Monthly Archives: August 2012

Queer Clergy in Action: Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

As someone who is involved in Jewish LGBT work, I am often surprised people tell me that they had no idea that we Jews have queer clergy. Not only are we very proud of the work they do, but they’ve also been around (openly, anyway) for over a quarter century !

With this post, we’re launching a new column spotlighting a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rabbi or cantor. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy will cover both those who have paved the way, and those who are the up-and-coming trailblazers. It can be hard to come out, and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very excited to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories.

In 1999, Rabbi Steve Greenberg became the first out Orthodox rabbi. Five years later, Rabbi Greenberg published Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, a book that is not only an new look at depictions of same-sex relationships in Jewish sacred texts, but also examines these relationships in Jewish poetry and case law.

We’re proud to partner with Rabbi Greenberg in his work to bring full inclusion to the full spectrum of the Jewish community.

How has being gay informed your work as a rabbi?

I’m not sure being gay informs anything. It conditions things. It conditioned my growing up in a way that was sometimes scary, and very often confusing and alienating—as in making me feel like an alien in my own family and community.

For some people the experience of alienation leads to spiritual searching, for others it does not. For me, it did. Seeking a haven in ancient books, in a “child of a survivor” historical consciousness, and in God made perfect sense when I didn’t feel so at home in the world. While it was not the only cause for my budding interest in Torah study, the promise of a world very different from the All-American hyper-hetero teen world of the 1970s was surely part of my story.

My decision to become a rabbi was all about my love of the learning and the living realities of a religious community. I was able to sublimate and not really attend to my inner life for years. When I was twenty and in a yeshiva in Israel I could no longer deny the power of my feelings. Confused and scared, I went to a Haredi rabbi, the recently passed posek (high-level decisor of Jewish law), Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashuv. Quite surprisingly, he calmed me and gave me hope by describing my illicit desires as a power of love. I felt at the time I was bisexual enough to make a life with a woman. For fifteen years I dated women hoping this is what would happen. Once the fantasy of this way out evaporated, I realized that my gayness was either going to end my rabbinic career or shape it. I chose the latter.

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Posted on August 29, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

To Wear is Human, To Live — Divine

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbis Elliott Kukla and Reuben Zellman examine parashat Ki Teitze, proving that clothes most certainly don’t make the person.

Clothes don't make the person

Creative Commons/Mark Pike

For all those who have ever struggled with how to discipline children’s bad behavior, this week’s parashah, Ki-Teitze, offers an easy answer: stone them to death! (Deut. 21:18-21)

Thankfully, Jews have recognized for over a thousand years that this is an unacceptable solution to a common problem. In fact, we learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) that this apparent commandment of the Torah was never once carried out. Our Sages refused to interpret this verse literally, as it conflicted with their understanding of the holiness of each and every human life.

With this scenario in mind, let us look at another verse in our parashah: “A man’s clothes should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear the apparel of a woman; for anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before God.” (Deut. 22:5) Just as classical Jewish scholars reinterpreted the commandment that says rebellious children should be stoned to death, they also read this portion’s apparent ban on “cross-dressing” to yield a much narrower prohibition.

The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that this verse is not simply a prohibition on wearing the clothes of the “opposite gender.” Rashi writes that such dress is prohibited only when it will lead to adultery. Maimonides, a 12th-century codifier of Jewish law, claims that this verse is actually intended to prohibit cross-dressing that is for purposes of idol worship (Sefer haMitzvot, negative mitzvot 39-40). In other words, according to the classical scholars of our tradition, wearing clothes of “the wrong gender” is proscribed only when it is for the express purpose of causing harm to our relationship with our loved ones or with God. The prohibition that we learn from this verse is very specific: we must not misrepresent our true gender in order to cause harm. Otherwise, wearing clothing of another gender is not prohibited. The Talmud puts it most succinctly: v’ein kan toevah — “there is no abomination here” (Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a-b).

