Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Ultimate Tzedakah: Being a Surrogate Mother

Keshet is pretty excited about The Guys Next Door, a feature-length documentary that tells the story of Erik and Sandro, a gay couple with two daughters birthed by their friend Rachel. (Check out the trailer below!)

sandro-erik-and-their-daughtersWe had the chance to chat with Amy Geller, who is co-producing and directing the film along with Allie Humenuk. Amy, who was the Artistic Director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival from 2012-2014, came across Erik, Sandro, and Rachel’s story through an alumni connection at her college, and was inspired to share their experiences.

Amy and Allie spent three and a half years filming The Guys Next Door—which includes, as Amy puts it, “the ultimate act of tzedakah.” Rachel, who is in her 40s and married to her husband Tony, has three biological children of her own. According to Amy, “by helping her gay friends to have daughters, Rachel makes a deeply personal decision that has political implications. With the support of Tony and their children, she affirms gay rights and same-sex parenting.”

Rachel shared how her Jewish faith inspired her to act as a surrogate for Erik and Sandro:

family-portaitI am Jewish and my parents raised me to believe in equality and giving to others in whatever ways we can. As a mother now, it is important for me to continue living the foundation of those (Jewish) values, and teach them to my children. My experience in helping my good friends, Erik and Sandro, be able to have children, symbolizes to me the notion of Tikkun Olam—my little part in helping heal the world. It struck me as incredibly unfair that my husband and I could so easily have children, and that for two gay men to have children would be such a hardship, particularly financial. I believe that being able to help them have their daughters not only benefits them, but also benefits my family, and really, benefits the world around us. My hope is that it helps people see that family can look like many different and wonderful things, and how two gay men, given the opportunity, can create a beautiful home filled with love and strong values, just as well as a heterosexual couple can.

We can’t wait to see the film when it’s finished! If you’re inspired by Erik and Sandro’s love—or Rachel’s act of tzedakah—you can help support the film through its Kickstarter campaign.

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Posted on March 26, 2015

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Heather and Her Mommies March into the 21st Century

Heather-Has-Two-MommiesHeather Has Two Mommies, the first of its kind children’s book about a child of two moms, is celebrating its 25th birthday!

The book, which caused quite the uproar when it was first published, is being reissued with updated text and new illustrations, including wedding rings on Heather’s mommies’ hands. The loving message of the book remains: “the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love one another.”

You can read more about Heather Has Two Mommies here, as well as other works by Lesléa Newman, the book’s author! Lesléa has also been honored by Keshet as an LGBT Jewish Hero.

Listen to Lesléa Newman share how Heather Has Two Mommies came to be.

Posted on March 24, 2015

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It’s the Little Things Part 2: In Pursuit of Imperfection  

cropped-full-logoToday’s post from Carson Gleberman of “Umm, About That..” offers advice from parents of LGBTQ children. If you’re looking for more support, check out the Keshet Parent & Family Connection.

Carson’s last post showed how small changes in language could be powerful signals that help open conversations, and listening for the question behind the question can help you get to the answer your kid really needs. But how do we get over our fear of sputtering to a confused stop, of making a mess in a sensitive situation?

My current and recent teen interviews revealed that parental willingness to show discomfort, surprise, and a lack of knowledge actually turn out to be seeds of strength to help their kids.

“One beautiful thing about my son is that through all these questions of mine he just kept bringing me information, articles, and websites. So I would advise any parent, always be open to learning more because it is amazing what you can learn from your children.” —MS

Seeing the parents “behind the curtain,” like the struggling Wizard of Oz, is fine as long as what they see is that you are indeed trying, or even thinking about trying.

“It’s universal that kids will complain about how their parents reacted [to coming out news], but that’s OK. Don’t feel shame or guilt over your first reaction. Deal with it honestly, and then just be supportive.”—AR

“It took me 4 years between realizing that I was queer and coming out. I don’t think it will take my parents quite that long. It’s been two years and they may still not be fully there, but it’s OK.”—AA

“I wanted my parents to at least acknowledge that they might move from where they were to a different place, but they wouldn’t, at first. We had terrible fights.”—IK

Family_jumpAwkward efforts may be especially valued.

