“Nostalgic Looks Back” Celebrate 25 Years of Rabbi Lisa and Lezbtzn Tracy

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Editor’s Note: Over the three months leading up to the end of the 25 year tenure of Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Lezbtzn Tracy Moore, we have been treated to a series of “nostalgic look back” talks during Shabbat evening services. BCC members have reminisced about many aspects of BCC’s history, including a few that pre-date Lisa’s and Tracy’s arrival. I have arranged them here in roughly chronological order (not the order in which they were presented), along with excerpts from most of them. I hope to make the full texts available through the BCC website in the near future. Many thanks to Mark Miller for organizing and scheduling these peeks into BCC’s past.

BCC member Stephen Sass, who is also president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, spoke about the meeting on January 26, 1973 at which the congregation changed its name from Metropolitan Community Temple, adopted its first bylaws, and elected its first officers including Stuart Zinn, z’l as president (replacing interim president Sherry Sokoloff, z’l). That meeting took place at the MCC church in Downtown Los Angeles, where BCC then held its services, and was followed by a much more dramatic event:

            After the meeting that Friday evening, some members adjourned to Canter’s Delicatessen on Fairfax Avenue. Shortly after midnight, Milt Jinowsky, z’l a board member and ritual committee chair, was on his way home and heard on the radio that the MCC building was on fire. He rushed to a phone, called Canter’s and told Stu Zinn the terrible news. Lorena Wellington recorded the dramatic scene: “With one accord, the entire group of us, about 20 or so persons, left in our cars. We raced to the scene of the fire. There we surrounded the Fire Chief. ‘Our Torah is in that building—we have to get it out.’ We all shouted at him. The Fire Chief, overwhelmed by the sheer number of us, and our almost hysterical insistence, finally asked us to select one member to go into the burning building with him. Unanimously we turned to our new president- elect, Stu. His first act as President was to enter the burning building with the Fire Chief, and rescue our Torah [on loan from the UAHC]. He was gone such a long time, more fire trucks arrived, the flames shot skyward as the spire burned more fiercely, the firemen were pushing us back to the sidewalk—‘Where is he?’ we asked each other. ‘Has Stu come out yet?’ Then, out of the smoke, with his pants legs rolled up—came Stu— tenderly carrying our Torah in his arms! We all broke into tears!

            “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…”

BCC member Robin Berkovitz discussed BCC’s rich history of lay service leadership, which Rabbi Lisa has encouraged us to preserve even as we have had formal clergy for many years now:

Our congregant led service leading in our early days was borne out of necessity as we had no formal clergy–though we did have rabbinic interns (Mark Hurvitz, Keith Stern, Scott Sperling, Leah Kroll, Margaret Holub, among the early ones). Yet it was also by choice. We were a rag tag group of diverse Jews, … with varying Jewish backgrounds and practices. It was also the 1970’s and a time when progressive Jews and other progressive faiths were shaping own services to reflect our own unique lives and experiences. …

 I have been blessed to be on the bimah with Rabbi Lisa many times over her 25 year tenure, along with other clergy and lay leaders. She has always guided me and been open to my experimenting with different tunes and traditions. I have also been blessed to be a part of ensuring that our High Holy Day Torah services are lay led—now less by necessity and more to maintain our BCC tradition of ensuring that congregants will have the skills to lain Torah.

BCC member Dr. Mark Katz traced the history of BCC’s active response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic over the past 33 years, including its role in the creation of the first Jewish AIDS education program, Nechama (Hebrew for comfort), which has since been renamed Project Chicken Soup and now provides kosher meals to persons living with HIV/AIDS and others.

            Here at BCC Rabbi Janet Marder and Dr. Les Zendle received a $13,800 grant from Jewish Federation’s Council on Jewish Life to help educate the community about what AIDS was…and was not …. It would be directed by (BCC member) Jerry Small from its 1986 inception until 1991.  Over these years, Nechama provided hundreds of educational sessions.  Part of its panache was that in an era where persons living with AIDS were often closeted, reluctant to speak publicly, or simply too ill, we had the magnificent Hal Wakker (of blessed memory) as the Volunteer Coordinator.

