On the last Friday night of June, the atmosphere inside the D.C. Jewish Community Center was electric, as members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender synagogue, Bet Mishpachah, filed into their worship space for Shabbat services.
Earlier that day, the Supreme Court had declared same-sex marriage legal throughout the land.
“I was just elated. I wish there were words for what I felt,” said Rabbi Laurie Green, who has been the Bet Mishpachah spiritual leader since 2013. “It was just incredible joy, incredible gratitude, incredible sense of ‘Wow, did this really happen?’”
Celebrating the momentous occasion in worship was a natural fit for a congregation that has witnessed important historic milestones together over the course of its 40-year history.
“Bet Mishpachah is the place where history happens and people don’t know it,” said Green, pointing to their publication of the first-ever inclusive siddur and celebration of same-sex marriages “before anyone heard of such a concept.”
The Metropolitan Community Temple Mishpocheh formed in 1975 and spent the early years of its history renting space from churches in Washington. The congregation was renamed Bet Mishpachah, meaning House of Family, in 1980. In 1997, the board of directors of the DCJCC invited the congregation to hold services in the newly restored building at 16th and Q Streets.
“We debated it because not all of our members were 100 percent out,” said Allan Armus, who joined Bet Mishpachah in 1983 after seeing a calendar listing in Washington Jewish Week.
Ultimately, the congregation’s board voted to move into the Jewish space. Armus fondly remembers the song and dance-filled Torah processional along Q Street and up the steps of the DCJCC.
But joining in fully with Jewish communal life was not always so easy. Twenty years ago, Armus approximates, the congregation wanted to join what is now known as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
“We had thought about joining them as a synagogue, but we were cautious about approaching [the JCRC] because we knew not everyone was going to be in favor of us being there, and we didn’t want to cause a disruption,” said Armus.
They did face opposition from traditional corners. But congregants had the backing of an important member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington who was also a member of the JCRC. The Reform and Conservative congregations were supportive and the Orthodox synagogues abstained during the vote, Armus recalled.
“During the 90s, some of the different denominations were more officially accepting and some even consider themselves GLBT-friendly, but they really didn’t know what they were talking about,” said Armus. “So we formed a group of members called the Wandering Jews.”
The Wandering Jews started educating local congregations on how to be gay and lesbian friendly.
“We’d show them the things they were doing that weren’t that friendly,” said Armus. “Did they recognize gay couples as a family unit for membership? Most didn’t. You’d have to join as an individual member. How comfortable would they be with gay couples kissing at the end of services, wishing each other a good Shabbos? What about a gay couple dancing together?”
Armus and other congregants stress that in many ways Bet Mishpachah is like any other congregation. It has a rabbi, offers classes, has an active choir, has a board and committees and hosts Shabbat services.
Unique to the congregation are its custom prayer books for Shabbat, High Holy Days and shiva. The text is gender-neutral, includes additional references to women of the Bible and reflects the unique blend of observances that members have brought to the community during the years. Shavat va-Yinafash, first published in 1991, is currently being revised for a new edition, and it has been adopted by other GLBT congregations across the country.
Green notes that inclusive, egalitarian language started with GLBT communities. “Everyone thinks the Reform movement started it. I’m a Reform rabbi [and I can tell you] it started with gay synagogues.”
Yes, the fact that Bet Mishpachah is a GLBT community is a big draw for its membership, but it is not the only factor for those deciding on becoming members.
Noah Wofsy wasn’t specifically looking for a GLBT congregation when he joined Bet Mishpachah in the early 2000s.
“It’s not that I felt uncomfortable [at other synagogues], it just felt that it would be more of a production to come out, whereas at Bet Mish the fact that you’re gay… isn’t something that you have to make known to people,” said Wofsy.
What really attracted him to Bet Mishpachah was the strong bond of the community.
“It reminded me of family in that there were a lot of characters. It was not a buttoned-down, everyone is getting along perfectly and all one bland mix of happy Jews,” said Wofsy. “This was a group of very interesting and colorful people. In a way, it felt more authentic like the synagogue I grew up in, which was full of characters.”
And family supports each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow.
Armus met his partner at Yom Kippur services. “That wouldn’t have happened at a brick-and-mortar synagogue,” he said. Just shy of their 15th anniversary, Armus’ partner died, and the congregation surrounded Armus in his time of need.
Rachel Wolkowitz, one of the younger congregants, formally joined the congregation nearly three years ago. She wanted to find a welcoming community and also a place where she could recite Kaddish for her grandfathers who died in quick succession.
One Friday evening, while attending another Washington-area minyan, Wolkowitz missed Kaddish.
“This made me very upset,” said Wolkowitz. “Bet Mishpachah starts at 8 p.m. so I raced out of Sixth & I and I ran to the Metro, ran all the way to the JCC and they were just finishing Aleinu, and so I got to say Kaddish.”
“It was so powerful, I knew I had to join.”
Now she’s a regular attendee at Friday night services and serves on the liturgy and religious affairs committees.
Greater acceptance of the GLBT community has proved to be a double-edged sword.
“We were very successful — and it cost us members because a lot of our members got married and had kids, and they needed Hebrew schools and things like that,” said Armus.
Though overall membership is down — as it is in many area congregations — according to a recent Bet Mishpachah newsletter, of 12 new members half are under age 40, no small feat in downtown Washington, where there are plenty of places for young people to participate Jewishly for free or a la carte. The congregation had 175 members as of last year.
“We may very well have more straight people or fewer people who are gay,” said Wofsy. “I think we’re going to see a lot more people who are transgender or identify other ways because I think that’s a community that is underserved by faith communities. And I hope that our community will be welcoming.”
Armus believes that there will continue to be a need for a safe place.
“No matter how affirming and welcoming [other synagogues] are, you’re still a minority. In our congregation you are the majority. GLBT is the norm and that makes a difference and still makes a difference.”