When her son came out in the early 1990s, the world was a different place for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people and their families, said Rona Zukerberg of Pikesville, a Chizuk Amuno Congregation member. “It was a hard time. We had absolutely no clue where to turn. We didn’t know anything about being gay.
“You know, they say that when kids come out of the closet, parents go into the closet. By the time a kid comes out, he has known he’s gay for a long time and has had a lot of time to process it. But parents are just starting the process. It takes time.”
In those days, Zukerberg recalled, there were no Jewish organizations in Baltimore that offered programs or support for gay or lesbian people and their parents. Zukerberg and her husband sought help and became active with the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a national organization founded 40 years ago.
In the 21st century, things have changed for the Zukerbergs and LGBT people and their families. Now, Zukerberg’s son and his partner, who have been together for 20 years, are married and have two young children. Even so, until six months ago, there was still no communitywide organization in Baltimore for Jewish LGBT individuals, their families and friends.
That void is now being filled by JQ Baltimore, a new group dedicated to making the Jewish community more welcoming and inclusive. JQ Baltimore offers monthly support groups, presentations and discussions, which take place at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC and are facilitated by Melissa Berman, the JCC’s assistant director of arts and culture. JQ Baltimore’s membership runs the gamut in terms of age, gender identity and denomination.
Chase Hiller, 22, Jewish and gay and a member of JQ Baltimore, rec-ently moved back to the area after completing college at Brandeis University. Hiller’s family moved from Salisbury to Owings Mills when he was 13. He attended Pikesville High School and was a member of Har Sinai, a Reform congregation now located in Owings Mills. Prior to attending Brandeis, where he felt comfortable as a gay Jew, Hiller admitted he had rejected his faith for a period of time.
“Like many gay people, I assumed that most religions were homophobic,” said Hiller.
Neely Snyder, 34, a member of Net-ivot Shalom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, who has worked with teenagers for the past 15 years and currently serves as director of teen engagement at the Macks Center for Jewish Education, has seen many teens relinquish their Jewish identities while struggling with their sexuality. She has been involved with JQ Baltimore since its inception.
“Most teens feel it’s easier to disengage from Judaism if they feel excluded. I’ve seen many students, as well as friends, struggle with the relationship between their sexual identities and their Jewish identities. Between what I’ve experienced professionally and personally as an ally, I’ve been ins-pired to make change in the local community.”
Snyder said she’s excited about how much JQ Baltimore has accomplished so quickly and is delighted by the support the group has received from members of all denominations.
Danielle Weinstein, 35, and her partner, Melissa Verduzco, 30, moved to Towson from Virginia Beach so Weinstein could attend Towson University’s Institute of Jewish Studies. Working
toward a master’s degree in Jewish communal service, Weinstein is doing her internship at the JCC. When Berman asked Weinstein to help her form a new group for LGBT community members at the Owings Mills JCC, she was definitely game.
“It’s important to recognize and accept everybody. That’s so much of what our faith talks about,” Weinstein said.”
So far, Weinstein and Verduzco have found secular Baltimore to be a welcoming place for a lesbian couple.
“Why shouldn’t the Jewish community be just as welcoming?” she asked.
Acceptance of LGBT Jews has come most gradually to the Orthodox community. So when Modern Orthodox synagogue Beth Tfiloh Congregation recently screened the Israeli documentary “Mom and Dad, I Have Something to Tell You,” which deals with the impact of coming out on parents and children, Hiller called it a “groundbreaking event.”
According to Hiller, about 200 people attended the event, part of BT’s Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life and Learning program and co-sponsored by several other local Jewish communal organizations.
Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, who spoke at the screening, said that Beth Tfiloh treats gay and lesbian congregants the same as any other members of the congregation. “They are treated as Jews and welcomed in our congregation,” said the rabbi. “I think homosexuality is an issue that we in Orthodoxy need to confront. It is very real, and it is our children we are talking about. I do believe that people are gay because of their biology. Jews do not become gay to reject God.”
Rabbi Wohlberg compared LGBT congregants to members who violate the Sabbath or the dietary laws.
“These Jews are welcomed in synagogue and become leaders here, despite violating the Sabbath,” he said.
The rabbi confirmed, however, that gay and lesbian congregants may not be married at Beth Tfiloh.
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue, has been welcoming to LGBT members for a long time, said Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen. “In general, people have felt comfortable because it has not been an issue.”
BHC was one of the first synagogues in Baltimore to have gay and lesbian clergy and to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies. Earlier this year, the congregation began offering programs geared specifically toward LGBT members. Programming has included social activities, havdallah services and onegs, where LGBT congregants and their families can meet.
“I’m very supportive of JQ Baltimore,” said Rabbi Sachs-Kohen. “The LGBT Jewish community needs this kind of visibility, particularly for young people who are just learning about their sexual identities. … It’s exciting that the world we live in is coming to understand the range of human sexuality and that we are making progress toward a fair and equitable society.”
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