Saying it’s anti-Israel, some members quit NY gay shul

Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan loses a handful of worshipers after reading Gazan casualty names from pulpit

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

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A small but vocal exodus from New York City’s only gay synagogue has brought the congregation’s views on Israel and the Palestinians under increased scrutiny.

Bryan Bridges, a longtime member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in Manhattan, was surprised by an outpouring of online support this week when he publicly declared he was quitting both the congregation and his position on the CBST board in light of what he felt were pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel tendencies.

Bridges, 42, had served on the CBST board for two years and was a highly visible member of the congregation, chairing its communications committee and volunteering as a Hebrew teacher for adult language learners. But when Operation Protective Edge was launched last month, and fighting between Israel and Gaza turned increasingly bloody, he says he felt that the congregation’s left-leaning tendencies and commitments to social justice were warped into empathy for Israel’s enemies.

Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum began reading the names of Palestinian casualties, in addition to Israeli ones, from the pulpit on Friday night, a decision that angered Bridges and other members who felt that to include all names of Palestinian casualties negated the fact that many of the killed were, in fact, Hamas militants. The synagogue also encouraged congregants to contribute to an IndieGoGo campaign to raise food for Gazan families, but held no such drive to aid Israeli soldiers or families from Israel’s battered south.

Service at Beit Simchat Torah (photo credit: Courtesy CBST)
Service at Beit Simchat Torah (photo credit: Courtesy CBST)

CBST has come under fire from pro-Israel supporters before for incidents that included inviting a group that advocates on behalf of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to host an event and for Kleinbaum’s participation in a so-called “Queer Mission to Palestine.”

Bridges, who penned an open letter to the synagogue and board and posted it on his Facebook wall when he announced he was leaving the congregation, estimates that several dozen other members have quit over the synagogue’s politics, and others have been deterred from joining.

“I couldn’t imagine raising a child in this congregation, and have that child hear, just before we recite Kaddish, the names of people who are trying to kill her grandparents,” says Bridges, who is married to an Israeli.

Many congregants have been vocal in their support of the synagogue’s stance on Israel and Palestine, however.

“I identify as a human first, then Israeli and Jewish,” wrote CBST member Yuval Moses on the congregation’s Facebook wall. “Mourning the loss of civilians on both sides should be encouraged … After weeks of cognitive processing Rabbi Kleinbaum’s words tonight opened my heart to emotionally experiencing that loss for the first time.”

On Wednesday, however, Michael Lucas – the gay porn kingpin who runs Lucas Entertainment and is outspoken in his admiration and love for Israel – sent an email blast to followers to support Bridges and speak out against CBST. Lucas is not a member of CBST.

“What should be a center of Jewish unity has instead become a forum for continual and divisive condemnation of Israel, which has more than enough enemies already,” Lucas wrote.

Kleinbaum says she wishes Bryan the best and regrets his decision to leave the congregation, but disputed several of the claims he made in his post.

The names she read from the pulpit, she says, were only those of Israeli soldiers and of Palestinian children up to the age of 18 who had been killed. She also said that the synagogue had repeatedly urged congregants to donate to Israel, via the Reform Jewish Movement and the UJA Emergency Fund, in tandem with its calls to donate to Gaza.

“I’m pro-Israel, I’m pro-Palestinian, I’m pro-peace,” she said. “I absolutely did read the names of Palestinian children who had been killed in Gaza, alongside the names of Israeli soldiers who were killed. And I think it’s imperative of people in a synagogue to cry over the deaths of children … if we can’t feel the pain of  young people dying then we risk our hearts being hardened and becoming like Pharoah.”

Bridges, who calls himself center-to-left wing and says he is an avid supporter of the two-state solution, says that he primarily took issue with the lack of context in which Kleinbaum’s views were offered into religious services, and with the injection of politics into his worship.

“This is probably a conversation that a lot of congregations are struggling with now,” he says. “How to relate to Israel. And it’s going to keep being a bigger issue for all congregations, not just ours.”

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