Poland's first openly gay rabbi focuses on the future

Gera writes for the Associated Press.

When Rabbi Aaron Katz walks the streets of Warsaw's former Jewish quarter, scenes of that lost world fill his imagination: families headed to synagogue, women cooking Sabbath meals, his father as a boy with the side curls of an Orthodox Jew.

But Katz's life could hardly be more different from that prewar Eastern European culture, at least in one key respect: He is Poland's first openly gay rabbi.

Born in Argentina 53 years ago to parents who fled Poland before the Holocaust, Katz is the latest rabbi to play his part in reviving a once-vibrant Jewish community that was all but wiped out by Hitler.

He settled into Warsaw's historic Jewish district in March with Kevin Gleason, a former Hollywood producer on TV shows such as "The Bachelor" and "Nanny 911." The two entered into a registered domestic partnership in Los Angeles two years ago.

They live only three streets from the birth home of Katz's father in a modern and spacious apartment. Katz says he is moved by the links to his past but keeps his focus on the future.

"I don't think we will come back to this great Jewish life," he said, referring to prewar Poland, a country where one person in 10 was Jewish and where synagogues, yeshivas and shtetls defined the landscape. "But I hope we will have a normal Jewish life in Poland."

Katz is certainly an anomaly in conservative Poland, where to be either Jewish or gay is challenge enough, at least outside the cities. In a population of 38 million, about 5,000 are registered as Jews. Thousands more have some Jewish ancestry.

Katz is the second rabbi to serve Beit Warszawa, a Reform community with 250 members that was founded in the capital 10 years ago by Polish and American Jews who felt little affinity with some of the Orthodox practices, such as separating men and women during Sabbath services. The Reform movement ordains gay rabbis.

Homosexuals have won acceptance at differing levels in post-communist Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic and Slovenia recognize same-sex partnerships, and Hungary began doing so in July. Poland hasn't gone that far. It has an active gay rights movement and gay nightclubs in the cities, but the Roman Catholic Church and some conservative politicians still publicly describe homosexuality as immoral.

Katz, who holds citizenship in Argentina, Israel and Sweden, says that so far he has not faced anti-Semitism or homophobia in Poland. But some community members, speaking in private, reveal a degree of discomfort.

One woman at a Sabbath service whispered that she found Katz's open sexuality too "aggressive." A man who had belonged to the synagogue for a long time counseled against writing about the rabbi, lest anti-Semites use it against the community.

A third member, Piotr Lukasz, said he supports gay rights, and marched with an Israeli flag during a recent gay rights parade in Warsaw. But he said he had heard others complain that it would weaken an already small and fragile community.

"They say that Poland is not ready for a gay rabbi because the outside society is very conservative," said Lukasz, 23, a student of cultural anthropology. "An openly gay rabbi is something very controversial."

Others, though, seem comfortable, as evidenced by a recent string of dinners at which Jews and non-Jews joined Katz and his partner at their home for meals around the dining room table and socializing through the evening.

"I think the rabbi's home should be open," Katz said. "The moment that you take a position, your family takes the position too. It's a role."

Katz's life as a rabbi has been an evolution from one world to another. In the 1980s and early '90s he was Sweden's chief Orthodox rabbi, married to a woman with whom he had five children, now ages 16 to 31. Later he lived and worked in Berlin and Los Angeles.

The only photograph in their living room shows Katz and Gleason on the day they sealed their partnership -- which they refer to as a marriage -- surrounded by both their families, including Katz's sons and daughters, who are close to the couple and who showed their acceptance of the union with a gift of a ketubah, a traditional Jewish wedding certificate.

Katz's journey away from Orthodox Judaism was part of his "coming-out process," he explains, but also was influenced by the realization that some of his children were not attracted to Orthodox worship. He concluded that Reform Judaism was more attractive to the young.

Still, he insists that as modern as he is, he loves tradition.

He keeps a kosher home and has enthusiastically embraced the Jewish tradition of matchmaker, using his dinners to introduce singles, usually heterosexuals, but not exclusively. Asked how many marriages have resulted, he said, "A couple," but Gleason jumped in to correct him. "You're being modest," he said.

Gleason, 50, was born into a Catholic family but converted to Judaism for Katz. He left Hollywood and now does administrative and fundraising work for the synagogue. He attends services, sitting in the back and tapping on his watch when he feels the rabbi's lively sermons are getting too long.

The openness of their relationship can catch people in Warsaw off guard.

"I introduce him as my partner; they say, 'Oh, he's also a rabbi?' " Katz said. "When I say 'my partner' they think I mean like in business. So I say, 'No, no, no, we are living together.' "

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