William Fern and Beth Rosen

Recorded June 24, 2009 Archived June 24, 2009 38:38 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: LMN001573


Bill Fern, 78, is interviewed by fellow Congregation Beth Simchat Torah member Beth Rosen, 50.

Subject Log / Time Code

Bill on meeting the founding membership of CBST after reading about a a regular meeting of LGBTQ Jews in the Jewish News, a local newspaper.
Bill on experiencing a wall between his gayness and Jewishness.
Bill on flipping through a medical dictionary to try and figure out what he was in her search for sexual identity.
Bill on the deep investments of CBST members in the congregation. They were family and had conflicts.
Bill on serving on the search committee that recommended Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum for hire.
Bill on his pride in CBST and CBST’s achievement and leadership.


  • William Fern
  • Beth Rosen

Recording Location

StoryCorps Lower Manhattan Booth

Partnership Type



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00:04 My name is Beth Rosen. I am 58 years old today is June 24th 2009. I'm at the Foley Square location and I am a fellow congregant of Bill at from CBS tea.

00:18 I'm Bill Fern. I'm 78 soon to be 79. Next month. Today is June 24th, 2009 or located in the story booth at Foley Square in lower Manhattan on the number of congregation beit simchat Torah and a friend of death.

00:42 Seville what I'd like to start with is how did you learn about cbst and what Drew you to cbst

00:50 I'm one of the founding members of cbst and I learned about it before it was called cbs2.

00:57 Well over 30 years ago. I saw an article a very small article in the Jewish Jewish news of New Jersey of Northern New Jersey about a group of gay people who are having a synagogue service somewhere in Manhattan. I called him a very good friend of mine or be cooperberg who's now deceased nice that are I just read about this group. We've got to go there.

01:22 I was leaving for Europe in a few days after that. So he said me well when you get back from Europe in six weeks we'll go together. But I said that's fine. I came back from Europe 6 weeks later. And I said her I'm ready to go to meet with this group and he said bill I couldn't wait I had to go without you had to see what it was and I'm telling you although we've been friends for years. If you don't like these people he said I don't think I can ever be friends with you at all. I could give me a chance and let me meet them.

01:58 We met at the church on 28th Street and course I fell in love with him right away. And that was how I began, but the group didn't have its name yet. It was the group that had no name at all. Not at that point that the name was chosen. I think a year or so later when we needed some dame how many people were in that group? Not very many. There must have been well, it looks like a lot of the time but I don't think there were more than 20

02:29 If there were 25 people it was a lot at that point mostly men are there may have been a couple of women but most of them were men. We had a service honey after the service the end of the money was collected at the end of the service everybody gave a dollar or two to help pay for whatever the expenses were and it was a kid wish but the thing that I remember most strongly that really affected me in any and every spiritual way.

03:03 Was was an activity that they had after the service was over.

03:11 The candle was lit and placed in the middle of the floor and all this was not in the church itself. It was in the the rectory room where our school room that was attached to the church so that we could move chairs back tears. I moved away a candle was placed on the floor and the lights were turned out that's not very Jewish to turn lights on and off on the Shabbat or to light a candle after Sundown, but that didn't matter with this group. We linked arms and sang Soul Malaysia. Minzy the Saturday night him.

03:46 You have to remember that I grew up in a pre-stonewall era when being gay was a

03:55 Was a serious and negative experience. It was something you had to hide and I was in the closet for four years.

04:06 O on till 12 closet the door open for my friends, but not the family for until perhaps twenty years ago 25 years ago at the most but at that time I compartmentalize I had a gay life and I have a Jewish life and one had absolutely nothing to do with the other and then there was a work light but the division between being gay and the rest of my life was

04:36 Was an impermeable War

04:41 We linked arms that Friday night and sang Shalom aleichem, which is a song that harken back to my Hebrew school days when I was a kid and brought forth all those memories those warm memories of my friends of mine be going before my bar. Mitzvah.

