Welcome to our second installment of “Queer Clergy in Action” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Coming out can be really difficult 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 proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. If you missed our first post in this series about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first out gay Orthodox rabbi, you can read it here.
In 2003, Reuben Zellman became the first transgender rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Movement’s seminary. Ordained in 2010, Rabbi Zellman has spent the past two and a half years at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA, as Assistant Rabbi and Music Director. We were thrilled to catch up with him by phone.
How has being queer informed your work as a rabbi?
The primary ways being queer has informed my work are really twofold. First of all, I wouldn’t have even considered becoming a rabbi if not for support – serious nudging, actually – from the queer Jewish community of which I was a part. I belong to Sha’ar Zahav, which is such a supportive community, and people there basically convinced me that I could – and should – be a rabbi. Continue reading
In honor of World AIDS Day on December 1, we bring you a meditation on the connection between tzara’at, a Biblical skin affliction often mistranslated as leprosy, and HIV/AIDS. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 60 million people have contracted HIV and approximately 30 million have died of AIDS-related causes. Gregg Drinkwater, Keshet’s Colorado Regional Director, reflected on joint Torah portions that discuss tzara’at in-depth, and how they relate to a more modern-day understanding of how we treat people living with HIV and AIDS.
In the recent American presidential campaign [of 2008], a storm of controversy briefly swirled around the right-wing Republican candidate Mike Huckabee over comments he made in the early 1990s favoring quarantine for people living with HIV. Support for isolating HIV-positive individuals was quite common in the mid-1980s (an LA Times poll in December 1985 found 51% of Americans in favor), but by late 2007, when Huckabee’s comments re-surfaced, such opinions had been relegated to the far right and seemed beyond the pale. – Limmud Colorado editors
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 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, Miryam Kabakov examines Biblical examples of co-parenting, looking for lessons that LGBTQ families can learn from today.
Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.
The passage from this week’s parsha (parshat Vayishlach) gives us a picture of a complicated family. If you think you have a complex living arrangement, look at Deena’s home. There are four mothers, one father, and twelve half- or full biological siblings. In this family, there was surely a lot of de facto co-parenting going on and today might be considered “alternative.” If it does take a village, this family has it made in the shade. But at the same time, it seems as if the matriarchs and patriarchs are in the dark about how to navigate family dynamics. Their lives are fraught with jealousy, deceit and one-upmanship. Rachel and Leah treat having children as a race to the finish. Yaakov’s hierarchical ranking of the mothers of his children doesn’t help: as the passage above makes clear, Yaakov is intentional in the placement of his family members as he readies himself to greet his long lost brother Esav. With vivid memories of Esav as a bloodthirsty hunter and fighter bent on revenge, Yaakov splits his camp. The reasoning is that if Esav does attack, at least half will survive. Continue reading
We hear from trans-activists (including on this blog – see yesterday’s interview with Nick Teich) that one impediment to transgender inclusion in the Jewish community is that many people are unsure what trans inclusion actually looks like. The suggestions below provide a vital entry point for allies seeking tangible steps to make their community more transgender friendly.
These steps are excerpted from a pamphlet created by Rabbis Elliot Kukla, Reuven Zellman and TransTorah, in collaboration with the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation and Jewish Mosaic, which in 2010 merged with Keshet.
Share these steps with friends, family, clergy, and others in your community.
Did we miss any? Add your suggestions in the comments section.
Nick Teich is a busy person. In between pursuing a Ph.D. in social policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, working as a licensed social worker, and founding and running the first-ever summer camp for transgender and gender-variant kids, Nick wrote Trans 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue, hailed as a go-to source for “students, professionals, friends and family members.” We caught up with Nick to ask him about the inspiration for the book, how it’s been received, and why a “simple guide” is so vital.
How has this book not yet been written? What inspired you to write it?
There are a lot of books out there that are clinically-focused, academic, or just plain memoirs. I thought it was important that students of gender-related disciplines, students who will be working with people in a clinical setting, and the public in general learn what transgenderism is, starting at the very beginning. I run into a lot of people who feel like their questions are “dumb” or that they should know more about the subject than they do, and I believe that holds them back from learning more. This is not a subject most people know much about, if anything. I wanted to give people an easy-to-read and somewhat entertaining way to learn about transgender people and the issues they face in society. It was important to me that there be some levity because the subject is often so serious, so I added cartoons, one for each chapter, that playfully mock ignorance and discrimination toward transgender people.
