Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779 Drash by Rabbi Lisa Edwards – September 10, 2018


“A statement which will appear in newspapers soon…has been signed by over 100 rabbis, temple presidents, and Jewish civic and community leaders from the Los Angeles area. The statement urges voters to remember the lessons of history, and reminds them that prejudice and fear are devices of destruction. But, mainly, the statement ties Judaism to the service of humanity rather than the denial of human rights.”

Anyone want to guess what this press release refers to?

This particular Press Release is 40 years old. And it was printed on letterhead from Beth Chayim Chadashim (6000 W. Pico Blvd.) [hold up the copy of the press release] It came from Louis Hirsch, PR Chair, Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim.

The Briggs Initiative, aka Prop. 6, on the California State ballot in the November election of 1978, would have permitted, perhaps even mandated, the firing of gay and lesbian teachers, although the actual wording was way more cryptic than that.[1]

If Briggs had passed, how many of us in this room would have been directly affected? That is to say, how many of us in this sanctuary today are or have been schoolteachers, teachers’ aides, school administrators or counselors? [the initiative doesn’t specify public schools]

The Briggs Initiative eventually met with resounding defeat (losing by more than a million votes, with a 70% voter turnout)[2] despite having looked like a shoo-in[3] when it was first placed onto the ballot.

Important people who helped defeat it included—it may surprise you to know— then-former CA governor Ronald Reagan and former U.S. President Gerald Ford, as well as then-President of the United States Jimmy Carter.

And some say most important in turning this campaign toward civil rights and away from homophobia was newly elected SF City Supervisor Harvey Milk, along with Sally Gearhart and Cleve Jones in San Francisco. Milk and Gearhart famously debated Briggs, helping to turn public sentiment against the measure; and the Briggs battle proved to be an early example of public turn-around on gay and lesbian rights thanks to diligent efforts by large numbers of people and the willingness of many gay and lesbian people to come out publicly or to family and friends.[4]

Included in the list of diligent workers, we still owe thanks to people like Louis Hirsch, and the 100 Jewish leaders AND —

who in this room helped defeat Prop 6 – the Briggs Initiative in 1978?

Who remembers Louis Hirsch? At age 83, he’s alive and very well in northern California. [He sends greetings for a sweet new year!]

I spoke with Louis Hirsch recently to find out what he remembers about that time, and he remembers a lot! He remembers in detail the work he did against Briggs, personally calling around 100 prominent Jews in the Los Angeles area, most of them Reform rabbis.

Rabbi Erwin Herman, of blessed memory, one of BCC’s early champions, helped Louis make the list of rabbis to call. The answers he got ranged from his first response, from Senior Rabbi Edgar Magnin of Wilshire Blvd Temple who told him YES of course he would sign an anti Briggs statement, saying “We have to take care of our gay boys,” to the response from a modern Orthodox rabbi: “I will never support anything you people do.” There you have it, Louie said to me the other day, the full spectrum—those “boxed by law and those open by heart.”

By the way, not only was the document signed by 100 prominent LA Jews published in the LA Times, it was also made into flyers, says Louie, which lots of BCC members plastered all over Jewish areas—Fairfax, Beverly Hills, into the Valley.

BCC—Beth Chayim Chadashim—was only 6 years old when all this happened, and we were already living up to our name—“House of New Life”—by working to protect the civil rights of teachers, and helping turn around a dangerous nationwide trend toward restrictive and homophobic legislation.

There was much more to come, of course…what BCC did through the decades (from our founding in 1972)—from anti-Briggs to support of people with AIDS to helping break down homophobia in the Reform Movement as a whole as well as in individual Jews; by speaking, writing, living our lives openly; to working for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis (and then hiring them!); and marriage equality.

The list is long—i won’t recite it all tonight, but it’s worth remembering the times through the decades—BCC has been around 46 years!—that BCC members and clergy spoke at rallies and marches and demonstrations and Reform Movement Conventions and living room meetings, helped found organizations like the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations, and Nechama – A Jewish Response to AIDS and the Los Angeles Queer Clergy Council so we would have a forum from which to speak and teach and discuss and promote Judaism as we know it: gender inclusive, egalitarian, radical in its politics, traditional in its emphasis on human rights and JUSTICE.