04:58 And it was a very Jewish thing to do. But here I was with my arms linked around all these other people who were J.

05:07 And I felt as I sang that song and I are there were times when I simply have to stop singing the truck back the tears.

05:16 I felt that war melt.

05:20 And for the first time in my life, I was able to T compartmentalize. I was able to integrate to see the possibility of integrate.

05:34 All the pieces of me

05:37 It turned out to be one of the most profound experiences I had that was really very formative made an enormous difference in looks like right now you're you're tearing up as you're talkin about it. Well, I don't think it was very moving and from then on I can seriously say that my life changed. I found people who are gay and we're Jewish being gay didn't mean I had to go to bars. That didn't mean I had the hang around with people who were who were not educated who were indifferent to enter life in many ways.

06:17 Because they after the service if not that evening very soon afterwards after the service was over and after we had made a blessing over wine and had tutors.

06:28 We we went back to herbs apartment, which was a mile away.

06:36 I am in Midtown and we just sat around and talked until 1 in the morning. And the people that I met their unlike many of the gay people like met earlier. I met some who were educated and then serious people but in a French sense of you know, I'm a serious person. I met for the first time a whole group of people all at once who were educated who were knowledgeable jewishly who were professionally serious who who had values that I shared and I became lifelong friends with with many of them from that on as a matter of fact just before coming into this booth.

07:23 To talk to you one of these lifelong friends just walked out of here telling his story and I use somebody I've known for well over 30 years and he I met him on one of those very early evenings after the synagogue services for at least a year and maybe more we would have a complete Friday night service have a kid and Denver fairly quickly. We had up a cultural hour that followed that either read stories from Isaac. Bashevis Singer had a speaker or whatever and then we retire back to Earth as a part-time and have a social time until 1 in the morning just talking and enjoying each other nation of you being Jewish and gay to have both and it was it was I couldn't a great all the parts of me.

08:16 And not filled so negative it because it wasn't the thing to do to be gay. I could see the positive aspects of life.

08:28 So it was a very important that was a very important aspect of those early years did what he meant when he said I don't think I could be friends with you. If you can't if you if you're not in the same way after the first evening, that was absolutely no problem you asked about or I mentioned the name cbst after we were a group for a while. We needed to incorporate for tax purposes and the Christian came up. What was what was the name of the of the congregation going to be?

09:02 Initially, we all agreed on the name congregation beit Torah the same, which means congregation Torah Jewish learning enjoy the fellow who is delegated to file. The legal papers was not that well educated and he thought we mixed it up and he was the one he was familiar with the name simchat Torah, but he wasn't familiar with the expression to have the same car. So he switched it around and we came and we became cbst a set of cbts are given in the ocean. Should we try to go back and change things and finally we decided it wasn't worth it. But that's how the name came about this incredible story while we're talking specifically about the Early times as heavy as T. Are there any other early memories that you want to share other than that profound memory?

10:02 Profound better than ever

10:06 Our spiritual leader because we had no Rabbi and frankly needed. No Rabbi, the were number of people who were well-educated Jewish leader who led services with absolutely. No problem. Unlike other gay congregations Which Wich needed rabbinic interns or some kind of Rob Italy that we we really didn't need any but we did have somebody who had been you she would train and although he hadn't received ordination have been close to it and

10:37 Active Ride bike for a long time

10:41 He

10:44 Please Name Escapes me a poem.

10:48 I forgot his last name, but I know his name was Paul at any other lover who was who is black.

10:55 And we all accepted at home. We humorously called that I bet some.

11:01 I don't know who's going to be listening to this, but they wanted to fight you wanted to find that he is the term for the rabbi's wife and it is it's the female it's a female form of of Rabbi. So he was known as the rabbi with a black rebbetzin.

