Congregation Bet Haverim, Atlanta’s gay-founded Reconstructionist synagogue, released an open letter today expressing disappointment that an LGBT town hall forum with Mayor Kasim Reed is scheduled for Sept. 28, the start of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
The letter, signed by Congregation Bet Haverim President Jeri L. Kagel and Rabbi Joshua Lesser, asks that the “problematic” meeting date be rescheduled out of “communal respect.” It is addressed to the Atlanta Police LGBT Advisory Committee and copied to the mayor’s office.
The public forum is a project of the mayor and the advisory board, a citizen panel founded in the wake of the botched 2009 police raid on the Atlanta Eagle gay bar.
“There are Rosh Hashanah services in synagogues of all denominations across Atlanta and it is one of the few times during the year when Jews of all degrees of observance attend services,” the letter stated. “If the meeting remains on this date our congregants, other LGBT Jews and straight allies, will not have the opportunity to hear two of our city’s leaders address important issues about police interaction within the LGBT community.”
When the meeting was announced last week, Advisory Board Chair Glen Paul Freedman said the group approved the Sept. 28 date because members did not want to wait for available space on the mayor’s schedule in October.
“We offered a lot of dates and were trying to juggle dates between board members and the mayor’s schedule and community events. There are a lot of things going on at this time of year,” said Freedman, who is Jewish.
“Our question was do we want to wait until October? But with so much going on with Atlanta Pride and the AIDS Walk, we felt it was really important to have the town hall as soon as possible,” he said.
Added Freedman, “This date selected was in no way meant to hurt anyone’s feelings or insult anyone’s religious belief.”
Leaders of Congregation Bet Haverim asked that the board consider holding the forum in October or even the day after the current slot.
“Given the differences in Jewish practice, even Sept. 29 is a better choice. (September 29th was an available date for the Mayor and Police Chief, though your choice of venue was unavailable.) Other, more sensitive choices are possible,” the letter states. “Holding the meeting on the 28th excludes us from the ‘everyone’ that you hope to have at the meeting.”
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on Sept. 28 and continues until Sept. 30. Congregation Bet Haverim will host a special Erev Rosh Hashanah service at 8 p.m. on Sept. 28; the congregation also hosts Rosh Hashanah services on the mornings of Sept. 29 and Sept. 30.
The town hall meeting with Mayor Reed is at least the third LGBT community event to be scheduled on a Jewish holiday.
A pre-event screening for Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBT Film Festival, is also scheduled for Sept. 28. The official opening night for the festival is Sept. 29.
“While other community events are scheduled during our High Holy Days, we see those as unfortunate decisions,” the letter from Congregation Bet Haverim noted. “None of them hold the significance of a gathering with two of our city’s leaders addressing us on issues of safety and well-being.”
The Atlanta Pride Festival is now planned to coincide with National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11. This year, Pride is set for the weekend of Oct. 8-9, which is Yom Kippur, the holiest of days for Jewish people.
Lesser and Kagel noted in the letter to the advisory board that they have worked with Pride to heal hurt caused by the scheduling and to make sure LGBT Jewish people and their allies can participate in at least some Pride events.
“When we learned that Atlanta’s Pride festivities were scheduled over Yom Kippur, our most solemn day, we worked collaboratively with the Pride committee to seek alternatives and solutions while recognizing that this was still a significant loss for many of us,” the letter said.
“We have been surprised not to receive similar consideration, we are open to workable solutions that would allow for our voice, which seems to have been eclipsed from the conversation, to be included,” it continued. “It is not too late to reach out to us. Please do not mistake our willingness to collaborate with an acceptance of exclusion.”
When Pride dates were announced in February, Lesser said that James Parker Sheffield, executive director of the Atlanta Pride Committee, had reached out to Atlanta’s LGBT Jewish community and will work toward providing Jewish-specific events that recognize the community at this year’s Pride.
“I appreciate Shef and the Pride board examining all solutions. A mistake got made. They aren’t shying away from the mistake. They’re taking responsibility. We can be an example of two communities working together,” Lesser said at the time.
The Sept. 28 town hall forum will include presentations by the mayor and police chief as well as a Q&A format for participants to ask questions of the officials about public safety as well as the Eagle raid.
Patrons in the gay bar during the raid sued the city in federal court and won a $1.025 million settlement in December. Fallout from the raid continues after two investigations released in June found that numerous police officers lied or destroyed evidence related to police conduct during the raid.
“We may be a minority within the LGBT community, but we, like all minorities, deserve to be honored and respected. Please take a step that supports the unity and education of the larger LGBT community,” the letter from Congregation Bet Haverim concluded.