When Arthur Blankstein and Kenneth Ure exchange wedding vows at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Jan. 21, both they and the synagogue will be making history.
Blankstein, 67, and Ure, 58, will become the first same-sex couple to be married at the conservative synagogue. Shaarey Zedek will become the first conservative synagogue in Canada to sanction a same-sex marriage under its roof.
Shaarey Zedek, the largest synagogue in Winnipeg, began reaching out to the city's Jewish gay and lesbian community in early 2007. After careful consultation with its board and congregation, the synagogue announced it would launch a three-year process intended to lift all barriers that had previously excluded GLBT individuals from full Jewish life-cycle and synagogue participation.
Under the first step of this initiative, same-sex couples, for the first time ever, would be allowed to be buried side by side in double plots. Under the second step, same-sex couples would become eligible for family memberships at the synagogue and all the rights and privileges inherent in those memberships.
The final step of the process would allow same-sex couples to celebrate their respective unions in commitment ceremonies officiated by Shaarey Zedek clergy.
While the GLBT community embraced the first two initiatives, they were not as pleased with the third.
"Through working with and talking to people in the GLBT community, it became clear that a commitment ceremony was not what they wanted," says Shaarey Zedek executive director Ian Staniloff.
"A commitment ceremony seemed like a sham," he explains. "They wanted to get married."
By then, the North American conservative movement's committee on Jewish law and standards had indicated that individual rabbis and congregations could determine for themselves whether they would allow same-sex marriages in their sanctuaries.
Shaarey Zedek decided it would.
"We realized we have to take this further," Staniloff says. "We realized that we had to do more than just say that we are welcoming and inclusive. We couldn't just talk the talk, we had to walk the walk."
Blankstein, who became a Bar Mitzvah at Shaarey Zedek in 1958, was thrilled to learn this. Although he and Ure were married civilly in Vancouver in 2004, Blankstein says the social activist in him was determined to ensure that Shaarey Zedek actually do what it said it would and really set the precedent.
"I wanted the synagogue to have one same-sex marriage on record," he says. "We felt that this would be a wonderful opportunity for us to have a chuppah -- since Ken had converted to Judaism -- and we also would pave the way for future same-sex ceremonies."
The chuppah, or wedding canopy, is one of the basic requirements of a Jewish wedding. Blankstein and Ure's chuppah will be made from a tallit, a religious prayer shawl, loaned to them by Shaarey Zedek's associate rabbi, Lawrence Pinsker, who is officiating at their wedding.
Pinsker also helped the couple determine the correct wording for the ketubah, the traditional written marriage contract, originally developed in 80 BCE to protect brides' rights.
"Certainly the wording of the ketuba, which refers to heterosexual partners as chatan, groom, and kallah, bride, needed to be re-examined," says Pinsker.
It was the first time the ketuba company, based in the United States, was asked to design a marriage contract for a same-sex wedding taking place in a conservative synagogue. Pinsker, Blankstein and Staniloff are certain it will not be the last.
"We have reached a time in which we recognize the injustice of rejecting the loving, caring, committed bond between same-sex partners," says Pinsker.
"It's a long-overdue step."