Hundreds of people filled a synagogue on the Upper West Side last Thursday evening, all eyes fixed on the chuppah in front of them. Under the white canopy ornately decorated with bright floral arrangements, the seven Jewish wedding blessings were read. Next came the smashing of a glass, followed by yells of "Mazel tov!" and cheering. Song and dance broke out, as those seated flooded the floor and began moving in a circle, arms around one another.
Though many in attendance had partaken in these traditions numerous times at Jewish weddings, they had never attended a ceremony quite like this before. No one actually got married, but it was a joyous celebration nonetheless, as the community of B’nai Jeshrun came together to commemorate the passage of marriage equality in New York State.
"This is a great celebration which we have been waiting for such a long time," said Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon. "All our hard work has finally come to fruition."
Though the synagogue has been administering same sex commitment ceremonies since 1991, New York State marriage licenses can now also be issued, with the legalization of same-sex marriage this June.
B’nai Jeshrun was at the forefront of the fight to make this a reality. Five years ago, congregants formed a Marriage Equality Hevra, a term meaning "community," to join the campaign for the passage of gay marriage as part of the synagogue’s social justice initiative. Members of the Hevra organized meetings with elected officials, attended rallies in Albany and New York City, led letter-writing campaigns and held events to bring awareness of the issue to their community and the greater New York area.
"I’d like to think in some small way we played a role in bringing about marriage equality in New York State," said Dale Bernstein, co-chair of the Hevra.
Bernstein, 56, has two sons, one who is gay and one who is straight. She said she could not believe both her children did not have the right to marry whom they wished.
"We were not going to rest until all of our LGBT family and friends had the same rights we carry," she said.
Couples like Joseph Antenson and Lawrence Gifford, an interfaith couple (Antenson is Jewish and Gifford is Episcopalian) and members of the Hevra who have been together for 18 years, now have that option. Though they are still contemplating getting married, they said they are elated that they and all future generations can wed if they wish.
Linda Golding and Diane Wondisford were also involved with B’nai Jeshrun’s plight for marriage equality. The two have been together for nine years and, in 2009, eloped in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal for seven years.
Golding, 54, is a hospital chaplain at New York Presbyterian and Wondisford, 59, is the producing director of the Music Theatre Group, a non-profit organization based in Brooklyn.
"We already have professional standing," Golding said, "but now we have standing in a different way."
Some members of the Hevra are straight, too, including Lisa Zucker, who joked that with a husband, three children, two dogs and a mini-van, she has "no horse in the race." Yet, she said the cause was just as important to her.
"This was one of the last instances of discrimination in New York State," Zucker
said. "It was part of our responsibility as faith-based people to fight for equality."
The tone of the evening was one of joy, but many who spoke emphasized that even though marriage equality has finally been achieved in New York, there is still much work to be done, especially on the federal level.
Mark Horn, who said he has been out since 1968, said he never expected to see the passage of gay marriage in his lifetime. He joked that he is excited to plan his wedding once he finds a boyfriend and shared some of his mixed emotions.
"I’m really happy, really grateful and really sad," he said. "I’m sad for all the men I knew and loved who did not get to see this moment. But I feel blessed that I am here and that I know that love will be celebrated."