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At New York synagogue, a hero’s welcome for Edith Windsor

Edith Windsor, left, embraces Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, June 28, 2013. (Hugo Fernandes)

Edith Windsor, left, embraces Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, June 28, 2013. (Hugo Fernandes)

NEW YORK (JTA) — At 5 p.m. last Friday, a line of visibly excited people — many decked out in rainbow regalia — gathered on the sidewalk outside Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue in Manhattan.

Worshipers don’t generally form lines down the block in advance of Sabbath services. But it’s not every Shabbat that one can celebrate gay pride weekend with Edith Windsor and Roberta Kaplan — the gay community equivalent of Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.

Windsor is the lesbian whose Supreme Court petition resulted in the historic overturn last week of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law barring the U.S. government from recognizing gay and lesbian marriages. Kaplan is her lawyer. Both women are CBST members.

More than 600 people, including New York mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, came to the synagogue to celebrate the ruling; some stood outside listening in through speakers.

As the services started, a diminutive, elegantly dressed woman walked in slowly. No one noticed at first, but then one person recognized the smiling woman as Windsor, and the cheering and applause turned into a sustained standing ovation.

Services were extended and included the recitation of the Hallel prayer normally reserved for holidays. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum dedicated the night to Thea Speyer, Windsor’s deceased partner, and said that while there may be reasons not to fully rejoice in the court’s decisions last week — the justices declined to overturn laws banning gay unions already on the books in several states — the occasion still merited a celebration.

And celebrate they did. With a choir on hand, the synagogue was full of joy, music and hugs.

Kaplan and Windsor spoke together at the end of the service, comparing their efforts in securing equal rights for same-sex marriages to the efforts of the biblical daughters of Zelophehad, who fought for their inheritance rights and won.

“Inherent in Jewish belief is the view that people, communities and even the law must and should change when times and ethical circumstances require it,” Kaplan said. “Indeed, both the Torah and the rabbis teach that such change is actually a positive value.”

She added, “That is the kind of change, the kind of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, that lies at the heart of our tradition. It is, I believe, what God commands of every individual, every community, even of the law, even of God.”

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