“I was touched after I first came out that my parents obsessed over recommending movies with gay characters in them even if they were really bad movies. I didn’t want to watch them, or finish them if we had started, but I knew they were trying.”—EL

“It’s kind of awkward when my boyfriend comes over. [My dad] doesn’t know how to talk to him. [Not the same as when his older sister brought home her first boyfriend.] It’s weird because he doesn’t know if he should be all guy-to-guy with him, like ‘Hey, what’s up,’ or what. I can understand how he feels because even I think it’s weird that I should have a boyfriend sometimes.”—TA

With respect to our words, is it better to wait or jump in bravely?

“Parents are always growing emotionally too. With that comes better impulse control. Parents would do well to try to sit on their own feelings and rage and just listen.”—LB

“The first time we met the boyfriend, I could tell my son was really uptight. I don’t really interrogate the boyfriends of either my daughter or my son, and I could tell when I shook his hand that he was very bright and personable. But I knew they both were nervous. I empathized! I knew my job was to try to make the boyfriend more comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable.”—MA

Some of my sources felt there was a practical benefit of parental stumbling around their kids’ gender or orientation.

“Sometimes parents’ less-than-full acceptance or slowness in coming to acceptance can actually help prepare kids for the outside world. It’s a kind of tough love.”—LB

“You don’t want to teach your child that the world is an evil place, but there are definitely people out there who will call him names or be mean, and you have to prepare a kid for that somehow.”—SH

We don’t sugar-coat messages to our kids about the world’s expectations regarding punctuality, dress codes, job interview etiquette, the importance of human spell-checking, etc. In a closer parallel, as our kids start moving around independently, we teach them street-wise behavior to make them less-likely crime targets. But conformity to majority expectations or safe practices in these matters rarely threaten teens’ developing sense of self (despite what they may say about the stifling oppression of dress codes).

Gender and orientation, on the other hand, are central to identity.

And even young kids see that heterosexual and cis-gendered are “normal” and anything else is outside the majority, even if they have not directly seen and understood homophobia. So this calls for more nuance in the “real world” prep lessons from parents.

“As parents, we have fears, but if we ask for help we can reduce the problems our kids face… He knew I was confused but he also knew I was there for him no matter what. I think feeling your 100% support is very important for them, and then they become your support too.”—MS

“For parents who want their kids not to have such a hard life, if they know they have their parents full support it eliminates the hardest problem they’ll ever face.”—BK

“It’s how they show the worry that matters. If you assume the world is all homophobic, you want the kid to hide it, but the message that you shouldn’t have to hide it is much better.”—KP

KPFC-photo-small-675x170“It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of parents have grief, even if they are progressive. You had a dream of your kid’s life, and now it won’t be like that. My mom was completely worried that I’d be lonely and sad. She went to a PFLAG meeting [see also Keshet's Parent & Family Connection], met other parents and found out that this wasn’t going to be the case. Then she became an activist.”—AR

 

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Posted on March 18, 2015

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It’s the Little Things

Today’s post from Keshet Board member Carson Gleberman offers advice from parents of LGBTQ children. If you’re looking for more support, check out the Keshet Parent & Family Connection.

family-76781_1280What does it mean to be a “good parent” to a child who is questioning his or her sexuality or gender, already identifies as LGBTQ, or is somewhere in between?

We intuitively know that little things like word choice and facial expressions matter, but the right actions and reactions often don’t spring readily to mind in the moment. And—no pressure!—the stakes are kinda high. This theme emerged in the very first interview I did for my website.

“Parents can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: they think [their child’s life as a queer person] is going to be hard, so they don’t stand up for them when they could, and indeed, life becomes harder than it needed to be.”—TH

Yet, parents have their own coming out process to go through, from zero to understanding to advocate, on an extremely compressed schedule. But my interviews with teens and former teens brought welcome news: “good” parents don’t have to be perfect. Attention to some little things, even if uneven or awkwardly done, make a big difference.

