Project Description

Stuart Sotsky
Stuart SotskyPresident of Bet Mishpachah

Interview with Stuart Sotsky, President, by David Azoulay

1) You will co-sponsor the next board meeting of the World Congress of GLBT Jews on April 10 in Washington. Could you tell us why it is important for Bet Mishpachah to be part of the World Congress? What message would you want to convey to our members?

First, I would like to extend my greetings to the members of the World Congress and especially those who will be joining us in April for Bet Mishpachah’s Shabbaton and the meeting of the Board of the World Congress.  You will be visiting Washington, D.C., at one of the loveliest times of the year when the city is in full spring bloom and we look forward to welcoming you to our special Shabbat services, dinner and speakers.  I know that Frank and Barbara have planned an enjoyable weekend of activities for you and our programming team have planned a wonderful Shabbaton.

2) What is your personal and organizational background? What are your motivations for volunteering with Bet Mishpachah?

Personally, I have been a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School, where I have taught many resident psychiatrists and medical students, led a clinical division, and a research program exploring the efficacy of treatments for depression as well as health services and policy.
I am also a founding member of the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists and have served on the Board of the Washington Psychiatric Society.  Currently I maintain a private clinical practice and teach at the Medical School on a voluntary basis.  I have lived in Washington for forty years with a home in the historic Cleveland Park neighborhood.  With my friends I actively enjoy the exciting cultural life of the city, its theater, music, art and restaurant scene, and, of course, the many activities of the Bet Mishpachah and wider Jewish community.  I am also quite engaged with my extended family, some of whom live in Washington, and am grateful for my special relationship as uncle with my nephews and nieces.

3) Could you introduce your congregation to our readers? Its history? Its mission? Its philosophy?

I am one of the founding members of Bet Mishpachah, which started in 1975 as one of the first LGBT synagogues in the United States.  To form a gay congregation only a few years after Stonewall and the start of the Gay Liberation movement, when there was no welcoming place in the Jewish community, no religious authority in any of the major Jewish movements for acceptance of GLBT people, relationships, or clergy, and minimal integration of the Gay and the Lesbian movements, was a radical leap of faith and a bold effort toward social progress and human rights.  At the time a small group of gay men, and later lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals sought a safe space in which to meet each other and fully integrate their religious and sexual identities, seek an understanding of the unique spiritual contributions of LGBT lives within the Jewish tradition, and work toward personal and professional openness and liberation.
Bet Mishpachah is a founding member of the World Congress and was proud to host the (9th International) World Congress conference in 1985. Several of our members have served as officers of the World Congress, including Barrett Brick (z”l), Beth Cohen, and Barbara Goldberg.

4) How would you define  the relationship between your congregation and the Jewish community at large? More generally, could you briefly describe to our readers, especially our European ones, the degree of inclusion of LGBT people within the different streams of Judaism in the United States?

We developed our own liturgy and religious service that de-genderized references to God, was inclusive of the voices of women and addressed the life experiences and life cycle events of LGBT people, pioneering adult bar and bat mitzvahs and kiddushin or religious weddings.  Within the Jewish community we fought to overcome the opposition to our membership in the Jewish Community Council, and I was honored to serve as our first representative to the Council.  We and our sibling American LGBT congregations have, by our presence and advocacy, contributed to the gradual acceptance of LGBT people, relationships and clergy in the mainstream Reform, Reconstructionist, and now Conservative movements of American Judaism.  This has meant open inclusion of LGBT Jews in membership and leadership roles in congregations, acceptance of same-sex marriages and families, and ordination of LGBT clergy.

The way to reach the Jewish Same Sex marriage was a process that took many years because, first of all, a national law had to be approved in Argentina allowing such unions, this happened in 2010.

From then on we started to work in order to consider the  application of the Rabbinical Assembly Responsum 2006/2012  which granted the right to perform Jupa [huppah] blessings to same-sex couples, so it was that when the girls expressed their wish to get married  we started talks and discussions  with some  rabbis to see in what way  that Responsum could be considered and applied in one of their communities.  Then after a period of study and consideration at which the board of members of the institution actively participated the performance of a same sex Jupa was unanimously approved.

5) The inclusion of LGBT Jews within the mainstream Jewish community has improved a lot during the last decades.  In your opinion, which are the remaining battles today?

Bet Mishpachah is pleased to have moved to a public place in the heart of the Washington Jewish community in our present home at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.  As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we honor our past, the development of an inclusive, egalitarian community, liturgy and services and a tradition of lay leadership, while we continue to evolve to sustain the community with a new generation of LGBT leadership.  Today we face competition for membership from the mainstream synagogues toward whose inclusiveness to LGBT Jews we contributed, and we are challenged by the decreasing participation of younger adults in organized religious institutions in general.  We are challenged to be more inclusive toward transgender men and women and to advocate for their rights and role in the community.  And while there has been enormous progress in social acceptance and civil rights for LGBT people in the United States in recent years, culminating in the the abolition of discrimination in military service and the recent Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriages and equal application of federal benefits and rights, we still must work toward elimination of remaining legal discrimination in employment, housing and public services.

6) What are some of the main activities of your congregation? 

Bet Mishpachah holds regular religious services every Shabbat and on all the major Jewish holidays, especially our spiritually beautiful and always popular High Holy Day services.  With the religious guidance of Rabbi Laurie Green and a cadre of lay service leaders, our congregation is run by a Board of Directors, and is enriched by the musical contributions of our choir Tachshitim and Rabbi Ben Shalva who provides song leadership and serves as cantor for the High Holy Days.  Throughout the year we offer a variety of adult education classes and presentations by guest speakers, as well as other programs in collaboration with other LGBT and Jewish groups.  There are dinners and other social events as well as cultural activities, such as theater parties and special visits to museum exhibitions.
We publish a newsletter and maintain an active website. We provide services to our members who are ill or bereaved, contribute to social justice initiatives, and participate in the wider community in events such as Capital Pride and the National Pride Shabbat.
We are proud to welcome members of the Board of the World Congress, our LGBT brothers and sisters from many countries, to join Bet Mishpachah for the upcoming events in Washington, D.C.

This actually happened in a country where there was the political will to grant the same rights to all its citizens, and in this case it is recognized that the sole will or need of the individual is enough without having to resort to medical opinions.

Congregation Bet Mishpachah of Washington, DC