by David Taffet
Congregation Beth El Binah began as a Jewish havurah (fellowship) in 1983. The first event was a break-the-fast after Yom Kippur services that were held at the home of Mike Grossman and George Amerson. For the next several years, the group held Chanukah parties, Passover seders and break the fasts. They often attended services together at Temple Emanu-el.
By 1990, the group began meeting more regularly in private homes once a month for a Friday night Shabbat service and once a month for a Saturday night havdallah (end of Shabbat) service. On the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which take place in September or October), they continued to attend Temple Emanu-el. By 1992, the group began meeting on the second and fourth Fridays at the new Gay and Lesbian Community Center on Reagan Street for Shabbat services and was becoming its own separate congregation.
By 1993, Temple Emanu-el could not accommodate the group with enough extra tickets so Rabbi Shelley Zimmerman at Temple Emanu-el worked with several members to do their own High Holiday service with a borrowed Torah.
That year, the congregation also gained its affiliation with the Union. Beth El Binah was one of seven congregations in North America formed by the LGBT community that became members of the Reform Jewish movement.
In 1997, Beth El Binah hosted the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations. About 400 people attended the event at the Fairmont Hotel. Among the attendees was Estelle Getty. Roslyn Kind entertained along with Paul Williams. Deputy Housing Secretary Roberta Achtenberg spoke.
The congregation acquired three Torahs in 1998. One came from a Conservative congregation in Philadelphia where BEB President Michael Steinberg’s parents were affiliated. The Torahs are known as the Philadelphia Torah, the Florida Torah, and the Mafia Torah. The latter Torah came from a congregation on Long Island that was funded with Jewish mafia money in the early 1900s.
In 1999, Beth El Binah hired its first rabbi for High Holidays. Rabbi Stephen Roberts conducted services for two years. The third year — 2001 — he stayed in New York where he was one of the main chaplains for the rescue effort still going on in his lower Manhattan neighborhood. Rabbi Deborah Schloss, who lived in Houston, served the congregation for 3 years for holidays and occasional Friday nights.
Rabbi Jeffrey Leynor was the congregation’s first permanent rabbi. He served the congregation for five years. Rabbi Steven Fisch became the rabbi in 2011.
In 2010, the Fred Phelps clan protested Beth El Binah. The congregation used the event to raise $11,000 and bought a new icemaker and other equipment for the Resource Center. The Holocaust Museum was also picketed and BEB formed a new friendship with them. In 2011, as its first temporary exhibit in a newly expanded space, the Holocaust Museum and Beth El Binah presented an exhibit from the US Holocaust Museum called “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945.” The museum’s attendance tripled that summer. Beth El Binah helped give tours of the exhibit and planned events at the museum through the summer.
Beth El Binah has been a beneficiary of Black Tie Dinner for several years, and remains an active congregation.