Personally skittish, thanks to previous visits to religious institutions, I look for signs of unwelcome. But as I enter, there aren’t any. An elderly woman holds open the door for me. There are sheaves of newsletters and notices of new programs. There are already lively Torah lessons, arguments about letters and words, going on around me. Differences of opinion are welcome—and I am welcome.
I get into a conversation with a lady in the lobby, who talks about her autistic daughter. The synagogue of Baltimore Hebrew is welcoming, she says: autism or otherwise, it does not matter. Anyone can come and be counted here. I am glad for it—there are plenty of people with disabilities, LGBT or otherwise. And I am glad for the friendly atmosphere, that even a stranger could come and strike up a conversation. The rabbis of old who commented on the Torah assumed welcome: they are now revered as sages and wise men who helped teach generations upon generations after them.
Maybe they were on to something. Maybe we lost something, that sense of welcome, having been berated by religious communities and clergy members for years.
I go to meet the rabbi I am here to see. Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen is a petite woman, and friendly—her office is filled with books, but with plenty of open space. It too, is welcoming—as is she.
A native of Virginia, she went into the rabbinate a little later than others might. During her rabbinical studies, she also came out as lesbian—and when it was time to look for a rabbinical post, she was told by rabbis of the time that her sexual orientation was no problem.
“They said… ‘you’re the inheritor of the struggle we fought—it wouldn’t be a problem’, and I found out that wasn’t entirely true… some of the difficulty that process entailed was because the congregations hadn’t thought [of welcoming or not welcoming lesbian and gay clergy], and being new to my own gay reality it wasn’t so easy to make people feel at ease with me as a lesbian rabbi. I hadn’t had much time in that identity to say that they didn’t have to worry, that I wasn’t going to be a force that causes discord in their congregations.”
But in Jewish tradition, what matters is your actions. And after she spoke during High Holy Day services at her first congregational placement, she received a note from a member who had been uncomfortable about bringing her on as a rabbi there.
“It was a very Jewish thing for him to do,” she detailed as I brought up the timing of it. “I had only been there for several months.”
The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are traditional days of reflection and asking forgiveness: the member had taken this time to reflect and ask her forgiveness that he had been concerned over having an out rabbi.
Nowadays, she said, she can definitely say she is not a force of discord. With Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the fight for convincing the congregation was already over, and if anything congregants sometimes forgot the differences between her marriage to her partner and their own marriages. “Taxes will come up… and I have to file separately. So they forget that there are still some important differences, too.”
In today’s climate of LGBT rights clashing with some religious groups, of tolerance being preached as well as hatred and panic, Rabbi Sachs-Cohen and the atmosphere at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is a hidden jewel. All are welcome.
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
7401 Park Heights Ave.