And yes, we have only to look around today to see that some of the hard-won rights from earlier eras face new threats in this era.

Which is part of why I bring up this story tonight on Rosh Hashanah, the holy day also known in Jewish tradition as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

And I bring all this up tonight partly because it’s the 40th anniversary of that significant time in our community’s history, and partly because I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately—it’s not only the season of self-reflection on the Jewish calendar, it’s the beginning of my 25th (and last) year as BCC’s rabbi.

I’ve been looking back in order not to dissolve in tears up here in front of you—after all, you’ve never seen me cry, why start now?

(For those of you new to BCC—kidding, i cry all the time).

Anyway, I’ve been looking at history, because it helps me look to the future too, to see the ups and downs we’ve experienced before, to know that change can happen and that there is reason to hope and to work to make those changes.

And although the defeat of the Briggs Initiative seemed at first a total victory, it’s difficult not to notice that the hero of that moment, Harvey Milk, was dead just 20 days later, assassinated in his office at City Hall along with San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone, both killed as we know by the disgruntled former city Supervisor Dan White (who took his own life only a few years later – 1985).

Although fear seems an appropriate feeling in this moment in our country, our long history—both legend and real—reminds us that we can’t cower in fear, or worry that any progress we make might leave us more exposed to danger.

We know too well that two steps forward can be followed by one step back (and sadly sometimes the other way around), but we have also learned along the way—in the long thousands-of- years history of the Jewish people and the short just-under-50- years history of queer liberation and of BCC—we’ve learned that it’s always taken lots of people, the ordinary people inching our way, step by step, the door to door canvassers, the brave coming out of the many, the people willing to have conversations with people they think they’d rather not talk to.

And it’s not a recent development that we live in a world where actions like these, although largely for the good of many, can also be scary.

I think often—my brother and i still joke about it—the way our mother (her memory is such a blessing) would try to protect us by discouraging our involvement in things that struck her as dangerous, and in post-Holocaust America—at least in my mother’s mind—anything Jewish or anti-government could be dangerous.

There were extreme examples of it in our house. When I was a kid, the mezzuzah in our house was in the drawer in my mother’s nightstand, not on the front door. Her frequent parting words to my brother and me when we left the house—anyone remember? I’ve told this story before, i know—she would call out cheerfully, “Don’t go far, don’t stay long.”

Which really meant don’t stay away long. In other words, though she never said it in so many words, the message I always understood from my mother was “Stay close to home. Home is the only safe place.” Advice I still feel even today—ask Tracy what it takes to get me to go on some of these world adventures we’ve gone on.

Sally Gearhart, a lesbian activist at the time of the Briggs Initiative, and nearly as influential as Harvey Milk, explained so well what was at play in the Briggs Initiative battle—I’ve transcribed her words from a video interview given years later:

“I often think what we were faced with in Proposition 6 was not so much a conflict of values as two sets of fears.

“The incredible fears that the gay community had—all of us—that here we were being stomped on by what was turning out to be the moral majority. I mean our very lives were being threatened—the ways that we lived what our lifestyle is—and our reaction was extreme and it should have been extreme.

“But then when you get into the other person’s shoes you figure that there was a lot of fear on the part of the fundamentalists as well.

“I mean: when you’ve lived your entire life believing in a certain social structure, in certain sex roles, in the ways that men and women should relate to each other, in the traditional family, believing in what you believe God says should be the way human beings relate within the family structure—and all of a sudden there are these ‘perverts’ around, saying there are ways to live that are different from yours and that furthermore they’re great and beautiful and true and good—then you’re threatened, and the very fabric of what this nation is supposed to be made up of is actually being attacked—by gay people.” [5]

Was it a coincidence that the United States Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality widely expected after the court hearing in April 2015, came in June (26) 2015, within days of Donald Trump announcing he was running for President?[6]     I don’t think so.

