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Synagogue offers same-sex blessings

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Winnipeg's largest synagogue is moving toward full inclusion for gay and lesbian Jews by offering to bless their same-sex unions.

Since Jan. 1, 2010, rabbis at Shaarey Zedek synagogue have been willing to bless Jewish same-sex couples in commitment ceremonies. So far, no couples have come forward to request the ritual, says the associate rabbi.

"There is a concerted movement to create a set of ceremonial practices and alternative documents," explains Rabbi Lawrence Pinsker, who says January is not typically a time couples think of planning weddings.

"The decision was to offer in sequential fashion to add to the level of accessibility in certain rituals."

The move to offer same-sex blessing is the final step of a three-stage effort to include gay and lesbian Jews into the life of the congregation.

In 2008, the Wellington Crescent synagogue allowed same-sex couples to buy joint burial plots at its cemetery on Main Street and Anderson Avenue, across from Kildonan Park. In 2009, the synagogue extended the benefits of family membership to same-sex couples, a change from the previous practice of both partners buying individual memberships. Gays and lesbians were also extended the full rights of membership on that date.

The move to offer blessings to same-sex couples is about equality, says Rabbi Alan Green, who first raised the subject at the synagogue's celebration of High Holy Days in 2007.

"It's a simple matter of justice," he said in an interview before he left on sabbatical late last year. "Why shouldn't same-sex couples be sanctified?"

He says Jewish scripture uses the term sanctified for male-female couples and traditionally same-sex couples were forbidden marriage.

"Based on our understanding of sexual orientation, it seems to be genetic, seems to be part of God's creation, which we need to honour and sanctify."

The synagogue is stopping just short of marrying same-sex couples, with Green or other clergy offering to bless them and lead commitment ceremonies.

Green says the Winnipeg synagogue is thought to be the first Conservative movement synagogue in Canada to offer blessings to same-sex unions. In December 2006, the movement's New York-based Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved extending blessings to same-sex unions, a move that carries a great deal of weight among Conservative congregations, but is not binding, says Green.

Winnipeg's other Conservative synagogue, Congregation Etz Chayim, does not extend blessings to same-sex couples and is not considering the move, says Rabbi Larry Lander.

"Shaarey Zedek has recently gone forward, and we're not going forward at this time," he says.

Although this is a new step for Conservative Judaism, considered more middle of the road, Winnipeg's lone Reform synagogue has offered the ritual for a decade, says Rabbi Karen Soria.

"We are still the only synagogue in Winnipeg where a gay or lesbian couple could be married Jewishly," says Soria, who divides her time between Winnipeg and Ottawa, where her female partner is a chaplain in the Canadian military.

"Reform Judaism has taken very seriously the need to open doors and be welcoming. Historically, Reform Judaism has been very aware of and studies the seismic changes in Jewish life over the centuries."

The Reform movement is considered one of the more liberal Jewish groups.

An activist in the gay rights movement says the door is only partially open to Jewish same-sex couples, since Shaarey Zedek is not offering to marry them.

"I'm fully supportive of full inclusion and equal treatment to heterosexual counterparts in all life cycle events and rituals," says Judy Plotkin, who describes herself as an "out" Jewish lesbian.

Other than her 2006 wedding, Plotkin says all of her family life cycle events have taken place at Shaarey Zedek synagogue.

Pinsker acknowledges that blessings are not the same as marriage, but the move is a step in the process toward full equality.

"I think its long overdue, number one. I think historical restraints (toward same-sex unions) can be overcome in Jewish law and have been."

For Green, the decision makes sense both theological and culturally, and was influenced by the 2005 legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada.

"The barriers, I'm convinced, are just in our mind," says Green about theological issues around same-sex marriages. "If we would look at the way God looks at it, I don't think the barriers would exist."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2010 H13

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