Two key players in Bay Area LGBT history are honored

Keshet lauds longtime activist and a rabbi who helped transgender teen come out

Two Bay Area champions of human rights were honored at a gala last week by Keshet, an organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life.

Al Baum, founder of the LGBT Alliance at the Jewish Community Federation, and Rabbi Tsipi Gabai, head of Judaic studies at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, received their awards on Dec. 3. Some 150 people attended the winter gala, Glimmer, at the Oasis cabaret and gay nightclub in San Francisco.

“Al Baum and Tsipi Gabai both have played pioneering roles in Jewish LGBT history and in the history of efforts toward a more inclusive Jewish community,” said Idit Klein, the Boston-based executive director of Keshet.

Al Baum has worked on behalf of LGBT causes for 50 years.

“Very early on, Al assumed a position of leadership within the organized Jewish community, taking the stand that LGBT rights needed to be on the Jewish agenda at a time when LGBT people were largely invisible in public Jewish life,” Klein noted. “Tsipi is someone who not only embraced a transgender student in her own relationship with him, but also said this was a moment for our community to celebrate.”

Baum, 85, received the Rosh Pina Award for his 50-plus years of activism, community service and philanthropy on behalf of LGBT causes and people. After working as a city planner, lawyer, psychotherapist and real estate investor, Baum is now retired.

“You do your work day by day, month by month, with high points and low points, and you don’t have a sense of that process until you stop and look back,” Baum said. “This honor is an occasion to do that.

Baum moved to San Francisco in January 1958 from Highland Park, Illinois. “It was a different era in many respects, and when I first came to San Francisco, I didn’t do much that was gay or Jewish,” Baum said, laughing.

“I was rather surprised when I arrived that everybody figured out by looking at me that I was Jewish, and they kind of assumed I would be actively Jewish, though that was not an intention of mine at the time. Gradually, the idea grew on me, and I did get involved with Congregation Sha’ar Zahav when it started [in 1977].”

Baum’s connection with the LGBT synagogue and his coming out as a gay man at 45 influenced his thinking, he said, “about what I could be doing or should be doing,” and that led him to practice more assertively what he calls “identity politics.”

Gabai, who is in her 26th year as the school rabbi at Tehiyah and leads its Hebrew and Jewish studies departments, received the Landres Courage for Dignity Award, which recognizes individuals whose work shows public courage in assuring the full inclusion of LGBT people.

Rabbi Tsipi Gabai with Tom Sosnik at his coming-out ceremony in March. photo/misha bruk

The first ordained female rabbi from Morocco and the 21st generation of rabbis in her family, Gabai, 57, helped make history earlier this year when she created and led a school celebration and service for Tom Sosnik, an eighth-grade transgender student who came out as a boy at Tehiyah in March. Sosnik last month was named to the Forward 50, an annual list of mostly big-name American Jews who have been particularly influential in the last year.

“Teaching children is a sacred task, and Tom is a beautiful human being,” Gabai said. “When his struggle with gender identity came up, I told Tom and his family I was here to support them, and after lots of talks, he decided to come out two weeks before I took the eighth-graders to Israel.”

Gabai continued, “I wanted to create with Tom a ritual that would be infused with blessings and prayers and Jewish rituals to show that we are accepting Tom’s identity, his sense of self, and to send the message that Judaism has the space, the values and the rituals for all Jews, that we accept all differences and the importance and richness of every individual.”

Sosnik was not able to attend the gala because he is a minor (the event was held in a bar), but he sent a video describing how Gabai changed his life “and gave him God back by creating a Jewish ceremony recognizing that he is truly a boy,” according to Deborah Newbrun, Keshet’s Bay Area interim director out of the San Francisco office.

Gabai said she was honored to officiate at “this new kind of lifecycle.” She added, “It was a very emotional experience, and I am very proud of my school.”

Ruth Messinger, the outgoing president of American Jewish World Service in New York, also was presented with a Landres Award at the event.

Last year, at Keshet’s first Glimmer gala, Jennifer Gorovitz and Ayala Katz received the inaugural Landres Awards. Gorovitz, former CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation who is now the New Israel Fund’s vice president for operations and administration, received the award for championing outreach and inclusion for Bay Area Jews who felt excluded from Jewish life. Katz, an Israeli activist, was recognized for becoming an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality in Israel following the death of her gay son, Nir, who was killed at a Tel Aviv center for LGBT youth.

The award was created by social entrepreneur and former Keshet board member Shawn Landres.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.