Last week Josh Zakim, son of the famous Jewish-American religious and civil rights leader Lenny Zakim, did something pretty fantastic. He stood up for equality…and made a powerful statement about the need to speak out for communities that stretch beyond your own. How? Just by going about his (anything but ordinary) day-to-day business as a Boston City Councilor.
Councilor Zakim didn’t realize he was giving me, and every other informal Jewish educator, fodder for discussion when he spearheaded a Resolution in Boston, but he was. Josh Zakim took a stand in Boston about Arizona’s SB 1062. If you aren’t familiar with the legislation, this law would, to quote Zakim’s Resolution, “allow individuals and corporations in Arizona to freely discriminate against other Arizonans who do not share their religious beliefs and… directly targets the community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Arizonans.” The Boston City Council unanimously adopted the Resolution to reject what Zakim called a “Jim Crow-like bill.”
I was lucky enough to catch up with Councilor Zakim, and I asked him what inspired him—as a Bostonian—to take action on legislation that was being enacted across the country. His answer was quick and clear, “this was something important that needed to be said,” he told me. “If Boston is going to be a leader in social justice and equality we needed to take a stand, and need to continue to do so even when it’s not directly under our control.”
As I spoke with the Councilor, it was hard to suppress my years of informal Jewish education training. Some tiny voice inside of me was shouting “it’s like those discussions about the needs of Jewish versus non-Jewish communities, and how we, as Jews, prioritize where and when we give back!”
My inner educator voice, which by all definitions of the word is extremely nerdy, wanted to ask Josh about the difference between our immediate and extended communities; does community start small and spiral out? After all, I’ve led countless discussions on a piece of Jewish text that instructs that one first supports themselves, and then “his parents if they are poor, next his grown children, next his siblings, and next his extended family, next his neighbors, next the people of his town, and next the people of other towns.” It’s easy to declare a desire to help everyone. It’s harder to know where to put your efforts.
So, why did the Councilor go out on a limb about Arizona when half a country and a time zone or two separated the two States? Really, who are we obligated to help?
Zakim reminded me that “even if these battles have been on the right track in Massachusetts, they are far from done here and elsewhere; sometimes it’s easy to forget that in other States (and other countries) things are far worse.” It’s true—these, and other, issues of equality and justice are being dealt with not only in Josh’s hometown of Boston and elsewhere in the United States, but across the globe in places like Ukraine and Uganda. Furthermore, he pointed out that not every community is as lucky as the Jewish community of Boston—where forward thinking leaders stand up for their constituents.
“You need to speak up for what you believe in. Everyone deserves to have equal rights,” the Councilor shared. He didn’t hesitate to compare his guiding philosophy to the spirit of Tikkun Olam, thanking his parents and his sisters for helping him to develop his sense of Justice.
Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim is only in his first term, but he’s living up to the family name and showing how important it is to stand up in the face of injustice—both near and far.
Mississippi’s state legislature is debating a bill that critics say would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people. Lex Rofes, a Southern Jewish activist, shares memories of his uncle’s struggles as a gay rights advocate in the 1970s on the Southern & Jewish blog.
Why would he do this? What reason did he have to hide his identity as he sought to make equal rights for LGBT individuals a reality?
His reasons were practical, and heartbreaking. He was a teacher, and at the time, it was completely within the realm of acceptable activity to fire teachers if they were “discovered” to be homosexual. Allowing his face to be seen could have consequences.
Later in the year, he decided that he no longer could hide this aspect of his identity. He decided he would inform the school that he was gay. He would no longer bring fake “girlfriends” to school functions, and, if asked by his students, he would talk with them honestly about the fact that he is attracted to men and not women.
Upon learning this, the school fired my Uncle Eric.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
When you think “Salem, Massachusetts” understanding and equality probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. My guess is that mention of the town is more likely to conjure images of witches and hysteria. Yet, this small town outside of Boston is taking action to protect the values of diversity, equality, and respect- and they did so without you noticing.
Earlier this week, Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll signed an anti-discrimination ordinance specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans* individuals. Over 40 organizations joined together to shepherd the ordinance, bringing together people of faith, local politicians, and advocates for social justice to take a small but significant step towards making the world a safer and stronger place.