1. A few small signals, or invitations to open a conversation, might seem to be ignored in the moment but will register:

“My grandfather, who was 94 when he died, used to watch James Bond movies with me. One day, out of the blue he paused the movie and asked me what I thought of gay marriage, and said he agreed with it. My grandparents had a house on Fire Island for years (I’m still mad they sold it) and he said they had partied with gay people out there. Taking time to talk and voice support makes a huge difference. Recently I was driving out to Long Island with my dad and there was news on the radio about the Iowa Caucus. They mentioned the Republican pledge to reverse gay marriage. My dad was reading, only half paying attention, but his reflexive grunt of disapproval was really wonderful.”—PO

“My mom always said, ‘You can talk to me about anything. The most important thing is to respect your body.’ She would say that sometimes to try to spark a conversation, and I got annoyed and angry at the time, but it was actually really important. I think it’s appropriate for parents to bring their questions and concerns. In a way, I would be more offended by a parent not being honest with their reactions even if it is painful or shows prejudice.”—MS

Even in an era when same-sex marriage gains ground quickly, we should not underestimate the Mount Everest-like weight and carbon dioxide-like pervasiveness of the old expectations.

“A daughter of a two-mom family living in an LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood came home from pre-school and asked one of her moms if she was sure she wasn’t really a man. And many of her classmates had gay or lesbian parents.”—TH

2. And yet, making some small changes in language, even if you forget and don’t do it every time, can add up.

“Parents can make an effort to not create a heteronormative environment, like by not asking ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ but ‘Are you seeing someone?’”—PO

“And don’t express relief when your kid reveals an interest in someone of the opposite sex. It undermines an opening for any discussion about sexual confusion, for your own kid or someone she knows.”—KW

“I am surprised sometimes by how many people are still using the word “choice,” and thereby implying that it’s a moral defect.”—BK

3. Taking the time to listen a little deeper can show what your kid really needs.

“The after-school program at my son’s nursery school had different leaders than the day program. I didn’t realize the difference in their attitudes. My son hated after-school because they made him go outside and play soccer with the other boys, while the girls could stay inside and play pretend games. He said he hated the whole thing, and I did not probe as to why. Not until he was 18 and out, and after I had started the Spanish-speaking parent support group [at the nursery school], did we sit down with the pre-school director who wanted to improve the school’s policies around gender expression. That was a big step in the healing process for him and for me.”—LM

“You have to pay careful attention to the question that’s really being asked, which is often, ‘Having two mommies is different, but is it OK?’ [Kids] all come with a bit of baggage, even from liberal families.”—BK

In movies and on TV the dialogue may be emotionally fraught, but proceeds smoothly.

6104867657_64beb9cea8_zIn real life, we have to write our scripts and deliver them at the same time, and the results (at my house anyway) are rarely pretty. Even when I eventually get across the point I was just realizing was the truly important one, I often feel I haven’t done it very well.

But my research shows that matters much less than we parents think.

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Posted on March 17, 2015

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Lightness, Darkness, Transition

"Light from the Darkness" was produced by European Southern Observatory (ESO).

“Light from the Darkness” was produced by European Southern Observatory (ESO).

When the winter solstice arrived, we went from the darkest days of the year to a gradual increase of light. Now, as the snow promises to melt and winter is on its way out, the days seem much longer and the darkness much shorter.

Those themes of light and dark usually accompany me in the Spring and, when thinking about light and dark, this story came to mind. It takes place a few winters ago when my grandmother was in the hospital.

The story is not about her passing, but takes place near the end of her life.

My light at that time was my passage into a long awaited physical transition. I was living in Brooklyn and had just starting taking hormones. I was ritually checking my face every morning to see if I magically sprouted a beard overnight and wondering if people would still recognize me—although after 3 months on on hormones, I can say that I looked pretty similar to before I started.

However, I was more masculine presenting and my friends commented on how my energy was shifting. I had come out to most of the people in my life, but had been a little lax on telling relatives.  I only told my grandparents when it felt like I absolutely had to, when I actually started growing a beard. But, that winter wasn’t the right time to tell my grandmother, she was in and out of the hospital and I didn’t want to confuse her.

My lightness was my transition, but my darkness was understanding that my grandmother was at the end of her life.

