“When we imagine threats, we figure they’re around our being queer, or a combo of queer and Jewish,” says Larry Edwards, the rabbi with Or Chadash, the LGBT synagogue that found itself a target of a potential mail bomb sent from Yemen this weekend. “And the combo threats we imagine are from the radical extreme anti-gay right wing of the Jewish world,” he continues, “but even that’s far-fetched because in reality we have support even in certain Orthodox quarters.”
Or Chadash, like Emanuel congregation, which houses it, is associated with the Reform branch of Judaism. Or Chadash moved from the Unitarian Church whose address was used on the potential bomb eight years ago, shortly after Edwards became the rabbi, at Emanuel’s suggestion that they share space. “Frankly, we never imagine ourselves as an actual Jewish target of Islamic terrorists – I mean, we’re so tiny!” Or Chadash has about 100 members at any given time, but it fluctuates. “People come and go,” he says. “Thirty five years ago, when it was founded, people wanted to be gay and be able to express their Jewishness. But institutions take on a life of their own. People love it, find meaning and family in it. It becomes their shul and their community.” And so it has happened with Or Chadash. “Now it’s a place for Jews who have come out,” Edwards, 62, explains, “but also for gay non-Jews who want to convert.”
And, in recent years, it has also begun to attract straight members. “These are people who like a smaller congregation,” says Edward, who is also heterosexual and married to an administrator at the University of Chicago. “And people who identify as allies of the gay community, or who have gay family.” (A recent article in The Forward addressed the phenomenon of straight people joining gay synagogues.)
In fact, that sense of extended family – precisely because of its roots as a place for people who did not feel included in other Jewish congregations – is one of the things that sets Or Chadash apart. “It’s very welcoming,” says Edwards. The services themselves, he says, don’t wander far from typical Reform services (though Edwards, who davens wearing tefillin each morning, is a bit eclectic in his own practice). “Where we differ sometimes is in the subject matter of the homilies and Torah commentary, when someone might often relate a gay experience or a reading of the text from multiple angles,” he explains.
But other than that, he says, Or Chadash is typical in its lack of a public political profile. And if it’s low profile on its raison d’etre, it’s even quieter on the kinds of issues regarding the Middle East that might have brought the ire of those who tried to send the mail bomb their way this weekend. “Israel is the third rail for Jews – if you’re too vocal one way or another, you’re sure to alienate somebody,” Edwards explains. “So how can you talk about it?” He pauses. “How can you not talk about it?”
And he shakes his head.