When Congregation Or Chadash (or "New Light," in Hebrew) was first founded in 1975, it was little more than a social and support group of LGBT people of the Jewish faith meeting in one others' homes after responding to a newspaper ad. At the time, it was the first group of its kind in Chicago and one of only a handful of similar organizations throughout the United States.
Thirty five years later, the Edgewater-based, full-service Jewish synagogue has expanded considerably while still remaining focused on what has been their mission from the start: to offer a welcoming space affirming of LGBT Jews' full identities.
In celebration of its anniversary, Congregation Or Chadash hosted its annual gala at the Hotel Allegro March 5. In addition to hosting a silent auction, dinner and a lively Havdalah service, Or Chadash also took the opportunity to honor three individuals who members felt helped make achieving that milestone possible. This year's honorees included past congregation president Marvin Levin; longtime member Burl Covan; and Bill Greaves, director of Chicago's Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues.
Or Chadash Rabbi Larry Edwards said he doubted the synagogue's founders "ever could have imagined that it would become this and that it would last this long." At the time of its founding, Edwards has been told, other synagogues flat-out refused requests to borrow prayer booksa sign of the widespread prejudice found within the community. Today, he said, many other congregations have asked to join forces with the group.
"It's been a really important thing for a lot of people," Edwards said. "They are very welcoming, open-minded folks but are also very committed to never to forget that we were strangers. But that's very Jewish. We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know what it means to be strangers, so you'd better welcome the stranger so that's what we do."
Or Chadash Co-President Lilli Kornblum said the synagogue's evolution into what it has become today was gradual, but has also had a lasting impact on the broader Jewish community. As a result of the organization's presence, many reform Jewish congregations in particular are much more welcoming places for LGBT members than they were at the time of Or Chadash's founding.
"We fought for acceptance for so long and the funny thing is, now that we've been successful, we suddenly have competition," Kornblum said. "I think that competition wouldn't have arisen or that acceptance would have taken a lot longer if they hadn't grew up with the example of dedicated people who are gay, lesbian, trans, bi and dedicated to their religion."
Despite the broader acceptance the congregation has found within the Jewish faith, Kornblum added that Or Chadash remains just as vital as ever. The synagogue offers a variety of programming specifically geared toward the LGBT community, not to mention increased odds of "meeting your kind of nice Jewish girl or boy for friendship or romance," as its website's Frequently Asked Questions page notes.
"We do have choices now and we fought for those choices," she said. "We're happy and really proud to still be here."
Greaves said he was surprised and honored to be recognized by Or Chadash, an organization he holds in high regard for representing the "strength and resilience of our community." He specifically commended the synagogue for its vocalness in standing up against a protest led by the Westboro Baptist Church in 2007 and its leadership in holding a Chicago vigil in honor of the victims of an attack at a Tel Aviv LGBT youth center in 2009.
"Or Chadash has been an open and welcoming congregation and not only a role model for our community, but also an ambassador for our community to others throughout the entire city," Greaves said.
Congregation Or Chadash was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2006 and is affiliated with both the Union for Reform Judaism and the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jewish Organizations.