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, Maggid Jhos Singer sees Jacob’s flight from his family in Genesis 28 as a unique coming out experience.
Do you remember the first moment you stumbled out of the closet? I don’t mean the first moment that you privately realized you were queer (and by ‘queer’ here I mean whatever differentness you might manifest that isn’t readily apparent to a casual observer), or even when you first acted on your queer tendencies. What I’m thinking of is the first moment that you actually stood in the light of day, as it were, being totally out—just you showing up fully, unhidden, true. You know, your first Meg Christian concert or the first time you marched in an LGBT Pride Parade, the first time you wore a yarmulke/kippah out in the general public, or the first time you corrected a stranger who assumed you were something that you’re not. Thrilling, wasn’t it? Scary, but really incredible, right? I remember feeling broken open and alive in a way that was totally new, awesome, and powerful. While it feels kind of corny to admit it, it really was a spiritual experience. Continue reading
As October moves on into November, we move from LGBT Month into Trans Awareness Month, culminating in Transgender Day of Remembrance. (You can find much more about Trans Day of Remembrance in our Jewish Guide to Marking Transgender Day of Remembrance.) Check out this series of videos of transgender Jews and allies created as part of the “I AM: Trans People Speak” project. We’re grateful to Keshet members Alex, David, Stacy, Stephanie, and Suzie for sharing their lives with us and to the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition for this project.
“Eventually, [my job] became unbearable because the senior staff were making my life miserable because I was open about being transgender. So even somebody like myself, with all these credentials and all this training and all this experience — still gets discriminated against. I can’t reach my full potential, because of other people’s discrimination against me. [Judaism] connects me throughout the generations, with people all over the world. …Being Jewish has helped me in dealing with being transgender.”
We know that this post is much longer than our usual posts. We do hope you’ll stick with it to the end – Rafi’s story is very compelling. We promise it will be worth your time!
(This talk was delivered at Bonai Shalom, Boulder, Colorado, November 2, 2012)
My name is Rafi. I am a transgender Jewish man. This means that I was born female and transitioned to male. Thanks to advances in medical science, this is not something that you can see when you look at me. I’m an appropriate height for a (Jewish) male, I have lots of facial hair and other fur, my voice has deepened to the level of a higher-pitched male. For the most part, I “pass” as a dude.
When I was a little girl growing up in Colorado, I felt there was something different about me. I yearned with all of my heart to be a boy. I wasn’t particularly masculine as a child. Although I did love going fishing and “fixing things” with my father, my favorite colors were pink and purple, I played with baby dolls almost exclusively, I loved drawing and coloring, and playing make-believe games with friends. But at night, when I was about to go to sleep, I would pray, “Dear G-d, please make me a boy,” and was disappointed when I awoke and was still very much a girl. Continue reading
A new report on LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community was just released and it’s already making waves. The Jewish Organization Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign is the first-ever index of inclusive policies and practices in a faith-based community and nonprofit sector. (The report is modeled on HRC’s groundbreaking indices in the corporate and healthcare sectors and it was Initiated by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, together with The Morningstar Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor
The report looked at three areas:
- Organizational Inclusion Efforts: Actions and programs that encourage contributions from the LGBT community and foster diversity and an inclusive environment within the workplace.
- Community/Client Engagement: Programs specifically for LGBT members and clients, including programs and facilities designed for youth and the elderly.
- Workplace Policies: Policies and programs in place that support LGBT employees of the organization.
So, how are we doing as a Jewish community?
The good news:
- 50% of the organizations achieved the top score of “Inclusion.”
- 66% of organizations actively reach out to the LGBT community to attract members or clients.
- This is a bit of a mixed bag, but encouraging. 65% of the organizations with a non-discrimination policy include “sexual orientation” in their policy. Only 30% of those also include “gender identity or expression.”
But, not surprisingly, the report revealed that there is a lot more work to be done.
- Only 33% of the organizations that serve youth have an anti-bullying policy.
- 59% of participating organizations have not completed diversity or inclusion training.
- 51% do not provide LGBT-specific programming.
- 79% have not specifically targeted LGBT individuals in employee recruitment efforts in the past three years.
