Bet Mishpachah: A still-needed safe space for LGBTQ people

Bet Mishpachah’s ark with its ner tamid and rainbow-colored Torah mantles. | Photo courtesy of Larry Neff

LGBT Pride Month is a busy time for Bet Mishpachah in Washington, a congregation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, trans and queer Jews, and their allies.

On June 10, the congregation held a cocktail party on the steps of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center before Shabbat services. The next day, Bet Mishpachah had its own booth at the Capital Pride Parade.

Longtime member Larry Neff said that while many synagogues now welcome LGBTQ people, it’s still not the same as walking into a room where he is “the vast majority.”

“You really have the sense that it’s our community,” Neff said. “And at the end of services, if someone kisses their partner Shabbat shalom, no one thinks twice about it. But if I did that at a big, large, mainstream synagogue somewhere else, other people might be uncomfortable and I might be uncomfortable.”

The congregation publishes its own prayer book. The most recent edition came out in 2017. One of the readings at Bet Mishpachah is “Twilight People,” written by Reuben Zellman, a transgender rabbi from Berkeley, Calif. It reads in part:

As the sun sinks and the colors of the day turn, we offer a blessing for the Twilight. Twilight is neither day nor night, but in between.
We were all Twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined. We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place.

Bet Mishpachah members march in an early LGBTQ Pride Parade in Dupont Circle in the 1980s. | Photo courtesy of Larry Neff

Mindy Gasthalter, a congregant since 1996, said you “don’t have to wonder” if you’ll be accepted at Bet Mishpachah.

“When you walk in the room, you don’t have to wonder if anyone’s going to think you’re gay,” Gasthalter said. “Or if you’re going to hold the hand of your partner, put your arm around your partner when you’re sitting in services, you don’t have to be concerned that people might look at you and stare.”

Gasthalter added that it creates a safe space for people.

“It creates an affirming space for people, it creates a positive space for people and it creates a space for people who can both embrace their Judaism and their sexual orientation without wonder or question or feeling uncomfortable,” Gasthalter said.

Neff said the synagogue has also created a social community for many members who have formed longtime relationships and friendships.

Neff said while some people may question the need for a Bet Mishpachah when many synagogues now accept the LGBTQ community, he still believes it serves an important role, especially for younger people.

“I think that there’s still a need for the synagogue for people who really just want to have a sense of being in their own community, and being able to fully express all different aspects of their identity without reservation,” Neff said. “And also for young people coming out who are still looking for a way to realize their full potential as Jews and LGBTQ people.”

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