Since becoming Congregation Bet Haverim’s spiritual leader in 1999, Joshua Lesser has made a mark on the Reconstructionist synagogue and beyond.
Membership at Bet Haverim has risen 300 percent, and the congregation has become a model for inclusivity while ending decades of wandering through private houses and rented spaces by moving into its own building in Toco Hills in 2015. The synagogue’s religious school had fewer than 40 students in 1999; now it has more than 125.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Lesser has been named one of the most influential rabbis in North America.
Bet Haverim will honor Rabbi Lesser for his 18th year with the congregation and celebrate its 30th anniversary Wednesday, Nov. 2, with a reception at Gallery 874 in West Midtown.
“I’m so happy to see that Bet Haverim will be celebrating both its 30th anniversary and their amazing rabbi’s 18th year,” said Glenda Minkin, the honorary event chair and a Bet Haverim associate member. “Rabbi Lesser has devoted his life and his work to welcoming all, to acknowledging all, especially those for whom other doors are closed. The continuing growth of Bet Haverim is a tribute to Rabbi Lesser’s open doors.”
Rabbi Lesser helped Bet Haverim, founded in June 1986, transition from a synagogue primarily serving gay men and lesbians to one open to all Jews and their loved ones.
Since 1999, many synagogues that exclusively served the LGBTQ community across the nation have closed or merged with other synagogues.
“I love that we’re celebrating our 30th year and my 18th year at the same time,” Rabbi Lesser said. “Because places like Bet Haverim existed, it gave me courage to take the steps to becoming a rabbi at a time when there were much fewer gay and lesbian people taking that risk. For me, what’s most meaningful is that I’m an Atlantan. Part of what I’ve hoped to do is not only to add to the well-being of a synagogue, but to the well-being of the city that nurtured me. To create a greater sense of inclusion in our community has been very powerful.”
Rabbi Lesser grew up in Toco Hills, was a member of Congregation Shearith Israel, and attended Greenfield Hebrew Academy, Yeshiva Atlanta and Paideia. He was ordained in 1999 after studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., and returned to Atlanta to join Bet Haverim that year.
In 2001, he founded the Rainbow Center, which became SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity. He received a Rainmaker Award from Sojourn in 2010.
After a shooter killed 49 others at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub over the summer, Rabbi Lesser organized and led a “We Are Orlando” vigil at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights downtown.
“As a congregant and a personal friend of Rabbi Josh, I am incredibly proud of what he has accomplished over the past 18 years,” said Shoshana Ben-Yoar, Bet Haverim’s president. “I think that his social action and commitment to our synagogue and social justice have greatly enriched all of our lives, and I’m superexcited to celebrate him. He’s an incredible person, community member and spiritual leader.”
With acceptance in Atlanta’s larger Jewish community, Rabbi Lesser now has his sights set on connecting with his Orthodox neighbors on LaVista Road.
“I think that the opportunity in five or ten years is that there’s a possibility to create a national model of Jewish cooperation and inclusion,” he said. “It’s just not happening in many other places. There’s so much that we can learn from each other and a healing that needs to happen in our Jewish community. There’s so much vibrancy in the Orthodox community here, and I hope that we’ll begin to take steps to really get to know each other.”
What: L’Chaim, Bet Haverim’s celebration of Rabbi Joshua Lesser
Where: Gallery 874, 874 Joseph E. Lowery Blvd., West Midtown
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2
Tickets: $118; www.congregationbethaverim.org/lchaim