11:26 I don't think I'll go through a list of names of people who were very important about to rupture how meaningful that would be. But after services on Friday night. We we had cultural programs and the effect of a fairly serious sorts. We also in those early days organized in March for Russian. Jewry under our own Banner, which was an important way of declaring who we were and we started celebrating holidays. We had no money. So we the first time we had high holy days we hired somebody was a Cantor.

12:09 Who could not really sing? He was like answer he would change key in the middle in the middle of in the middle of the same prayer and everybody would would scramble to change key with him.

12:28 We hired a whole I forgotten we are now but we had no Aron kodesh to have the Torah and we used an orange crate with a curtain in front of the urine kodesh with a Canter that simply couldn't couldn't sing.

12:47 And it's and the service was very abbreviated. It wasn't a full service at all. And I said to her Verve. I don't know if I can spend the rest of my life going to high holiday services like this and he said to me and I half believe them cuz I wanted to

13:05 It'll get better it'll get better never dreaming at the time that it would become as glorious as it is today. We had no tell Roy, so we had to borrow one from went around the various synagogues and finally found one that was ding went by synagogue on 79th Street and 2nd Avenue for the latest Airtel rod.

13:32 I have blue I was with one of those people with a car. So I wrapped it up and stuck it in the trunk of the car and we left it. I think I had it stored in my clothes Closet in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom, Kippur and after Yom Kippur I brought it back. So I get back in the clothes closet and I said, what are we going to do what he said? What just leave it there for a while till we get a chance to bring it back to the synagogue.

14:04 A year went by in the tower was still sitting on the second shelf of my my clothes closet I serve you know, we got this tour over the to use it for the service. He said did you know we never told him that we never return the Torah the book? I can't I can't take responsibility for that. I just don't know if I can don't worry. He said I'll do it.

14:26 So I drove into the Torah to the synagogue. I parked in front of the place. He went in and he said, you know, we borrowed your total last year and we apologize for not having brought it back.

14:38 They should you know, we wondered where that went. They kept absolutely no written record of to whom they had Jetta incredible. Should we have it? They said okay you can take it and they still didn't keep a written record locked off and we use them for a second year. I can't remember but it went back in the trunk of my car wrapped in the whole table cloth. What was it like growing up gay in your childhood? Synagogue? And how is CVS tea different than the synagogue that you grew up with?

15:18 Well, I grew up in my synagogue as a child in the 1930s and 40s.

15:24 And when I was until I was probably mid-teens I had absolutely no idea being gay until you were held.

15:35 Probably 14 or 15 years old. Okay, then I knew something was wrong something was different and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I knew what I liked and didn't like but I wasn't able to release it categorize it or analyze it in anyway, and so I went to the IKEA I grew up in a very small town in New Jersey in northern Jersey Northern New Jersey. So I went to the local library which kind of stedman's medical dictionary side began flipping through the pages till I found something that sounded familiar and I went from a definition of something that sounded like it would be worthwhile didn't understand the definition.

16:15 So I flipped back from definition to definition until I could puzzle out who I was I was due to go to Hebrew school later that afternoon and I went saying to myself.

16:32 That's what I am. I'm a homosexual but I didn't dare tell anybody couldn't tell that you were school teacher whom I loved and who was very supportive cuz she would have told my parents. I can't imagine what they would have done. So it was one of those things I simply didn't talk about and kept secret until I ended up in graduate school and then started seeing a therapist to

17:00 Who whose mission was to change me about now?

17:12 So what are you 1950 and in those days they said we can change you absolute on proof.

17:21 How long did you see that person for a year, but even people I saw after that did the same thing for every different experience. He knew something was wrong when he went to California after he served in the Korean War I guess.

