The May 17 ceremony concluded with the installation of a rainbow mezuzah on the door to the space, as a sign of Rodeph Shalom’s inclusive community, pursuing justice and peace.
“May this mezuzah symbolize us leaning together and coming together in this space,” said Senior Rabbi Jill Maderer, blessing the mezuzah. “I remember marching the Torah scroll from Beth Ahavah down Broad Street to Rodeph Shalom,” she said.
The space on the lower level of Rodeph Shalom hosts the Torah and ark, photographs and other memorabilia from the original Beth Ahavah congregation. A tree will be planted adjacent to the shul honoring the merger, and the strength and perseverance of the Beth Ahavah community.
Rabbi Emeritus Allan Fuchs told the congregation during the evening service that, “My Orthodox training taught me that the survival of Judaism in a highly integrated society depends on commitment to Torah, and the many prophetic passages that demand social justice and tolerance.”
One worshipper stood during the service and expressed his gratitude that he and his same-sex partner are getting married next week at the shul, as another man stood and said, “I am thankful to celebrate my husband’s birthday with him for a 42nd year.”
In 1975, five people, including founding president Jerry Silverman, began discussing the formation of an LGBTQ synagogue in Philadelphia, and services began in a member’s living room. By 1977, Congregation Beth Ahavah was incorporated and, by 1989, Beth Ahavah voted to affiliate with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Beth Ahavah moved from its home on Leticia Street to Rodeph Shalom in 2006 and its members began worshipping in what was then known as the “groom’s room,” now the Historical Sacred Space.
“Beth Ahavah was a place to merge your gay and Jewish identity,” said former Beth Ahavah president Jeffrey Strauss. “It gave a voice to the Jewish LGBTQ community.”
The full merger of Beth Ahavah and Rodeph Shalom in 2015 was coordinated by then-Beth Ahavah President Joan Levin and former Rodeph Shalom President Lloyd Brotman. The merger reflected Rodeph Shalom’s commitment to inclusion and diversity.
“Rodeph Shalom always welcomed us and always found a way to say yes,” said Levin.
The connection group pRiSm was created to continue Beth Ahavah’s mission, to strengthen Jewish LGBTQ life at Rodeph Shalom and in the larger community through education, advocacy and celebration.
Heshie Zinman, a board member at Rodeph Shalom and pRiSm chair, estimates 15-20 percent of the Rodeph Shalom community identifies with the LGBTQ community and is increasing. About 1,200 families are shul members.
Several recent initiatives have made Rodeph Shalom more inclusive to the LGBTQ community through an audit committee created to review the building, practices, forms and liturgy used there. All-gender bathroom signs now mark six bathrooms, and membership and religious school forms have additional options for gender and preferred pronouns.
Maderer asked the committee to review Siddurs (prayer books) and High Holy Day books from a variety of synagogues, such as Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, so Rodeph Shalom clergy can reference them.
“Liturgy has been developed for coming out ceremonies, baby namings and weddings,” audit committee member Ellen Poster said. “Some of the prayers simply celebrate difference, and that we are all made in God’s image regardless of gender, gender expression or sexual orientation.”
There is a newly formed Gay Straight Alliance at the shul’s religious school, Poster said. The group attends events, such as the upcoming Pride Shabbat Dinner on June 7 at Rodeph Shalom.
“I used to feel like just a member of Rodeph Shalom, but today I feel like a gay member,” said Henry Patterson, 53, a retired school teacher. Patterson and his husband Chip Ellis were the second same-sex couple to be married at Rodeph Shalom in 2001 by Rabbi Arron Bisno.
Before Pennsylvania recognized gay marriage, the Rodeph Shalom board voted to support gay marriage.
“It’s moved from tolerance to real acceptance at Rodeph Shalom,” said Ellis, 57, a retired CPA. At one point he and Patterson belonged to Rodeph Shalom and Beth Ahavah consecutively.
“The language of the new Siddur is much more inclusive,” Ellis said. The Rodeph Shalom prayer book has been gender neutral for three years.
“Today there is a more conscious effort, guest speakers address issues that are close to our community,” said Patterson, noting an upcoming event on June 12 at Rodeph Shalom, that features national press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign Sarah McBride.
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