On a visit home to Boston, my mother and I headed to the hospital during the first few hours of a long, rainy-sleety winter storm. As you may have experienced with sickness or relatives or friends in the hospital, sometimes things move very fast. Although we had just come to visit, complications brought my grandmother into the ER, and my mother and I ended up spending most of the night in the hospital. It was the only place I wanted to be. Living in Brooklyn, it was hard to feel like I was supporting the family through my grandmother’s sickness and being present with my mother felt like a sacred task.

When we were allowed to see my grandmother, I stood by her bedside—and I thought, this must be so bizarre for her, does she see the changes in me? Won’t she be confused by the person she thinks is her granddaughter? We stayed by her bedside while she drifted in and out of sleep, and eventually my anxieties floated away.

When my grandmother started to open her eyes and realize we were sitting next to her, she looked right at me. Her wrinkled hand lifted out of the hospital blankets and pointed (shakily) at me. She said my name quietly.

Growing louder, she shouted, “there’s a stain on your sweater!” As my mother and I tried not to laugh, I looked down and realized there was indeed a stain on my sweater.

I am not sure how much my grandmother understood my transition, but it didn’t matter in that moment. Family is family and as she pointed out, stains are stains. Her comment had provided just the light I needed during that dark night.

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Posted on March 13, 2015

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My Second Trip to the Mikveh

June, 1997, Cincinnati, OH

It was the end of a journey. It was the beginning of a transition. I had spent five intense years of study, learning, mistakes, and growth at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Those years had transformed me from a college prep to a religious leader. (Well, a potential religious leader.) The following day, I would be ordained “Rabbi.” The journey had been difficult, and it was just short of a miracle that I completed all my academic requirements in time for Ordination. I had secured a job as Assistant Rabbi of University Synagogue in Los Angeles. I was exuberant. And I was terrified.

unnamed-2Jews love to mark transition with ritual ceremony. So on this “Erev-S’micha” (day before Ordination), three soon-to-be rabbis joined me on a pilgrimage to the Cincinnati Mikveh. We had decided to prepare texts for group study after individual immersions.

Now the Cincinnati Mikveh is not your glamorous health spa. The space was dark and even a bit moldy at the time. But we had it to ourselves, and we created holy space. I showered, carefully cleaning my body and mind in preparation for immersion. I was nervous and even admittedly embarrassed at the thought of removing my clothes before my colleagues. I waited my turn, and then entered the mikveh chamber.

Standing at the top of the steps, I wanted to enter the mayim-chaim (living waters) slowly and deliberately. I stepped down. The water was lukewarm. Another step. I got goose bumps. Finally, I descended all the way and carefully lifted my feet allowing the river of transformation to fully acknowledge me. And as I recited the Shehechianu, I closed my eyes. Tranquility embraced me.

Soon after, the four of us sat clad in towels, studying Pirkei AvotMidrash, and Commentaries. After discussing the voices of our people, we then shared the texts of our souls. What a beautiful moment it was. We had all come so far. Soon it was my turn.

“You know, “I began, “I was about to say that this was my first time to the mikveh. But I’ve actually immersed once before …”

I continued to relate the story about the day I “came out.”

August, 1994, Great Barrington, MA

It was the summer of 1994, and I was working as an Educator at the UAHC Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I kept myself busy, and I dreaded being alone. For whenever I was alone, I would ask myself, as I had every day of my life since I was sixteen, “Am I gay?

I hated asking that question, and I constantly pushed the answer deep into the canyons of my heart. I could not bear denying the truth any longer. Too many nights without sleep had already tortured my soul. Something had to change. I needed to take a stand. So I arranged a day off with two close friends. I had it all planned out. We would stay up late and engage in a deep conversation.

And I would come out to them.

But things never seem to happen the way we plan.

The three of us left camp in the evening and soon arrived at a country hotel. As they relaxed, my heart began to pound harder and harder. How was I supposed to do this? I wanted so very much for them to ask the question of revelation, as God asked Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Aye-ka (where are you)?” And I wanted to respond with the strength of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah when they shouted, “Hineini! (Here I am!).”

