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Jewish Journal

Valley couple shares bimah for rite of passage

by Nick Street

May 8, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Bob Clarke and Lee Larsen will become b'nai mitzvah together

When Lee Larsen and Bob Clarke met in the 1970s at the 8709 Bathhouse -- one of Los Angeles' best known gay social spots of the time -- they never imagined that they would one day share a very different kind of aquatic experience.

"We were so high after our mikvah," Temple Beth Hillel member Clarke, who started down the path of conversion with his partner about three years ago. "I walked around in a state of bliss for hours."

The experience was equally moving for Larsen.

"Our teacher [Rabbi Sarah Hronsky] told us that the mikvah doesn't mean we're abandoning the past but that we're evolving into Judaism," he said. "It did feel that important."

With their conversion over, the next stage in Clarke's and Larsen's evolution into Judaism begins with their b'nai mitzvah on May 30, which they will celebrate on the bimah together.

Larsen and Clarke had each been a spiritual seeker before they met more than 30 years ago. Larsen, 65, was reading Ram Dass, experimenting with drugs and dabbling in meditation. In reaction to his parents' open-minded secularism, Clarke decided to become an ardent Christian, studying Aramaic and following his restless muse from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Dallas and Cleveland.

"When we met, we weren't too stable or responsible," said Clarke, 71. "Then we started examining our lives, asking ourselves 'What are we doing?'"

That earnest, companionable introspection has been the foundation for a relationship that both men credit with saving their lives.

"We shouldn't have been successful," said Larsen, who points toward the traumatic experience of growing up gay in a conservative Christian home as the source of the self-destructive behavior in his past. "But even when I was living the wild life, I was praying for a partner and thinking I really needed to be married."

Clarke notes that without their commitment to each other, they might not have managed to avoid the fate that befell many other gay men in the 1980s.

"AIDS probably would've claimed us, too," he said.

Over the years, as they've healed each other, the spiritual yearning that each man felt in his youth has taken shape as a desire to heal the hurting world they see around them. That hunger for spiritually motivated social activism led the couple down a few blind alleys until a client in their gardening business suggested that they visit a synagogue near their home in North Hollywood.

"I was pretty wary at first," Larsen said. "I thought Judaism was like an even more conservative version of Christianity."

But after the couple attended services at Temple Beth Hillel, Larsen felt immediately at home.

"At first I was shocked when I realized what was happening," Clarke said. "I thought, 'Now we're going to be a double minority.'"

Clarke's fear of marginalization turned out to be unwarranted at Beth Hillel. The couple says that the warm, wide cultural embrace at their synagogue encompasses other gay men, lesbian couples with children, atheists and agnostics, as well as straight people and deeply religious believers.

"Jews deal in reality," said Clarke, who sees the synagogue's eclectic demographic mix as its greatest strength. "And the reality is that we're all here to make the world a better place."

Lee echoes that assessment.

"Temple Beth Hillel isn't so much faith-based as it is social-action based," he said.

By their own account, Clarke and Larsen have blossomed at Beth Hillel -- "our tribe," as they call the congregation. In a short time they've both learned enough Hebrew to follow the prayers at services and have come to relish the observance of holidays on the Jewish calendar, particularly Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

"It just makes sense to take stock of your life and reaffirm your commitment to acting responsibly in the company of the people you share your life with," Larsen said.

While the couple is looking forward to their b'nai mitzvah on May 30, Larsen is already looking past that event to their next rite of passage.

"We're going to have a Jewish wedding," he said.

Initially the men assumed they would need to have the ceremony at a gay synagogue, but the importance of publicly honoring their commitment to each other in their new spiritual community quickly became apparent.

"Rabbi Jim Kaufman said people need to see us get married," Clarke said of Beth Hillel's senior rabbi. "That's when it felt like we'd really come home."

To an outside observer, Larsen's impatience to find himself under a chuppah in his seventh decade of life may seem a little puzzling, but to him it feels like a dream too long deferred.

"It has taken me a long time to grow up," he said.

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