Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
November 18, 2008
Soon after Paula Kalyn joined a Mothers Circle group last year for gentile women raising Jewish children, her fellow participants became a little jealous of her.
Many of the women in the Columbus, Ohio, group complained that their Jewish husbands were not involved enough, expecting the non-Jewish wives to "figure it out for themselves" — to oversee Jewish holiday celebrations, enroll the children in Hebrew school and basically take on all the traditional Jewish matriarchal duties these men's mothers had done.
As the only lesbian in the group, Kalyn found herself in a rare position of privilege. "I had the advantages of already having a Jewish mother in the home," she says.
Kalyn, a lapsed Catholic, and her Jewish partner Susie Kalyn (the two each took on this name when Susie was first pregnant so that the whole family would share a name) are raising two sons--9-year-old Elijah and 7-year-old Sam--as Jews.
Not only does Susie take a leadership role in the family's Jewish life, but, since she is the boys' biological mother, their sons are recognized as Jewish without question, by the entire Jewish community; this frees Kalyn of another problem vexing many of her Mothers Circle peers, whose children are not accepted outside liberal Jewish circles.
In many ways, the Kalyns' situation is not unlike that of straight interfaith families raising Jewish kids. Early in the relationship, Susie made it clear she wanted to raise a Jewish family, and Paula, alienated by Catholicism's limited roles for women and "harsh" stance on many social issues, acquiesced. The two sanctified their union under a chupah and are members of a Reform temple, where the boys attend Hebrew school. Paula has not converted but she notes that their younger son frequently used to say that his mom "was born Christian but that he was raising her Jewish."
Nonetheless, like other same-sex couples in America, the family faces obstacles that are completely foreign to straight families, whether interfaith or intra-faith.
When Joe and I got engaged, I knew that many Jews would not recognize our wedding as a truly Jewish one and that we might have to search a little before finding a rabbi willing to officiate. But I was comforted by the knowledge that, even if we couldn't find a rabbi, there was always the justice-of-the-peace option.
For gay couples, except for the few lucky enough to live in Connecticut or Massachusetts, finding a rabbi is actually easier than finding a justice of the peace.
And this most recent election, while a watershed event in bringing a black man into the Oval Office for the first time, underscored the challenges same-sex couples face.
California's Proposition 8 eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry there, while in Arizona and Florida voters opted to write anti-gay marriage legislation into their state constitutions. And Act 1 in Arkansas bans same-sex couples from adopting children or becoming foster parents.
In Paula Kalyn's home state of Ohio, not only is gay marriage not recognized, but Paula has no legal rights vis a vis her sons, who are Susie's biological children.
Even in Connecticut and Massachusetts gay couples do not enjoy the same legal perks — tax deductions, parental rights, partner Social Security benefits, U.S. citizenship for foreign spouses etc. — as straight couples, since the federal government does not recognize their marriages.
While many segments of the Jewish community welcome both gay and interfaith couples, to be gay and intermarried undoubtedly remains a double burden.
Paula Kalyn's father is staunchly Catholic, and he "has a hard time with" both aspects of the life she has chosen: marrying a woman and raising the children Jewish.
"He loves the boys and loves Susie, but he truly believes in his heart we're doing the wrong thing," she says.
The Jewish side of the family has been much more accepting, in large part because they are happy to see the boys raised Jewish. And since Susie had dated other non-Jewish women before, Kalyn's background was not a shock to the family.
Susie was hardly atypical in that way. People familiar with the gay Jewish community say interfaith relationships are much more prevalent there than in the mainstream Jewish world.
"There are far fewer gay Jews in the world than straight Jews, so the statistical opportunities are different," explains Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the longtime spiritual leader of Manhattan's Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the largest gay synagogue in the country.
Rabbi Lev Baesh, director of the Jewish clergy resource center at InterfaithFamily.com, echoes the numbers theory, but thinks there is more to it than that. Himself gay and in a committed relationship with a man who did not convert to Judaism until they had been together several years, Rabbi Baesh notes that "as a marginalized part of society many of us are much more open to diversity in ways that the heterosexual community in the Jewish world isn't," he says.
Rabbi Baesh makes a point I'd never considered: that the gay Jewish community "can really be a model for the heterosexual community."
For one thing, because gay Jews have, until recently, been less likely to raise children than their straight peers, gay synagogues — faced with "adults seeking a Jewish connection"--have "figured out adult education in a way the rest of the community hasn't focused on."
Beyond that, the gay Jewish community knows how to be inclusive, Rabbi Baesh says.
"There's a kind of welcoming and warmth that comes from being an outsider, on the fringes," he explains. "When you walk into a gay synagogue, who's Jewish and who isn't is not an issue."