But they never asked. And I never answered. Another sleepless night.

The next day, the three of us drove up through the Berkshires to Pittsfield where we saw a movie. “OK,” I thought, “after the movie we’ll talk.” But after the movie we ate. “OK, after we eat, we’ll talk.” But after that came more excuses. My friends didn’t understand why I was so reclusive. We then drove over to a small lake nestled in the rolling hills of Southwest Massachusetts.

My friends fell asleep in the car. They were bonded. I was apart. And I was jealous. So I got out of the car and walked into the serenity of an August afternoon.

I was alone. And I was a nervous wreck.

But I took a deep breath, and for the first time in my life, as I saw my reflection in the lake, I got myself to say out loud, “I might be a gay man.” I think I said it twice. And as the words lingered on my tongue, an incredible emotion enveloped me.

Just allowing for the possibility that I might be gay released me from those chains of years of denial. I was alone, yet I was no longer afraid of being alone. I undressed, and I entered that lake. And as soon as my head slid beneath her surface, I transformed the lake into a mikveh.

And that mikveh transformed me. It was glorious!

When I finished, I dried myself off, dressed, and got back into the car. I woke up my friends, but didn’t tell them a thing. I didn’t need to anymore. I came out to myself, and that was a big step. Later, in the appropriate time, I would come out to them.

That was my first trip to the mikveh.

 June, 1997, Cincinnati, OH

As I finished my story, my colleagues looked on. I had never before shared that experience.

I had never before even thought to share it. Sure, they knew I was gay. But my account put into perspective that Jewish ritual can sanctify all of life’s passages.

The following day we marched into the historic Plum Street Temple to the call of the shofar. As Hebrew Union College president, Rabbi Shelly Zimmerman, reached out to ordain me with the title of “Rav b’Yisrael,” I said to myself, “Hineini! I am here, and I am ready!”

2001, Los Angeles, CA

While my first trip to the mikveh released me, my second trip to the mikveh transformed me. I haven’t yet immersed a third time. I am waiting for my next life-cycle, which will occur when my life-partner and I stand beneath a huppah in the near future. And yet I am at the mikveh throughout the year, accompanying others who make time to nurture life transitions through Jewish ceremony. Each of them has a story. Each of them has a journey. And each of them has answered the question, “Aye-ka (where are you)?”

Epilogue: 2015, Culver City, CA

Two days before Ron Galperin and I were married in 2002, we immersed as one in the mikveh.

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Posted on March 11, 2015

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What Matters is You (Not if the Dress is Black & Blue or White & Gold)

Last weekend a group of 60+ LGBTQ and ally teens joined together for the 4th annual Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. These words of Torah were shared by one of the participants during Shabbat services.

the dressMy name is Rachel Barkowitz, I’m a second year CIT, a one-year-long, out (and proud) lesbian, and I see the dress and white and gold.

For those of you who are unaware of what I am talking about, or are so wrapped up in the amazingness of this glorious weekend that you have already forgotten the occurrences of Thursday, let me remind you:

After taking a picture of a dress at her friend’s wedding, twenty-one year old Caitlin McNeill turned to the internet with a cry for help. She urged her followers to lend a hand in attempting to make sense of the confusing shot she took.

For some, the dress in her picture appears to be white and gold, though other see the dress with the coloring in which it was made, blue and black.

This debate which swept the internet split the global population into two sides, and I had the opportunity of witnessing this first hand when my college roommate refused to believe that I was telling the truth that I saw the dress as white and gold (I almost ended up in tears, but that’s another story).

So why did this dress become so important to world?

I can tell you with absolutely confidence that I…have no idea.

I can say, however, that the garments discussed in Tetzaveh, the parashah of this weekend, are of a different kind of importance than the now infamous bluewhitegoldblack dress of the present.

In this portion, God details for Moses how to make extremely significant vestments for Aaron that he must wear when acting as High Priest. To say that the details relayed by God are extensive would be an understatement, but every instruction is necessary to ensure that Aaron is truly sanctified.

And for the record, these garments were commanded to be made of gold and blue.

Coincidence?

I think not.