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Posted on August 27, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Report from the Field: Keshet at the Hillel Institute

Andrea Jacobs, Keshet's Director of Education, leading a training

Andrea Jacobs leading a training


Hillel International is the largest Jewish group for college students, with campus presence at over 550 schools in the U.S., Russia, Israel and South America. Hillel has been making big strides towards LGBT inclusion in the past few years, reconfiguring their goals for connecting with students to make sure they’re reaching a diverse spectrum of young adults, and finding ways to connect that are more nuanced and intentional than just getting them into the Hillel building. As part of their efforts, Hillel invited Andrea Jacobs, Keshet’s Director of Education, to the annual Hillel Institute at Washington University in St. Louis — a gathering of Hillel directors, staff, and student leaders from across the country. We talked with Andrea after the conference. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation.

It’s clear Hillel has really changed the way it imagines success. You could see that even from the groups at the “community organization fair,” where everyone from Israel advocacy groups to social media consultants to Keshet, was represented. At the fair, all the representatives of these groups answered questions and met one-on-one with Hillel staff and leaders. I spoke with dozens of people, but the issues that really jumped out at me came from self-identified LGBTQ Hillel staff. And by self-identified, I mean they were pulling me aside, coming out to me, and then asking these pressing questions:

  • How do I be a source of support and safety without becoming “that gay Hillel staff person”?
  • How do I engage with other Hillel staff or campus Jewish professionals who are Orthodox?
  • How do I navigate the natural ebb and flow of student leadership while maintaining inclusion as an important issue?

It was really exciting to hear young professionals discussing these important issues and I’m so glad that we were there to be a touchstone, to encourage them to voice these questions and concerns. I’ve seen situations like this before where the educators know it’s important, the institution knows it’s important, but there’s always a lot going on, and these questions about how to create an inclusive environment for staff and students get left out in the crunch for time and competing priorities.

But when Keshet’s there, our presence creates the space where these conversations happen. That’s what we do.

With that in mind, I’d mobilized our network in the weeks and months leading up to the summit. Look, I’d said to educators and campus professionals, there’s nothing official for LGBTQ and allied staff on the docket. We’re going to have a meeting the day after the community organization fair, even if it’s unofficial, so please invite the people you know will be looking for something like this. And I reached out to folks who could make sure Hillel found a place for us to meet. In the end about twenty Hillel professionals showed up!

My goal was to help these folks create a connection with each other, to start recognizing and using each other as a resource, so I threw all of those questions I’d collected from the day out to them as a group. We all sat around the table and started tackling some of those issues: how can Hillel and Hillel professionals, who come from this big-tent, pluralistic organization, reach out to queer students, and make sure queer students have safe and accepting space within Hillel, while still doing everything else Hillel does?

All of these amazing out rabbis and senior staff began to talk about their experiences and brainstorm with this new network. It was so exciting, not only to hear their stories of both success and failure but also to see younger staff realize that they’re not alone; there are lots of people who have gone through these same issues and have a lot of great ideas. Some of the staff gave out general pointers like:

  • When you talk to students, you can use your own life as an example.
  • If you have a partner, you can talk about your partner!

One rabbi had a whole list of suggestions for how to get Hillel working for LGBT inclusion across an entire college. A lot of campuses are struggling with the issue of housing for trans students right now; that’s a great issue for Hillel to get involved with. Plus, Hillel can be a role model and partner with other faith groups on campus as they work towards LGBT inclusion.

What this conference really brought home for me, yet again, is that sometimes it’s not about the expertise that we bring. Sometimes, it’s about the conversations that we help bring out — out of the closet, out of the hushed whispers, out loud and in public. Those conversations themselves have the power to really change things. The group that came together for this conference is going to work to become a recognized group in Hillel — a formal place for LGBTQ and allied staff and student leaders to come together to discuss, network, brainstorm, and work together. We had a great time at the conference, and the exciting work for next year has already begun!

Posted on August 24, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What I Learned in College

Courtesy the Bronfman Center Blog

With back-to-school season upon us, Julie Sugar reminisces on what she learned at college…as an educator, not a student. Julie’s reflections remind all of us, in turn, about the immense, powerful, and sometimes under-appreciated role allies play in creating inclusive space for everyone.

I found my voice in college—though not as a student.

