A lot has changed for Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ Jewish community in the last 30 years, but one thing that has remained constant is the “spirit” of Bet Tikvah, according to Deb Polk, a leader of the congregation.
“Bet Tikvah provides people with a community you don’t get elsewhere,” said Polk. “This is where I connect to other gay people.”
Bet Tikvah, which meets for Shabbat services the first Friday of each month at Rodef Shalom Congregation, will be celebrating its 30th year at a party on Sunday, June 3, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, will be talking about the history of the congregation; Frank Giaoui, the president of the World Congress: Keshet Ga’avah, an umbrella group for organizations supporting LGBTQ Jews, will be present as well.
Bet Tikvah (“House of Hope”) was founded in 1988 when three people decided to form a group to meet the needs of Jewish gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the Pittsburgh area. The group first gathered at the home of Avram Machtiger for “Shabbat acknowledgement,” said Lidji, who has been conducting oral histories of some of the congregation’s founding members.
“The idea was to do not just Shabbat, but the holidays as well,” said Lidji. “A lot of people weren’t religious or observant in any way; they were just Jews who wanted to get together, and prayer felt like the thing to do when they got together.”
In the 1980s, Lidji explained, there was not a lot to do to meet other members of the LGBTQ community “if you didn’t want to go to the bars.”
Nationally at that time, LGBTQ activism was becoming more pronounced, and “people started to become more visible and more vocal,” he said. That national trend was reflected in Pittsburgh as well.
Some in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community were resistant to the trend, with some of that conflict playing out in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. In 1989, the Chronicle ran an advertisement for Bet Tikvah, and later a brief regarding the appearance of the executive director of the World Congress: Keshet Ga’avah at Temple Sinai.
“That set off a huge debate in the next three months in the Chronicle,” Lidji said, with a letter to the editor comparing the decision to run the ad with running an ad for a non-kosher restaurant, and rebuttals to that position.
In 1990, the Reform movement voted to accept openly gay Jews into the rabbinate, and the Chronicle ran an op-ed by Dennis Prager imploring the movement to reverse its decision. That was followed by a response from Rodef Shalom’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Walter Jacob, who was on the committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis that passed the resolution stressing that “all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Shortly thereafter, the United Jewish Federation (now the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) formed a Human Rights Task Force, and in April 1991, hosted a program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh on “the gay Jewish experience,” said Lidji.
“This was all coming just a few years after the forming of Bet Tikvah, and it was seen as an energizing moment,” he said.
Other programs supportive of the Jewish Pittsburgh LGBTQ community followed, including a symposium on “Jews with AIDS in the Family.”
The thing I’m paying attention to is whether new people are seeking us out. If no more new people are interested in us, I may feel our time is done. But there are still new people reaching out.
By 1989, the Bet Tikvah group had grown and was regularly holding member-led services at a variety of locations in the area, including a local gay-owned restaurant, the Israel Heritage Room at the University of Pittsburgh and the homes of members.
By 1995, a new wave of Bet Tikvah leaders had emerged, and with a measure of acceptance now established in the wider community, the congregation gained a more solid footing. It was then that it entered into its relationship renting space from Rodef Shalom.
Lidji, who has researched the history of many area congregations, sees a similarity between the founding of Bet Tikvah and the others, which he identified as “the compulsion to start something.”
“The fact that these people were not observant, but wanted to start a congregation built around prayer and religious observance, is really something,” he said.
The congregation, which maintains a membership roll of about 40 family units, continues to serve as a place for Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ Jews to connect and celebrate. Each year, Bet Tikvah also provides a home away from home for LGBTQ Jewish college students, Polk said.
In recent years many mainstream congregations have been intentional in including the LGBTQ population, but that has not obviated Bet Tikvah’s relevancy.
“The thing I’m paying attention to is whether new people are seeking us out,” Polk said. “If no more new people are interested in us, I may feel our time is done. But there are still new people reaching out.”
Mainstream organizations often reach out to partner with Bet Tikvah, Polk said, including JFilm, J’Burgh, the Federation, Congregation Beth Shalom and Temple Sinai.
“Were on the map now,” she noted. “Now people are thinking about us and reaching out to us. I think it’s really neat and amazing.”
In addition to monthly Shabbat services, Bet Tikvah continues to host a Passover seder, High Holiday services and Sukkot services, as well as a Chanukah party and other social events. It is open to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, and counts several heterosexuals as members. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.