17:43 I want to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

17:47 Weiss and after the second time the psychiatrist said to him there's nothing the matter with you. You're gay Let It Go with that you had a very different experience for you. You were trying to come out in the fifth early 50s. You knew you were gay in the early fifties and you were seeing a psychiatrist to change you. So how did you win did you know that in terms of if you are Jewish upbringing that this was something that would not be okay in your synagogue like how you just simply knew. Nobody said it was okay go anywhere. So polite Society. It simply wasn't accepted weather was in in a synagogue or out of a synagogue. I couldn't tell anybody mean that when you went to synagogue you felt not only were you in the closet but that you that you had a completely hide that there was his part of you that was not accepted by

18:46 By your Jewish absolutely wasn't accepted and that's why it was so because I had been

19:03 I finished graduate school move to New York and was working.

19:07 Thought I would go back to the synagogue in New Jersey with my parents for the high. Holy days.

19:13 And did not feel

19:17 Really comfortable or or satisfied with what with a service?

19:22 And it just wasn't me the people weren't me? I mean, I knew everybody in there. I'd known them since I was a child, but I didn't feel like I belonged so after I remember that the cold drain night after after the sermon and after the wonderful songs and after the great singing when they got a nap after the interesting stuff and they got down to the hard Domini.

19:47 I just didn't belong there and I said I'll see you at home got up and walked out my mother look ever done that before my mother is scared to death and I never really went back.

20:01 I went from synagogue to synagogue with her. We would when I got to New York, we would look for a shul. We shul hopped on the highway days for a couple of years trying to find a place where you feel like you belong. Yeah, I mean I needed to go to synagogue on the highway bass, but there was no real place I belong until cbst. I mean belonging is one of the biggest things that comes up for people when they come out as they don't feel like they belong before they come out and then when they come out then they really find out how hard it is when you're going to a place where you fit in. So let me ask you a couple more questions that we have here.

20:38 Talk a little bit more about how involved you got with cvst. I understand you were there from the very beginning meet him before we had our name, but what was your involvement? What in what ways did you get more deeply in Fault?

20:55 I attended every I until I was living in the city at the time. I'm not living in the city now.

21:01 So I was able to attend almost every service. It was part of my weekly lie in my weekly schedule. I became involved in the politics. Although I never served on the board. I felt that was going to be

21:17 It was able to been too difficult into Conte time-consuming and they were they often bickered and and the and fought about things that really were not and meaningful in my mind. So I just didn't want to get stuck in the middle of that but I served on various committees and and and did

21:37 I remember one particular thing that happened there was in order to resolve that internal battling back and forth.

21:46 I thought that we should have a consultant come and

21:53 Work with the leaders that's to say the elected leaders and the informal leaders of the synagogue to resolve some of these differences in the fighting and I found I found a guy he was quite confident in the field of organizational development and who would worked with various nonprofit and church organizations is very confident guy and he came once a week and we met I was very involved in that.

22:26 It helped but it really didn't solve the problem. I don't know the problem that you're referring to. Can you give me like one sample there were?

22:38 There were disputes about what was appropriate for services what was important what wasn't important and there were several people who were disgruntled all the time who were not mature enough to really serve on the board and any kind of constructive way and who simply had their own personal needs. The reason for that. Is that aside from their own personalities?

23:04 In the lives of the people who are members of the synagogue played that organization played an extraordinary important part.

23:15 Because if it is provided so much satisfaction in their personal lives people became a highly identified with the organization deeply invested in what happened there so that go in anybody belonging to any kind of suburban or city straight rule wouldn't get that upset about what is happening to my dog. Are you there? But it wouldn't matter that much. Why do you think they were so deeply identified and were you know, it was family member it was family and and family felt in a in a very intense way.

23:58 So we had this specialist in in this area this consultant who came and work and it helped but it didn't solve the problem cuz there were people who simply didn't want to be consoled and didn't want to adjust the other way in which I became involved was after I left a job. I was in business and decided that I really didn't like it. I wanted to go back into teaching but it was a year in which I floated around trying to decide if I did what I wanted to do what kind of teaching if it were going to be teaching and I have a year that was relatively free.

24:42 I decided to use that year to make my contribution to the synagogue and to the gay Jewish community at the gay Jewish.

