If you stick around to socialize after a service at Congregation Bet Tikvah — which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year — you’ll overhear conversations that point to deep relationships.
One person talks about how members visited them in the hospital 20 years ago, bringing the necessities to celebrate Shabbat. Another reminisces about arranging to visit a recently deceased member at his nursing home to sing zmirot (Jewish songs), since he could no longer attend services virtually. Two mothers chat with a new attendee about how they met when their now-teenage children started preschool together.
When asked, the first word our long-term members use to describe Bet Tikvah is “welcoming.”
This isn’t surprising. We were founded in 1988 to meet the needs of Pittsburgh’s gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews, and then all LGBTQ+ Jews —outcasts from mainstream synagogues at the time. We remember the pain of rejection.
However, our membership has long included those who are straight and cisgender. Those who have found their way to Bet Tikvah’s diverse community include interfaith couples who struggled to find truly inviting spiritual homes in the early 1990s, those who lost family members to AIDS, and other allies who appreciate the casual, lay-led atmosphere and close-knit community.
We know we must consciously work to maintain our welcoming reputation.
Membership dues are pay what you can. Health and safety are carefully considered when planning events. Accessibility, in every sense of the word, is seen as part of our central tenet of being welcoming.
Our prayer book, crafted by congregants, is filled with transliterations. Traditional Hebrew prayers have been translated in a way that doesn’t gender God. The format of the siddur allows for a wide variety of services, so each lay service leader can choose a style that suits them.
Lay leadership means every voice is valuable. We run on a consensus model — there is no voting, just discussion until a satisfactory solution is found. Even if this means revisiting conversations multiple times, our members agree it’s better to do things right than quickly.
When Congregation Bet Tikvah was founded, same-sex sexual activity had only been decriminalized in Pennsylvania for eight years and removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) seven years before that.
In the 35 years since 1988, the LGBTQ+ community has achieved massive political and social advancements.
Transgender identities were removed from the DSM in 1994. Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized nationwide in 2003. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2014, and nationally in 2015. In 2020 employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was made illegal in the United States, and in 2022 U.S. passports added the option for a nonbinary gender marker.
Along with secular advancements, there has been increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in the larger Jewish community. By 2007 the Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform and Conservative movements all allowed ordination of openly lesbian, gay and bisexual rabbis. By 2012, these same movements had officially created paths to religious same-sex marriages. In 2022, Conservative Judaism codified non-gendered language for rituals in the synagogue.
While Bet Tikvah members celebrate each step toward acceptance, we also know it means that there is less of a need for a community to embrace those who have no other place.
Some long-time members are optimistic about Congregation Bet Tikvah’s future, excited about the number of regular attendees under the age of 40. As a minority within a minority, these younger members find value in a space where they celebrate both identities.
Others worry involvement will diminish with time, as older members with close ties to each other are no longer able to attend.
Leadership takes a pragmatic approach. Deb Polk, a member since 1997 and long-time volunteer, says, “If people no longer need us, then we will stop existing, but until then we will be here for as long as people want to come.”
Meanwhile, people still find their way to our tiny synagogue.
Congregation Bet Tikvah’s Treasurer Ravid Nash started attending services virtually during the height of the COVID-19
Denied a bet mitzvah in the 1990s due to her intersex status, she was estranged from Judaism until a health crisis in her 40s forced her to embrace being both intersex and transfeminine. She decided to seek out a Jewish community “that was LGBTQ-centric, but had some type of spiritual aspect to help me deal with transitioning for medical reasons.” She found her spiritual home at Bet Tikvah.
As we mark Bet Tikvah’s 35th anniversary, we celebrate being a part of a community specifically built for us as both LGBTQ+ people and Jews. At Bet Tikvah, our belonging is never questioned and our presence is valued. More than that, our presence and contributions make an impact. PJC
Sara Chandler (she/her) and Caedyn Krahling (they/them) are members of Congregation Bet Tikvah and sit on its Communication Committee.