When well-meaning members of the B’nai Jacob Congregation on West Side Avenue wanted to put a rainbow flag outside the temple, Rabbi Aaron Katz declined. While Katz is openly gay, he did not want to send the message to the community that B’nai Jacob was.
“I want B’nai Jacob to be inclusive, not exclusive,” he said during a recent interview. “I want anyone to come and feel comfortable here.”
Technically, Rabbi Katz took over at B’nai Jacob on July 1, although summer being summer, the new programs really won’t kick in until after Sept. 1, when he hopes through technology, innovation, and word of mouth to rebuild a congregation that has existed on the west side of Jersey City for more than 50 years.
With the main office walls decorated with proclamations that include Jersey City Mayors Glenn Cunningham, Bret Schundler, Gerry McCann, and Anthony Cucci, B’nai Jacob was founded at a time when Jersey City was a center of Jewish culture, and a variety of Jewish traditions, including Orthodox, conservative, and reform. Recognized in the 1960s by United Synagogues of America, its current location opened in late 1963.
“We were supposed to cut the ribbon on Nov. 22, 1963,” Rabbi Katz said. “But that was the day President Kennedy was shot. We had to postpone. Civil rights and human rights are in the DNA of this community.”
Not just a gay synagogue
Congregation B’nai Jacob is currently an independent congregation serving Hudson County and beyond, and Katz said he is trying to create a community center where people can come together for prayer, Jewish arts, culture, social action, and Jewish family activities.
While he has opened the door to the LGBT community, Rabbi Katz said he also wants singles, couples, and families.
According to its mission statement, “Congregation B’nai Jacob is progressive, egalitarian congregation with roots in the Conservative movement, dedicated to developing, supporting, and sustaining Judaism, Jewish living, and our diverse Jewish community for over 50 years.”
An urban synagogue with a longstanding tradition of being on the forefront of social change, B’nai Jacob seeks to support worthwhile causes within the congregation, the Jewish community and world beyond. The temple has designed its program and services to support founding families, generations that came later, and the new generation of Jews moving into Jersey City and Hoboken.
In love with Jersey City’s diversity
Katz, who has been with his partner Kevin for last 10 years, arrived at his new post from Miami, at a moment when Jersey City was suffering an intense heat wave.
“I don’t mind it here,” said Katz. “In fact, I like it here better than Miami. I can walk my dogs outside here. I couldn’t do that in Miami.
A resident of Port Liberte, Katz has come a long way, not merely in distance, but also in the way he thinks and his philosophy on life.
Born in Argentina, Katz became a rabbi in 1979 after study in Israel.
“I started out as an orthodox rabbi and now see myself as non-denominational,” he said.
Over the years, he has served in synagogues in Sweden, Germany, Spain, Poland, the Caribbean, Los Angeles and Miami. In Los Angeles, he became the scholar for the first gay synagogue in the United States.
He said he loves Jersey City, party because of its inclusiveness as one of the most LGBT friendly cities, but also for its diversity.
“I love the views here,” he said. “We’re so close to Manhattan. And I love the culture. I never imagined in such short of a time, I would be here doing what I do. I’m amazingly happy.”
He said the community, the board and the people here and in Port Liberte have made him feel welcome.
A long time to come out
Katz got his diploma in 1979 in Israel and took up his life in the orthodox tradition, and as a religious judge, presiding over a number of issues.
He lived a conventionally straight life for years and has five children and seven grandchildren, but he always knew in his heart he was gay.
“It’s something you’re born with,” he said.
His family has been very supportive of his coming out.
“My grandchildren tell me I’m cool,” he said with a laugh. “My family has been very supportive.”
But while he knew his orientation, he said he was very careful about coming out. He said he’s always been gay, but that in the older traditions, it was more difficult to bring it out.
But things have changed and the world has become much more accepting, and much of his mission as a rabbi is to find ways to do things.
He said he came out about 16 to 17 years ago.
“I’ve always been gay,” he said, noting that is impossible to be anything other than what he is.
But because he was a rabbi, it took longer for him to come out to the general world. He said he wanted to make sure that others weren’t affected by it.
“It was not easy. I made at lot of enemies who wanted to destroy who I was.”
He compared himself to a boxer who gets hit, but rebounds.
He said he found strength in the struggle and had a lot of support, particularly from his children.
Four of his five children live in Israel.
His daughter is getting married in Israel in December, and he will return there to see her and his 90-year-old mother, who also lives in Jerusalem.
Human rights in his heart
Although he seems to have moved a great distance in his faith, he said he’s always been the same person,
“I believe the same, and have the same commitment and philosophy, and how we can make things work,” he said.
He said he has a doctorate in comparative religion. But he noted he didn’t want to know how faiths were different, but what they had in common.
“That’s my motto,” he said. “I believe in social equality, and human rights, but not just because I am gay,” he said. “I don’t believe in segregation, I believe in integration. I want to integrate in this community. I want people to belong to this place.”
He said the community has a good mix of people, all of whom need a space.
“That’s what we give them here, we give them a place to come, the more different people are, the richer the experience,” he said.
This is not just about religion, but leadership.
He said when attorneys argue before the U.S. Supreme Court they try to bring to the court their own interpretation of the law. This is similar to what Katz says he wants, interpreting religions to provide a belief for our time.
“I’m not trying to change the religion, I’m just making amendments,” he said.
Why he came to Jersey City
Katz said he had three reasons for seeking the post in Jersey City.
“There is a private part,” he said. “I wanted to be close to my family.”
Many friends and family members of his partner live nearby. “My partner’s brother lives in Jersey City,” he said.
Jersey City is also located near Newark Airport, which allows him to travel easily and reach more remote family.
Jersey City and nearby Manhattan have a vibrant culture which he and his partner hope to embrace.
But he said the post provides him with an opportunity to rebuilt the synagogue and expand its membership base, not just among Jews or gays, but to also provide a place for the community at large.
He said he felt a strong kinship with the board members.
“I’ve never liked board meetings,” he said “But this is a pleasure. We all have the same goals. We want to revive the community, not just the Jewish community, but the entire area.”
He said he doesn’t want to build a bubble where only Jewish or gay people enter, but to provide a place where people can come, seven days a week 24 hours a day.
He’s already worked out some plan. He wants to provide for the founding group, those in their 40s and 50s college kids, and the children.
Located on West Side Avenue, B’nai Jacob is in a position to welcome residents to New Jersey City University’s expanded campus.
“I want to have activities for every group, giving people a place where they can come and talk to each other, and have it open for anyone.”
This will include bringing in technology, which he’s already done with the establishing of computers, a website, a Facebook page and other such social media, but also in providing programs that include arts music and other activities.
“I’m not going to preach,” he said. “The whole service is a sermon. I don’t want to argue, I want people to think; I want them to go home and think about the experience they had here.”
He said he wants people to be comfortable socially, spiritually and culturally.
For this reason, he hopes host lunch, dinners, shows, even a play for the Jewish new year.
“We’re going to have four actors, and while it has a specialized topic, it will be a play.”
He said he will bring in authors to speak, musicians to perform and offer programs that include cooking and other subjects. He also intends to offer a service in Spanish, a language he is fluent in.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com