Check out the #JLGBT page where you can download the report, grab some infographics, and find lots of ways to get involved (both on- and off-line). You can also follow the discussion on Twitter using #jlgbt.
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 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, David Levy looks at Biblical twins Jacob and Esau through the lens of nature versus nurture.
Toldot, the name given to this week’s parasha, has many layers to its definition. Coming from the Hebrew root meaning “birth,” it literally means “generations.” Its use in the Torah introduces genealogical lists, and also marks the beginning of important stories related to the members of Abraham’s particular genealogical line – some translations even give the word as it appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha as “story.” Toldot is a particularly fitting name for this section of the Torah, because the story begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau, and hinges on both the relationship between the older and younger generations and the question of who shall lead the generations to follow.
To me, Parashat Toldot reads like a divine statement on the “nature versus nurture” debate: are our identities and destinies somehow inherent in us, or are we shaped by the environment in which we are brought up, formed by the generation before us? In queer culture, this debate at times looms large. Are we “born that way” or are there external factors that “make us gay”? And if we adopt children, will our nurturing homes be enough to bring up a next generation in our image, or will adopted children turn out like their birth parents…whoever they might be?
While these questions may at times feel like irrelevant cocktail conversation, they also have a sinister side. If it turns out that queerness can be genetically predicted, will narrow-minded potential parents terminate pregnancies rather than bear queer children? If research points toward environmental factors, will it only fuel “ex-gay ministries” that attempt to “rehabilitate” queer people from their lifestyle?
In attempting to study the question of “nature versus nurture,” researchers have often looked to families with twins, particularly identical twins. After all, if twins share DNA and are brought up together, that’s as reliable a control group as one might hope to find. Whereas if twins are brought up separately, the influence of “nurture” might become more evident.
Now the twins in this week’s parasha – Esau and Jacob – are not identical, in either looks or temperament. Esau is a ruddy, hairy hunter; his younger brother a mild-mannered, smooth-bodied man. Their differences manifest themselves almost at the moment of conception, struggling in their mother’s womb. They are born fighting – Esau coming first with Jacob clutching his heel – and their relationship remains stormy well into adulthood. Even God affirms their nature, telling their mother Rebecca during her pregnancy “the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
The first story the Torah offers us of the boys’ later life involves Jacob bartering Esau’s birthright in exchange for stew. Jacob is cunning, seizing the opportunity with no sign of premeditation. Sounds like a case for nature, no?
When we meet up with the brothers again, a similar story of Jacob stealing the blessing of his father from Esau unfolds. Only in this story, Jacob doesn’t act with the same initiative and cunning. This time, Jacob’s mother Rebecca orchestrates the entire affair, telling Jacob exactly what to do in order to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son instead of his. Rebecca’s plan involves not only cooking, but also grooming and clothing, along with a solid command of the cultural issues at play…in short, she’s practically a one-woman ancient Near Eastern “Queer Eye.” When Jacob protests that Isaac might not be so susceptible to Rebecca’s plan, she shuts her son up with a quick “Just do as I say.” (Genesis 27:13)
The whole birthright-stew exchange suddenly comes into a sharper focus after witnessing the skill in Rebecca’s plan and the way she dominates her son. Perhaps Jacob was able to seize that opportunity so quickly because Rebecca raised him. Exposure to his mother’s example would surely have sharpened Jacob’s acuity in such situations. Perhaps he was nurtured to be as he is.
But when two stories that are so similar exist side by side in the Torah, we can’t help but ask why. Why tell what is essentially the same story twice, if there’s not something to be learned from the contrast? In this case, I think a core lesson speaks to the futility of the nature versus nurture debate. This parasha presents two alternate versions of Jacob and Esau’s relationship, one colored by birth and the other by environment. Both turn out the same. Whether Jacob had it in for Esau from the womb, or whether he learned his behavior from his mother, shouldn’t affect what lessons we take from their interactions.
This lesson itself could bear repeating once in a while these days. When I think about the amount of money, energy, and talent being devoted to research into “gay genes” (and not, say, to curing AIDS), I have to wonder why. Whether we are born queer, become queer, or choose to be queer shouldn’t affect how we’re judged, our rights under the law, our access to appropriate health care, or our positive self-images.