I worked for nearly three years at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, where I wore (as all Hillel professionals do) many hats: running internships, staffing trips, advising clubs, and more. One group I advised was Keshet, NYU’s club for LGBTQ Jews [no relation to the Keshet that runs this blog!] and their allies. Keshet had been larger and more active in the past, and was quite small when I started. Then, with time, incredible student leaders, and staff support, the group blossomed and became a renewed presence on campus. On a personal level, I learned so much through the experience:

Good Intentions

At first, I felt insecure and tongue-tied. I was sensitive enough to know the impact of insensitivity, and the fear of saying something wrong (LGBT? GLBT? Add the Q? What’s the deal with the word “queer”? Can I call myself an “ally”?) was overwhelming.

An NYU student-led SafeZone sensitivity training brought home what I started to feel intuitively: good intentions do make a difference. When you speak with someone, and you say something that is not perfectly up to speed with the lingo, it’s okay. Yes, learn the lingo—but don’t silence yourself as you learn. You care. That does make it better.

Keep Going

I worked with three consecutive student presidents of Keshet. When I started working with the third student, we would darkly joke that she was president and sole member of the club. We met for an hour every week. We felt confident—as the previous president and I had felt—that there were students who would greatly benefit from the presence of a group for LGBTQ Jews and their allies. So we kept going. Another student stepped up as vice-president. We kept going. The group came together over time, and I’m sure that every moment we kept going was what brought us to the next.

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Posted on August 22, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Orthodox and Coming Out…As an Ally

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

In January 2012, Keshet’s Director of Special Projects, Gregg Drinkwater, addressed audiences at Limmud Colorado, a conference dedicated to advancing new and innovative ideas in the context of Jewish learning. Below is an excerpt of a story Gregg shared about an Orthodox rabbi who recently came out as an ally of LGBT Jews. Gregg reminds us that while loving our neighbors is more important than judging them for whom they love, it’s still a big deal to hear that articulated in the Orthodox world.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, a liberal Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles, recently wrote a blog post in which he recounted “coming out” during an interfaith panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. During the panel, he “[came] out of the closet … as an Orthodox rabbi who is a proud ally with those of LGBT orientation,” as he put it.

Friends of mine shared and debated Rabbi Yanklowitz’s essay in emails and on Facebook. In one such Facebook discussion, friends commented how glad they were to see an Orthodox rabbi speaking publicly as an ally of the LGBT community. One friend wrote: “davening in a shul with an Orthodox rabbi like [Rabbi Shmuly] has made Orthodox Judaism possible for me.”

Others, though, asked why this was so important. A Modern Orthodox rabbi saying he’s an ally of LGBT people? No big deal. It’s 2012 and this rabbi is only one among many Modern Orthodox colleagues (and entire armies of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis) known as supporters of inclusion of LGBT Jews. Some critics noted that his panel discussion and subsequent blog post took place in Los Angeles – not a place known as a hotbed of anti-gay sentiment. Where were the rabbis speaking out as LGBT allies in Monsey, one friend asked? Other critics noted that Rabbi Yanklowitz’s short essay didn’t tackle the halakha of homosexuality, or offer specifics about what being an ally meant to him.

The most striking comment came from a friend-of-a-friend who dismissed Rabbi Yanklowitz’s statement because, he argued, it’s already the case that anti-LGBT behavior is no longer tolerated in Modern Orthodox communities. And, he continued, most Modern Orthodox Jews today believe that Leviticus 19:18 trumps Leviticus 18:22.

Leviticus 18:22 famously forbids a man from “lying with a man as with a woman,” while 19:18 instructs each one of us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In his comments on Rabbi Yanklowitz’s blog post, this friend-of-a-friend seemed to be suggesting not only that “love your neighbor as yourself” is, as Rashi has noted, citing Rabbi Akiva, the “great principle of the Torah.” But he was also arguing that in today’s Modern Orthodox communities, it is understood that it is not our place to judge our LGBT brothers and sisters, and that we ought to show LGBT Jews the empathy and support we ourselves would expect in the face of our own struggles and challenges with Torah and halakha, whatever they may be.

