Oft-excluded find niche at Jewish womens conference

Her great-great aunt Cora Berliner, a Jew in Berlin during World War II, chose to run the German kindertransport — helping Jewish children flee Germany for safer destinations — rather than try to escape the Nazi regime. Berliner was 50 and single when she died at Auschwitz.

"We have our suspicions [about her sexual orientation]," said Barbara Tobin, adding that her great-aunt's forthright spirit inspired her daughter's naming.

Although she's only 4, Cora Tobin has a similar assertiveness in making and expressing decisions. When recently asked by a playmate, "Where is your father?" Cora replied, "I already have two moms, what do I want a dad for?"

Barbara Tobin laughed.

Raising a Jewish child with another woman isn't easy. The liberal climate of Northern California (she and her partner live in Sebastopol) helps, she said. And much to her surprise, she's found support among the Jewish community, too.

Barbara Tobin, 42, is one of a growing number of Jewish women who don't fit into traditional community roles but nonetheless desire a place within the Judaism.

Lesbians, single mothers, widows, disabled, and divorced and multiracial women bring specific needs and concerns to the Jewish community. But until recently, they were often ignored.

At the Nov. 5 Bay Area Jewish Women's Conference, these women were not only acknowledged, but their issues were addressed.

Among the more than 80 workshops at the daylong conference were titles like "Mixed Race Jews: Shades of Community and Conflict," "Perceptions and Misperceptions: Finding My Place in the Jewish Community" and "Disability in the Jewish Community."

Barbara Tobin, along with Nina Gordon, Pnina Tobin (no relation to Barbara) and her daughter, Jessica Potter, discussed problems and resources for Jewish lesbian mothers.

Along with trading business cards, swapping names of helpful lawyers and trading tales about methods of insemination, the panelists shared heartfelt and often painful stories of choosing to mother without a father — at least in the traditional sense.

Gordon shares custody of son Evan with a gay man and his partner. Pnina Tobin shared custody of her two children with her ex-husband.

Pnina Tobin, 53, married "the first man who asked," and had two children, Lucas and Jessica.

"I knew I wanted kids and in the 1950s, the words lesbian and mother were not said in the same sentence," she explained.

But by 1968, Pnina Tobin had joined the ranks of single mothers. In 1971, she and another woman became lovers.

Often she felt as if she was leading two separate lives. Her lesbian friends were supportive of her sexuality but not of her children. Heterosexual mothers shared her parenting concerns but could not understand her love for women.

By the late 1970s, the self-described "nice Jewish girl from the Bronx" was yearning for New York — more specifically Jewish New York. Pnina Tobin found a Jewish lesbian study group and began piecing together her two lives.

"I was finally with lesbians who were supportive of my kids, of my politics," she explained. "My son has said he felt invisible during my `lesbian separatist days.' But by the time he was 14 and until today, he's celebrated all the holidays with Jewish women. Often he's the only man there, but he's very welcome."

Barbara Tobin also found a place for herself and her family in the Jewish community. She, Smith and Cora are members of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. In Sunday school, Cora drew her family tree — two moms at the root — and no one batted an eye.

And when Cora was born, Barbara Tobin's father suggested a baby naming at his synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. Barbara Tobin agreed "as long as the rabbi acknowledged us as a family and not me and `my friend.'

"Rabbi Ira Book had no problem with that," Barbara Tobin said, adding "I've certainly felt most of the Jewish community has been pretty open."

Not every synagogue is so receptive. The climate depends on both the congregation's leaders and members.

At a workshop titled "Perceptions and Misperceptions: Finding My Place in the Jewish Community," four Jewish organization representatives described some options.

Sara Haber of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav discussed the 18-year-old congregation begun by gay men that now includes families of all types. While on the synagogue's membership committee, Haber met a straight man with two teenage daughters who wanted to join Sha'ar Zahav because of its leadership's "egalitarian nature," Haber said.

Other congregations like Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, represented by member Marsha Brooks, also take pride in sharing member responsibilities among men and women.

Hinda Langer of San Francisco Chabad and Jamie Hyams, director of community services for the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, detailed more traditional services in the Jewish community.

"I think what it all boils down to is you need to create the community you want to be in," Hyams said. "It sounds pedantic and simplistic, but you create your own memories."