Rabbi Noah Kitty, Executive Director of Congregation Etz Chaim in located in Wilton Manors, Florida, calmly and clearly explains away many erroneous suppositions about the Jewish faith that might make a person hesitant about joining this mostly LGBTQ synagogue.
"When I read a sacred text, I find so much 'smiting' going on. This one smote that one and that one smote someone else. And I'm thinking that I'm not really grooving on the smiting. So I learned to understand that those writings help us participate in the ongoing act of creation and that is why people come to Congregation Etz Chaim. To get away from the smiting. People come here to be an 'out' member of the tribe."
The Rabbi continued to dispel any fear that a new congregant would be given a set of rules and regulations upon joining her synagogue.
"Although the congregation is mostly LGBTQ, there is no litmus test, no box to check off. You don't need to prove your Jewishness or your gayness. We have several people in our congregation who are atheists. 'Jewish' is a people more than a set of beliefs. It includes art and culture in addition to teachings about how to behave. You don't need to believe a particular thing to be a member of Etz Chaim."
Congregation Etz Chaim (which means "Tree of Life") is part of the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism.
Reconstructionism is a uniquely American brand of Judaism embracing the thought that Judaism is an evolving tradition. This is different from all other brands of Juadaism that see themselves primarily in relation to Jewish law. Reconstructionists say "The past has a vote but not a veto."
Rabbi Kitty explains this in terms of keeping kosher. "Kosher is a way of life that was geared toward achieving good health and a healthy relationship to the earth. Kashrut is the word for dietary laws. Most people think this simply means that Jews don't eat pork or shellfish. That is not how we at Etz Chaim live kosher. We practice eco-Kashrut. It matters how the animal is treated before it is killed and eaten. Seasonality and locality are strong factors governing what we choose to eat. Drenching fields with harmful insecticides, and genetically altering sources of food make us alarmed. Eco-Kashrut respects the natural goodness of the earth and guides our relationship to the plants and animals that we consume."
Rabbi Kitty is not offended by questions about her unusual name.
"Almost every Jew is given a Hebrew name used in synagogue rituals and life cycle events. Mine is Noah, and I liked it so much I decided to take it as my English name. Kitty is the family name. Family lore says that when my father's father came over, he was asked his name. He said, 'Keteichik', but the clerk wrote down 'Kitty'. We figured, as long as they let him in, they could call him whatever they wanted."
She joined Etz Chaim as a civilian "Jew in the pew" in 2005. "The previous rabbi had left and we couldn't afford another one. Before coming to Florida, I was the rabbi in Brattleboro, Vermont. My parents had been living in Delray Beach and when my father died, I came down to take care of my mother who lived for another two years."
Rabbi Kitty was in a civil union in Vermont. This was dissolved when her partner was not willing to relocate to Florida. After her parents' deaths, Rabbi Kitty took time to reconstruct her life. "I needed to take care of me and I was not ready to go back into the Rabbinate. I got a job, and joined the congregation. At that time the synagogue was in a bit of a crisis. Growth was stalled. There were some important focus issues. The reason for this was that we were organized 36 years ago and no longer reflected what was going on in the LGBTQ world."
A Futures Committee was formed. This group, identifying a need for an Executive Director who would move the congregation forward, chose Noah Kitty who has a rabbinical degree, the MA in Jewish Communal Service from Brandeis, and is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
The congregation that now numbers 150 has been reinvigorated in its outreach.
" For over a thousand years, funds were gathered to support the small community of Jews in the Holy Land. So it is with Etz Chaim; we are a small community, and we have been blessed to receive support so we may continue to add our unique and essential voice to the LGBTQ Jewish chorus."
"We don't proselytize like the Catholic or Protestant churches do. We don't see ourselves as the gatekeepers to heaven or hell. Also, other congregations are more geared to pediatric Judaism learned at your bar/bat mitzvah. We are a Jewish community of adults."
What does Etz Chaim have to offer that other south Florida synagogues don't?
"We have a better understanding of LGBTQ life. This goes beyond 'welcoming' which in some cases is just the holding of 'gay day' in the synagogue. In those synagogues, your LGBTQ identity will be almost assimilated into disappearance, which is fine if that is what you want. This is the only place like it in south Florida. There is a synagogue in Miami that has a gay sub-group, but to me, that's like hearing 'Oh, you're gay? Your group is over there.' Etz Chaim doesn't want to give up Jewishness or Gayness."
Rabbi Noah Kitty makes it clear that at Etz Chaim, you can have your cake and eat it too without breaking kosher. You will find her at 1881 NE 26th Street in Wilton Manors. Expect a warm welcome.
(A version of this profile appears in the current issue of South Florida Gay News.)