Germany’s First Jewish Cantor Since the Holocaust Finds a New Home in Los Angeles
June 7, 2010 | By: Sylvia Sukop
On June 18, 2009, in a ceremony marked by solemnity and celebration, Germany ordained its first Jewish cantor since the Holocaust in the soaring sanctuary of the magnificently restored Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin.
One year later to the day, in a modest purple-stucco building on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, that same cantor, 31-year-old Juval Porat, will be installed as the newest member of the clergy at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), a congregation whose very existence made history several years before he was born.
BCC is no ordinary synagogue and Porat no ordinary cantor. Each embodies a liberal modern Judaism that remains deeply and passionately rooted in tradition. Each has succeeded in creatively integrating seemingly incongruous facets of a complex identity.
Founded as a spiritual home for gay and lesbian Jews in 1972, Beth Chayim Chadashim — whose Hebrew name means House of New Life — was the first LGBT congregation to be accepted by a mainstream religious movement (formally inducted into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1974). No strangers to the media spotlight, BCC and its members have been featured in countless news reports, most recently in connection with the long and still unfinished fight for marriage equality in California and at the federal level. Led by Rabbi Lisa Edwards since 1994, the Reform congregation comprises nearly 200 member households ranging from individuals and couples to multigenerational families.
As a member myself for more than 10 years, I can attest to the congregation’s “big tent” of welcome — I was not yet Jewish when I joined. Our eldest member, a retired L.A. public school teacher and out-and-proud lesbian, will turn 90 this year. Our youngest, just two weeks old, is the son of a married heterosexual couple; nearly 25 years ago his mother was herself one of the first babies born into the then-fledgling BCC community. While first-time visitors may find their way to our door through a Google search for “gay synagogue,” long-timers stay for the congregation’s vibrant ruach (spirit) and liturgy, brilliant and compassionate clergy, and educational programs for all ages. For years our synagogue has been a top choice for rabbinic interns regardless of their sexual orientation, probably because our raison d’etre, thanks to dramatic progress in the fight for gay civil rights, today transcends that singular category.