Jane Tausig and her partner were Conservative Jews who came out late in life.

But back then, in 2000, the movement had not yet caught up with them.

Conservative Judaism was still in the midst of a divisive debate over the ordination of openly gay clergy. Tausig, a psychotherapist, and her partner decided to search for a place where they felt at home.

They landed at Congregation Kol Ami, becoming the first openly gay couple to join - and marry - at the Elkins Park synagogue.

They felt welcome but believed that true inclusion takes more than the open hearts of fellow congregants. It takes practice.

So Tausig, 60, set out to help her congregation and other Jewish organizations become more inclusive at a time of increasing acceptance of the gay community.

She organized an observance of National Coming Out Day in October, and on Sunday helped host a seminar, "Kindness Counts: Welcome and Inclusion of LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones Into the Mishkan."

It is a process that congregations and other Jewish organizations are embracing as increasing numbers of LGBTQ Jews consider joining mainstream synagogues that demonstrate an openness to inclusion, said Phoenix Schneider, LGBTQ program manager at Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia.

In the spring, Congregation Beth Ahavah, a synagogue founded in 1975 to serve the LGBTQ community, will merge with Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Center City.

"We truly feel that we no longer need to maintain a separate congregation," said Joan Levin, 67, president of Beth Ahavah.

Levin talked about the merger Sunday at the conference. The afternoon seminar at Kol Ami drew about 100 people from synagogues and other groups across the region, who discussed issues including LGBTQ youth, transgender Jews, and the adaptation of rituals to be more inclusive.

The event was organized with the help of J. PROUD, a year-old consortium of area Jewish organizations formed to raise awareness and offer training on LGBTQ issues. Members include Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Show sensitivity

To promote inclusion, organizations and congregations should adapt antidiscrimination policies to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, Schneider said. Rituals and organizational materials should also demonstrate sensitivity to differences.

A membership form that uses "parent 1 and parent 2," instead of "mother" and "father," or includes a space for "partner" instead of spouse, is empowering for an LGBTQ synagogue member, Schneider said.

Jewish education must also be inclusive, Tausig said.

Saundra Sterling Epstein of Elkins Park has been creating inclusive curriculums for decades. The director of BeYachad, a Jewish education organization, began working with community Jewish day schools 15 years ago to develop inclusive education policies and programming. She soon will begin a project to do the same in Orthodox schools, which are more conservative.

"You have to take into consideration the dictates of the religious system," said Epstein, who is Modern Orthodox. "Institutions may hesitate to take on inclusive programming and policy. This can come from one's understanding of text or it can from homophobia and other societal pressures."

But "strides are being made in some portions of the Orthodox community," Epstein said.

In 1975, when Beth Ahavah was founded to serve members of the LGBTQ Jewish community, "a lot of it had to do with Jewish gay people feeling alienated from Judaism," said Levin, who joined in 1995.

For years, the congregation held services in rented space on Letitia Street in Old City. Then the building went condo. Beth Ahavah didn't have money to buy a new building, and the synagogue had been losing members. As mainstream synagogues began promoting their inclusive policies, some Beth Ahavah congregants elected to join them instead of traveling long distances to Old City.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a member of both Beth Ahavah and Rodeph Shalom, suggested the two synagogues talk about sharing space. In 2007, Beth Ahavah moved into Rodeph Shalom. The two groups remained separate congregations, but soon were doing things together.

"We taught them about the importance of marriage equality and they [supported it] 100 percent," Levin said. "They've never made it hard on us."

Talk of a possible merger began this year. The synagogues are negotiating a merger agreement.

"They have helped us change rituals, and we changed some of theirs," Levin said. "We really influenced each other."

kholmes@phillynews.com

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