Mayor Driscoll celebrated the news, sharing “There are no second class citizens in Salem and we proved that we believe that… with the signing of our Non-Discrimination Ordinance helping to extend protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in the matter of public accommodations… Over 40 local groups, organizations and individuals came together to help advocate for this ordinance which was unanimously adopted by the Salem City Council, once again demonstrating how much our community values diversity, equality and respect. Yep, we have come a long way since 1692!”
The ordinance was spearheaded by “No Place for Hate,” an Anti-Defamation League campaign. The ADL- which originated as a Jewish response to antisemitism- concentrates on anti-bullying initiatives through the No Place for Hate campaign.
Proving that home is where your values are, Salem follows Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, and Amherst to become the fifth community in Massachusetts to take an active stance on gender inclusion. My question? When will the rest of Massachusetts—and the country—take similar action. And, what can we do to galvanize action around this important issue of social justice?
As a resident of Salem, I often get questions about why I chose to live outside of the Boston city limits. While my answers usually boil down to issues of affordability, proximity to the ocean, and a love of the local arts scene, I’m proud to be able to point to this moment of inclusion. Our communities reflect who we are as people, and asking our elected officials to take a stand on inclusion is more than just an LGBTQ value, or even a Jewish value… it is the type of action that makes the place you live home.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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 Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Rabbi Joshua Lesser tackles Parashat Vayikra and asks the gay men in his Jewish community to stand up.
I remember my first pair of rollerblades. More specifically, I remember the bloody mess I was the first time I gave them a try. I couldn’t figure out the brakes and there was a hill and a busy street—you can figure out where this is going. Never was I so grateful to hit a telephone pole. The second time I bladed I fared better, that is until a piece of rusty wire got caught in the wheels bringing them to a sharp halt. The rules of physics being what they are, I fell on my face. Slapstick being as reliable as physics, my fall brought me injury in the form of much laughter. The next time I was invited to go rollerblading, I stopped and stared at the skates. Were these skates nothing more than simple instruments of cruel pain? Could I give it another go? Or should I simply be done with them all together?
This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra, and although Leviticus begins innocently enough, with a listing of the various sacrifices performed in the Mishkan, as LGBT people, we all know where this book is heading. Much like my rollerblades just the title Leviticus inspires dread and fear in gay men that has caused us to disengage with the entire book, and for some, Judaism altogether. And so it is ironic that Leviticus begins with the word vayikra—”And God called.” Ramban cites a midrash that connects Leviticus with the end of the book of Exodus where we find a complete description of the Mishkan’s construction and that it was worthy of the Shechinah (God’s Presence). So magnificent and awesome was God’s glory within the Mishkan that Moses was terrified to enter. Thus, the call from God in this portion was an invitation to Moses and the Israelites to come inside—signaling to them that the Mishkan was built for their mutual relationship.
Similarly, Ramban also notes that the word for sacrifice is connected to the Hebrew word that means, “to draw close.” In this light the sacrificial system is one of the primary ways that the Mishkan was to be used to enhance the biblical human-Divine relationship, Ramban sees this sacrificial system as a ritualistic way to build a meaningful relationship with the Divine. In other words, when we discard Leviticus wholesale because of its foreign rituals or its later prohibitions, we risk missing the emphasis of how ritual can bring us closer to Judaism, community and God (or godliness).
For gay men in particular, this is a real danger in today’s Jewish world. In the rabbinic commentaries, much to do is made about the way the first word of this portion is written—the last letter of “vayikra” is an aleph, which in the Torah is written smaller than the other letters. While the rabbis speculate how this is connected to Moses’ humility, I wonder if the aleph might stand for the first call that God speaks to humanity, which begins with the aleph in question. In Genesis, God calls to his first human creations, “Ayeca?”/”Where are you?”
Indeed, I often find that I have the same question for gay Jewish men in Jewish communal life: Where are you? Having served in different LGBT communities, I have found that, while gay Jewish men aren’t exactly nonexistent, they participate in smaller numbers than lesbians, and additionally, it seems gay Jewish men wait until they are older to make affiliations within Jewish communal life. In one rabbinical school class, we were taught that, as rabbis, we could expect to attract members of our demographic most significantly. In other words, a married woman rabbi could expect to have substantial participation from other married women. However, at my particular synagogue, this has not occurred—instead, we have attracted large numbers of people from all demographics but my own (gay Jewish men in their 30s). While this may be too anecdotal to draw strong conclusions, I couple this particular piece of anecdotal evidence with the fact that I consistently meet gay Jewish men in social settings who seek me out to share their experiences of having been made to feel unwelcome in their synagogues, their families. Many express disdain for Judaism and God altogether mentioning the prohibitions in Leviticus. Intertwined in these discussions is often a sense of lingering shame.
