A little more than a year ago, Rabbi Stacy Offner’s life was in flux. Offner, a lesbian, had decided no longer to be silent about her sexuality, sparking a bitter controversy over her tenure at the reform synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she had officiated for three years. Under extreme pressure, she resigned.
Yet for Offner, an episode which had seemed like the end of a career had turned into a promising beginning. Several months after her resignation, she was approached by members of her former congregation who had broken away to start a congregation of their own. They wanted Offner to be their spiritual leader. In August 1988, Offner became the Rabbi of Congregation Shir Tikvah, the first synagogue ever knowingly to hire a lesbian rabbi.
The congregation, which held its first meetings in a pizza parlor, has grown from 40 to 105 households – of which approximately ten percent are gay. It had a religious school and a temporary home in the Jewish Community Center of St. Paul. At Offner’s first service, on Rosh Hashannah, 400 people showed up, a quarter of them attending an open house afterward n her home, where she lives with her partner and her partner’s two teen-aged children. Offner says, “With this congregation, I can be a proud parent – a whole person.”
In recent years, lesbians have become increasingly visible in America. Spurred by recent court decisions, they are living together more openly and, due to modern science, they are having babies and adopting children in such numbers that some jokingly refer to a lesbian baby boom.
Yet the taboo against homosexuality – which runs deep in Jewish culture and religion – has made “coming out” a difficult process, especially for Jewish women. Jewish lesbians suffer from “invisibility,” which, says Evelyn Turton Beck, editor of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989) often has a “trivializing, disempowering, and ultimately debilitating effect.” Those who reveal their sexual orientation do so in careful, incremental steps, first to peers within the gay community, next to family and friends, then to the community-at-large or worke environment. “When you decide to come out as a lesbian, you are putting yourself o the line,” continues Beck. “you risk your family, your friends, your job. In spite of that, you remain totally invisible.”
Yet visibility, with the reward of being true to oneself, has a price – as many Jewish lesbians who have come out discovered. “Jewish families have both a harder – and an easier – time accepting gay children,” explains Aron Cooper, a San Francisco psychologist who produced the documentary, “Parents Come Out,” about parents whose children are gay. “It’s easier because the Jewish tradition of liberal tolerance and respect for human rights; it’s harder for Jewish parents because of the emphasis on being part of a family and having children,” he says. In Jewish culture the focus on the family is strong, and the pressure to procreate is great spurred both by religious injunction and by Jewish history.
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