Beth Chayim Chadashim is first synagogue for gay, lesbian Jews


My friend, Harriet Perl, of blessed memory, lived well into her 90s and died in 2013.

A life-long lesbian, Harriet had been an L.A. public high school teacher back in the day when that meant staying closeted or risking losing your job.

It affected every aspect of her life, from clothes to housing to social life – from bedroom arrangements (separate bedrooms or at least twin beds) to where and with whom to appear in public.

Although born Jewish, Harriet’s parents were secular and political. Harriet followed their lead until one Friday evening in the early 1970s when she timidly ventured into a Sabbath service in a new “gay shul” she had heard about.

A few steps into the door, she saw two of her students. She thought, Oh no. What are they doing here? I’ll be outed.

They, as it turned out, thought something similar until they all realized WHY they were really there — not to “out” others, but to be seen for who they are, and to be with others like them.

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Harriet became a leader in that synagogue for decades, helping to create a community where lesbians and gay men could explore Judaism in a safe space (including creating liturgy in English with gender neutral God language), work for changes in civil rights, and become family to one another.  

These days, every time we turn around, the news brings frightening headlines, but not just headlines. We live in tumultuous times, and it’s easy to despair.

Sometimes I’m glad my friend Harriet is no longer here to see what’s happening.

But then I think what Harriet would do — step up and work for change until she could stand back and say what I often heard her say through the years, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.”

High Holy Days

It’s nearly the High Holy Days on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, begins this Friday night (September 15), and 10 days later, we arrive at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

This month preceding is traditionally a time of self-reflection. Have we been living our lives as our true selves?

We seek to repair and make amends for mistakes we have made.

We examine and act individually.

Then, on the High Holy Days, we come together in community to pray, to be inspired by beautiful music, and thoughtful teachings, and to plan together how the next year might unfold.

We consider two goals that Judaism requests from us: What changes will we make individually and as a community to become more our true selves and to make our world a better place?  

Beth Chayim Chadashim

I am the Rabbi Emerita (retired rabbi) of that congregation Harriet Perl stepped into all those years ago. Beth Chayim Chadashim (House of New Life), a synagogue in mid-city Los Angeles, was founded over 50 years ago, in 1972, to be a Jewish community for gay and lesbian Jews.

We didn’t yet use all the alphabet soup of letters we use today, but from our earliest days, we counted among our members and visitors gay, lesbian, bi and trans Jews, our families and friends.

While at first we set out primarily to be a safe haven for those who had been turned out/away from mainstream synagogues, Beth Chayim Chadashim soon grew into an activist congregation seeking to change minds and hearts both in the larger Jewish community where homophobia still prevailed, and in the gay and lesbian community where many —  ostracized by religious communities and families — had turned away from religion altogether.

Founded in 1972

Mentored and encouraged by the Reverend Troy Perry, gay founder of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the small group of Beth Chayim Chadashim founders reached out to the Reform Movement of Judaism.

There, thanks to some staunch supporters within it, and NOT without controversy, in 1974, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism (UAHC) approved Beth Chayim Chadashim on the first round of voting, making the Reform Movement the first mainstream religious organization to include a gay and lesbian congregation in its membership.

Fighting discrimination, HIV

Beth Chayim Chadashim Gay Synagogue

Members of Beth Chayim Chadashim march in support of people with live AIDS during LA Pride Parade in West Hollywood in the mid 1980s.

Political activism went hand in hand with creating a Jewish congregation attentive to the Jewish calendar of holy days and life cycle events. Born Jews became more Jewish, people new to Judaism found a welcoming home. Together, they nurtured a community that battled homophobia in the outside world – like Prop 6, the Briggs Initiative on the ballot in 1978, that would have made it illegal for gay and lesbian teachers in public schools. 

A few years later, when HIV/AIDS began its devastation, Beth Chayim Chadashim was no stranger to illness and loss.  A significant number of members began living with, and then dying from, HIV/AIDS.

By then, Beth Chayim Chadashim, had hired its first ordained rabbi, Janet Marder, who tenderly and fiercely helped the congregation navigate the demands and stresses, and reached out to the larger Jewish communities for acknowledgement and help with the creation of NECHAMA, A Jewish Response to AIDS.

Within the congregation, people organized to take care of one another through illness and death. We buried peers and friends and lovers in those years, and worked to change attitudes and access to care. 

With help from Reform Movement leadership, Rabbi Marder and members of Beth Chayim Chadashim organized carefully structured sessions to talk face to face in people’s living rooms with members of mainstream synagogues, inviting them to get to know one another and ask questions.

Slowly, mainstream synagogue doors opened in welcome to LGBTQIA+ visitors and members. Those mainstream synagogues also acknowledged the parents and children among them who had LGBTQIA+ family members.

Supporting marriage equality

As the battle against AIDS abated with the development of life preserving drugs, new challenges were taken up. Beth Chayim Chadashim, and many other synagogues and churches and religious LGBTQIA+ organizations, took on the goal of marriage equality. Our mourning became celebration as long-time couples (and new ones) chose a path that Harriet Perl never dreamed of.  Celebrations continued as more children came into our congregational family. 

Welcoming gay men, lesbians

Beth Chayim Chadashim Gay Synagogue Los Angeles

Jillian Cameron, right is the rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim. Maggie Boyles, the synagogue’s administrator, left, and president Jessica Donath, join Cameron during a Pride Month event in June. Photo: Jessica Donath

Though the path has had more than a few stumbling blocks in the 51 years of Beth Chayim Chadashim’s existence, over the decades Jewish understanding and embrace of LGBTQIA+ people has grown significantly.

Today, there are many queer students on the path to ordination, and queer rabbis and cantors serve congregations and teach in seminaries and other Jewish organizations all over the world.  Queer voices contribute significantly to the liturgy, ritual and theology of mainstream liberal Judaism.

Rabbi Jillian Cameron

At Beth Chayim Chadashim these days, in our services and hearts, music remains a centerpiece of inspiration and delight. In everything, we’re guided by our beloved Rabbi Jillian Cameron, who leads the congregation with a queer sensibility, sense of humor, lively approach, thought provoking teachings.

Along with our lay leaders, Rabbi Cameron grows plans for our present and future as we continue to be an affirming, nurturing, and brave Jewish space for LGBTQIA+ people, our friends, and our families.  Harriet Perl would have been proud.

Beth Chayim Chadashim offers many options to join their services: In person, Zoom, Facebook. To make the High Holy Days more accessible, registration tickets are free. Donations are requested.

About the author

Lisa Edwards

Rabbi Lisa Edwards served Beth Chayim Chadashim as rabbi for 25 years (1994-2019) and remains an active member of the community, along with her wife, activist, and archivist, Tracy Moore.

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