A Happily Alternative New Year

By Wayne Hoffman

Published September 15, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.
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An unusual Jewish community is blossoming in the California desert, and its members are developing novel ways of marking the holidays.

Gays and lesbians have long flocked to Palm Springs and to the surrounding Coachella Valley, roughly 100 miles east of Los Angeles, drawn by warm winters, a liberal social environment, spectacular natural surroundings and real estate that’s affordable by California standards. Dotted with swimming pools and golf courses, the region is particularly popular as a place to retire, so the gay community is made up, in large part, of transplanted senior citizens — many of whom are trying to reconnect with the Jewish communities they left behind, or to connect with the Jewish community for the first time.

Serving this booming population, Shalom: Gay and Lesbian Jews of the Desert offers monthly social gatherings that put a new spin on traditional holiday observance. For instance, this spring’s Passover Seder had a Hawaiian theme, while the Purim celebration featured a piñata shaped like Haman. And this weekend, while other Jewish groups are baking round challahs and dipping apples in honey, Shalom members will be enjoying their annual “Bagels and Babkas” party to mark Rosh Hashanah.

Shalom was founded by Burt Fogelman, who moved to the desert five years ago with his partner of 16 years, Donald Crouse. Fogelman, 61, moved from Detroit, where he practiced podiatry for 30 years and was married with three children.

Synagogues in the desert had tried to start groups for gay and lesbian members before, but their efforts failed. So while Shalom members maintain personal ties to the Coachella Valley’s congregations — Reform, Conservative, Chabad — Fogelman keeps the group itself unaffiliated.

Talking to the Forward recently, over matzo ball soup and brisket at Sherman’s Deli in Palm Springs, Fogelman noted that Shalom has a “totally neutral philosophy” regarding participants’ synagogue membership and attendance.

“The reason this group is working is because we are not affiliated,” Fogelman said, noting that many of Shalom’s members “have lost faith in organized religion.”

“The basic premise is that they want to be cultural Jews but they don’t necessarily want to be religious,” he said. “They want to celebrate the holidays and their Jewishness, but they don’t necessarily want to go to a synagogue and pray.”

Fogelman estimates that fully half the Jews in Palm Springs are gay or lesbian. And while some do join local congregations — Fogelman, for instance, serves on the board of directors of Temple Isaiah, a Conservative synagogue in Palm Springs — the vast majority do not.

California resident Debby Huffman, 61, retired from a career in education and moved from Orange County to Rancho Mirage two years ago. She joined Shalom after meeting Fogelman. “It’s my first reconnection with being Jewish since I was a child,” she told the Forward.

Huffman has not attended services on the High Holy Days since she was a child, and this year will be no exception: Huffman does not belong to a synagogue. But she will attend “Bagels and Babkas.”

Some members attend Shalom events in addition to services. “We want everyone who’s interested in going to shul to do that,” said Fogelman, who makes arrangements with local synagogues to provide tickets to High Holy Day services through Shalom.

Jerry Levin, 57, ran the volunteer program at the Humane Society in Northern California’s Marin County before retiring to Palm Springs last fall. Levin belonged to a Reform temple in Marin County, and he plans to attend High Holy Day services at a Conservative synagogue in Palm Springs. But he’ll still make time for “Bagels and Babkas.”

“It’s more of a social interaction,” Levin explained. “When you’re in temple, you’re in an organized environment where a rabbi and a cantor lead a ceremony. When you’re in a social environment, you have more opportunity to interact with people.”

Even though Levin considers synagogue to be an important part of his own religious life, he sees the value in Shalom existing outside that space: “I don’t believe that you have to be in synagogue to be a Jew,” he said. “You can build your synagogue wherever you are.”

One Shalom event does take place in synagogue: the annual Seder, which requires Temple Isaiah’s large kosher kitchen. But otherwise, Fogelman said, “when we have an event outside a synagogue, people feel more comfortable.”

In months without major holidays, the group still comes together. Last month, for instance, members enjoyed “Shmooze and Swim,” a poolside potluck barbecue at a member’s house.

Shalom’s mailing list includes some 340 names, and events typically draw between 50 and 75 people. In addition to collecting contributions at events — this weekend’s event costs $5 per person — Shalom receives a $3,000 annual grant from the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs, where Fogelman is a board member.

Planning is already under way for this winter’s Hanukkah party — as well as next spring’s Passover Seder, which will have a French theme.

“It’s nice to connect with the holy days,” Huffman said. Asked what sets apart Shalom from other Jewish groups, she answered simply: “It’s fabulous.”

Wayne Hoffman is the managing editor of the Forward.

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