To the activists that spent Feb. 26 in Olympia lobbying state lawmakers on behalf of gay rights and the domestic-partnership bill, Equality Day ended with a familiar face. David Serkin-Poole, the cantor at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, stood on the steps of the Capitol building and led a ceremonial shofar blast above the crowd.
Serkin-Poole is perhaps the most visible gay rights activist in Seattle to emerge from the Jewish community. He has been the subject of numerous media stories. With his partner Michael, he was a plaintiff in the defeated state Supreme Court lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits the legal definition of marriage in Washington to one man and one woman.
But he is not the only one. Throughout the Seattle area, members of the Jewish community have taken a prominent role in pushing for gay rights. Jews head many gay advocacy organizations in Seattle, and the Jewish community in Seattle has provided a solid base of support for issues like same-sex marriage.
“The Jewish community has historically played a very significant role in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights in Washington State. That continues today,” said Josh Friedes, the advocacy director of Equal Rights Washington. “Not only is there incredible support coming from synagogues in Washington State and secular Jewish organizations, but Jews are also at the forefront of the gay civil rights movement.”
On March 1, gay marriage advocates scored a victory when the state Senate overwhelmingly approved the domestic-partnership bill, which would confer a limited number of marriage rights to same sex couples and straight couples with one partner over the age of 62. The bill is expected to easily pass the House and Gov. Christine Gregoire has said she will sign it. If so, gay and lesbian couples would be able to register with the state attorney general’s office as domestic partners, thereby acquiring new rights, particularly around end-of-life care. Though the bill is being viewed as a step toward gay marriage, the time when same-sex couples will hold the same rights as heterosexual couples is believed to be many years down the road.
A look at a few of Seattle’s gay advocacy organizations reveals strong Jewish leadership. At Equal Rights Washington, both Friedes and Interim Executive Director Barbara Green are Jewish. Louise Chernin, the executive director of the Greater Seattle Business Association, the largest gay business association in the country, is also Jewish.
“I think we take repairing the world very seriously,” said Chernin, a member of Temple B’nai Torah. “I think we’ve been raised to work for social justice.”
Audrey Haberman, executive director of Pride Washington, a non-profit that “strengthens the Pacific Northwest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community” by awarding grants and cultivating leaders, said that the historical experience of Jews might be one reason why Jews are active in civil rights movements.
“I think certainly Jews have experienced oppression in our history so there is a natural response to work toward equality for everyone,” said Haberman. “It doesn’t surprise me that you see so many Jewish people leading progressive organizations that struggle for equality.”
In January, the Anti-Defamation League became one of the first organizations in Washington to express support for the domestic partnership bill. The organization also advocates same-sex marriage, though it takes no position on religious interpretations of marriage within the Jewish community.
“We’d been talking about this nationally since the 1980s,” said Rob Jacobs, regional director for the ADL’s Pacific Northwest Region. “Marriage, legal protection of a loved partner, is an absolute basic right that everyone should have.”
Though at least one Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, has expressed support for same-sex marriage rights, the bulk of support has come from Reconstructionist and Reform congregations.
“Large facets of the Jewish community…are supportive of this notion that particularly when it comes to issue of anti-discrimination legislation, it wasn’t a culture issue so much as a human rights issue,” said Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, a Reform congregation. “My movement in Judaism has been at the forefront of this for 20-25 years. We were the first denomination to formally encourage our clergy to sanctify gay unions.”
West Seattle’s Congregation Kol HaNeshamah is a nexus, of sorts, for many members of Seattle’s gay Jewish community. Both Friedes and Haberman are members of the congregation, which is led by a gay rabbi, Michael Latz. The congregation has been active around gay rights in Washington, and is a member of the Religious Coalition For Equality, which co-sponsored Equality Day.
“I think that it is fantastic that elected leaders of Washington are taking the first steps toward equality to all couples,” said Rabbi Latz, adding that the congregation had been “terribly disappointed by both the absurd argument and legal reason” of the 2006 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Defense of Marriage Act.
Gay rights supporters in the Jewish community have said they are encouraged by the domestic-partnership bill, but are still eager to see same-sex marriage.
“Civil rights progress in the United States is always step by step by step. Little steps forward and it takes a long time,” said Serkin-Poole. “I do believe this is a piece of progress. I think it’s important to take each piece one step at a time.”
Serkin-Poole said the bill would have a very practical effect on the lives of gay and lesbian couples in Washington — by alleviating barriers to making medical decisions for incapacitated partners and funeral arrangements, for example.
Friedes is more forceful in his call for quick action toward winning same-sex marriage.
“We do have to continue the dynamic,” he said, observing that the number of rights afforded by marriage vastly outnumbers those afforded by the domestic-partnership bill. There are 426 rights and obligation related to marriage in Washington, according to a 2004 report, while the domestic-partnership bill has approximately a dozen.
Though not all members of the Jewish community support gay marriage, Friedes said the issue has not aroused the kind of opposition that has emerged from within conservative Christian communities.
“If we lived in a nation with a Jewish majority we’d have full marriage equality and civil rights,” he said.