Upon reading the list of sacrifices in Vayikra while considering Ramban’s theory that they served to draw people, within the context of their community, closer to a sense of the Divine, I conclude that somehow these sacrifices served to remove the barriers that kept people distant from a sense of the Divine. As a result of this reading, I have wrestled with the question of determining how the self-imposed barriers could be removed that prevents gay men from feeling more connected with their Jewish community and to God. In what ways could we engage ritually to enhance our Jewish spiritual lives? While I think this question is relevant for all people, I think for gay men the answers are different.
While it is critical that the larger Jewish community work to remake itself so that it is more accessible to gay Jewish men, it is our responsibility as gay Jews to undertake our own self examination. We have the ability to identify those things that have blocked our connection to God and to ritual. Unless the answer is utter rejection, we must do our inner work. Leviticus and its sacrificial systems are buttressed by a calling to take personal responsibility and cultivate vulnerability. Giving an offering, in particular the act of sacrificing the life of a sentient being, brings us face to face with the fragility of life moment to moment. Rabbi Kerry Olitsky points out that the sacrificial system demanded an entirely embodied process. One had to engage all of one’s senses to participate. Taken together this is incredibly vulnerable.
Moreover, even more intensely vulnerable is that the heart of the issue demands gay Jewish men to embrace their sexuality and acknowledge that not only are we holy as human beings, but our bodies are holy and our sexual connections can be holy. To wrestle with this is to also acknowledge when our sexual acts are not holy. As gay men can we make ourselves vulnerable enough to invite a sense God’s presence in our sexuality? To do so, is a sacrifice not in the sense of giving something up, but rather creating room for godliness to dwell.
Asking gay Jewish men to be vulnerable in order to read and engage with Leviticus, which is arguably the core of ritual Judaism and holiness, when it is the source of direct pain and alienation may be unreasonable. Certainly, there is some danger in this, and the possibility of re-wounding may even be likely. However, there is also much to be gained by making peace with this book that contains the infamous 18:22 and 20:13 verses because it also contains much more—Leviticus also includes some of Judaism’s most compassionate and beautiful teachings that can serve to awaken the desire to infuse our life with the awareness of the glory of God’s presence. As this portion reminds us, God’s perpetually call to us, despite fear and harm. The question that remains is, can we, as gay men make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear it? And if we do that, can we sacrifice the baggage that keeps us distant so that we may answer from the authentic place within us that longs for God in our lives.
The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
My loving, caring, and beautiful daughter Julie is gay. When Julie came out, my first reaction was tears; tears for not being aware of my daughter’s struggles before she came out to us. Life is a journey with many different roads to follow, and while I ride a road less traveled, I know that I am not alone. I am joined by the support of my loving family, friends, and the Keshet Parent and Family Connection.
There is so much to learn (Is the right word gay? or is it Lesbian? or Queer?), and I hope I get it right. I have learned that it takes time, years even. It takes time to permit myself to settle into a different way of living life. I still worry about her safety, her rights, and the many detours she will need to maneuver. I feel as a parent, I’m always coming out, always having to explain my family to people. When my daughter got married, I had to say to every venue “These are two women getting married in a Jewish ceremony, are you comfortable?” It surprised me that I had to do that still. Life is not fair and at times I am angry.
So now I am on a mission. I am equipped with my experience from the Keshet Leadership Project, a training program designed to build the capacity of individual leaders to affect institutional change in Jewish communities. I proudly serve on the Keshet board of directors with a team of exceptional individuals, and I helped to establish the Keshet Parent & Family Connection.
I learned that when a child comes out, their parent comes out too. The child is prepared to come out, but the parent isn’t, and when you have other parents to sit with you, to talk about the same thing, it’s very comforting. It is a reminder that you are not alone.
The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is composed of remarkable parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who come together to transform the Jewish community through peer support, public events, and advocating for change. We come from all streams of the Jewish world, have children of all genders and sexual orientations, and are driven by personal journeys of struggle and celebration.
I hope you’ll join us or share this on to parents in your community who could use a group like this.
A year ago The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, a story of a young boy named Nate struggling with his Purim costume, hit the shelves. The book, the winner of a Keshet book-writing contest, represents a first in Jewish children’s literature—an inclusive story with LGBT characters. This year, the book was added to PJ Library’s collection—for individuals who opted in.
