As momentum builds toward Election Day on Nov. 6, many local Jewish organizations are working overtime to encourage approval of Referendum 74, the decision to legalize civil same-sex marriage in Washington State.
According to a fact sheet put out by Seattle’s Jewish Marriage Equality Coalition, as much as 80 percent of the 5 million Jews in America support same-sex marriage — more than any other religious group.
“The Jewish community has long stood with oppressed people and people seeking human rights,” said Zach Carstensen, director of government relations and public affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. “It’s a question of basic rights.”
The coalition consists of 28 organizations, including the Federation, Jewish Family Service, the Anti-Defamation League, and Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative congregations.
According to Carstensen, the Federation is following the community’s lead.
“The Federation has historically looked to the community for guidance on these issues,” he said. However, “this is an issue where there is not a single voice in the Jewish community.”
Though there is not a single voice, the voice in support of the referendum has been speaking loud and clear: At least three synagogues are holding weekly phone banks to call people across the state to talk with them about the issue.
“One of the things that Jews need to do is to reach out to their Jewish colleagues and neighbors and talk to them about the importance of marriage equality,” said Josh Friedes, spokesperson for Washington United for Marriage, the organization leading the effort to approve Ref. 74, and a member of Kol HaNeshamah. “Not only does it educate the Jewish community about LGBT families and how they embrace traditional Jewish values and customs, it’s also an opportunity to reach out to the broader community.”
Jews can help others “see this as a matter of religious liberty,” he said.
Ken Weinberg, CEO of Jewish Family Service, sees marriage as an issue of human rights.
“We feel that marriage equality is part of the health and well-being of our community,” he said.
JFS got behind marriage equality following the Federation’s decision to support the movement.
“I don’t think we’ve ever taken this strong a position in my 38 years here at JFS,” he said.
But it’s not without a small price to pay. Weinberg admits the social-service organization has lost supporters.
“There hasn’t been a mass run, but there have been…tops, a half dozen people who felt that marriage equality is repugnant to them, that it is anti-Torah, that it is un-Jewish, and that they could no longer support the agency,” he said. “It hurts me when I see it happen, and it hurts me when I read their letters.”
Traditional, Torah law-abiding Judaism does not allow for same-sex partnerships, and Seattle’s Orthodox community has not weighed in officially on Ref. 74. Local leaders JTNews contacted for this article did not respond or declined to comment.
“While marriage patterns have undergone changes over the generations, Judaism has never understood marriage to be anything other than marriage between a man and a woman,” Rabbi Marc Angel, a Seattle native and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, wrote in an email. However, he added, “If the secular government and general society wish to authorize ‘gay marriage,’ that is a decision which in no way impinges on Orthodox Judaism’s views on the topic.”
Furthermore, he wrote, “all must agree that each human being has a right to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of sexual orientation.”
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island, didn’t support same-sex marriage in the past. He now supports the referendum and believes the majority of his congregation does, too.
“We all rethink things…when we have new information, when we have new understanding,” he said.
His personal relationships with gay and lesbian families swayed him to the pro-marriage–quality side.
“Theologically, I think it’s fairly easy,” he said. “We have a tradition that has always evolved, always changed.”
However, Rosenbaum admits that the Conservative movement, which does not perform interfaith weddings, is not in consensus.
“We’re a pluralistic movement,” he said. “Not every Conservative rabbi is supportive of gay marriage.”
The Reform movement began supporting same-sex marriage in 1996, and halachah, Jewish law, doesn’t necessarily play a part in the decision.
“We don’t ask if it’s okay halachically. We don’t care,” said Kinberg. “Halachah has a vote, but not a veto.”
Traditional, biblically based marriage “was really about a financial institution…not one man–one woman,” she said. “As Judaism evolved over time, we retained a lot of elements about a woman being the property of a man.”
Today, it’s about companionship. Kinberg says she feels hurt for the people who have been left out of Jewish life because of their sexuality.
“One aspect of tikkun olam,” she said, is “making up for all the people who have been hurt.”
The fact that same-sex couples are living Jewish lives makes her happy.
“They’re raising their children as Jews, and I love it,” Kinberg said. “It brings more joy into the world.”
But Kinberg acknowledges that while her congregation is very supportive of Ref. 74, “people who don’t agree keep quiet.”
Yet in multi-denominational settings, people have been more vocal.
“Yes, people that I know, that I respect have expressed different views,” said the Federation’s Carstensen. “That’s what makes the Jewish community so great.”
Jewish Family Service’s Weinberg said marriage equality “is an important way of fulfilling our mission of supporting Jewish families…. We have a definition of family that is inclusive, where the circle is drawn as broadly as possible. R74 helps us do that.
“If it fails, the battle will continue. It’s not over. It won’t be over.”