Congregation Bet Haverim members. / Photo via Facebook

Congregation Bet Haverim Fights for Celebration and Freedom

Amid rising antisemitism, the gay-founded synagogue is fostering a space of loving safety for all


A major Jewish holiday celebrating the Biblical escape from slavery by the Israelites in Egypt, Passover is underway, lasting until the evening of April 13. While Passover is a celebration of freedom among all Jewish communities, at Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH), Passover also serves as the context for its foundation by gay pioneers in 1985.

At a Passover Seder (a ritual meal retelling the Biblical story of liberation from slavery) at the height of the AIDS crisis, four gay men discussed the struggle they had experienced finding acceptance in Atlanta’s Jewish community. What started then as a small group of Jewish gay men and lesbians, a “house of friends” according to CBH President Lauren Levin, has grown today into a community of 350 families.

“We were founded by folks that I like to call halutzim, which means pioneers [in Hebrew],” CBH Rabbi Mike Rothbaum told Georgia Voice. “And they really were pioneers. If you’re in the South in the ’80s and you want to be openly gay and openly Jewish — or even not openly! — to step forward into that space, own your identity, and say, ‘I deserve a community where that is expected,’ is an act of self-inclusion and powerful act of self-affirmation.”

Since its inception, CBH has served as a space for LGBTQ Jews to find complete acceptance.

“I first got involved in CBH in the early ’90s,” Levin said. “I was a Jewish lesbian who attended both The Temple and Congregation Ahavath Achim. At that time, neither congregation was welcoming to gays and lesbians. CBH was known to be welcoming to gays and lesbians, and I felt it was a place I could be both Jewish and gay.”

While CBH has long since voted to include straight people and families, the synagogue continues to specifically and consciously not only include, but celebrate the LGBTQ community. Along with a special Pride Seder held every June — adapted from the Passover Seder to chart the course from oppression to freedom for the LGBTQ community — at every service a “Prayer for the End of Hiding” is recited. While the prayer discusses the importance of LGBTQ Jews being accepted for who they are, it resonates with all members of the congregation.

“Everybody reads it, because it also talks about hiding being Jewish,” Rabbi Rothbaum said. “In a bigger society, the pressures to keep quiet and keep hidden who you are, if you’re not somebody who is visibly different — I can take off my yarmulke, a Black person can’t take off their skin — there’s a different kind of mental gymnastics that a person that can hide goes through. How much do I want people to know I’m Jewish?”

In the years since the election of former President Donald Trump, the urge for Jews — especially LGBTQ Jews — to remain hidden has escalated as danger rises for them. According to a report from the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents rose by 36 percent, the highest level recorded since even before the inception of CBH in 1979. This included a rise in assault (26 percent), harassment (29 percent), and vandalism (52 percent). In response to this increased risk of danger, CBH has increased security with the help of a federal grant.

“When I was in rabbinical school, the idea that we would keep our front door locked would be anathema to me,” Rabbi Rothbaum said. “It’s obvious now we have to. When we have services, we have Dekalb County police officers stationed at the front of our building. A lot of our people are ambivalent about that based on the experience of law enforcement with people of color in particular. On the other hand, there are people who want to hurt us, both as a Jewish community and as a gay community. We know the presence of an officer out front would be a deterrent … We are really grateful that there are ways [with the federal grant] that we can put shatter-resistant film on the glass in case somebody shoots or throws something through the window. We’re grateful for help with alarm systems and perimeter movement detectors.”

This rise in antisemitism aligning with rises in anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans legislation, as well as an increase in hate crimes in general (the majority of which are anti-Black), is not a coincidence, according to Rabbi Rothbaum, who says the path to liberation is dependent on solidarity among all of us. That’s why CBH aims not only to be celebratory of LGBTQ Jews, but also of Black Jews, other intersectional Jews, and even non-Jews; members of Jewish families who aren’t Jewish themselves are welcome and able to serve on committees and the board, and regardless of how or what they theologically believe (even if they don’t believe in God at all), all members of the Jewish community are welcome.

“What I think is really important for folks who are horrified by [the rise in hate] — and I hope most Americans are — is that we will get to liberation and celebration of who we are when we do that together,” Rabbi Rothbaum said. “The people who hate Jews also hate immigrants, also hate trans people, also hate Black people, also want to restrict the rights of women to control their own bodies. They favor guns and military and police over community, cooperation, and love. What I really hope for is a movement for queer liberation and Jewish safety happening in tandem with movements to liberate and celebrate all marginalized communities. When we get free together, that’s the best way to make sure it lasts.”

To learn more about CBH, visit