There’s a new Modern Orthodox synagogue in West Hempstead. Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael seeks to offer a welcoming atmosphere for all residents, including women and members of the LGBTQ community.
“People have to understand that when you walk through the door, it’s just a human being and they should be free to find a place for themselves,” said Shlomit Metz-Poolat, the group’s founder and president. “We’re looking to be a religion of inclusiveness that welcomes everyone.”
Metz-Poolat, a West Hempstead attorney who is a prosecutor in the Queens County district attorney’s office, always wanted to create her own synagogue. Her idea came to fruition last year when she realized her friends and neighbors were interested in starting something new.
“It literally just snowballed,” she said. “It seemed like everybody who I spoke with had something to offer and it was amazing to see that kind of support.”
Metz-Poolat, who is a lesbian, was a member of her previous synagogue for 19 years. When she took her partner’s last name, the synagogue discontinued her membership, limiting her participation to prayer services. In her new synagogue, she plans on creating a “household membership” where everyone is accepted.
“That way, we don’t have to put anyone in an uncomfortable situation,” Metz-Poolat said. “We want people to know that we will find a place for you in this world and within the Jewish community.”
In many Orthodox communities, synagogues prohibit women from taking leadership roles such as president. Not only does Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael have a female president, but at the end of their first service, it also allows a woman to give the sermon, another rarity.
“This is an opportunity for us to be able to empower women so that they are engaged and involved in a leadership manner,” said Rabbi Boaz Tomsky, who will lead the congregation. “At the same time, we want to do it in a way that does not compromise Jewish law.”
Tomsky, who has served in numerous synagogues for nearly 20 years, said that one of the challenges when starting a new synagogue in a close-knit community such as West Hempstead is creating an atmosphere where people understand their message. “My number one goal is for all the people in the community to be able to find a way to recognize that we are all one people and that we’re not here to cause any divisiveness,” he said. “I would not be comfortable being part of a synagogue, or any organization, in which people may perceive any form of divisiveness.”
Tomsky added that the group does not want to recruit people from other synagogues. “Instead, we want to create opportunities for those that, for whatever reason, have not yet found a place where they feel a connection,” he said.
The group has already received support from local organizations such as the Malverne Jewish Center, which donated prayer books and Torah scrolls to help the group get started.
“It was a very practical thing to do,” said Rabbi Susan Elkodsi of the Malverne Jewish Center. “We want to help each other out, and the fact that they are able to use them and that it saves them from having to go out and purchase anything, it was a no-brainer.”
Metz-Poolat said she hopes to get additional support from LGBTQ advocate groups for Jews such as Jewish Queer Youth and Eshel. While the group hopes to focus on supporting youth in the community, it seeks to provide service for all.
“It’s every single person who feels that they just don’t have a place or don’t have a role,” Metz-Poolat said. “It’s really not just about hitting a demographic of a particular person. It’s just finding a place for someone who wants to be in an observant environment on the Sabbath and feel welcome.”
The Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael’s board met regularly for the last few months at Metz-Poolat’s home. The group, which currently has 50 members, chose Wing Wan, a Chinese and Japanese Kosher restaurant, as its venue to hold services. Metz-Poolat said Wing Wan has held past events, and she is friendly with the owner, Amy Wong.
Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael will hold its first service on the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Dec. 16, at 248 Hempstead Ave., West Hempstead, at 9:30 a.m.