We still face two sets of fears. At least two sets.

Back in June of 1972 when BCC held its first Shabbat service, we didn’t yet have the name Beth Chayim Chadashim—House of New Life—to inspire us. But it didn’t take long after our founding. According to our written history compiled by Steve Sass and Larry Nathenson from oral histories and from BCC archives:

After our services on Friday evening, January 26, 1973, the synagogue passed its first bylaws and held its first election of officers. And then it decided to change its name from MCT—Metropolitan Community Temple, which simply echoed Metropolitan Community Church, MCC—the church whose founder, Rev. Troy Perry, had helped a few gay & lesbian Jews start our synagogue.

Okay—name change—but to what? At the meeting that night—goes the legend —members wrote suggestions on pieces of paper.[7] And the unanimous winner (over the 7 other suggestions)—and after a Hebrew grammar correction the following week—was Beth Chayim Chadashim—House of New Life, sweetly building on the name of Metropolitan Community Church’s newsletter New Life. And sweetly too the abbreviation BCC that fit so well with the initials MCC that the church commonly used[8] —still uses, for MCC is alive and well today and exists in many cities and countries all over the world.

Beth Chayim Chadashim—House of New Life can also be translated Home of New Life.

And indeed BCC has become a home for many of us over the years—some cast out from their family homes, some who set out on their own looking for a new home, some not particularly looking who found BCC to be a home anyway.

Perhaps you have. Or will.

In Hebrew, “House” and “Home” are the same word, Bayit (beth/beit as in Beth Chayim Chadashim is a construct form meaning “house of,” in our case, house of new life, or beth olam —house of forever—a euphemism for a cemetery. Beth/beit can be put before almost anything to describe a particular building or place: beit kholim, house of the sick, is a hospital; beit kholei ruach—house of the sick of spirit is a psychiatric hospital; and an earmuff is beit ozen—an ear house. [Lisa puts thimbles on the fingers of one hand.]

my favorite – though it’s obsolete is beit etzba—house of the finger —a THIMBLE!

The Temple in Jerusalem is Beit Hamikdash (the holy house) and sometimes it’s just called Habayit—THE house.

In the Mishnah [Yoma 1:1] a wife is referred to as beito, “his house” —

with possibly a sexual innuendo intended (Maggie, you can tell me later).

I’m told in Hebrew Bayit – home – or Beiti – my home – is sometimes a term of endearment for one’s partner.

Home is where the heart is.

But also in Hebrew habayitah means home, even though the “ah” ending in biblical Hebrew means “toward” something. Going there, not there yet. Maybe the implication is that we are always heading toward home, that it’s not the location itself that makes it a home.

Indeed, the early stories of the Torah focus on leaving home or trying to return home with varying amounts of success:

Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, and ever since humans have been searching to go back to the Garden again.

Cain, having dispatched his brother Abel so unceremoniously, went off wandering, marked by God to preserve his life, yet even he found a wife and a new home “east of Eden.”

Ever since God saw fit to destroy the earth, and rescue only Noah, his family, and a couple each of all God’s other animal creations, humans have been searching the earth for their little piece of it.

And ever since Abraham and his father left their hometown of UR, and God, picking up on the wanderlust of Abraham, told him to head out to a new land, one that “I will show you,”—the ancestors of the Israelites have been searching for home (back and forth between Egypt and the Promised Land, wandering 40 years—for starters— in the wilderness, and eventually spreading out all over the earth).

How many of you in this room were born in Los Angeles or nearby? Los Angeles, of course, is famously thought of as a land of immigrants—

Hollywood being only one of its many attractions.

Did you know that Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz books on which the movie is based, lived for some time in Hollywood? The last nine years of his life In a “homestead” he and his wife called Ozcot 1749 N. Cherokee Avenue (at the corner of Yucca).

This is not where he wrote the Wizard of Oz—that was written while he lived in Chicago with his family. And the phrase at the end of the book is not “there’s no place like home,” it’s “Take me home to Aunt Em!”

