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Bet Tikvah offers support to Jewish gays and lesbians

Wednesday, August 12, 1998

By Annette Bassett Sanchez, Tri-State Sports and News Service

Nachum Golan's search for spirituality has not been an easy one.

Nachum Golan, one of the leaders of the Bet Tikvah congregation, was raised an Orthodox Jew but couldn't reconcile his religion with his homosexuality. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Raised an Orthodox Jew in Israel, his desire for peace from his religion was complicated by his identity as a gay man.

Homosexuality "did not officially exist" in the Israel of his youth, Golan, 56, said.

"It was an abomination. I left Israel mostly to escape my gayness. The easy way to deal with it was to run away," he said.

Golan immigrated to Pittsburgh when he was 22. Over the years, he has become a successful interior designer in Shadyside. He has also become comfortable with his gayness. But his involvement in religion was minimal until about four years ago, when his partner, Steve Haugh, expressed an interest in converting to Judaism. A local rabbi recommended that Golan and Haugh attend a meeting of Bet Tikvah, a group made up primarily of Jewish homosexuals. Golan has been an active member ever since.

Bet Tikvah, which means "House of Hope," was organized more than 10 years ago. The group now boasts about 80 members and sponsors a number of religious and social events. They hold Sabbath services on the first Friday of each month. The service, as well as Passover, Yom Kippur, and other holiday observances, are conducted by Bet Tikvah members.

"The fact that we are all doing this as a group has a certain charm," Golan said. "One of the reasons people tend to join us is our lack of religious hierarchy. We are all leaders, and we are all participants."

Earlier this year, Bet Tikvah held a baby-naming ceremony for the adopted infant of two lesbian members, Golan said. Picnics and participation in Gay Pride Week in June are regular summer events. The rest of the year, in addition to other social activities, members can participate in a monthly Bible study course.

Bet Tikvah's emphasis on welcoming and inclusion is especially meaningful for many gays and lesbians, Golan said.

"I went through so much agony trying to find out if there was another gay person in the world," Golan recalled. "There is a comfort you get when you are with people who have gone through what you have."

Golan, right, participates in a service of the Bet Tikvah congregation, which meets at Temple Rodef Shalom in Shadyside. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Bet Tikvah's Sabbath service is held at Rodef Shalom Congregation's synagogue in Shadyside. Golan said it's a rarity for a gay and lesbian group to gain permission to meet at a synagogue, though the service is held in a room separate from the main part of the synagogue.

Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation, "has been extremely welcoming," Golan said.

Andrew Bush, a rabbi at Rodef Shalom, has served as a counselor and adviser to Bet Tikvah members since he came to the synagogue six years ago.

"It's a very warm relationship," Bush said of the synagogue's link to Bet Tikvah. "I think it speaks to the inclusive message of Rodef Shalom's approach to Judaism."

If any of the more than 1,600 families who belong to Rodef Shalom object to the presence of Bet Tikvah, Bush said, he hasn't heard from them.

"It's really been an accepted thing in the congregation," Bush said. "It's never been an issue."

Dinah Denmark of Mt. Lebanon has organized panel discussions between Bet Tikvah members and Jewish adult education students for the past three years. Denmark, 35, said she occasionally attends Bet Tikvah services, usually on the high holy days.

"I see myself as more of a cultural Jew. I'm not particularly religious," she said. But Bet Tikvah gives her a chance "to connect with Jewish people who are gay and lesbian."

Other religions also have groups that minister to homosexuals. Gay and Lesbian Alternative Dimensions (GLAD), a group affiliated with the First United Methodist Church in Shadyside, sponsors a discussion group that meets twice monthly. They also hold an annual information festival. Renee Waun, a minister with the church, said they're responding to the needs of the neighborhood.

"In Shadyside, we have a rather substantial gay, lesbian, and transgendered community," Waun said. "We like to think we're inclusive."

The issue of gay people and religion is an important one for Waun: She'll publish a book next year called "More Than Welcome: Learning to Embrace Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Individuals in the Church."

Spirituality and religion will also be among the topics discussed Nov. 11-15, when Pittsburgh hosts the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's 10th annual Creating Change conference.

Other religions take varied approaches to homosexual members. Gay Catholics have two groups to choose from, though only one is sanctioned by the church.

"The church teaches that the inclination to homosexuality is not a sin," said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. However, homosexual activity is prohibited. Members of Courage, a spiritual support group sponsored by the diocese, agree with the church's position and strive for chastity. The group meets weekly. More information is available from the Rev. John O'Shea at (724) 222-1911.

Dignity, a national group for gay Catholics, does not support the church's ban on homosexual activity. The group meets for Mass every Sunday night at 7:30 p.m., at the Community of Reconciliation in Oakland. Dignity also sponsors social activities, such as covered dish dinners. Volunteer opportunities, including visiting local AIDS patients, are available as well. For more information, call (412) 362-4334.

The Pittsburgh Presbytery, representing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), welcomes gays and lesbians as members but prohibits their ordination as church officers. Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns is a support group (412-683-5239) not sanctioned by the church.

Outside the mainstream denominations, there is the Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Community Church of Pittsburgh, which meets for Sunday evening services at 7 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House, 4836 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. The congregation is predominantly gay and lesbian, but everyone is welcome to attend services, help out with the food bank, and participate in Bible study and prayer groups. For more information, call (412) 683-2994.

The various branches of Judaism take different stances on homosexuality. Officially, the Orthodox and Conservative movements condemn homosexual acts as abominations, but some congregations include gays and lesbians. Other local Reform and Reconstructionist congregations welcome homosexual members but have no connection to groups like Bet Tikvah.

"Spirituality, and a moment of peace" are what Golan says he receives from Bet Tikvah.

"There's a certain camaraderie or friendship that happens when we meet," he said. "It's a joy to see one another."

For more information on Bet Tikvah, call 681-6818. or write to P.O. Box 10140, Pittsburgh 15232.

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