Welcome to our fifth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and 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. Here, we interview Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
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. You can also read the first four posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, and Rabbi Denise Eger.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I work in a team of four rabbis at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, providing spiritual care to those struggling with grieving, illness, or dying, and I also direct the Healing Center’s hospice spiritual care volunteer program. The experience of being a transgender and queer person with a body and life trajectory outside of mainstream expectations is what led me to this work. I don’t consider being queer or trans a form of illness, but for me, being transgender and building a queer family and community has theological implications that also impact the way I respond to illness and aging. If we really embrace the idea that all of our various genders and desires were created in the image of God, we must believe that God wants and needs difference. This means that all bodies as they stretch, sag, shrink, grow, age and heal are divine; and all phases in the life cycle are holy and deserve sacred attention and care.
Not everyone will experience the estrangement from friends, family and religious community that often accompanies coming out as queer or transitioning, but all people, at one time or another, will get sick, will age, will have periods of disability and will experience loss. These experiences are inherently isolating – the world is for the well and when we are sick or bereaved we feel isolated from our families and communities, from media representations of what life is supposed to look like, and from day to day activities. When we come to age and to die our body will no longer fit comfortably into mainstream expectations for “normal” embodiment and we are often responded to with fear. Being queer helps me to access the feelings of isolation that many of my clients are experiencing in hospitals and nursing homes.
What should we, as members of the LGBT Jewish community, be focusing on now?
My answer to this question is framed by my work. We have put a lot of attention in the LGBTQ community towards access to marriage and adoption and other important life cycles that tend to fall in early or mid life, and much less attention has been placed on how we care for each other as we age, or when we are sick and vulnerable. I came out in the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1990 and saw caring for one another as an essential part of what it means to be queer, but memories are short and it is easy to forget how vitally queer people still need to advocate and care for one another in a health care system that is not always on our side. Homophobia and transphobia impacts the health care system enormously and we need good Jewish responses to this so that we are working to protect each other as we age and when we get sick. This means spiritual care resources for LGBTQ Jews who are suffering that addresses some of the spiritual challenges that queer people are likely to face as they age or get sick such as legacy to the next generation, fighting the invisibility of our histories, and finding meaning in self discovery.
We also need to advocate for education for health care and nursing home staff for the particular needs of LGBTQ people in vulnerable situations such as knowing how to ask about and respect chosen family members in end of life decision making, using pronouns of choice for trans people even when aging and illness may change their appearance away from their chosen gender, and protecting the rights of people who can’t or don’t choose to be out in all parts of their life when they are in a hospital or other institution.
Favorite queer Jewish figure?
Well I am a bit biased but I would say my colleagues and friends on TransTorah (an online resource for transgender Jewish resources and information): Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Jhoss Singer, Max Strassfeld, Joy Ladin, Ari Lev Fornari, and Micah Bazant. Check out all of their great writing, music, and art on the site!
What’s next for you? A project, a sermon — what are you working on that’s queer and Jewish?
A prayerbook for healing called “Mishkan Refuah: Where Healing Resides” was just published by the CCAR press and it includes some awesome prayers for stigmatized experiences of illness and suffering that many LGBTQ people can relate to including prayers for mental illness, male infertility, and gender confirming surgeries. I am excited to start working with these prayers with my clients. You can order your own copy for only 6 bucks through the CCAR press.
The Bay Area Jewish Healing Center’s annual bereavement camp, Grief and Growing, is coming up August 15. We welcome individuals and families of all genders and orientations who are grieving the loss of a person. All types of families and grief are respected and people often come from across the country to be with us at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. Every winter we offer a training for people who want to be spiritual care partners to dying people called Kol Haneshama that is a wonderful opportunity to learn about caring and spirituality in a truly diverse group. You can find more information on either of these programs at the Jewish Healing Center’s website.