24:51 Community of the United States

24:54 And so I came back from a trip. I made abroad after having met some gay Jews in London saying.

25:04 What you really needed was an International Conference of gay Jews that would that would bring gauges together from all over the country and from other countries in the world. I worked with a committee at the synagogue and we put together a conference that took us months to prepare for in which we invited people from all gay groups members of gay groups all over the country to come to New York and spend the weekend.

25:41 Has to be in the 19

25:44 70s maybe I can't remember.

25:48 There had been some such conference in Washington, but it was really nothing significant. This was technically the second right International, but was the one that really mattered.

25:58 And we found housing for everybody that couldn't afford a hotel people put people up members of the put people up in their homes at we had a very full program for the entire weekend of services and workshops and all sorts of things. And for the first time gay Jews came from all over the country and felt like they really belong and that this was an important.

26:24 Event in in in gay life in the United States in later conferences. We had people who came from many other countries.

26:37 And I cautioned everybody there and I said look we have to do this right because whatever we do will really become the model for what people do in the future and it did it. Did it did become such the whatever we did that initially year.

26:54 Formed over became a kind of template or model for what was done in later years. I spent a huge amount of time doing that. None of which I've regretted and I did make that kind of contribution and that was in a sense involvement in NC be a little bit to the role that cbst played in the AIDS crisis and how it's affected your friendships at CVS tea can talk a little bit about that time.

27:26 I guess the most drastic.

27:31 Affected a child on me was the fact that I lost so many friends.

27:40 One of the members of the congregation a guy named Shelly post.

27:44 Was very cognizant of the of the AIDS crisis as it began.

27:50 And decided to have a conference or a public meeting really is better way to say that a public meeting of doctors in the in the working with AIDS at the time and it was still cold gridded that I may come to the synagogue and speak to the gay community at large. He put up flyers and bars and bads of all over the all over town the use the synagogue primacies. There were very few synagogue people who attend that I was one of them along with several others.

28:27 And the leading doctors in New York who were at the Forefront of the fight against age spoke and told what they knew about about the the problem.

28:40 After that, we began to lose leadership in the congregation and

28:50 And the volunteer organization that we had been pull pull Maryland have been that the Rob I would have with a black rabbits and pull Merling was no longer active with us and them we were just running Services by ourselves, but there was really nobody there and we were not able to provide the counseling and the support that should have come from but needed to come from a rabbi.

29:17 The president of the Thai Melrose and who was very foresightful.

29:25 Decided we needed a rabbi to provide the Pastoral Care that the members couldn't provide. So he wisely took select did a person from each constituency of the synagogues membership.

29:44 From the women from the newcomers from various friendship groups and I think he ended up with somebody like eight people. He chose me to be on this route by search committee as a representative of the old-timers.

30:01 I need figured that if a member from each constituency were to say this is a legitimate worthwhile Endeavor. That's not going to endanger the welfare the synagogue that the people who trusted that person would go along with it and that worked very well. So the AIDS crisis engendered that or made very obvious that need to have a rabbi in from it. We ended up with was Robert Sharon kleinbaum totally agreed when he first when he first approached you about this to do to be a I said, okay, I will turn around and eat it that you really needed a ride by

30:44 I personally and very cheaply was not sure I had five personal desk as did everybody else for so long. We were quite independent because of your history with rabbis from your childhood or because you just didn't want to go by telling us what to do and we were kind of worried about that so we but I thought okay if that's the way it's going and that's what we need. I would go along with it and other people felt the same way. They were rather weary of having some authority figure placed over us, but my group said look at it if bill says, it's okay that's going to be all right with us other group said if someone says it's okay. It's okay with them and we ended up choosing.

31:33 An outstanding candidate he wants a little bit about that process. It was very interesting.

31:41 We determined very early that we were going to choose someone who would be competent and capable whether that person was gay or straight man or woman. We interviewed a number of people on the phone or looked at resumes.

