By Laura Latzko, January 2016 Issue.
Hanukkah might be behind us, but one local congregation wants the LGBTQ community know that they are welcome year-round.
With the changing social climate, more-inclusive synagogues – like Merkaz Ha-Iyr – have begun to emerge.
According to Staci Mayer, Merkaz Ha-Iyr’s board president, the synagogue welcomes all types of families.
“We feel very strongly about being progressive, about being inclusive, that being Jewish has different meanings to people and that there’s no part of religion that’s supposed to be exclusive,” Mayer said.
Merkaz Ha-Iyr follows progressive and liberal ideals. Although it observes Jewish traditions, it approaches Judaism from a reform perspective. In Reform Judaism, members treat the Torah as a doctrine that evolves with the times.
About seven years ago, Mayer and her family left their congregation – in part because her old synagogue wasn’t accepting of her gay friend – in search of a more-inclusive brand of Judaism.
Today, the congregation that calls Shadow Rock United Church of Christ home consists of approximately 40 to 50 families that come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
While some synagogues have expressed an issue with the recent legalization of same-sex marriage, Mayer proudly reported that her rabbi, Erica Burech, performs weddings for straight and same-sex couples alike.
“Our rabbi feels what defines a couple is not gender, but the desire to be together and the love that they share,” Mayer said. “I think that speaks volumes to the gay community but also to the human community.”
Congregation member Victoria Washington, who identifies as an African American, lesbian, Jewish women, said she reclaimed Judaism as an adult after, growing up in a Catholic family.
According to Washington, the openness and inquisitiveness of Judaism has always spoken to her.
“Judaism as a religion is so intellectual,” Washington said. “It has so much room for debate and discussion. There’s no senior rabbi saying, ‘This is the way it is.’”
At Merkaz Ha-Iyr, discussion is highly encouraged.
Rabbi Burech’s teaching style, which involves the use of real-life examples, appeals to both Washington as well as her three children (ages 8, 8 and 11).
"I think the most important thing a parent can give a child is faith,” she said, adding that she hopes to pass on her values to her daughters.
“I think [Merkaz Ha-Iyr] absolutely provides a home, a root and a structure that is needed," Washington said. "When things get really really crappy, it’s something positive and proactive."
Washington’s multi-faith family moved from their former synagogue, a bigger reform congregation, because she was looking for a more intimate, child-friendly congregation.
According to Washington, she has always felt accepted and welcome in the congregation and he's been able to form friendships within the congregation in a way she wasn’t able to in the larger synagogue.
“We’re small enough that we can just hang out and small enough that ... if I need help with anything, I know I can count on every member in the congregation to have my back,” Washington said.
The synagogue offers a variety of services and ways to become involved to members of all ages, including Shabbat services the second Friday and the fourth Saturday of every month, and age group specific educational classes. Adult education classes, which meet on select Sundays, feature discussions on such topics as tattoos, sexuality, plastic surgery, multi-faith relations and the “December dilemma,” which addresses whether or not to celebrate Christmas.
Older teens in the youth group, known as the “Jewth” group, take an active role in mentoring the younger members. On select Sundays, fourth through seventh graders attend Limud classes and Hebrew school in preparation for their Bar Mitzvahs. Limud classes are also available for first through third graders as well.
Additionally, Mayer said the close-knit congregation often gets together outside of the synagogue to volunteer and socialize.
“We are heavily community based. Our connection to one another is based in Judaism, but it is more do with who we are as a community,” Mayer said. “That’s how most of us connect to our Judaism – through our community, as opposed to through ritual.”
Shadow Rock United Church of Christ
12861 N. Eighth Ave., Phoenix
6:30 p.m. on the second Friday and 9 a.m. every fourth Saturday
Limud classes for adults and children take place on select Sundays