As an advocate for inclusive communities, I have personally engaged with Jewish communities around LGBT issues all over the world. I’m not sure that I can agree with this well-meaning friend-of-a-friend’s expansive suggestion that we’ve moved beyond Leviticus 18:22. I hear regularly from Jews worldwide who are eagerly seeking the support of people like Rabbi Yanklowitz. LGBT Jews regularly share stories with Keshet of demeaning, hurtful, homophobic and transphobic comments from their rabbinic and communal leaders. Too many Orthodox rabbis still do give voice to anti-gay rhetoric, sometimes actively maligning LGBT people – more often passively refusing to speak out when hateful sentiments are shared in Jewish communities or the wider world. Too few members of Orthodox communities see or hear from community leaders like Rabbi Yanklowitz.

It is still noteworthy for an Orthodox rabbi to publicly and in print “come out” as an ally. Very few Orthodox rabbis have done so. Many Orthodox rabbis (and many more non-rabbinic Orthodox leaders) speak privately to LGBT folks as allies, or make statements in workshops or conference sessions, or are known in LGBT circles to be allies. But public statements that are “on the record” are indeed rare.

This published statement from Rabbi Yanklowitz might be seen by a struggling gay or transgender Orthodox teen, or a closeted Jewish adult, or the fearful parent of a lesbian daughter, and it might give them hope or comfort. Private conversations and “in-crowd” knowledge about who is and who isn’t an ally are great but they aren’t visible to the vast majority of LGBT Jews, their families and their friends – people who need the guidance, support and affirmation.

As much as we aspire to live in a world in which Leviticus 19:18 guides our every thought and every action, we aren’t there yet. Until then, yasher koach to Rabbi Yanklowitz!

Posted on August 17, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Blessings and Curses: What’s in a Binary?

Torah Scroll

Creative Commons/FireWallJC

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Alex Weissman examines parashat Re’eh, which contains rules and directions for Temple worship.

This week’s parasha starts with the kind of moralizing binary we are quite accustomed to seeing in Torah. If you do X, great. If you do Y, curses. X and Y are then elaborated in great detail, including instructions on when to worship (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), how to worship (tithes, votives, sacrifice the firstlings of your herds and flocks), what not to worship (false prophets or dream-givers), and what not to eat.

The name of the parasha, Re’eh, means “See” as the first line begins, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deut. 11:26). Here, we are compelled to see the acts, be they blessed or cursed, and to see each other, blessed or cursed, depending on those acts. We are to be mutual observers, holding our communities accountable to the laws of Torah. Like so many commandments, these are designed to make us kadosh – that is, both holy – and set apart.

Essentially, Torah is asking us to draw a line—a line between “good Jews” (those who follow the mitzvot) and “bad Jews” (those who do not). It’s certainly a line people draw all the time today, often in our own lives. How many times have we heard, “Oh, I’m a bad Jew,” from friends or ourselves as we’ve bitten into a bacon cheeseburger, skipped Shabbat services, or forgot to daven. What constitutes good Jew vs. bad Jew may be different for different people, but the very presence of that line is something that has been deeply embedded in our communal psyche. Today, while we may not be sacrificing the firstlings of our herds and flocks anymore, we still draw these lines in different ways, including lines around “good” and “bad” sexual beings.

As we “see” each other in our communities of accountability, what are the lines that we draw for blessings and curses for sexual practices? As queer theorist Leo Bersani reminds us in his book, Homos, “visibility is a precondition of surveillance, disciplinary intervention, and at the limit, gender-cleansing.” Being seen and visible may seem like a desirable goal, but it can also be dangerous.

As queer people, sexual moralizing has been used against us to promote violent systems of transphobia and heterosexism with painful impacts on our bodies, our lives, and our souls. But what happens when we respond to this external moralizing of our community’s sexual practices with a moralizing of our own? All too often we are pressured to represent ourselves reactively in an attempt to paint a sanitized version of our lives that erases the richness of sexual differences we could be proud of. Bersani again cautions us, “[In] our anxiety to convince straight society that we are only some malevolent invention and that we can be, like you, good soldiers, good parents, and good citizens, we seem bent on suicide.” Bersani is concerned that in our reactive desires to appear “respectable,” we risk further erasing the members of our communities who are already at the margins and do not have the ability to appear respectable even if they wanted to.