            I and Dr. Janice Sperling, another Kaiser physician, presided over the medical information section of dozens of these sessions.  We spoke at schools, synagogues, offices, councils, wherever we were asked!  The typical format was that Jerry Small would introduce the topic by speaking to “Why Is AIDS A Jewish Issue?”  Then, some combination of clergy (often Rabbi Marder or the clergy from the synagogue or school at which we were speaking), health care (myself and/or Jan Sperling), and then one or more persons living with HIV would speak.  Sometimes, there was a panel.  We were always asked many questions about transmission, the commonest of all being, “Can I get it from kissing?”  And to this date, the angriest group I ever addressed in an HIV education venue was at a Nechama presentation to a group of teens at a Jewish summer day camp, one of whom remarked, “Because of people like you, our sex lives have been changed forever.”   Hal Wakker knew exactly what to say to that, stood proud and beautiful, and [gave an] eloquent and fervent response.

Former BCC President Lauren Schlau recounted her experience as chair of the Rabbinic Search Committee that selected Rabbi Lisa Edwards to become BCC’s fourth ordained rabbi in 1994.

            I was asked to describe the circumstances that brought Rabbi Lisa and Lezbitzn Tracy to BCC. At that point Rabbi Lisa was not a stranger to BCC. She had served as our Rabbinic Intern during BCC’s tumultuous and transitionary year of 1992. [The Search] Committee members and most in the congregation knew who we wanted, and knew she was available having graduated rabbinic school since serving us. However we could not just reach out and offer her the position. The then UAHC (now URJ) and CCAR had specific controls and procedures in place. Rabbis have to apply for congregation positions through the CCAR placement office and we would have to follow all related candidate resume review and meeting processes. It was also questioned if we could hire our recent rabbinic intern. Thankfully, Rabbi Lisa’s was one of the three resumes we received and evaluated….

            As some of us may recall, but others here would have no memory, the BCC that Rabbi Lisa came into in 1994 was still reeling and healing from having had two rabbis in the past two years, was still in the depths of the AIDS crisis, and mourning most recently the deaths of past presidents Fred S and Benn Howard, (z’l), with still many others infected. … To help welcome Rabbi Edwards to BCC seven “coffee tawks” were scheduled throughout the region for members to get to know her on a more personal level.

BCC member Davi Cheng told us about the process by which she and Jerry Hanson designed and, along with Victoria Delgadillo and Haim Ainsworth, painstakingly built our magnificent stained glass windows, installed over a period of seven years in our previous building at 6000 W. Pico Blvd. When we were searching for a new building, one of the criteria was that it would need to have a place for these windows, which now grace the wall between our sanctuary and foyer, as well as some exterior windows.

BCC Cantorial Emerita Fran Chalin was Rabbi Lisa’s co-clergy for 15 years, but met Lisa and Tracy years earlier. Here are some of her memories:

I knew about Tracy as early as the mid 80’s. She was part of a lesbian collective in Iowa City that produced the quarterly magazine Common Lives/Lesbian Lives. …

            But I met you both of you in 1989 when I moved here to go to HUC. The first time I ever led services was when you asked me to join you on the bimah at HUC. … Mostly what I remember from that service was your drash. You talked about Tracy. You called her a God Wrestler, like Jacob who wrestled with the angel. You spoke so lovingly about her. The room was silent and electric. This was 1990. You were among the first rabbinic students to talk about your same gender partner from the bimah at Hebrew Union College.

            I was already working at BCC when you began your student rabbi placement with us. We led services together then too. And from the moment you became BCC’s rabbi we were a team. I tried to add up all the services you and I have done together. Let’s just say there were a lot more than 525,600 minutes. One of the gifts of our time together on the bimah is how much communication passed between us with only a nod, a pause or a touch. And no matter what we may have planned, if something needed to be changed or added we did it, often without the need of words. Our time on the bimah worked as well as it did in large part because of Tracy. Her eyes were everywhere. She took in the room in a way we couldn’t. And she let us know if we needed to address something we weren’t aware of. …

            You preformed two out of my three marriages to Rob…. We waited until marriage equality became the law of the land for our legal marriage to take place. It was around that time that Eli and I were talking about what it means to be Jewish clergy. He was glad you were his rabbi, but he had a very serious question. What happens if a guy wants to be a rabbi or a cantor, would he be allowed?

