NEW YORK – Gay rights activist Dvorah Stoll raised her foot in the air and then brought it down with a bang, shattering the glass that lay beneath her to pieces.
“Mazal tov!” the crowd shouted, and broke into a celebratory dance.
Despite appearances, none of those who gathered at the B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue on the Upper West Side last Thursday were wed that night. Rather, they came to take part in a symbolic Jewish wedding ceremony marking the passage of state legislation earlier this month that permitted same-sex couples to marry in New York.
“Tonight is about celebrating the passage of marriage equality in New York State and as a community embracing all the couples that can now get married who are part of the community and have been for many years,” said congregant Lisa Safire, who is co-chair of the marriage equality movement Hevra.
“BJ has done [same-sex] ceremonies for a number of years, but now it can do so in an official capacity. We’re thrilled, and as a community, there’s this closure. Now everyone can participate in this mitzva.”
Participants at the event recited the traditional seven blessings and shared their excitement over the passage of the bill many of them had actively supported.
Sy and Karen Ziven, congregation members whose daughter is gay, are supporters of gay rights. They said they were overjoyed with the legislation.
“Our family is a big family, “said Sy Ziven. “It takes in a lot of people, so it just means a lot to us. Having been part of this movement for a long, long period time, to see it come to this, we’re very happy. And to see the Jewish community be a part of it, is a big, big deal.”
Stoll, who had lobbied the state senate for years and took part in countless protests and petitions, spoke with pride of the achievement.
“When it was passed, I called my son in Washington to read him the bill,“ Stoll said. “He said, ‘That’s great, mom.’ He then added, ‘Don’t get any ideas.’” The much-fought-over bill, which divided the Jewish community, was narrowly approved by the New York State Senate earlier this month. While it was supported by many Jews affiliated with Reform and Conservative Judaism, it was largely opposed by the Orthodox establishment.
Democratic state senator Liz Krueger, one of the original co-sponsors of the bill, spoke about her conversations with Orthodox rabbis who lobbied against the proposal.
“When [Orthodox rabbis] would tell me that it’s a violation of Jewish law, I would tell them that’s not true,” the Jewish lawmaker, who represents the Upper East Side, said. “In fact, my rabbi was explaining to me how when this became the law in New York State, he would happy to participate in same-sex wedding services, and that the Jewish religion was very broad in interpretation and that there was absolutely no concern for Judaism.
“But of course, this is civil law. This is all about couples having the same legal rights under law whether they are heterosexual couples such as myself and my husband, or same-sex couples.”
For Mark Horn, a gay congregant who has been fighting for gay rights for four decades, the passage of the bill was a bittersweet moment. He told the audience at B’nai Jeshurun about his mixed feelings the night it was made into legislation as he stood amid a crowd gathered outside Stonewall Inn, the iconic gay bar in West Village where the gay rights movement galvanized in 1969.
“As the crowd cheered and celebrated, my heart ached with sadness for the men I knew who had not lived to see this moment,” he said. “Many of the men were at that action in 1971, many of the men I loved,” he said and read out a list of names.
He added: “In the crowd of revelers, I said a silent prayer. Tonight I feel the swirl of so many emotions, but mostly I feel blessed.”
After the ceremony ended, participants congratulated each other while Billy Idol’s song “White Wedding” played in the background.
Adam Border, a 26-year-old gay man who is Catholic, said he was impressed by the event and believed other religious communities could learn from it.
“[I think it’s great] seeing the Jewish community embrace something that might be frowned upon in other faiths,” he said. “I think that with time – and it was mentioned tonight a couple of times what a battle it’s been – maybe the Catholic community needs to come together and embrace something like this themselves.”