Imagine a contemporary version of Re’eh that enumerated the dominant sexual morals imposed on LGBTQ people. My guess is we would easily find practices that would place large portions of our communities at those erasable margins: protected vs. unprotected sex, with one partner vs. multiple partners, with a significant other vs. a stranger, in private vs. in public, not in exchange for money vs. in exchange for money, vanilla vs. BDSM, etc. Yet in our sexual lives, many of us engage in, or even desire to engage in, many of these marginalized sexual practices. How do we recognize the pleasures, risks, desires, and differences in our sexual lives in a way that does not buy normalcy at the cost of sacrificing our margins? The answer lies in Talmud.

“As the curse was pronounced by the Levites, so the blessing had to be pronounced by the Levites. As the curse was uttered in a loud voice, so the blessing had to be uttered in a loud voice. As the curse was said in Hebrew, so the blessing had to be said in Hebrew. As the curses were in general and particular terms, so must the blessings be in general and particular terms. And as with the curse both parties respond ‘Amen,’ so with the blessing both parties respond “Amen” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37b.).

Blessing and curse are inseparable; if we utter a curse, so must we mutter a blessing. They both come from us in the same ways because we cannot and should not be ashamed of either—we say them both loudly, in Hebrew, and in relationship to others. Given their equal footing in ritual, I want to suggest that the blessing and curse are so intricately bound up with each other that curse and blessing actually bleed into each other so as to become one. In just a few chapters (Deut. 23:3-6), we’ll revisit the story of Balaam, whose curse for the Israelites turned into blessings three separate times! Blessing and curse collapse into each other as the boundaries between them are blurred.

If we see curses and blessings as such, perhaps we can see, as we are commanded, each other as Jews and as sexual beings who are simultaneously worthy of curses/blessings, which are determined not by the shaming practices of moralizing heterosexism, but by communities of righteousness and love who understand that, as Walt Whitman taught us, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Re’eh ends on a hopeful (albeit masculinist) note with more instructions on how to worship, “They shall not appear before Adonai empty handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you” (Deut. 16:16-17). If our holiness before God is determined “according to blessing that Adonai your god has bestowed upon” us, then God recognizes our holiness to include our curses as well. Let Re’eh be a model for us all to see the blessings, curses, and multitudes that exist within ourselves and each other as we celebrate the complexity of difference in our sexual and religious lives.

Posted on August 15, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Five Things That Make Us Go Ummm

Is holding hands comfortable for LGBT at your institution?In the course of our work to create and nurture welcoming, inclusive, Jewish communities, we have the privilege of working with incredibly diverse people, institutions, and communities. And yet, over the years of doing this work, we’ve come across a few different messages and responses time and time again. We’ve collected five common things we hear from well-intentioned communities trying to be welcoming, but who aren’t sure where or why to begin. If you see yourself in any of these, don’t fret! We’ve all been there, or somewhere similar, before. Below each common message is some of our thinking about how to deal with this situation in your community, and we’d love to hear from you if you have other ideas, or additional questions!

1. “We don’t have a need for this kind of training; we don’t have any gay or trans people in our community.”

There are LGBTQ people, our families, and our friends in Jewish communities of every denomination, affiliation, size, political persuasion, and in every state and province of North America. (Abroad, too!) Living in a world that repeatedly tells us to be less than our full selves, a world marred by homophobia and transphobia, many of us learn to search for the subtle clues and indicators that it is safe for us to come out. If we don’t see them, we may stay silent about who we are – or who our family members and loved ones are – or we may simply leave in search of another, safer community. Often, when communities are proactive about creating welcoming, inclusive safe environments for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, we show up in unexpected places! (Like next to you in services, at your neighbor’s house for a shiva call, in your son’s Hebrew High class, and on the bimah.)

2. “We already have a lesbian on staff/in the congregation/on a committee/who came to an event once – so we’re already welcoming!”

