The year was 1972. Sally Preisand became the first woman rabbi, the Lakers won their first national championship, and the most welcoming congregation for gay and lesbian Jews ... was a church.
But that changed when four people attending a rap group at Metropolitan Community Church -- founded for lesbians and gay men -- began to imagine a place to integrate their Jewish and gay identities. Their casual conversation 30 years ago led to the founding of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) -- which means "House of New Life" -- the world's first synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.
Last week, with the blast of a shofar, and a triumphant and teary "Shehechianu," BCC's congregation marked its 30th anniversary.
"At the time BCC started, if you were gay, it was the thing you kept secret, because coming out of the closet typically meant the loss of family, community and employment," said Harriet Perl, who joined the shul almost at inception, and, at the age of 81, is one of the BCC's elders.
"You don't know the kind of fear we used to have," Perl said. "For the first few years, I did what a great number of members did: I didn't use my last name....I finally got over my own guilt about being gay, and got to the point that I wasn't afraid of what the world would do."
Thanks to Perl, BCC may also have been the first congregation to gender-neutralize the English prayers, setting a trend for many other synagogues. "When I got involved in BCC, I brought my feminist ideas along with me," she said. "I was responsible for raising hell over the issue of the liturgy being so masculine-oriented."
Today, BCC is a thriving and welcoming community of 250 households. Shabbat services draw large crowds and, when new people walk in, it's not unusual for Tracy Moore, the rabbi's partner, to welcome them, introduce them to others, find them a seat and check up on them during the evening.
Members come from all Jewish movements and a variety of racial backgrounds. Many are Jews-by-choice. Until recently, male congregants outnumbered female ones, but three out of the shul's four rabbis have been women. Today, two women share the bimah: Rabbi Lisa Edwards and cantorial soloist Fran Magid Chalin. And the shul's president, Davi Cheng, may be the first Chinese American lesbian Jew-by-choice to lead a synagogue.
A lot has changed in 30 years. One noticeable change at BCC is the increasing presence of children, as lesbians and gay men are parenting in greater numbers.
"Thirty years ago, we had to choose between identifying exclusively as Jews -- and concealing our sexual orientation -- or identifying only as gay or lesbian and not finding a place to nurture our Jewish selves," said congregant Robin Berkovitz.
"BCC is no longer the only synagogue that welcomes all congregants, including gays and lesbians," she said. "Today, we choose BCC less out of need and more out of the desire to be a part of a vibrant, ever-expanding diverse community with an inclusive definition of Jewish observance and family."
These qualities make BCC affirming for a range of members -- including heterosexual couples like Maggie and Dave Parkhurst.
"As we got deeper into Jewish learning, we'd found ourselves increasingly out of place at most Reform temples," said Maggie Parkhurst during a High Holy Day sermon last year. She noted that the congregants didn't share "Dave's love of chanting Torah or my devotion to studying Talmud." The couple joined BCC because they found an unmatched devotion to adult education and involvement, she said.
Today, BCC remains a "place that acts as a conscience to us and to the rest of the world, insisting on inclusiveness and compassion," said Stephen Sass, president of the L.A. Jewish Historical Society, and BCC board member. "A House of New Life that continues, by its very existence, to affirm the vision of our founders: that all people are created b'tzelem elohim, in God 's image."
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