NEWS FEATURE: Jewish community dealing with gay interfaith couples

c. 1998 Religion News Service

BALTIMORE _ When David Steinhorn and Thom Stroschein began their relationship 12 years ago, their first date did not begin until near midnight because Steinhorn first attended a Selichot service _ a special penitential service preceding the Jewish High Holy Days which begins late on a Saturday night."And my first response as a non-Jew was: You go to church at what time?"said Stroschein, who was raised Roman Catholic in Wisconsin.

It was the first of many religious misunderstandings for the Baltimore couple.

Stroschein recalled how during their first year together he"dragged"his friend to a pre-Easter service that turned out to be"very traditional, very anti-Semitic. `The people who crucified Jesus? It was those horrible Jews!' I was never so embarrassed in all my life!" Well, nobody ever said intermarriage was easy.

Steinhorn, 35, and Stroschein, 40, may be a gay couple, but they struggle with the same issues other interfaith couples also face _ issues connected to celebrating different holidays, having different beliefs and coming from different cultural backgrounds.

Often, being gay takes a back seat to the interfaith issues involved. That's the case for Sharon Silverstein and Annette Friskopp, a San Diego interfaith lesbian couple."Annette's not being Jewish was _ and is _ a big issue for me and my family,"said Silverstein, who is Jewish and who, with Friskopp, wrote"Straight Jobs, Gay Lives"(Simon & Schuster)."I think this is a testament to the fact that they treat my relationships with the same degree of seriousness as my siblings'. Of course (my family) asked Annette about converting, but are okay with her not converting, so long as I produce Jewish grandchildren,"said Silverstein, 36, who attends a Conservative synagogue.

A number of forces have come together to move the previously obscure issue of interfaith gay relationships into the Jewish communal limelight.

Within liberal Jewish communities, interfaith gay relationships have generated concerns similar to those associated with heterosexual interfaith couples. In both cases, the fears are associated with Jewish assimilation and the threat that poses to the continued existence of Jews as a distinct people.

Of course other parts of the Jewish community feel otherwise about the issue.

Orthodox Judaism frowns on intermarriage, doesn't think much of interfaith outreach and rejects gay life entirely _ making the interfaith gay couples issue a total non-starter. The middle-of-the-road Conservative movement, meanwhile, does not accept homosexuals as rabbis but does welcome gays as synagogue members.

While no statistical data is available, anecdotal evidence cited by both gay couples and Jewish leaders suggests the majority of homosexual Jews in the United States who are in long-term relationships have a non-Jewish partner."Ten or 20 years ago it wasn't even a blip on the radar screen,"Rabbi Julie Spitzer, director of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues, said of the issue of homosexual interfaith relationships."Even in gay and lesbian circles, the issue of religious identity was sort of closeted, perhaps out of the need for political unity within that community."But now we are seeing a growing recognition of the importance of spirituality, and with that comes the whole issue of interfaith relationships,"said Spitzer, author of"Kulanu,"a handbook issued by the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations to help synagogues reach out to homosexual Jews.

Rabbi Peter Kessler of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue, said"as more mainstream people are welcoming gay and lesbian couples, the couple can be seen for who they are, and we can move on to say,`OK, they are gay, but how are they handling the interfaith thing?" Over the past two decades, Jewish gays and lesbians have claimed an increasingly public place in liberal American synagogues _ both as congregants and rabbis. Some two dozen synagogues catering primarily to homosexual Jews operate around the nation, and many openly homosexual rabbis serve in mainstream Reform, Reconstructionist and independent synagogues.

Spitzer noted a number of liberal rabbis already perform"commitment ceremonies"providing religious legitimacy to gay unions. Kessler and his long-time partner _ who is also Jewish _ were recently united in one such ceremony in Baltimore officiated over by three other Reform rabbis."It is far more common than it was even five years ago,"said Spitzer.

But when one of the partners is not Jewish, the issue of rabbinic officiation gets more complicated _ as it does with with heterosexual couples.

When Silverstein and Friskopp were"married"in 1992 _ both"brides"wore white _ a minister from the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church and a Reconstructionist rabbi shared ceremonial duties.

One Reform rabbi in Great Neck, N.Y. caused a stir when he spoke out against marrying heterosexual interfaith couples _ while publicly presiding over a commitment ceremony for a Jewish homosexual couple, one of whom was his assistant rabbi.

Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth El has during his nearly 40 years in the pulpit consistently declined to marry interfaith couples. Yet Davidson officiated at the union of Rabbi Keren Bender and her lesbian partner because he feels"strongly that gays and lesbians should have the sanction of our faith, that they should be treated exactly as any other couple." Since their commitment ceremony, Silverstein has conceived a son, Zachary, using an anonymous donor's sperm. She is now a full-time mother, raising her child as a Jew. Meanwhile, Friskopp has gone through the adoption process, making her a legal parent of the boy as well."When Annette gives birth to a child, she or he will be raised a Christian,"said Silverstein."We're sure this will be challenging, but probably no more so than any other solution." Gay interfaith couples are buffeted by many of the same forces that drive heterosexual intermarried couples away from Jewish practice. They deal with the December dilemma of Christmas versus Hanukkah; worry about how to raise their kids; and wrestle with their parents' expectations and their own hopes and dreams."I observe most of the major Jewish holidays, and I make Shabbat at home and in the synagogue,"said Silverstein, the San Diego woman. Her partner, Friskopp, a Methodist, celebrates Christmas and Easter."To be honest, if my partner were Jewish, and religiously inclined, I'd probably be even more observant,"Silverstein added.

This same phenomenon unfolds every day between heterosexual interfaith couples, prompting the more liberal branches of American Judaism to try and treat all interfaith couples alike, regardless of their sexual preferences."In both theory and practice, we like not to distinguish between gays and lesbians, and straight couples in this matter. The same policies that a congregation would have toward an interfaith straight couple, they would have toward an interfaith gay couple,"said Spitzer.

Lee Walzer, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews, said mainstream Judaism serves its own best interests when it takes seriously the issue of gay interfaith relationships."You want to encourage people to live Jewish lives, you want them to keep in touch with the tradition, and these things are relevant in the lesbian and gay community no less than in the wider Jewish community,"he said.

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This becomes increasingly true, he noted, as gay couples look to adoption and artificial insemination as avenues to becoming parents.

Steinhorn and Stroschein, the two Baltimore men, have talked about adopting."I agreed right off the bat that we would raise the child Jewish, because that is very important to David,"Stroschein said.

Steinhorn, a Chicago native who works as a computer software consultant, has always been actively Jewish. He served on the board of a Reform synagogue in Connecticut before moving to Baltimore, and even chaired their family life committee.

He and Stroschein _ who teaches social studies to 7th and 8th grade public school students _ have 20 or more guests at the annual Passover seder they host.

The two men consider themselves married, even if not legally so.

As gay couples around the nation have done in recent years, they had a lawyer draw up papers which grant them many of the rights of a married couple. Each holds a medical power of attorney for the other, and each is the other's legal beneficiary.

The two men say these documents are the nearest thing they have to a wedding certificate, and they invited their friends over to watch them sign the papers."The lawyer was a little taken aback,"Steinhorn laughed."He had never had people taking pictures at a will-signing before." Steinhorn attends Beit Mishpacha, a predeominantly gay synagogue in Washington, about once a month. Like Silverstein in San Diego, he said he"would go to services more"if his partner were Jewish."I do wish I were more active, but it never occurred to me to get rid of Thom because of that!"he said."Being with Thom is the most important thing to me."

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