But by 1900 the book does contain the already well-known sentence, “There’s no place like home.”[9] אין כמו בבית in Hebrew! The phrase appears only once in the Wizard of Oz book, soon after Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet:

“Tell me something about yourself and the country you came from,” said the Scarecrow, when she [Dorothy] had finished her dinner. So she told him all about Kansas, and how gray everything was there, and how the cyclone had carried her to this queer Land of Oz.

The Scarecrow listened carefully, and said, “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.” “That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.” The Scarecrow sighed. “Of course I cannot understand it,” he said. “If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”

Baum, L. Frank (Lyman Frank). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (pp. 22-23). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

In the book, when Dorothy clicks her heels together she says: “Take me home to Aunt Em!” and the book ends:

“And here is Toto, too. And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be at home again!”

I had to mention the Wizard of Oz not only because how can one not if talking about themes of home? And not just because there’s a new book out called Friends of Dorothy: Why Gay Boys and Gay Men Love the Wizard of Oz by a nice Jewish gay librarian named Dee Michel (thank you Stephen Klein for introducing me to him). And by the way, as the book points out but doesn’t dwell on, it’s not just gay males who are friends of Dorothy —queer girls too [Lisa raises her hand], queers and non-binary, non-gender conforming people of all sorts love this story—movie and book and Wicked too, and maybe even The Wiz.

And I have to mention Wizard of OZ not just because former BCC members Shari Katz and Noelle Hildebrand have flown here all the way from Montreal where they live just because these are my last Days of Awe as BCC’s rabbi, and Shari once gave a lovely drash at BCC about how the journey Dorothy took was a lot like the one taken by the Israelites through the Wilderness and a lot like the journey BCC was on as a congregation!     (lifts) My Kippah is off to you, Shari and Noelle—There’s no place like home, right?

But I also have to talk about the Wizard of OZ because Yip Harburg, who not only wrote the lyrics for all the songs in the movie the Wizard of Oz, but also may very well have been the one who captured the phrase “there’s no place like home” for Dorothy to say three times, was a nice Jewish boy from Manhattan, Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg (born Isidore Hochberg, born 1896 or 1898 – March 5, 1981) an American popular song lyricist and librettist. Harburg also wrote the protest song “Brother, can you spare a dime?” and recalled in an interview that his parents “never had one moment’s rest from worrying about money for the next day.”[10] Harburg began his political activity writing jingles for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 campaign, and ghost-wrote many political speeches and lyrics for liberal causes.

!!Yet another Jewish liberal activist—this country is full of them!

[Lisa looks around the room]

This sanctuary is full of them!

Although there are only a few people around who remember it, BCC’s written history (which can be found on our website, by the way) tells us that the night of the first bylaws and first elections and the congregational name change were not really what made our congregation’s most dramatic and eventful evening ever—no, that was saved for what happened after the meeting: when the building burned down!

But whew! not before the LA Fire Dept. helped just-elected BCC President Stu Zinn go back into the burning building to rescue our borrowed Torah scroll.

OY![11] How’s that for a first responsibility as President?!

The very night we became a House of New Life, we lost our house, our home.

Some of us might be feeling a bit like that now—not that our building—our beautiful physical synagogue home—is in danger down the road at 6090 W. Pico Blvd; but that our country is in danger and so is our planet—the homes given us by history and given us by God.[12]

All those many years ago the fire at the MCC church—the church that had opened its doors in welcome to a bunch of wandering Jews trying to make a home—the fire at the church showed us that we didn’t need a physical place—as wonderful as and spiritual and inspiring as [gestures to the bima and all around] a physical space can be. We reconfirm that truth every year at the Days of Awe when we carry all our stuff down Pico Blvd from our synagogue at 6090 to this one.

We reconfirm every year what the story of the fire taught us—once Stu Zinn brought the scroll from the burning building, then the work of restoration began. Some of us know this story as told often by our beloved member Harriet Perl, of blessed memory. But here it is as written by another blessed memory to our congregation, Lorena Wellington: “Our Torah was water damaged, but safe. That night, we spent the entire night tenderly unrolling our Torah, both men and women, reverently weighing down the wet corners so that it might dry. Both men and women spent the night on their knees—thanking God silently for our Torah and carefully putting books, papers and weights wrapped in wax paper on the curling sheepskin. Our togetherness was never closer than at that moment…” [13]

Well, less than a year into BCC’s existence I can imagine they’d never been closer than at that moment. Adversity can be so bonding!