It can be easy to see one LGBTQ person joining your community, or taking on leadership, and mark it as a harbinger of successful inclusion work. And it’s probably true that you’re doing some things right! But it’s important not to tokenize the one or two out LGBTQ people in your community. Tokenization is when we expect people of a particular identity to be the only folks speaking about, raising issues related to, or advocating for the needs of people who share their identity. Queer people shouldn’t be the only people carrying the flag of LGBTQ inclusion in your community. Because sometimes that flag gets heavy, and they might need to set it down, or hand it off to someone else. It can be exhausting to constantly advocate for yourself and your needs, and if you’re doing all of that work on your own, it’s easy to burn out. So while it’s important to make sure that LGBTQ people are connected to, involved in, and informing the work your community is doing for LGBTQ inclusion, also be sure to check in and see if it’s what they want to be doing, and be diligent about working to recruit other allies who care about LGBTQ issues to help out, as well.

3. “It’s fine to be gay here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.”

Try substituting “Jewish” in for “gay” in the above sentence. “It’s fine to be Jewish here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.” Hearing that would probably rub most Jews – and hopefully most of our allies – the wrong way! Does that mean we can’t talk about Hanukkah? Does it mean we aren’t allowed to daven mincha if we can’t find a secluded, hidden space? Does that mean we shouldn’t be too loud, or serve too much food, or have a nose that is bigger than yours, or in any other way too closely jive with your painful, damaging stereotypes about who Jews are and what we do?

What we hear when we hear phrases like that is that the people saying them are less interested in actually seeing and understanding the complex shapes and diverse realities of our lives as LGBTQ people than they are in appearing inclusive and welcoming to a disinterested outsider. How should we judge what it means to “make a big deal about it”? Often this kind of language is used to police our behavior so as to limit the risk that we discomfit others in the community by being our full selves. This means that we have to second-guess our rights to an authentic gender presentation, public displays of affection, talking about our partners and families, naming our identities, or otherwise ever giving hint to the full realities of our lives. This equation often gives a great deal of weight to the comfort and ease of straight people in a community, and is largely missing a consideration of the inherent risks in living in a homophobic and heteronormative environment – namely pain, fear, rejection, isolation, shame, and both emotional and physical violence.

4. “Well, we don’t talk about sex here/with the kids at this age, so I don’t think this discussion would be appropriate.”

Queer people’s lives are about more than sex, and to talk about LGBQ* people doesn’t necessarily mean talking about sex at all. The perception that LGBQ people are always talking about sex when we talk about our identities is usually rooted in heteronormativity, and an inability to see LGBQ people as vibrantly complex human beings seeking meaningful connections and relationships in many of the same varied ways that straight people do.

Sometimes people ask: “Well then, how do you describe being gay to a nine year old?” Probably if you asked everyone at Keshet, you’d get a different answer, but here’s one possible conversation you could have:

Adult: You know how your parents really love each other, and how they really love you?

Kid: Yeah!

Adult: They probably like to show you and tell you that they love you, and that they love each other, all the time, right?

Kid: Yeah! Sometimes my dad puts me on his shoulders so I can touch the trees because I love trees and he loves me! And my ima kisses my knees when I fall down and sings me songs at night because she loves me! Sometimes they kiss each other and cook dinner for each other because they love each other.

Adult: That’s so great! Isn’t it awesome to show the people we love that we love them? You know, as you grow up, you’ll probably love a lot of people, which is really nice! Some people find one person that they fall in love with for the rest of their lives, which is pretty exciting for them.

Kid: That sounds neat.

Adult: Yeah, it is. Have you heard the word gay before? Sometimes boys fall in love with boys, and sometimes girls fall in love with girls and when that happens, they might call themselves gay. It’s a word that people use to describe themselves if they love people of the same gender. Also, sometimes people fall in love with people regardless of their gender. What’s most important is that people who love each other are kind and caring toward each other, like your parents are to each other and to you.

There’s lots of ways to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people without talking about sex, when we remember that our sexual orientation can describe the orientation of our mental, emotional, and physical attractions to people.

But also, LGBTQ people do have sex, and that’s a totally normal part of human sexuality. So when you are having conversations about sex (with adolescents, teens, or adults), it’s really important that LGBQ people’s experiences, needs, and sexual health is included and reflected. There are a lot of excellent resources and tools our there for LGBTQ comprehensive sex-education. Here are a few to start with:

  • Sacred Choices, the Union for Reform Judaism’s sex-ed curriculum
  • Planned Parenthood has a very large list of comprehensive sexual education curricula and resources, available here.
  • Our Whole Lives sex-ed curriculum, developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ

5. “Well, we don’t let the boys wear the Esther costume on Purim because they’re just preschoolers, it would confuse the other students and we don’t want them to be bullied.”