Reactions to PJ Library’s decision to offer the book only when requested have been mixed. Some people have heralded the decision as a step towards inclusion. And some people are applauding the effort, but are wondering why the book isn’t available to everyone.
When PJ Library conveyed the news of the limited run on their Facebook page, it was shared over 440 times. Within less than 36 hours, the book sold out. We’ve gathered some of the reactions we’ve seen—on Facebook, over email, and from conversations—to share (unedited) with you.
Jan Oosting Kaminsky: I am so happy to hear that there are many enthusiastic people who are ready to order this book, and we purchased several copies last year when it was first released and distributed them because it is such a sweet book! However, I have to say that I am disappointed that PJ thought this book so controversial that it had to be distributed through a separate link! Honestly, is it so shocking to have a loving family with two fathers who care for their children that this had to be sent separately?? In no way does this book talk about LGBT issues – it simply shows a family with two fathers. I have received our PJ Library books for many years gratefully, but this was the wrong decision, PJ Library. Making this book a special order degrades our families, makes us feel shameful, second-class, all of the things that hurt LGBT families so much every day in the Jewish community and beyond. I appreciate your perspective, but the fact is every other book that we received from PJ has an opposite-sex-parented family in it. I am happy that this book is being publicized, but very sorry that it was not distributed widely and in the same manner as every other PJ Library book. It hurts.
Bari Greenfield Gilbert: Thank you! Very much look forward to getting it! My children have Jewish friends with two Dads and it is amazing that this book exists and that you are offering it. Children who see these different family makeups make for less ignorance – more tolerance – and, hopefully, less hate in this world! Thanks again! I hope everyone takes advantage of this opportunity for their children – and for themselves!
Lisa S Greene: PJ Library: We love your books. And would love it if you would add The Purim Superhero to the regularly distributed books going forward. It is warm and wonderful and supports the individualism of the protagonist.
Wendy Barnet: So pleased that so many people want this book. As a retired Jewish educator, I am so proud of Kar-Ben Publishing and PJ Library for taking a risk by offering, The Purim Superhero. All Jewish children should see themselves in our Jewish literature and our temple libraries.
Lisa Rabinowitz: Thanks! So happy you made this decision. It would have been even better if you just sent it as your monthly offering without having to order it.
Emily Mathis: Thanks for making The Purim Superhero available as an extra offering — I hope you will include it in your regular offerings, just as you’ve done with an orthodox book we received. You have an amazing sphere of influence, and I hope you will use it to the extent you can.
Carrie Bornstein: Thanks for the extra gift of a Purim story featuring two dads, PJ Library! Perhaps you’d like to send it to all of your families? After all, some of the books you send me don’t reflect my practice either, like the family who comes home on Rosh Hashanah day to bake challah and cook their meal. Thanks for sending that one anyway – it invites me to offer a lesson in diversity when I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order it online.
Naomi Sunshine: My two daughters have been receiving PJ Library books since they were babies, and I am very grateful to you for the monthly gift, which has helped me teach them about Jewish holidays, traditions and values.
I wanted to share with you my disappointment that you’ve chosen not to send the book The Purim Superhero to all your members, but only to families who specifically request it. I know you put a lot of thought into this decision, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
As a proud Jewish mother and a proud lesbian, I aim to surround my children with a rich Jewish life. But I have to be honest with you. When I read things like your blog post “In Search of Perfect Gifts,” coupled with your decision not to make this book available the same way you do so many others, it hurts. And it makes me wonder whether the Jewish community you are creating really wants me as a member.
The message that you send to families like mine (and there are lots of Jewish LGBT people and families) is that we are second class. That families like ours should only be read about by children whose parents go to the great lengths of finding out that you are offering the book and then ordering it. That our lives are so marginal that you could not possibly send a book that features a family like ours to everybody, because further marginalizing LGBT families is a lesser evil than offending homophobes.
Now that you’ve heard the word on the street…. What are your thoughts about The Purim Superhero and the PJ Library’s decision to offer the book to families who request it?
On The Torch, Miryam Kabakov and Rabbi Steve Greenberg share why for both women and LGBT people, allies can make a real impact.
The excitement in the halls was palpable. Was the enthusiasm because of the record-breaking number of attendees (1,000), the new venue John Jay College, or was it the opening panel with Ruth Calderon? The spirit of optimism and confidence at the recent JOFA conference was so high that most likely it had to be more than the sum of these wonderful elements. For what happened was the creation of a historic gathering in which we saw how far we have come.