The attire which is made for Aaron is created so that he may become closer to God, and transform into a more holy version of himself when adorning them. One might venture to say that these garments are Aaron’s way of becoming his purest self.

The way that I became the purest version of myself, however, was by admitting to the world that I liked girls, and ridding myself of the garments I adorned which hid who I truly was.

For a long time, I was scared that coming out would make me less important, less worthy, and pull me further away from God, but I was lying to the world, and, more importantly, lying to myself.

I have learned throughout my journey, though, that being your true self, your purest self, only makes your connection to the world stronger, because it means that you yourself have taken steps toward becoming stronger.

So whether you see the dress as blue and black, or, like I do, white and gold, I urge that when you find yourself fighting for your side, to forget the schisms for a moment, and remember instead what this debate, and this weekend, represent: there is no purer you than a you that is true.

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Posted on March 6, 2015

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Finding Strength in Community & The Story of Purim

The first time I really dug into the story of Purim was actually also the first time I thought I might be gay. It started like any other day. I went to school, play practice, and then my mom picked me up.

Ester_y_Mardoqueo_escribiendo_la_primera_carta_del_Purim_(Ester,_9-20-21)_-_Aert_de_GELDER_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

Painting of Esther and Mordecai by Arent de Gelder.

Because it was Friday she brought me to shul. As we sat in the car waiting for the time to pass until services began, she asked me an interesting question: “do you like boys or girls?” And I guess I had never thought about it because I remember thinking “you know, that’s a good question. I should probably figure that out.” So when I went inside the shul and heard a d’var about Purim, I didn’t see it as an ancient story in a language I didn’t speak. Instead I saw it as an allegory for a coming out story.

Esther is the queen of Persia, married to Ahashverosh, and he has just decided with the help of Haman that he’s going to kill all the Jews. Problem is, Esther is Jewish. (Plot spoilers ahead, I apologize in advance.) So Esther decides that she has to tell him that she’s jewish, or all of her people are going to die. And so, she works up all of her nerve, and she tells him that she’s Jewish. She knows that it’s risky, but she does it anyway, because it’s what must be done to save her people. In the end, it works out great. The Jews are spared and Esther is no longer living in hiding. Call me crazy, but that’s a textbook coming out story, right?

Now I’m going to sub in some names to make this story more modern. Playing the part of Esther we have Will Portman, a Yale student. Instead of coming out as Jewish, he’s coming out as gay. Instead of the day when all the Jews are set to be murdered coming up, let’s put in the Supreme Court’s DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and Prop Eight decisions. And instead of the king, why don’t we have Will’s father, senator Rob Portman. Just like in the story of Esther, it all works out for Will.

His dad became the first Republican senator to publicly endorse marriage equality, and no one got disowned. Something even bigger that that happened, though. Suddenly the world got a whole lot better for LGBTQ+ kids everywhere. Because, just like Esther wasn’t the only one affected by her decision to come out, Will Portman wasn’t the only one affected when he came out. Suddenly, it became a lot easier for kids of republican parents to come out because they could point to the Portman family and say look, “they’re accepting, and you should be too.” And it became easier for Republican parents to accept they’re LGBTQ+ kids because that’s just what the senator had done. They had gained a role model.

Obviously, it isn’t national news every time someone comes out, though that would be pretty cool. But when it’s someone in power, in any sort of way, it helps. It helps LGBTQ+ people realize that they aren’t alone. When parents see other parents accepting their children no matter what, that helps them realize that they aren’t alone either. And when you come out in your family, your school, or your kehilla kidosha (holy community), you are helping everyone around feel a little less alone.

So back to a few years ago. After that conversation with my mom, all I could think about for what seemed like forever was the possibility that I could be gay. Apparently it wasn’t forever, and actually more like six weeks, because I remember having a realization on Passover. I was getting ready for the Seder when all of the sudden it hit me pretty out of the blue that, woah, I’m gay.

So I didn’t really know that to do with this information, because I didn’t know any openly LGBTQ+ teens and young adults. Mostly I just cried about it and envisioned people having bad reactions, not gonna lie. And then I made a plan. I was going to not tell anyone, not act on it, or do anything until high school. That didn’t last long. Literally days after the first of my friends came out at the beginning of eighth grade, I felt comfortable enough to come out too. After that, friend after friend started coming out. I swear, even in the closet we were attracting each other.

