Brief History of Congregation Tikvah Chadashah

Congregation Tikvah Chadashah ("New Hope") was Seattle and Washington State's first gay and lesbian Jewish synagogue. CTC was founded in December of 1980 and continues in existence in 2023, with several of the original members.

The congregation emerged from the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960's and '70's. The '60's saw the blossoming of the civil rights movement, the beginning of protests over the Vietnam War, the emergence of the youth counterculture of "hippies", and the sexual revolution. The '70's accelerated those trends and expanded them with women's rights and gay rights.

At that time, homosexuals were openly mocked, discriminated against, considered mentally ill, and excoriated. Not only could they be fired from jobs, denied housing, committed to mental institutions, and dishonorably discharged from the military, but homosexual behavior was subject to criminal prosecution in most states. Gay people were sometimes bullied, blackmailed, or beaten when found out, and a segment of the public considered that appropriate and deserved. The best treatment a gay person could reasonably expect was to be pitied, isolated, or ignored. Jewish congregations were not much different. Scripture was interpreted to condemn homosexuality and rabbis would inveigh against it from the pulpit.

Gay Jews who joined congregations typically remained "in the closet", maintaining a façade of heterosexuality, keeping their personal lives secret, or denying themselves intimate relationships altogether. This behavior was so pervasive that for decades, it was believed by many Jews that there were no gay Jews. If a congregation member was suspected of being gay, they were typically isolated, ostracized, or even treated with contempt. One CTC member who was a member of a large Seattle congregation at that time recalls that he was largely ignored for the ten years that he attended. As one of the founding CTC members puts it, "our money was kosher, our lives were treyf (non kosher, forbidden)."

Many gays and lesbians felt estranged from mainstream Jewish congregations. Many, nevertheless, wanted to practice and celebrate their culture, traditions, and religion, and longed for family connections. With the inception of the gay rights movement in the '70's, gay and lesbian Jewish congregations began to be formed.

With the support and inspiration of gay Jewish congregation Zahar Sha'av in San Francisco, founding CTC member Alan Sachs, together with about a dozen others, began religious services and held a Hanukkah party in Seattle in December of 1980. Leadership was elected, by-laws promulgated, and the synagogue was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1981. At that time CTC was one of nine gay and lesbian congregations in the United States. It set about arranging services in members' homes, acquiring liturgy, and publicizing its existence.

In the '80's and '90's membership fluctuated between 30 and 40 members. One of the challenges was accommodating Jews from disparate backgrounds, traditions, and inclinations. There were members raised Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. There were members with extensive Jewish education and those with Jewish parentage but no other exposure to Judaism. Some members rejected traditional Judaism and sought some alternative expression of their religion and culture. Some were deeply "closeted" and some were defiantly "out". Many lesbians had felt marginalized, treated as "second class" Jews, and subjected to sexism in traditional congregations.

CTC, with assistance again from Zahar Sha'av, adopted a liturgy and service structure that attempted to accommodate this diversity. The liturgy was "degendered", referring to the Divine with both male and female terms. Women were counted in the minyan (the group of ten believers over the age of 13 required for traditional Jewish public worship), served as board members, and would lead services. Both Hebrew and English were used in the service. Alternative services and more traditional services were both held. Many members considered that this diversity of practice created a richness in the observances. Long-time members proudly describe CTC as "reconformadox", blending the terms used to describe the three main denominations of Judaism in the United States.

As is common for volunteer organizations, there were ongoing difficulties with financing and volunteer burnout. Most of the volunteers had been raised in traditional synagogues and attempted to model CTC on that paradigm. Services were moved to rented space in a local church, and a building fund and a Torah fund were established. There was a Board of Directors, as well as a ritual committee, music committee, membership committee, and so on. Expenses included telephone, postage, paper, duplicating, publicity, stationery, as well as donations and honorariums. There were continuing debates as to how, why, and whether to grow the membership. Although CTC always managed to balance its budget, people and resources were stretched thin.

An additional controversy in the '80's and '90's, unique to a gay and lesbian congregation, was how the congregation should be described. Should it be Congregation Tikvah Chadashah, Seattle's "gay and lesbian congregation", or should it be, "...with outreach to the gay and lesbian community"? Should it be the "gay, lesbian, and bisexual" congregation? After much back and forth and a few missteps, CTC became Seattle's LGBT+ congregation, "where all are welcome". Over the years, CTC has had, and continues to have, members that identify as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or straight.

The late '80's and the '90's were also the worst time for the terrible AIDS plague. Tikvah Chadashah was mostly passed over but nevertheless profoundly impacted by AIDS. Many members worked long hours and gave blood, sweat, and tears to confront AIDS with medical treatment, education, and support for patients and families. Everyone lost friends and loved ones. But unlike many gay organizations at the time, whose memberships were devastated by losses of spirit and talent, few members of CTC died of the disease.

Also in the '90's, public opinion began to change and acceptance of sexual diversity evolved. CTC as a synagogue, and its members individually, had been involved in the widespread political and organizational efforts to combat discrimination and promote acceptance that led to this change. As a result, mainstream congregations began to recognize and even welcome gays and lesbians. A number of gays and lesbians, whether craving acceptance, wanting the expanded resources of a larger synagogue, or seeking a more traditional religious structure, left CTC and joined mainstream congregations. Membership diminished as a result, more than it had as a result of AIDS. The debates on membership development intensified.

After a concerted effort to grow the membership failed in 2003, CTC members decided to cut expenses and forego dedicated outreach efforts. Communications moved online and services moved to members' homes, thereby avoiding rent, postage, paper, duplicating expenses and considerable work. The congregation decided to describe itself as a chavurah, a small group of like-minded Jewish friends that get together for religious services and holidays.

As of 2023, Congregation Tikvah Chadashah continues to meet and maintain its status as a Jewish congregation and nonprofit religious organization. Members meet for services once a month at members' homes. CTC hosts a community seder on the second night of Pesach and holds High Holy Days services open to the public. It maintains memberships and affiliations in a number of Jewish and gay organizations, sponsors a film for the Jewish film festival, participates in Pride Shabbat and the Pride Parade, and makes donations to organizations in support of its mission. A number of the members participate in a CTC book club, and there are events like Purim costume parties, plays, Jewish educational presentations, art exhibits, and Hanukkah latkes and movie night. Many congregants have been members of CTC for decades, including one of the founders. Some members have been motivated to increase and deepen their involvement in Judaism. Some also belong to other, more mainstream congregations. Some who came from other religions have adopted Judaism and converted.

The current members participate for a variety of reasons. Some say the group continues to exist because the members have become friends. Some stay because they find it comfortable and welcoming. A few need to avoid the expense of traditional congregational dues. There are members that have unpleasant associations with traditional synagogues or, for a variety of reasons, do not feel welcome there. Many prefer a group where they can be themselves without judgment, and not a curiosity. All are welcome.

©2023 Karen Borell