            Last week, I asked my daughter Rae to tell me about some things she liked about you… Even though you are a woman of many talents, Rae is glad you decided to be a rabbi instead of a clown. She also said, “In a weird way she’s like another mom to me.” ….

BCC member Steven Hochstadt spoke about his founding membership in BCC’s Tzedakah Council for more than 20 years, always with the support and encouragement of Lisa and Tracy. Here is part of his “look back”:

            One of the things I am most proud of in my doings for the synagogue is my membership in the Tzedakah Council from its inception until now. … helping to identify and distribute to countless charities nearly $35,000 in loose pocket change to over 100 organizations serving people in need all over the world.

            And thanks to the congregation’s generosity, we have been able to educate our community on tzedakah, to organize twice a year collections, giving to Jewish and non-Jewish nonprofits, and helping those in Israel who don’t have the resources we have, like LGBTQ adolescents who have nowhere to go after telling their families they’re gay, lesbian bisexual, transgendered or questioning.

And we’ve done this while educating ourselves as a committee, because we’ve always engaged in an education activity as part of our meetings….

BCC member Bracha Yael spoke about the origins of BCC’s “telephone minyan” some two decades ago by members whose health sometimes prevented them from attending services in person. It gave them the opportunity to remain connected to their BCC community from the comfort of their homes. In our new home at 6090 W. Pico, the telephone minyan gradually morphed into our pioneering and technologically advanced live streaming service.

BCC member Maggie Parkhurst recalled why she and her husband Dave chose to join a predominantly LGBT synagogue nearly two decades ago. After searching the Los Angeles area for a Reform synagogue that was intellectually stimulating, spiritually engaging, and haimishly welcoming, they decided that BCC met all their criteria. When Rabbi Lisa and Tracy flew back from Lisa’s mother’s funeral in Chicago just in time for Maggie’s mother’s funeral here in LA, they knew they had made the right choice.

BCC member Stephen Sass outlined the history of BCC’s survivor Torah scroll – its origins in the small town of Chotebor, Czechoslovakia, its theft by the Nazis, its rescue after the war and transfer to the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, its permanent loan to BCC in the early 1970s, and the project BCC undertook in the early 2000s to restore portions of the scroll to a condition in which they could be read on special occasions (the “Choose Life” passage on Yom Kippur). He also described his research to find a survivor from Chotebor, Olga Grilli, z’l, who traveled to LA and was reunited with her childhood Torah in 2005 when BCC hosted a reunion of survivor scrolls from around Southern California at Leo Baeck Temple.

Former BCC President Brett Trueman recounted the initial stages of the capital campaign for our new building at 6090 W. Pico Blvd., which he spearheaded. He emphasized the amazing role Lisa and Tracy played in that process:

            [Our fundraising consultant] Mark Randall took me to see Rabbi Lisa and Tracy. He told me the amount that he thought I should ask them to pledge. I wanted to ask for more. He said that I earned the right to do so given the magnitude of Mark’s and my pledge. So, we went to Lisa and Tracy and I asked for the higher amount. They told us to take a hike (around the block). When we came back, they gave us their decision…they were going to pledge even more than the higher amount that I asked for! Mark Randall later told me that in all his years of fundraising, he never came across a rabbi and spouse who pledged more than did Lisa and Tracy.

            Lisa and I then met with Bill Resnick. We told him of the pledges that Lisa and Tracy and Mark and I made and asked him if he would be willing to make the lead gift (which was a very substantial amount). … Later on, we learned that our stretch pledges played a major role in Bill’s decision to make that lead gift….

            Before ending, I want to share with you one other memorable example from the capital campaign that demonstrates so well the commitment of BCC members to our shared community. There was one member of our synagogue of very limited financial means. Despite this, she wanted to contribute to the campaign. So, what did she do? She collected bottles that had a redemption value. Turning them in, she raised $200, which she donated to the capital campaign. We told that touching story often in our solicitations. While I can’t say for sure that it had an effect on those we solicited, I believe that it did.

BCC member Bill Resnick spoke about his decision to make the lead gift for the purchase of our new building, and also about his first encounter with BCC as a closeted teenager living in Culver City near Temple Akiba, where BCC held its High Holiday services in the 1970s and 1980s.