But how about in the 46 years since? We’ve bonded in adversity and in extraordinary times and in all the ordinary times in between.

Friends, this has indeed been year of many changes, within BCC, and more still to come:

We said goodbye to our Executive Director of 4 years Ruth Irving, and our dear Rabbi Heather Miller after 6, and Victoria Delgadillo, BCC’s office administrator with us for over 20 years. Several board members stepped down from their board service, quite a few congregants moved out of town, and too many took their permanent leave of us: we hold in our hearts and memories Olga Grilli and Rabbi Bob Baruch and Micki Bernat.

We also said hello and thank God and now goodbye and thank YOU to the stalwart Elissa Barrett who stepped up to the challenge of being PART TIME interim Executive Director and produced our incredible Vision Awards in June, and then brought Chelsie Uriarte in to help with these High Holy Days; Chelsie will be administrative assistant in the office when Elissa departs for a new gig after Yom Kippur, and we hope someone new will be coming along soon to be Executive Director—we’ll keep you posted. If you haven’t met Chelsie yet, try to introduce yourself over the Holy Days.

And also meet our new Education Director, Rae Antonoff. She’ll be with us tomorrow morning right here at 9:30am for a warm welcome to our families as we begin tomorrow’s service. And Cantor Juval Porat—bless him—is STAYING AROUND —hurray! —having renewed his contract for the foreseeable future. THANK YOU, JUVAL. And our amazing facilities manager Tim Goad who has been at BCC almost as long as I have—he’s staying! And Ralph Cataldo and Yanir Dekel managing our money and our web presence—they’re staying!

And we have some simply outstanding congregants remaining on or stepping onto the board and/or serving in other vital capacities – incredibly talented people devoting so much of their time and talents and resources — so know that we’re in good hands.

And then there’s me, I’m not exactly going anywhere (not for very long anyway), I’m just going to morph into BCC’s first Rabbi Emerita NEXT summer, so yes, this is my last Days of Awe leading in this way, which is why you have to put up with my self-indulgences all through these Holy Days.

בָּר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בְּבֹאֶ֑ךָ וּבָר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בְּצֵאתֶֽךָ׃

Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings. . .

…says God in Deuteronomy (28:6). There was a lot of coming and going in that book too.

And yes, I agree, It’s a bit dizzying. But it also seems right—okay, time—for the leave-ers to leave and for the arrivers to arrive and for the stayers and builders to stay and build. It feels that way to me anyway. And I am grateful and blessed by everyone who has sojourned with us in any capacity and for any length of time, even though I miss the ones who go away.

On this night in particular, on the cusp of a new year, just two months from a midterm election that who knows might be the turning point—but toward which way? On this night of the new year, we know to come together as the loving people we are, and as the allies we are to others whose rights and livelihoods, health and families and lives are under threat.

Tonight yet again we come together—in our anger and fear, shock and outrage, anxiety and sorrow (we’ve done that before) and our JOY—we come safely together because above all we come together with our love—knowing that when we live out loud—openly, proudly who we are—we do change hearts and minds, and when we leave this House of New Life, we know we can come back for strengthening and encouragement whenever we need it.

Holy One of blessing,

remind us when we need reminding,

encourage us when we need courage,

be with us tonight and always as we continue

to pursue our loving way in this world.

Be with us, holding us up as we—strong and gentle, hand-in-hand—continue to help show the world a different way, a better way…

…as we continue together to make our House of New Life our HOME, filled with all the comings and goings of life.

And let us all say, Amen



This time of year in Jewish tradition, these 40 days of self-reflection we give ourselves. This time to do tshuvah—repentance and repair of our relationships to other humans so that on Yom Kippur we can focus on the work of doing tshuvah with God. Tshuvah means “return” and also “turning.”