The days of tiptoeing around difficult subjects have been swept aside. Instead, we saw new faces exploring new uncharted territory. Topics that had previously been “dealt with” were now embraced and engaged on a profound level.
For the first time, LGBTQ concerns were taken up during four separate sessions in this one-day conference. Continue reading here>>
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 Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Marisa James examines Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei and how we can all appreciate the beauty of a complex world.
When I first read this week’s parashah, with their detailed lists of the sockets, pegs and posts that go into building the Mishkan, I could only imagine that the children of Israel had somehow ended up at the Sinai IKEA. I pictured Moses, in a burst of confidence after getting everyone across the sea, picking up the “A_rk oöf Tabêrnäkkle” kit and making everyone sit down to decipher wordless instructions on how to build the thing.
But really, there’s something lovely about the time and care that goes into all of these descriptions. Last week’s portion Vayakhel and and this week’s portion Pekudei continue our languorous journey through the design and creation of the tabernacle. During their 430 years in Egypt, laboring as slaves, building stark, massive pyramids for a succession of pharaohs, the children of Israel have been deprived of beauty. As we’ve seen, they have lacked imagination until now; they bitterly complain to Moses at every turn, until he produces yet another miracle, which they promptly forget again when they are hungry, or frightened, or want something tangible to worship.
But in the building of the Mishkan, the children of Israel become artists. Yes, there are specific instructions for how to build it, but each member of the community, we are told, gives what they can: their goods, their effort, and their talent. And we are privileged to read about the results in loving, careful, artistic detail. Beauty is a necessity, both for Moses and the Israelites then, and for us now.
Moses says, “If a person feels like giving an offering to God, bring any of the following: gold, silver, copper, sky-blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair, reddened ram’s skins, blue processed hides, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, fragrances for the anointing oil and perfume incense, as well as sardonyxes and other precious stones for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35:5-9)
If they feel like giving an offering to God, says Moses. This is not like last week’s building of the golden calf, when Aaron, in his frustration with the Israelites, says, “Take the rings off the ears of your wives and children, [. . .] Bring them to me.” (Exodus 32:2) The creative impulse cannot be demanded. In the creation of the Mishkan there can be no room for those who might give reluctantly, or unwillingly, or all exactly the same. Every individual piece of silver and copper and wood and cloth must be given freely and with love in order to create the place where God can reside.
And the Mishkan is not being created from gold alone; Moses lists so many options for what each person could contribute that we’re left in amazement about where all the materials come from. Each of the Israelites apparently has unexpected and diverse resources that we haven’t seen until now. They bring items of every color and texture, metals and stones and fibers, along with talents which until now have remained hidden.
Why is it so important that we read several chapters of this description? A few p’sukim (verses), two or three verses, could have told us that God asked Moses to make a beautiful dwelling-place, the Mishkan, of gold and silver, with the priests in robes embroidered with “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, twisted.” (39:24) A few p’sukim could have told us that the Israelites gave freely of their possessions and skills, and that the Mishkan was completed to God’s specifications.
After centuries of famine and slavery, backbreaking work followed by a perilous escape, the Israelites need time to dwell on beauty, and so do we. It’s easy to fall into the victimization of Israel in mitzrayim (Egypt/ the narrow place) and the alternating tedium and terror of wandering in the desert and have no hope for the future. Taking time to see the world around us in every inch of its detail is one way to restore our souls.
Similarly, in our own lives, it can be difficult to avoid feeling constantly victimized and oppressed, especially as members of the Jewish community, the queer community, and other minority communities. Our multiple marginalized identities frequently overlap to make us prime targets for the “hate-mongers” in our world. And in our work towards social justice and equal treatment, it can be hard to raise our heads from the struggle and appreciate the sheer beauty of the communities we have created. Just as the Isarelites found beauty in the creation of the Mishkan, it’s also necessary for us to move beyond our painful interactions with the world and take delight in the places where we are accepted and loved for all of our different aspects.
How do we do this in our daily lives? I live in New York City, where I’m constantly so inundated by my surroundings that it’s easy to block it all out. But sometimes, I need to stop and listen to a street performer with a beautiful voice. Watch my friends’ sleeping newborn children and imagine their dreams. Delight in the amazing diversity of the communities that have welcomed me, and in the beautiful visions we share of the world we’re trying to create. It isn’t enough to simply notice the beauty of the world—it’s necessary that we each bring our diverse talents and gifts to continue the work of making our world into a Mishkan where God can reside.