BCC member Ira Dankberg, a recently retired architect, served as BCC’s in house project coordinator for the design and renovation of our new building at 6090 W. Pico Blvd., working with our architects, contractors, and other professionals. Here are some of his remembrances:

Those of you who were here at that time might recall the gloomy rats nest of small dark interconnecting rooms, low ceilings, and ugly security screens. This building hadn’t been loved in a very long time. But the bones had great potential.

            6090 W Pico is the most intensely personal building I have ever worked on. Rabbi Lisa was the inspiration. In one of her High Holiday drashes, she spoke eloquently about the construction at her hometown synagogue in Chicago. All congregants were encouraged to put their handprints in the wet plaster that surrounded the ark. That image of the texture of the handprints surrounding the Torahs stayed with me for many years. I thought this a beautiful metaphor that integrated the personal with the architectural for all to see. …

            Our program required multipurpose rooms that would work as a library, classroom, workable kitchen, gathering space separate from the sanctuary and workable office. Rabbi Lisa’s office needed to be both private and public and include her personal library. While we couldn’t expand her bookshelves all the way to the ceiling, we did get Rabbi Lisa a library ladder a few years ago. Tracy really wanted an outdoor gathering space so we went to great effort and expense to open up the solid brick rear wall, scoop out the soil and build a retaining wall. That our overflow onegs and celebrations combine interior and exterior shows how well that worked.

            The design of the ark behind me was very difficult. We spent many intense design meetings with our architects. Recessed, projecting, closed or open doors, ner tamid of wood or metal? … The sustainable wood blocks were inspired by the geometry in the stained glass. The copper strips contain writings from all those who participated in writing seminars. Like Lisa’s Chicago synagogue our community is physically integrated into our architecture. The solar powered ner tamid was provided by Will Korthoff z’l, a pioneer in solar technology who gave generously to BCC . The ark doors were built by Davi Cheng and Jerry Hanson.

 Former BCC Treasurer Ray Eelsing described his and Tracy’s role in the founding of BCC’s planned giving program, known as the L’Chayim Legacy Circle, in 2006 along with Hannah Theile, Bracha Yael, and Evelyn Poplawski.

Our L’Chayim Legacy Committee of five had two goals — to honor and appreciate those who left a bequest to BCC in their will or trust, and to help all BCC members get their vital documents in order, and to understand the complex financial planning requirements for the LGBT community….

The L’Chayim Legacy Circle is an enormous part of Lisa and Tracy’s legacy. We’ve gone from 17 to over 60 members within the circle; the value of their legacies to the future of BCC cannot be overstated.   I’m humbled and extremely proud to have played a part in defining the Circle. I cannot thank Lisa and Tracy enough for their vision and leadership in strengthening BCC’s foundation over the years, creating a sanctuary of peace and acceptance for every one of us here, and for future generations to come.

 BCC members Pam Postrel and Mindy Blum talked about the “summer of love” in 2008, when for a few months same-sex couples could marry in California (after the Supreme Court decision, and before the infamous Proposition 8). Pam also showed a video she created about that summer.

So, we are here to talk about “The Summer of Love”…  when Rabbi Lisa married not 5 or 10 or 15… but 43 couples! – and, for extra measure, she and Tracy got married too! 

            When the California Supreme Court ruling came down in 2008, nothing was going to stand in our way… finally, the wedding that Lisa had always wanted!  We did all of the planning in a very short amount of time, you know, before the court could change its mind…  Most of our closest friends and family were there, and a rare treat that most people don’t get at their wedding — our children! 

            And then there was Lisa… and Fran…  and I don’t think we can adequately convey what it meant to us to not only look out at that sea of loving people, but to look into the eyes of loving clergy, who had known us and championed this wedding even before we had…  And, as we are standing there, saying our vows, the political significance of the moment was not lost on us… It was best captured by Lisa as we heard that catch of tears in her voice, when she pronounced us married “by the power vested” in her “by the Supreme Court of the State of California.” 

 

This article was taken from G’vanim Issue 47 vol 6, July/August 2019 Check out the full issue

 

 

 

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