Since then, whenever anyone has asked me about my sexuality, I’ve told them the whole truth. I’ve answered their questions, except when they are too weird and personal, and I’ve tried to be the best role model that I could be. The truth is, I never would have had the courage to come out on my own. I needed a push. I needed my friends to be there by my side. I needed guidance. So I hope that whenever I tell my story, and whenever I answer people’s questions, I am helping them. Maybe I’m helping them come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, or maybe I’m helping them to be a more accepting and considerate friend or family member. Even if you don’t realize it, telling your story or even just being out can be a limitless inspiration for those around you.

I’m sure Esther wondered why she, a Jew, was chosen to be queen. And I’m sure that Will Portman, the son of a prominent Republican wondered why he happened to be gay. And I’m sure that most of you here have, at least at some point, wondered why you are so lucky to be LGBTQ+ and Jewish. Looking back, we know that Esther was put in the position of power so that she could change the King’s mind. And maybe that’s the same reason why Will Portman is gay, so he could change his dad’s mind, and the mind of a lot of Republican parents out there. So if you find yourself asking why you’re LGBTQ+ and Jewish, I bet that the answer is essentially the same: so that you can change the minds of the hateful and bigoted people around you, or make it easier for other people in your kehilla kidosha to come out, and be accepted.

As Miep Gies once said, “even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager” (that’s you, readers!) “can, within their own small ways, turn on a light in a dark room.”

You don’t have to be royalty, or a political figure, or some big celebrity to make a splash or even make a difference. All you need to be is your wonderful and genuine self and I promise, you can change the world. Happy Purim!

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Posted on March 4, 2015

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We Are The Light: What Parshat Tetzavah Teaches Us About Coming Out

Last weekend a group of 60+ LGBTQ and ally teens joined together for the 4th annual Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. These words of Torah were shared by one of the participants during Shabbat services.

In Parshat Tetzavah, God gives Moses his holy grocery list: oil lighting for the Menorah, some fancy spices for the oil, and some other spices to burn in the sanctuary. You know… the usual. God didn’t just send Moses on this shopping spree for fun. God knew that the Kohanim needed to see the oil before they began doing their job: guiding the Jewish nation. They needed to know there would be, literally, light at the end of the tunnel before they started going into it.

LGBTQ-Teen-Shabbaton-325x246At the Keshet/Hazon Shabbaton last year, I was openly out for the first time. The joke of the attendees was going up to me and asking, “Val, are you gay?” because I couldn’t stop saying it. But I figured out I was gay in 7th grade. So why did it take so long for me to be me?

Just like the Kohanim, I also had doubts about navigating through the tunnel, finding my light. I’m sure quite a few of you in this room know that tunnel, and it’s pretty damn dark.

I tried to make myself straight, which basically meant throwing in comments about whether I was team Jacob or team Edward every once in a while. Let’s be real, I’m team Kristen Stewart.

When I realized I couldn’t force myself to be straight, the denial and depression hit me like the tidal wave when Pharaoh tried to cross the Red Sea. I barely spoke to anyone, dropped all my activities, shut out my friends, and was this close to going into another type of tunnel, the one you don’t come back from.

Then I came out to my best friend, and I started my own Coming Out 101 to prepare for this process. This course will be coming to college campuses near you soon. (Juuust kidding.) Anyway, it was time to start shopping, time to pull out the gay grocery list. I stayed up every night watching every coming out video I could find. I studied each method, trying to figure out the perfect formula to come out, trying to find a solution that didn’t really exist.

God gave Moses a list of everything he needed to be a leader, but what really made Moses realize what he needed to do was getting thrown into the trenches when he least expected it. Because yes, the Kohanim needed oil and spices for the Menorah because that’s what makes a fire—that’s science. But would the fire burn if nobody lit the match?

I’m going to tell you something that took me way too long to figure out, something I realized right here in this room last year.

