to take biblical prohibition very seriously and understand them in a very literal way.”
While progress has been slow and halting, religious views of homosexuality do appear to be changing, according to a 2014 study. Researchers at Duke University interviewed representatives from 1,331 American churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and other holy places and found that acceptance of the gay community in U.S. congregations increased from 37 percent to 48 percent from 2006 to 2012.
“God, whoever it is, created all of us … God does not differentiate and we would prefer if [others] didn’t,” said Or Chadash’s Kornblum. “We can disagree about a lot of practices, but as a [society] don’t we need to be together?”
While the synagogue was founded for the Jewish gay community and 80 percent of the members identify as gay or lesbian, its membership is no longer exclusive.
“We welcome straight members [and] we welcome people who are questioning [their sexuality] and their religion,” she said. “We really live and breathe inclusion and diversity.”
Fischer said she has been proud to be a member of the Or Chadash congregation for a decade because it supports all of its members. “We think of ourselves as a community and we’re serving a special niche for the [gay] community,” she said.