By Carrie Maxwell
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, which is housed inside North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, has been a leader in LGBTQ-inclusivity since its founding in 2001. The congregation emerged from the now-defunct Congregation Beth Or and celebrates Humanistic Judaism. And yet, this year they have made changes to become even more welcoming.
“Humanistic Judaism has always prided itself on being inclusive and welcoming: from our founding in 1963, we have celebrated interfaith marriages and families, accepted those who self-identified as Jewish regardless of which parent or grandparent, if any were Jewish, and for many years have been LGBTQ inclusive,” said Kol Hadash Rabbi Adam Chalom. “Our rabbis have happily celebrated same-sex commitment ceremonies and now weddings for decades. I myself enjoy officiating at same-sex weddings, in part because it is not radical to celebrate loving commitment between two individuals.”
Chalom said Humanistic Judaism’s founding rabbi, the late Sherwin Wine, was gay and partnered for more than 20 years, and his Humanistic Judaism thinking defines the congregation’s practices—blending Jewish culture with a Humanistic and secular philosophy of life.
“Kol Hadash practices Humanistic Judaism by replacing worship with human knowledge, responsibility, and action because it is about people, not prayer,” said Chalom. “We connect with our Jewish heritage through holidays, life cycle celebrations, history, languages, music, food, literature and the arts—everything that is part of culture. And we emphasize the power people have, independent of supernatural authority or intervention, to understand and improve our world individually and together.
The congregation’s motto is “Doing Jewish Differently.” Chalom explained that this means that Kol Hadash celebrates Jewish inheritance but does not act as “museum curators who must keep everything the same.”
Chalom said the services include traditional, new and modified traditional texts that celebrate Humanistic beliefs and the educational programs focus more on Jewish history and culture than memorizing texts so students can explore what they think rather than learning what to think.
“Another thing we do differently is most traditional High Holy Day liturgy looks above and beyond for divine apology and forgiveness, while ours looks out at each other to repair our relationships and inside ourselves to come to terms with our strengths and our failures,” said Chalom.
“I am really proud to work at Kol Hadash, both as a Jewish person and a queer person,” said Kol Hadash Office Administrator Jeremy Owens. “The space they offer for Jewish people who do not want to force themselves into the more traditional Jewish mold of Conservative or Reform Judaism is a real revelation. Why chant along with old songs and prayers that say things you do not believe, just because Jews have being doing it forever?
“Kol Hadash is a truly inclusive space for those of us who crave a Jewish connection, without having to worry about the old outdated gender rules/roles, or judgments on sexuality, or even judgments on a complicated religious background. It is a place for everyone.”
Two outward ways Kol Hadash shows its LGBTQ-inclusive Humanistic Judaism is through the Pride flag at the entrance to its ceremonial space and gender-inclusive bathroom signs. Chalom explained that their membership forms have member one and member two instead of husband and wife and have modified the model wedding the second and third grade Sunday school class performs as a part of the lesson on Jewish life cycle ceremonies to include both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
Chalom said the congregation’s confirmation class students ( the youth group ) visit other religious institutions and have discussions afterward, middle school students study the ways LGBTQ people ( along with other groups ) were persecuted during the Holocaust, fourth and fifth grade student’s lessons on heroes will also include LGBTQ people and the entire school has a new anti-bullying awareness initiatives to create a more welcoming environment.
Additionally, Kol Hadash’s social media accounts will be posting messages to raise awareness on important LGBTQ-specific dates like National Coming Out Day and the start of Pride month every June.
Another way Kol Hadash has embraced the LGBTQ community is with the Jewish coming of age ceremony where in addition to gender-specific Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, there is a non-binary, gender-neutral B Mitzvahs.
“In terms of our B Mitzvahs, it is important for our students to feel like they are making their Jewish connection their own,” said Chalom. “Rather than be assigned a traditional Torah reading by the date of their celebration, our students choose the focus of their presentations: it could be Torah reading, or another reading from Hebrew literature like later in the Bible or modern poetry, or it could be a topic or individual from the wide sweep of the Jewish experience paired with a Hebrew reading.”
Larry Deutsch, his then wife and daughters Cathy, Leigh and Loren became early members of Congregation Beth Or and made Humanistic Judaism their belief system. They moved to Kol Hadash upon its founding.
“The beauty of the Humanistic Bar/Bat Mitzvah is that it offers the student a chance to fulfill a project, not only read a Torah portion,” said Larry. “One granddaughter raised monies to build a bridge for Nicaraguan school children to cross the water swollen river, in the Monsoon season, so they could attend school. Other grandchildren’s projects were equally stimulating.”
Deutsch has been with Bill Parker for 30 years and five years ago Chalom officiated their wedding.
“Following our ceremony, another granddaughter, while crying, delivered a stirring discourse on how a New Trier male classmate would now know that he would be able to marry and enjoy a full life as a gay man with no religious or state limitations,” said Larry. “That is what Kol Hadash offers.”
Victoria Ratnaswamy and her family joined Kol Hadash for many reasons including that it was a good philosophical fit.
“We like the way that questions and issues are explored,” said Ratnaswamy. “We did not have to pretend to believe or recite things that did not make sense to us. Likewise, we knew that our children would be experiencing a rich curriculum in Sunday school which also reflected our values. Our family also knew that we would be embraced for exactly who we were. My husband and I come from different backgrounds and neither is more worthwhile. We do not downplay aspects of our identities that differ from Humanistic Judaism.
“It is great to be able to enjoy the company and relationships we have formed in an LGBTQ-inclusive setting that has evolved over the years. I never doubted that my pansexual daughter would be fully embraced and valued as a member of this community.”
Chalom said many of these changes came about due to a leadership project training program Keshet, a national organization working for LGBTQ inclusion and celebration in Jewish life, held last summer in Chicago.
“We were able to evaluate what we were doing well, what needed improvement and the ‘unknown unknowns’ that we did not even realize needed fixing,” said Chalom. “This resulted in updating our website, program descriptions and designating an all-gender restroom and initiating Pride month programming this past summer.”
This year’s Pride-focused events featured GenderCool Project Co-Founder and LGBTQ advocate Gearah Goldstein in June where she spoke about her journey and what GenderCool does to support transgender youth and author Rebecca Makkai in August who talked about her Chicago 1980s AIDS epidemic-focused novel, The Great Believers.
Chalom explained that they held these public Pride programs because it was the right thing to do, not for potential membership growth. He said they plan on doing Pride month programs going forward and will participate in the newly created Buffalo Grove Pride parade next June.
As for Chalom’s message for the wider world, he said “I hope people who live mostly secular lives yet connect with Jewish culture realize that there is a way of being Jewish that celebrates who they are, what they believe and how they live their lives.”
To book Chalom as a wedding officiant, visit Pridezillas.com/listing/humanistic-rabbi-adam-chalom/. See KolHadash.com for more information.