Is it your turn to go next?


[1]Here’s the actual initiative that was on the ballot—note: hard to find the wording on line anywhere:

SCHOOL EMPLOYEES. HOMOSEXUALITY. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Provides for filing charges against schoolteachers, teachers’ aides, school administrators or counselors for advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting private or public sexual acts defined in sections 286(a) and 288a(a) of the Penal Code between persons of same sex in a manner likely to come to the attention of other employees or students; or publicly and indiscreetly engaging in said acts. Prohibits hiring and requires dismissal of such persons if school board determines them unfit for service after considering enumerated guidelines. In dismissal cases only, provides for two-stage hearings, written findings, judicial review. Financial impact: Unknown but potentially substantial costs to State, counties and school districts depending on number of cases which receive an administrative hearing.


[3] This expression purportedly comes from the practice of corrupt jockeys holding their horses back and shooing a preselected winner across the finish line to guarantee that it will win. A “shoo-in” is now an easy winner, with no connotation of dishonesty.

[4] pdf of typewritten document from The California Poll that tracked the turnaround in public opinion during the campaign (in particular over a six week period into Oct 1978)

[5] Sally Gearhart—In 1973, she was the first open lesbian in America to be hired in a tenure track position (San Francisco State).Activist and Harvey Milk’s partner in their activism to defeat Briggs Initiative. In a recent video interview (can’t find date) – second half of this short video in this Advocate article about the Briggs Initiative exhibit at the SF Historical society this year (40th anniv. Of Briggs). Transcribed by Lisa Edwards:

[6] Trump announced on June 16, 2016, OBERGEFELL ET AL. v. HODGES June 26, 2015),

[7]  The proposed names included “Children of Pride-Yeladim Shel Gaavah”; “The House of the Children of Peace – Beth Yeladim Sholom”; “The House of the Children of Unity—Beth Ylodim Shel Achdus”; “The House of Eternal Truth—Beth Tamid Emet”; “The House of E#ternal Life—Beth Ha Chayim”; Temple Emanuel, and “Congregation Beth Ahavah—The House of Love.” Small, one of the first four founders and the congregation’s newly elected vice president, submitted the winning entry. Inspired by New Life, the name of Metropolitan Community Church’s newsletter, Small asked a friend to translate “House of New Life” into Hebrew, which was rendered as “Beth Chayim Chadash” and which won by a vote of 26-0. Subsequently, Rabbis Herman and Ragins pointed out that “Chadash” was grammatically incorrect and so the name was changed to Beth Chayim Chadashim.


Though few are around who remember it, that night may have been our congregation’s most dramatic and eventful evening ever, for after services and then voting on bylaws and electing its first officers, the building burned down! But not before the LA Fire Dept. helped newly elected BCC President Stu Zinn rescue its borrowed Torah scroll from the burning building! OY!

[9] Some historians date the expression back to the 14th c, the OED draws its first example of it from 1810, but then they don’t even include Frank L. Baum’s 1900 version or the movie version of the Wizard of Oz:

  1. (there’s) no place like home.

1810   ‘Piomingo’ Savage ix. 114   Home at last—quite exhausted—no place like home.

1822   J. H. Payne Home, Sweet Home (song)   Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

1874   Times 27 June 11/2   Many who are incurable have kind friends and families nurse them at home. For such, we admit,: ‘there is no place like home’.

1946   I. Gershwin Paris (FR.) (song) in Lyrics on Several Occasions (1959) 74   Don’t mention Tripoli, London or Rome; Sing out hip-hippily: No place like home!

1955   L. P. Hartley Perfect Woman xiv. 136   When he said, ‘There’s no place like home, is there?’ her thoughts did not wince at this obvious remark.

2002   No Depression July 59/2   Her friendship with Marr made her realize there’s no place like home. ‘I was really getting ungrounded… I really need my home right now.’



[12] I’m deliberately echoing the phrasing here of Zelda’s poem “each of has a name” though Falk translation reads “given by” rather than “given us by”