This spring, Rabbi Jason Klein was elected to lead the Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinic association, making him the first out gay man to hold such a national position in the U.S. Keshet caught up with Rabbi Klein to discuss his experiences in Jewish institutions, the next steps for inclusion at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), and what it’s been like to be out.
You’re the first openly gay man to lead a national rabbinic association in the U.S. What has the response been like? Among Reconstructionist Jews, and also across the Jewish community?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive from Jews of all denominational identifications. I have been struck by some younger people’s feeling affirmed in their own identities as LGBTQ or allies and the responses of elders who have watched so much change happen around creating warm communities just within the span of their adult lives.
Do you think the response was different because Rabbi Toba Spitzer was first out leader of a national rabbinic organization (also the RRA)? Is it different for lesbians and gay men in leadership?
I am thrilled that Rabbi Spitzer blazed this path in 2007 as the first out person to have such a role and to her as a senior colleague and mentor. There are a variety of reasons for why having a gay man in a leading role is significant.
First, for many people, it is easiest to feel most welcome and empowered when it is easiest to see themselves in someone else, so the more people of different Jewish, backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, and other points of diversity there are in leading Jewish roles, the more other people can see themselves in those roles.
The second reason has something to do with the history of sexuality itself, which set the stage for sexual orientation identity in modern times. Since ancient times, women’s sexuality has been, in many quarters, made invisible compared to men’s sexuality. Even in the Hebrew Bible, sexual activity itself seems to be defined by the presence of a man. For a variety of complicated reasons largely connected to this history, to lingering sexism and heterosexism, and the fact that most sexual violence is perpetuated by men, I believe that women’s sexuality comes across to many as less threatening than men’s — and, therefore, when someone comes out as not conforming to the norm, the presence of a gay man may arouse more fear in some people than the presence of a lesbian.
Finally, in some Jewish circles, relationships between two men and thus gay men’s identity are considered “more forbidden” than relationships between two women and lesbian identity, because some Jews understand particular sexual acts between men as prohibited by the “written Torah” [while no such prohibitions exists for two women] as opposed to prohibited the “oral Torah” — rabbinic tradition. This tension is probably strengthened by the enduring sexism and invisibility that I mentioned earlier.
What’s the next step for LGBTQ inclusion for the RRA?
At our annual meeting, we approved a groundbreaking document about Jewish identity and status that goes beyond discussions of matrilineal or patrilineal conveyance of Jewish status and seeks to name the varied ways in which families are created and the ways in which we convey Jewish status and honor Jewish identity. In addition, we unanimously approved a resolution for education across the setting in which our rabbis serve around inclusion and celebration of transgender people.
Have you been out the whole time you’ve been working the in the Jewish world? What changes have you seen over time, or in different parts of the community?
I have been out the whole time I have been working in the Jewish world. When I was an undergraduate and we sought to create a gay Jewish student organization back in 1994, much of the student leadership of the Jewish community on campus advocated strongly against our presence in the Jewish community. At a large town hall style meeting, both our Orthodox and Reform rabbi spoke out publicly in favor of the group’s existence. The former honored me by writing one of my rabbinical school recommendations two years later. Publicizing information about opportunities for LGBTQ Jews was not a forgone conclusion in the Hillel student world nationally, so a group of us claimed victory when we organized the first national gay and lesbian Jewish student leadership conference in 1997 and information about the conference was shared over the Hillel staff listserv. That conference would evolve into NUJLS.
Years later, as someone who has worked within the Hillel world for nearly seven years now, I have come to understand that not only were students doing their own grassroots organizing, but there were Hillel professionals who advocated for these issues within the larger family of Hillel professional staff. Perhaps the most significant change is that people are able to talk about LGBTQ issues, and that the internet has created an opportunity for queer-identified people, their families, and their allies to connect with one another. I also appreciate that more and more communities are not just accepting or “gay-friendly,” but have become more and more sophisticated around what it means to welcome and the real value added in communities in which diversity is truly celebrated. Within the denominations, it has been particularly wonderful to see a Jewish Theological Seminary that accepts openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students and an Open Orthodox world that is grappling with reading two verses in Leviticus narrowly — that they might prohibit one specific act, nothing more and nothing less — and putting the Talmud’s mandate to prioritize the dignity of God’s creation front-and-center.
What are you most excited about in the new job?
The Reconstructionist movement is at a wonderful time of transition — from merging two of our institutions (RRC and JRF) to better train rabbis and better serve our constituents. I am excited for the 325 members of the RRA to shape the future of the movement, to shape the future of the Jewish people by using our collective wisdom, experience, creativity, passions, compassion, and vision.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I like airplanes, wish I knew more about them, and am fascinated by frequent flyer miles.