On a frigid January night twelve strangers arrived at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford curious, apprehensive, and expectant. By the end of the evening, the group had begun to forge friendships and create a community where they could celebrate freely being gay and Jewish.
The sign on the synagogue door invited them inside. It read: "Schmooze and Nosh with “CHAVERIM.” And friends they became.
“I feel like I made twelve new friends,” said Caren Dickman who attended the gathering.
Mark Slitt, a gay member of the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, brought the group together. A Connecticut native who recently moved back to the Greater Hartford area, Slitt said he longed for a community where Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer could come together to share their dual identities.
"I knew there were other Jewish gay people out there but I didn't know where to find them," said Slitt.
So he approached Beth Israel's Cantor Pamela Siskin about starting a group. Beth Israel's Rabbi Michael Pincus was supportive of the idea and soon enough several synagogues in the area joined in support.
Cantor officiated the initial gathering on Tuesday (Jan. 22) . Several rabbis attended to confer their blessings and encourage the group, reminding them that they are all part of the religious Jewish community.
Rabbi David Small with the the Conservative Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford told the group that their gathering was a logical progression not a controversial one.
Pincus wished the group to many more gatherings to come.
Rabbi Donna Berman, the executive director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center, reminded the group how far they had come and even mentioned that President Obama referenced to the 1969 Stonewall riots during his inauguration address.
Throughout the evening, there was talk of attending museums, organizing movie nights, Hanukkah brunches, the promise of lasting friendships. There were confessions about the difficulty of being gay and Jewish, the need to find people who share those dual identities.
For newly married Monnique Faison and Leah Ross the community that Slitt envisioned was what the couple was looking for. They were married in November by Rabbi Small in the first same-sex marriage held in the nearly century old Conservative congregation.
"We have our gay friends and we have our Jewish friends but we don't have both," said Ross, explaining that many of the couple's gay Jewish friends don't practice Judaism because of bad past experiences.
Slitt said he was surprised at the number of people who turned out for the initial gathering.
“I’m thrilled. I didn't’t know what to expect. I thought it was going to be me and Cantor Siskin drinking wine,” Slitt said.
To learn more about the group contact Siskin at firstname.lastname@example.org or Slitt at email@example.com