31:59 We were not able to wheat. We sought candidates from the various rabbinical Seminary. But since we were not and are still not affiliated they were reluctant to give us the candidates job applicants. So we put ads in the paper and a number of people applied of the number of people who applied we selected perhaps

32:25 At least 10 maybe 15 to interview personally. I would meet with these people and interview them.

32:33 The board thought that if we were to present for candidates, they would choose the best of the four but by the time we got down to interviewing these people became apparent to us that there was just one candidate who was worthwhile on that was Sharon kleinbaum out. So we came back and gave a report to the to the to the board. We mean while he'd interviewed a couple of zany people. I know they were robbed by Sue thought because we were gay we knew nothing that we're rabbits were ready to retire and wanted one more year with a group of ignorant people or rabbis who were who were feeling very self-important to but who are not confident. We went through a lot of rabbis at any rate. We came back to the board and we said this is my weekend. So we thought we were going to choose among two or three at least we said no, this is the one

33:26 Somebody said Bill if we were to hire this Rabbi how long a contract should we give her?

33:33 And I said, what do you have a 1 years not enough and three years has too many I would suggest two years, but I tell you.

33:42 If she comes after two years she will stay as long as she pleases and that's what made you think that what was it about. What was what was it about her that we went to see a group of us went to hear her preach up in Hartford, Connecticut, and she spoke on the Parsha where Abraham of abandoned Hagar in the wilderness with a bottle of water and her son and most most rabbis would would talk about Sarah and the continuation to Jewish people.

34:21 Sharon kleinbaum spoke about hegar she didn't talk about Abraham or Sarah and it became obvious that she was a very talented person and I'm and I are they said what do you mean she's going to stay as long as you buy said she will win a constituency so quickly that you will that you will stay as long as she wants to stay when they met her and when their hearts right away when they met her and talk to her while she pressed them, but these people have not interviewed another 15 or 20 in person 10 or 15 in person and another 15 X phone. They came with a use their own experience and they they took our word for it and and do they have a reaction to the fact that she was a woman with her question about should this email until very recently?

35:21 Irrigation some guys in the congregation resented the fact that there was a woman Rabbi telling that the. They are speaking and she went through a great deal of difficulty overcoming back kind of

35:36 Negative reception and some of them are not pretty kind to her. She did her best and

35:44 It's a she she would have.

35:50 Except for the people who were very supportive of her. It was very discouraging of the beginning. That was the kind of faction that we have been fighting earlier that kind of negative faction the that finally has disappeared. Yes, but you know about gender issues. How do you feel about the diversity? I think that will become as obsolete as as the synagogues at the turn of the century the beginning of the twentieth century Inn in the Lower East Side. That was a that was a Galaxy on a shrew little it right Rule and it isn't Romanian those those divisions have no meaning anymore nor will Des within 20 or 30 years before we end up going to end soon. I want to say one thing that's really important and that is

36:45 What am I about my pride and CPS to me? I am inordinately proud of that of that organization. I remember what it was when they were beginning when we were starting when

37:03 When the larger Jewish Community kept tabs on us because they were afraid we were going to be destructive. They were quietly and secretly following us to make sure we did not destroy the larger to community. That was a little faith I had on us today. We are leaders.

37:21 See kind of intelligence the the internship program in which I take great pride is the best in the country because of my role and at the Reconstructionist rabbinical College. I see what's happening around like around the country. You just bats rabbinical internship program in the country.

37:44 The kind of wisdom that comes from our Pulpit the kind of musical program the self-respect it's been developed is just extraordinary and most of the younger people take a lot of that for granted. That's true. I see how we began and what what difficulties we had at the beginning and what is developed into an end during the high holiday services from time to time. I said, they have to stop and hold back the tears of pride in in what this synagogue has become can you over there at the beginning? So, you know so I don't get how it's for the wonderful place is thank you so much girl. I was a pleasure talking to you.