Fourteen years ago, LGBT congregants at Temple Israel of Greater Miami stepped out of the closet and began a synagogue fellowship. They called it Ru’ach and it became a welcoming safe place for Jews who wanted to embrace their religious and gay cultures.
Wednesday, three founders of Ru’ach will be honored at what has become a Temple Israel tradition: a gay-pride seder modeled after the ceremonial Passover dinner.
Miami attorney Robert Glazier, one of the honorees, said that when Ru’ach began, “nobody expected ... it would become a home for all gay Jews.”
“It worked out better than we could imagine — two of our leaders becoming president, not because they were in Ru’ach but because of the work they had done,” said Glazier, who led the congregation from 2005-07.
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Honoree Joan Schaeffer, a longtime mortgage broker and LGBT activist who is completing a two-year term as Temple Israel president, said the early days of Ru’ach were filled with “a lot of uncertainty.”
“Things were a lot different in those days. It was not at all a sure thing. We didn’t know,” Schaeffer said. “We were lucky we had the backing of, especially, the rabbi at the time. That went far.”
Temple Israel, founded more than 90 years ago, is South Florida’s first Reform synagogue. In 2000, the temple’s spiritual leader was Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, who now runs a medical marijuana dispensary in Washington, D.C.
Even at a liberal synagogue like Temple Israel, a gay fellowship “was very cutting edge in those days,” Schaeffer said. “We’ve come a long way.”
Marc Levin, the third honoree, has spent much of his adult life active in synagogues. In the 1980s, Levin served as president of Congregation Etz Chaim in North Miami Beach, South Florida’s LGBT temple now located in Tamarac.
Back in 2000, Levin told the Miami Herald why he switched from a gay synagogue to mainstream: "I grew up. My life is not exclusively gay. My life is real. I have lots of friends who are straight. I love children. I love older people. My life is not a gay life, so why should my Judaism be?"
“What I said 14 years ago, very much applies today,” said Levin, 59, a former Miami Beach hotelier who recognizes that some gay Jews still want to attend an LGBT synagogue.
“For me, it was a very important stepping stone and I don’t want to negate that,” Levin said. “There are people who want to pray and be connected with a group that’s exclusively gay. It’s important to respect that.”
Levin, however, prefers the mainstream. “Temple Israel always had a huge welcome mat. I feel we may have made a rainbow in one corner of that.”
Schaeffer, whose 62nd birthday is Wednesday, and Glazier, 55, both are uncertain what should be next for Ru’ach.
“I’m very touched by the fact that the three of us are being honored,” Schaeffer said. “I would like new people to be honored, new people to be stepping out. I would like the younger people to take the ball and do something with it.”
Said Glazier: “Although I can tell you what 55-year-old Jews need, I’m less certain of what would meet the needs of 40-year-old Jews. A leader has to retract at some point. Hopefully, people will step forward.”
That’s already begun. This year’s pride seder is co-chaired by Miami Beach attorney Elizabeth Schwartz, 42, and Beco Lichtman, 40, a self-described “social change brand strategist.”
“We've come a long way since the founders started Ru’ach,” said Lichtman, a Temple Israel member for six years. “I think it’s still an issue about inclusion. We need to do more to make that happen. In part, within the LGBT Jewish community, organizations need to put that out there in their mission.”
Lichtman said “Ru’ach can be a platform to help other organizations to help their model for inclusion.”
“Synagogues will use that word on their websites in their mission, but there’s really no mention of the LGBT community anywhere else,” he said. “We can help them get to that place of living it, not just talking about it.”