You can watch every coming out video on the internet. You can practice saying it every morning in your mirror. You can shop in every aisle, from realization to depression to denial, you can hate yourself and love yourself and try to find the RIGHT way to be, but the reality is that E may equal MC2, but your identity isn’t a math problem.

Your identity isn’t a problem at all.

And when you realize that, whether you already have or you do this weekend or you do in five years, you ignite a fire. You light your own menorah. And let me tell you, that’s just the beginning.

rainbow tallitYou may be used to getting butterflies because somebody sees your rainbow tallit and you think, oh no, what if they know, please don’t know, but soon you’re going to get butterflies because the person you love is holding your hand and everything’s finally in place. You may be used to walking alone in your school hallway, hiding yourself, but soon you’re going to walk alongside others of the same movement, waving a flag for your identity with hundreds of people, all creating a rhythm for justice. You may be used to praying to God in your synagogue to please help you, because you don’t know how much longer you can last, but soon, SO soon, you will be sitting proudly at your table for Shabbat dinner, because mazel tov, you made it.

But don’t stop there. Remember your roots. Send this message on and help somebody else light their menorah. Together, we can get out of this tunnel.

Because here’s the secret that shouldn’t be a secret: we are the light, Keshet. All you gotta do is strike the match.

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Posted on March 3, 2015

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Marriage: A Political Act, A Religious Endeavor, A Chance to Celebrate Love

AbiandMelissaTransplants to California from the Midwest and East Coast, we found each other in the Bay Area. Melissa, a minister in a Protestant Christian tradition, was in her first year as a PhD student in ethics and social theory and Abi, an active participant at her queer Jewish synagogue, was in her first year of her doctoral studies in clinical psychology. Ours has been a journey of learning about each other’s traditions and celebrating what it means to be a multi-faith couple.

Entering into marriage was for us a political act, a religious endeavor, and an opportunity to invite our family and friends into our world.

From the time we decided we would mark our commitment to one another with a wedding, we knew that the ceremony needed to be the focus of the day. We set out to find leaders who would be willing to co-create a multi-faith, feminist, and queer ceremony with us.

Melissa was fortunate enough to be able to turn to a colleague from her seminary days who she knew shared her theology and commitment to radically open language for the divine in ritual. We knew he was still bound by the policies of the church but should the institution not catch up to our love in time that he would be willing to act independently as a theologically trained friend.

Finding someone from Abi’s Jewish tradition turned out to be much more challenging. Trusted leaders, while willing to perform similar-gendered Jewish ceremonies, were unable, because of tradition and/or conscience, to participate in our fully multi-faith ceremony. As a family seeking to be a part of both Jewish and Christian communities, this felt like rejection and was excruciatingly painful.

We finally found a Jewish leader in Colorado who was willing to work with us to craft a ceremony that honored both traditions and truly reflected who we were as individuals and as a couple. The four of us, the two brides, a Pastor and an Emerging Rabbi took to creating. By examining all of the parts of the traditional wedding ceremony in both traditions we were able to identify elements both in common and unique to each tradition. Anything that reflected aspects of marriage that we reject—property exchange, paternalism, misogyny—was cut. Elements were re-imagined to be more egalitarian and / or queered. We wanted to create a ceremony that was true to who we are and meaningful for those celebrating with us.

The whole wedding weekend, including the reception, was a blast. We wanted our guests to know that each piece of our wedding was intentionally orchestrated so we had our leaders explain what the rituals meant during the ceremony and how we had altered them and even provided coloring books for the children to learn about the ceremony in an age-appropriate way.

Entering into the legal relationship of marriage, as imperfect as it is, was a way to claim our civil rights and the protections it bestows upon us and a way to honor the work of all those who work for equality. Our ceremony was our way of claiming our right as members of our religious traditions to enter into public covenant blessed by and accountable to community and proclaiming that being queer and being religious are not antithetical. It was our way of publicly proclaiming that we are committed to being together as two individuals with strong roots, Jewish and Lutheran, Abi and Melissa.

We are grateful for the support of our family and friends, including Reverend Dan Roschke and Emerging Rabbi Dr. Caryn Aviv.

Posted on February 27, 2015

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