BJ has been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ acceptance, programming, and activism for decades. In honor of Pride Month, Rabbi Roly Matalon sat down with BJ staff to discuss how the congregation first started its allyship with the gay and lesbian community in the 1980s.
B’nai Jeshurun: Let’s talk about the 1980s and ‘90s. What was it like for the gay and lesbian community? What was the scene in New York City and at BJ?
Rabbi Roly Matalon: There were actually two trends going on at the same time. One was that gay and lesbian Jews felt unwelcome in most synagogues. Most congregations were not welcoming places for gays and lesbians. Certainly not Conservative congregations and Orthodox congregations.
The stories and the suffering and the fear and the need for people to hold on to Judaism—holding onto faith, trying to find hope. It was incredibly moving. It was one of the most moving things we ever did here.
Number two, in the mid ‘80s, the AIDS epidemic was raging and it was affecting, at the time, mostly gay men, and people couldn’t find their access. They didn’t have access to the solace that religious institutions could offer. Community, support, faith.
So those two things were happening and there were a number of gay and lesbian members here at BJ. There was a man who was a member here, Mel Rosen, who worked at UJA Federation, and he had AIDS. He was married to a rabbinical school classmate of mine, and that’s how I got to know him. And he, together with a couple of other members, spoke to Rabbi Marshall Meyer and to me, and suggested that we needed to do something for people with AIDS. And so we got together a group of people and tried to figure out what we were going to do. Then Marshall and I went to the board and presented this notion that we need to open up.
BJ: That must have been tough, to have that conversation in the midst of such a tense time.
Roly: People had all sorts of fears. This is the sort of mid to late ‘80s. People had all sorts of fears about, “Are we going to get contaminated? Are our children going to get contaminated? Getting contaminated is going to happen because we let them into the building—so we have to disinfect stuff.”
I mean, I remember I was doing chaplaincy in 1983 at Memorial Sloan Kettering and there were a number of people with AIDS in the hospital. And in ‘83, ‘84, you couldn’t get into their room just like that. These people were completely isolated. It’s like COVID-19 was for us a couple of years ago. You had to go with this protective gear. So people had all sorts of fears about contamination. “Can use the same bathroom?” and things like that.
BJ: Did you find a way to make sure everyone was comfortable?
Roly: The science was already clear about how AIDS was transmitted. And so in order to calm people’s anxieties and also to persuade everyone that people with AIDS were safe to be around and that we needed to welcome them and support them, we had a series of speakers each month on Shabbat morning for several months. We had a woman whose son had died of AIDS. He was a young doctor in Long Island and she spoke about him and his illness. There was a man who was living with AIDS. There was a doctor who was treating people with AIDS. And so we invited these speakers over the course of a number of months, and then people were moved and persuaded that we needed to do something.
And so we started thinking, What can we do? People with AIDS had a hard time getting up in the morning. Their mornings were very slow. They had a hard time getting out of bed, getting started, taking their medication and so on. So we decided that we needed to do something later in the morning or later in the day, and created a Shabbat lunch program called Spiritual Gathering For People With AIDS.
Actually, the first thing we did, before we did that, was a pre-Passover seder. It was about liberation and it was mostly for people with AIDS. It was very powerful. And because of that experience, because of its success, we started doing these spiritual gatherings.
So people were invited to come to services; hardly anyone with AIDS came. But they would come to these lunches that were in Frankel Hall. They were prepared completely and totally served by BJ volunteers. And then we’d set up the tables. And at each table there would be a number of BJ members together with our guests. And people started coming. In the beginning it was mostly gay men. They were coming with their partners, lovers, parents and other family members. And so we would make Kiddush and Hamotzi, and we would have lunch. And then after a little while we would read something and teach something, Marshall and I. And then we would invite people—it was like open mic. The stories that we heard were unbelievable. People were in tears. Many people said, “It’s the first time I’m in a synagogue since my Bar Mitzvah, since I came out.” “I have not talked to my parents in so many years, and here they are, with me, together for the first time. And they agreed to accompany me to come to this synagogue.” It was just unbelievable. The stories and the suffering and the fear and the need for people to hold on to Judaism—holding onto faith, trying to find hope. It was incredibly moving. It was one of the most moving things we ever did here.
Over the course of time, we started also getting people who contracted AIDS through IV drug use. There was so much shame associated with that. And so, people little by little started arriving.
And it was transformative for the guests and it was transformative for us, for all the BJ members who were part of this program. It was really a powerful experience. We also joined a commission with the UJA Federation that was formed to ask synagogues, rabbis, and lay leaders to open up and to welcome, to grant whatever solace and comfort a religious institution can offer. There were a couple of other congregations doing this type of work and it was very rewarding as more and more and more congregations started opening up.
BJ: It seems like it was sort of twofold. It was not only helping that community, but also helping the larger community understand more.
Roly: Yes. That was the first step. And then we started getting a lot of people who were gay and lesbian at Shabbat services. At the time it was not called LGBTQ+, it was gay and lesbian. And then nomenclature started changing and expanding. But then we got renown, in a sense, and the word spread out that we were a congregation that was open to gays and lesbians. That people didn’t have to hide, that people didn’t have to be in the closet. They didn’t need to be ashamed. They didn’t need to stay away. So we started receiving more and more gay and lesbian people who didn’t necessarily have AIDS.
The word spread out that we were a congregation that was open to gays and lesbians. That people didn’t have to hide, that people didn’t have to be in the closet. They didn’t need to be ashamed. They didn’t need to stay away. So we started receiving more and more gay and lesbian people who didn’t necessarily have AIDS.
People showed up who were just gay and lesbian people who wanted to find a place that was welcoming. The only other place at the time that was openly welcoming was CBST, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. It had been founded as a congregation for gay and lesbian Jews, not exclusively, but certainly the majority of people there were gay and lesbian and obviously felt welcome. But we became another place for people who did not want to be sort of segregated with gay and lesbians, who wanted to be part of a general population of Jews—they could come here. So people started coming here in greater numbers in 1990 and 1991. And then a number of BJ members who were gay and lesbian wanted to form a committee in order to be able to organize themselves and create events and programs and so on. So in late 1991, for the first time, we had a Gay and Lesbian Committee at BJ. And for many years this was active and they organized Shabbat dinners and picnics in the park and programs and all sorts of things. Sometimes people participated in the general programs together with the rest of the community. And sometimes they had space where people could just be amongst themselves.
And in 1992, we had the first lesbian wedding; we did it here in the Reception Room, Marshall and I. Two women who were very active here and actually were among the founders of JFREJ, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, Alisa Solomon and Marilyn Neimark. They were the first lesbian couple married at BJ.
BJ: If you were to equate the time and the sort of movement that was created here to something present day, is there anything that comes to mind?
Roly: I would say that I think that, in many ways, the next frontier is trans Jews. I don’t think we are there. I think we are there with gay and lesbian Jews. But I think trans Jews is in many ways this next frontier in the Jewish community at large.
BJ’s gay and lesbian community in the 1980s and 1990s served as a strong foundation for its vibrant LGBTQ+ community today. BJ continues to support and campaign for LGBTQ+ inclusion and rights.