Rabbi Camille Angel was driving her daughter, Lilah Rose, to Gymboree on the morning of Friday, Feb. 13, when her partner, Karen Segal, called, saying “Meet me at City Hall.”
“That was her proposal,” the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s queer-identified Congregation Sha’ar Zahav joked.
The couple, who have been together seven years, had a Jewish wedding in 1999, while Angel was assistant rabbi at New York City’s Reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom.
On Feb. 13, Angel and Segal, who are 38 and 42 respectively, became one of several thousand same-sex couples to get married in civil ceremonies at San Francisco City Hall since Thursday, Feb. 12, when Mayor Gavin Newsom issued the order to grant licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
For Angel and Segal, as it was for many couples who took advantage of the opportunity to wed, the ceremony was a chance not only to give their relationships legitimacy in the eyes of the law but to make history. Even if they already had Jewish commitment ceremonies or religious unions, LGBT Jews say that civil marriage remains key to securing more than 1,000 ancillary state and federal rights, ranging from tax breaks to adoption benefits.
In all cases, they had to wait hours in line to marry, but they said it was worth the wait.
The scene at City Hall over the rainy Presidents Day weekend was a chaotic one, with volunteers bringing coffee and soup to those waiting hours in line to marry, as well as working around the clock to register all the couples.
Cheers greeted couples emerging with marriage licenses, flashbulbs popped continually, new friendships began, champagne poured, bubbles blown and a mariachi band played. And one straight couple looked totally bewildered, not to mention, completely out of place.
When Angel and Segal — “call her my rebbetzin,” Angel said — wed in 1999, “we had a kiddushin at which my former senior rabbi and 11 of his colleagues co-officiated,” said Angel, using the Hebrew term for a Jewish wedding.
But the synagogue leadership then called it a “simcha” rather than a wedding.
“Though we felt tremendous support from the community, language means so much,” said Angel.
After they said their vows on Feb. 13, Angel stuck around to officiate for several other Jewish couples.
“There was this really delicious feeling of having participated in something historic, brilliant and subversive, in the best sense,” she said. “Like we were really actively making tikkun olam” — repairing the world, or fixing an injustice.
While it’s impossible to know how many Jewish couples got married, Angel estimated that there were at least 50 from her congregation alone.
She also officiated for her colleague, Mychal Copeland, the rabbi at Stanford Hillel, and her partner, Kirsti Copeland.
While the Copelands, 33 and 32 respectively, had a Jewish wedding in 2000, they, too, said this ceremony was completely different.
“This was more of an outward action to express our feelings about gay marriage and equal rights,” said Mychal Copeland, a Reconstructionist rabbi.
Another rabbi, Yoel Kahn, director of the Taube Center for Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and spiritual leader of Sonoma’s Congregation Shir Shalom, married his partner of 23 years, Dan Bellm, on Monday, Feb. 16. Though the pair had a Jewish ceremony 13 years ago, they, too, waited in line all day with their 12-year-old son.
Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian and senior vice president for public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and former city supervisor, presided.
“I officiated at her son’s naming and bar mitzvah so it was a nice exchange,” said Kahn, the former rabbi of Sha’ar Zahav.
After their ceremony, Kahn performed a Jewish ceremony for two other couples who were waiting, including one who had flown in from Florida.
Two of the first Sha’ar Zahav congregants to get hitched were San Francisco couple Craig Persiko, 30, and Geoffrey Benjamin, 31, who have been together eight years. State Assemblyman Mark Leno, a Sha’ar Zahav member and self-described “rabbinical school drop-out,” presided, as they stood in the rotunda with their 7-month-old daughter, Serafina.
“As far as my relationship, I don’t feel any different,” said Persiko, “but on a political level, it feels really empowering.”
For Leno, who estimated that on the first day alone, he presided over 50 weddings, called the day “thrilling and heartwarming, a day I will remember for a lifetime, and an afternoon full of Shehechiyanu moments,” referring to the blessing recited when something is experienced for the first time.
“There were couples who have been together 10, 20 or 30 years,” the gay legislator said. “Almost without exception, there were tears in their eyes and in the eyes of their witnesses. So, of course, I couldn’t resist, either.”
On the heels of the same-sex marriage ruling in Massachusetts and the ceremonies in San Francisco, several groups of liberal rabbis have come out in favor of legalizing gay civil marriage. Issuing statements this week were the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the main Reform rabbinical association; 95 Massachusetts rabbis from the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements; and the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.
A couple who met through the personals of the Jewish Bulletin also did their time in line. P. Alexandra Alznauer and R. Ruth Linden, both 47, who divide their time between Oakland and San Francisco, met four years ago through an ad placed by Alznauer, along the lines of “Nice Jewish girl seeks same.”
Alznauer’s 81-year-old mother suffered a stroke two weeks ago, so they were visiting her in Los Angeles when they heard what was taking place back home. They decided to get married in the nursing home where she was in rehabilitation. They put the ceremony together in less than 24 hours and were married by a cantor on Shabbat, Valentine’s Day.
“My mother has been saying that she would not live to see a gay marriage in this country, but we would,” said Alznauer. “We did it for her, not only for us.”
A few hours after their Jewish ceremony, they flew home to San Francisco. They were in line at City Hall by 7 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 15. Alznauer, who has lupus, added that it was not easy being in the cold for nine hours. They were married at 4 p.m.
Then, the couple returned to City Hall on Monday, Feb. 16 — Alznauer’s birthday — with half-price boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolates, which they distributed to those waiting in the rain.
Meanwhile, many members of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood flew here to get married. The weddings were continuing on, though whether their legality would remain unchallenged was in question at press time.
But that seemed less important to those who took the civil plunge.
“This is the legal system catching up with reality,” said Kahn. “We’ve always felt that our relationship was blessed by God. But it’s a Jewish value to be in the good graces of the civil system as well, and we’re grateful that that will now be the case.”
Joe Berkofsky, staff writer at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, contributed to this report.