We are a group of observant, Orthodox families from across the United States, including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On March 7, we will be meeting face-to-face–many for the first time–for the 2nd annual Parents’ Retreat, sponsored by Eshel, an organization committed to creating a safe space in Orthodox communities for its LGBT members.
We are just like most of you, with one exception: Our children are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender). Each of our children told us on a fateful day some months or years ago that they are not heterosexual. It is who they are and who they will always be.
It is with this thought in mind that we would like to have a virtual conversation with you. Let’s assume for the moment that some weeks or months ago a member of your immediate family approached you, telling you that he or she is LGBT. You love them and begin to think beyond yourself and your family and begin to consider your precious Jewish community. Here is where the conversation begins.
We start by asking for your understanding, respect, and perhaps even acceptance of our children as members of the Orthodox community. While the medical and psychiatric community affirms that being homosexual is no longer considered an aberration or an illness, most Orthodox communities have not expressed the same acknowledgement and acceptance. Lack of acceptance, or failure to acknowledge and address the fact that LGBT Jews are–and always have been a part of the Orthodox world–is not a solution. Failure to acknowledge does not make the issue disappear. In fact, closing one eye on this matter leads to fractured communities, family alienation, and documented suicides. No one wants this for their family, their friends or their community.
We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.
We are not asking you to do the impossible and place yourselves exactly in our shoes. Rather we simply ask you to consider having this conversation in the spirit of Klal Yisrael, a community conversation. All of us are in this together. If nothing else this is an issue of bein adam l’chavero, “between man and his fellow man.” All conversations need a setting. Imagine yourselves sitting around the Shabbat table. You have just finished Kiddush and are about to eat with family and a few friends. Think about the statements below and how you would respond. These are in no particular order and we are sure some are more sensitive than others. So, just pick a few, and begin…that’s how most of us did it with our families, slowly, carefully, needing time to absorb and appreciate the circumstances and the people around us.
As Orthodox Jews we believe that all human beings are created in the image of G-d. Have you considered how this core Jewish principle of human dignity might shape your view of LGBT people?
- We believe that being LGBT is not a matter of choice. Do you feel that most people discover rather than choose their sexual orientation?
- If our children could choose, they would likely have chosen to be straight. Whether or not you believe that homosexuality is a matter of choice, how might this consideration that it is not a choice affect your community’s policy of welcoming people who identify themselves as homosexual?
- With regard to respecting privacy, do you or your rabbi ask congregants how they behave in the bedroom? Do you or your rabbi ask people in your congregation if they obey all mitzvot involving family purity laws? Are singles asked about their pre-marital sexual practice? What would you do if you knew that such laws were not observed in private by others? Would you think such people should be excluded from participation in shul?
- Have you asked yourself what would happen if everyone who attends your minyan had to submit to an “Aveyrah (transgression) Test,” that would include Lashone Harah (bad mouthing), Genayvah (stealing), Genayvat Da’at (lying), tax cheating, spousal abuse, and so on, and that flunking such a test would disqualify them from receiving any honors at the synagogue whatsoever? And have you considered that all of these (other) aveyrot are committed by choice? Are you aware that the phrase Toevah (translated by some sources as abomination and by others as forbidden or taboo) is applied to cheating in weights and measures just as it is applied in Leviticus to homosexuality? In our experience the “Gay Test” is one of the few that an Orthodox minyan seems to apply far more often than the “Aveyrah Test”.
- Do you hear homophobic jokes in your community? What do you do when you hear them? Do you perform the commandment of Hocheach Tocheachet Amitecha (rebuke your fellow Jew) and stand up for our children, relatives or friends who are the object of these so-called jokes?
- Have you asked yourself and your congregation if it is just the appearance of openly accepting LGBT individuals or couples into your shul and not any aspect of halakha (Jewish law) as applied to gay people, that bothers you?
- Do you know that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the general population are and have always been LGBT and that the Jewish population is no different? (With a congregation of 300 this means 15-30 individuals are LGBT). This percentage does not change based on any dress code. Cloth, knitted, or leather kippot (skull caps) do not change this percentage and neither does the color or brim size of your hat, or the length of your skirt or sleeve or whether or not you cover your hair.