Children begin to hear and absorb cultural messages about appropriate gender roles at a very young age, and they simultaneously express gender variance at a very young age. It can be easy to presume that other children will react the way many adults in our world react to seeing gender variance: with fear, hostility, ridicule, or violence. And yet, when we model a response to gender diversity that is safe, encouraging, and accepting, children follow suit.

One of the most powerful messages an adult can send to a young person is that they have the safety and security to take risks, including taking a risk with their gender. Gender play and exploration is a very natural and healthy part of a young child’s life and growth. While many children who experiment with gender at a young age never express a gender variant identity, for those children who eventually grow into a gender identity that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, early messages of acceptance can be profoundly empowering

What would it take for your community to be safe enough for young people to take risks with their gender? What could happen if the next time Josh reaches for the Esther costume, instead of being told “remember Josh, boys dress up as Mordechai or King A,” Josh was instead told “remember Josh, it’s important to share. We only have one Esther costume, and Rachel, Zach, and Ariel all want to dress up as Esther too”?

*There are a lot of intersections in inclusion work between issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, but they aren’t identical. When it comes to sex, and assumptions about people based on whom we think they have sex with and how they have that sex, we’re often talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people. Some lesbian, gay, bi, and queer people are also trans, but those are two distinct facets of their identities. In responding to this fear of talking about sex when we talk about gay people, we focused on issues of homophobia, and the stigmas facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people’s experiences with sex. So we’ve left off the T in our acronym for this response. Not because trans people don’t matter – but in fact the opposite, because it’s important not to conflate gender diversity with sexual orientation, or transphobia with homophobia. When we do that, trans people’s experiences get lost and collapsed into homophobia, and we all lose out.

Posted on August 13, 2012

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Bind These Words


Creative Commons/Robert Terrell

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Ari Lev Fornari examines parashat ekev, which includes the second paragraph of the Shema.

Chest Binder: an undergarment worn by female-to-male (FTM) transexual, transgender and genderqueer people, and anyone else who chooses to flatten the appearance of their breasts.

Talit Katan: an undergarment traditionally worn by Jewish men which has knotted fringes tied to its four corners to be a reminder of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah.

“Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”
—Deuteronomy 11:18

“B’shem mitzvat tzitzit v’mitzvat hityatzrut” (“For the sake of the mitzvah of ritual fringes and the mitzvah of self-formation.”)
—Rabbi Eli Kukla, Director of Education, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice

I say this bracha (blessing) quietly to myself, as I bind these words, as I tighten the Velcro fabric that presses my breast flat. Let them be a sign: that I am not a woman, I think, that I am maybe a man, I hope, that I am holy Jewish and genderqueer, I know.

This week, in Parashat Ekev, we read the second paragraph of the Shema prayer. I hold these words close in my prayers as I tie my tzitzit (ritual fringes) the edges of my chest binder.

Instructions: There are sixteen strands in a pack – four long ones and twelve short ones. Separate these into four groups with one long one and three short ones in each. The longer one is called the shammash and is the one used for the winding.

There are four knotted strings that hang from the corners of my chest binder. “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments.” (Numbers 15:38) It has been one year since I started wearing clothing that compresses my chest and asking people to use both male and female pronouns. Sometimes this feels empowering and exciting, but a lot of times the thick, sweaty fabric is just uncomfortable, making it difficult to breath and making my sternum ache.

Even out the four strands at one end and push the group through one of the corner holes in the talit. Even up seven of the eight strands (the four being doubled) and leave the extra length of the shammash hanging to one side.

