Marc Wernick, Builder of the Baltimore LGBTQ+ Community 

“Bolton Street (Synagogue) has my heart and soul,” declares Marc Wernick, who serves as a member of the Board of Trustees, a member of the Religious Culture Committee, as co-chair of the Marketing group and a service leader.  And from his activity at Bolton Street, Marc has become engaged in the greater Baltimore Jewish community through Repair the World, the Arts Council at Gordon Center of the JCC, the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS) where he was a member of the first cohort of its Congregational Leadership Fellowship, and as a member of the first cohort of Na’aleh’s ACCELERATE, an intensive leadership development program.

Marc was raised in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC and became a Bar Mitzvah at Har Shalom, a Conservative congregation.  “After my Bar Mitzvah, I walked away from Judaism” over a disagreement with his rabbi over continuing his Jewish studies.  It also became more complicated “when I realized I was gay…the struggle between my gay and Jewish identities were at odds, not so much from a theological perspective, but Judaism for me was so much enmeshed in family, and when I came out in 1992, there were very few gay men that were raising kids.  I didn’t quite know how to be gay and Jewish.”

Then, in 1999, came an inflection point.  His parents traveled for Yom Kippur to visit him in San Francisco, where he was then living, and he offered them several choices of congregations: one a renewal shul, another a Conservative congregation and a third, Sha’ar Zahav the LGBTQ synagogue in San Francisco, which he thought was a good match from a liturgical perspective. “Following a break fast with friends, my mom made a pronouncement…’Marc, it’s a beautiful synagogue (and) it’s time you became affiliated with a congregation and perpetuated Judaism for the future.’  Unfortunately, about 10 days later, my Dad died very unexpectedly.”  Marc explained through “tears of joy,” fond memories of his father and how, following his father’s passing, he went to synagogue weekly to say Kaddish. His father was very involved in his synagogues in Potomac and Annapolis over the decades, so in undertaking Jewish communal work through Sha’ar Zahav, “I felt a nice connection (with him).”

And that’s where his trajectory began. His early mentor, Joe Hample, the synagogue’s membership chair (now Rabbi Joe Hample), “showed me what it meant to be queer and Jewish and a communal leader.” Marc prefers the term ‘queer’ because it is much more inclusive than the alphabet soup.  “San Francisco was really that kind of progressive, open environment that there was no need to wrestle with both my Jewish and gay identities, that I was able to bring my full self to the community.”

He served on the Sha’ar Zahav board, and following the end of his board tenure, he became involved in what was eventually another inflection point: the San Francisco Organizing Project, a community-based advocacy organization. At the time, San Francisco was considering healthcare reform, and Marc had the opportunity to participate in a session that included representatives of the Mayor’s office and the Board of Supervisors. “I was able to use my marketing background to dimensionalize the impact that healthcare coverage had on our community overall.”  Two days after the session, San Francisco adopted a universal healthcare access act.  It was an awakening for Marc, and he literally changed his professional career direction.  He left San Francisco for New York City to earn his master’s degree in Public Health from Columbia University, intending to then move to Washington, DC to pursue a career in healthcare policy.  Marc moved to Baltimore in 2012 and visited a couple of synagogues, “immediately falling in love with Bolton Street.”

“Where do I see myself adding value? It’s being a community developer, a (LGBTQ) community shadkhan, a “stapler,” bringing together LGBTQ+ Jews for activities and celebrations of their Jewish selves.  San Francisco and NYC have the demographics to be able to support an LGBTQ synagogue, but when Marc attended his first Baltimore queer event in 2012, “I estimate that there were 8 allies and 4 who were LGBTQ…Now, Bolton Street has a mailing list of 300+ LGBTQ Jews that have attended our events.”  Of the current community status, Marc has this to say: “While there is Main Street acceptance, I still think there is an appetite for community.  How do we form this community and foster a sense of inclusion and equity?  Ten years ago, it was marriage equality, now it’s about inclusion of the transgender community.”

In addition to his Bolton Street Synagogue leadership roles, he is building community as a recipient of the Neely Tal Snyder JPride Seed Grants.  JPride is a Baltimore organization that has evolved from its origins to one that awards seed grants for LGBTQ programming in Baltimore that has enabled extensive events including the Queer Arts Festival at the Gordon Center at the JCC, the Beth Am Film Series and the Bolton Street continuation of the JPride Seder, to name a few.  “The remarkable part of the Baltimore queer Jewish community is the collaboration between all the Jewish organizations.  It is not uncommon to have eight to twelve organizations co-sponsoring an event,” observes Marc.

The key question to ask of Jews who have been Jewish adjacent to the community is, “What is your touch point to connect you with your Jewish spirituality?…We need to be meeting people where they are.”  As for Baltimore newcomers that want community, Marc says, “find the causes that speak to you…building community is something that’s important to me and that’s where I spend my time.”

When asked how he finds balance between his work and dizzying schedule of community meetings and involvement, Marc smiled: “I’m a certified Mah Jong instructor…I play every Tuesday!”  And he feeds his soul by “doing stuff that I really enjoy.”  His most recent book?  “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty,” by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe.”  Dinner, with anyone living or not?  “Well, it would have to be my Dad, of course,” Marc says pensively…”I don’t think I had a full appreciation for the stories he told about his synagogue leadership.”  As for his future, Marc says, “I’m single and looking.”