- Do you realize that with these significant percentages someone in your extended family or social circles – child, brother, sister, grandchild, aunt or uncle, niece, nephew or friend – is, or will likely be, discovering that he or she is LGBT and may not have yet shared this knowledge with other people?
- Do you know that when you chase an LGBT person from your congregation – either overtly or via social pressure – you might be encouraging that person to leave Orthodoxy and perhaps even Judaism altogether?
- Do you know that by shunning an LGBT congregant, you are also shunning that individual’s family? Do you realize that very often it is not just the LGBT person who leaves the Jewish community or Orthodoxy but his or her entire family?
- Did you know that twenty- to forty-percent of homeless youth are LGBT, most likely because their families have rejected them and they feel they have nowhere to go? Did you know that suicide rates among LGBT youth are significantly higher than in the general youth population
- How well versed are your rabbis and lay leaders about LGBT issues or about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants or their family members? For example, do your rabbis or leaders know which institutions or organizations (Jewish or secular) might help him better help and advise these congregants?
We are hopeful that in a few years all Orthodox communities will be able to have this conversation in an open forum that include all its members. Today that is not the case.
We are asking you to encourage your rabbi to respectfully consider these questions and to learn about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants and their family members.
We hope that all synagogues, shuls, shtiebels, and their Rabbis think about the above issues and the serious implications they have for the health of their communities. By avoiding these issues or simply denying they exist, we are ignoring, rejecting, and losing LGBT Jews and their families.
Addressing these issues will not change Jewish law but it will encourage dialogue and begin to lessen needless pain and fear, debilitating isolation, dangerous depression, as well as hatred and discrimination of LGBT youth in the Orthodox world. After all is said and done, these Jewish souls are our sons, daughters, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, parents, neighbors, or friends.
Eshel is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. The Eshel Orthodox Parents Retreat is planned for March 7, 2014: to register for the Parents’ Retreat or to learn more visit http://www.eshelonline.org.
Get a copy of The Purim Superhero, the first Jewish children’s book with LGBT characters, in time for Purim. And, if you are a family participating in the PJ Library program, be sure to request your copy of The Purim Superhero by March 13, 2014!
One year ago this month, the world got its first look at you. The truth is, though, I’d had some version of you in my head for over a decade before that: I’d wanted to write about a kid with a Purim costume dilemma ever since my days as a Jewish day school librarian, looking for holiday books to read aloud in class. Then, when Keshet announced its picture book contest in 2011, you came a little more clearly into focus: you’d be a kid with same-sex parents, whose struggle to be true to yourself at Purim echoed your dads’ experiences as gay men. Your personality really crystallized one day when my friend’s son, bored at being dragged along to his mom’s writing date, started tossing ideas at me, and some of his unique imagination (and his interest in aliens) was infused into you. And, of course, I didn’t know what you looked like until I saw Mike Byrne’s adorable illustrations for the manuscript.
Over the past year, I’ve been honored to hear from GLBT parents, and other nontraditional families, that you’ve provided a way for them to see their family life affirmed in the pages of a book, and from many “traditional” parents that your story has given them a chance to see the diversity of their neighborhoods or congregations reflected in a Jewish book they can share with their kids. You’ve been part of the celebrations at birthdays, baby showers, at least one wedding, and, of course, at Purim festivals all over North America. You’ve even inspired some Halloween costumes!
I’ve been heartened by the warm welcome you’ve experienced in the Jewish online and print world, and by the support I—and you—have had from other writers at venues like the Jewish Book Council event I attended last June, or the LimmudVancouver conference where I presented just last week. I’m grateful that you came into the world at a cultural moment when you can be recognized and celebrated for all of your identity—as a Jewish kid, as a kid in a same-sex-parent family, and as a boy who finds a way to honor the unique interests that make his heart sing, even while he wants to be part of his group of friends.
It’s that last part that I’ve seen resonate the most strongly with kids, especially kids around your age. Over and over, at school visits and author readings, they’ve wanted to talk about how you feel pressured to dress as a superhero like the other boys in your class, and how hard it can be to be different from your friends, and how important it is to find a way to be yourself anyway. Your story certainly isn’t the first time that theme has been sounded in a children’s book, but you’ve helped bring it to life for a lot of kids—whatever their religion or family structure.
So, happy birthday, Nate—and chag Purim sameach! I’ve been thrilled to share this first year with you, and I’m excited to see where your future will take you. You are a super friend to many, and I hope you’ll continue to fly high.