It is not always easy to learn Jewish rituals traditionally reserved for biological boys. Non-orthodox Jews, especially women, FTM’s, and gender variant folks, need to consciously access information on how to halakhically [legally] observe the 613 mitzvot. But even then, they sometimes need to be made applicable. Wearing a talit katan chest binder is somewhere between observing and reclaiming. I want to fulfill the commandment, in light of and in spite of my attempt to simultaneously subvert gender norms and transgress gender boundaries. I bind the words of Torah close to my heart, bringing the intention of the Shema into my daily life, making my gender a sign “when I stay at home and when I am away, when I lie down and when I get up.” (Deuteronomy 11:19)

With the four strands in one hand and the other four in the other hand, make a double knot near the edge of the material. Take the shammash and wind it around the other seven strands in a spiral – seven turns. Be sure you end the winding where you began – otherwise you may end up with 7 1/2 or 6 1/2 winds. Make another double knot at this point (four over four).

I am not always sure I know how to pray. By which I mean, I don’t always know how to connect the motions with my intentions, the Hebrew with my thoughts, the English with my traditions.

Spiral the shammash eight times around. Double knot. Spiral the shammash eleven times around. Double knot. Spiral the shammash thirteen times around. Final double knot.

Recently, I have been trying to enter Jewish traditions from a place of textual knowledge. Learning what they are about and then figuring out how I can connect with their intention in my own life. The talit katan chest binder empowers me to be active in the formation of my gender, my Judaism, my connection to the divine. Carrying the intentions with me, feeling them on my body, holding them in my heart, this I can do.

“And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them? and be holy unto your God.” (Numbers 15:39)

–August, 2006

Posted on August 10, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jewish, LGBT And Looking For…: Your One-Stop Shop for Jewish Institutions

Keshet SafeZone Sticker

Looking for a safe and inclusive institution?

Looking for a day school that offers materials listing “Parent 1/Parent 2” instead of “Mother/Father”?

Want to find a synagogue that offers all-gender or non-gendered bathrooms?

Seeking a JCC with LGBT events on the calendar?

Need a rabbi or a cantor who will perform a wedding for a same-sex couple?

Keshet’s new Equality Guide is a user-friendly database connecting LGBT Jews and their loved ones to inclusive institutions and clergy across the country. Already, over 700 synagogues, camps, JCCs, rabbis and cantors have listed themselves.

But we know there are more of you out there—just as we know that there are plenty of people already looking for an institution near them. So we invite you to come peruse, search, look around, and keep us in mind. Plus, please make sure that the inclusive institutions in your life get added to the Guide! Just click here to get started.

Plus, we’re always looking to add more information, making the guide a stronger and better resource all the time. So if you’re proud of the fact that your campus Hillel has out LGBT staff, if you’re a rabbi who would love to perform same-sex kiddushin, if your synagogue has programming for LGBT Jews—please let us know!

Posted on August 3, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Joy Ladin’s Door of Life

Joy Ladin's Door of LifeTalking to Joy Ladin is like speaking with your favorite professor from college — the one who wove words in a way that was simply magical, who would drop bits of wisdom into a conversation that you wouldn’t even notice until days later, when you remember them suddenly. She is clearly an incredible teacher.

And that makes sense, because Joy is that professor for plenty of students at the Stern College for Women, part of New York’s Yeshiva University. Joy made headlines in 2007 when she became the first out transgender professor at an Orthodox institution.

She is the David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University. And lucky for us, she also joined Keshet’s board this spring. You can see Joy speak at a number of upcoming engagements, including at the Yale Hillel on September 11, 2012. (Exact time and location will soon be posted here.)

Through the Door of Life is a remarkable, soul-baring memoir. You chose a title that immediately lets people know that your story is a Jewish one. For anyone who hasn’t read your book yet, can you explain briefly how Judaism structured your “journey between genders”?

I grew up as a trans kid in hiding, but I also grew up as what my rabbi, Jill Hammer, calls a “feral Jew.” I was very drawn to Judaism, but my family wasn’t religious. It was very freeing, actually. I didn’t have anyone else’s version of Judaism to push against, so I could make it up as I went along, and not feel like I was bound to those Bronze Age laws.

It was the portrayal of God in the Torah that really grabbed me. God is an alien — in the sci-fi sense — and I felt like an alien. God has trouble communicating, and is very lonely, and has no real body and that’s how I felt, as a kid. So much of holiness is about how people relate to one another. The core of Judaism is this longing for contact with humanity despite all of the obstacles that our bodies put in the way.

In a profound way, Judaism gave me a language to express my longing to relate to other people.

Continue reading

Posted on August 1, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy