With the first month of 2015 behind us, we thought we’d share our most popular blog posts of the past year. These are stories of coming out, of finding community, and of enacting change.
What are the stories you want to hear in 2015?
Coming Out & Staying With My Husband: Faina realized that being true to herself meant living authentically as a lesbian—and also returning to her husband and children.
When Anti-Semitism Hits Close to Home: When anti-Semitism hit close to home, the safety of this quiet community was put into question.
Looking Forward and Looking Back: On Friendships and Transitions: Two long-time friends sit down to reflect on how they kept their friendship strong when gender and pronouns shifted.
Coming Out at Shabbat Dinner: Take a minute to watch this video of this Jewish teen coming out to his family at Shabbat dinner. How much stronger will our Jewish community be when no one is left out?
Transgender Day of Remembrance and the Life of Sarah: How do we take the lessons from the Torah portion on the life of Sarah and create a space for the memory of transgender individuals?
Coming Out for Two: Sara’s coming out story is a little different— before coming out herself, her brother asked her to help him come out to their mother.
One Family’s Wish for a World without Gender Roles: When one Jewish couple put their child in daycare they faced struggles surrounding gender they hadn’t anticipated.
The Coming Out Process: Coming out as trans isn’t simple. Before coming out to his community, this rabbi had to come out to himself.
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“Open to me the gates of righteousness,” says the Psalmist, “that I may enter and acknowledge the Holy One.”
Throughout our Jewish tradition, gateways are images of transition and portals to the sacred. How ironic, then, that a gateway to the Western Wall, for many Jews the holiest place on earth, was literally blocked to Kay Long, a transgender Jew from Tel Aviv. Naturally, this event was painful for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, serving as an example of how there are still those who wish to prevent us from full inclusion in the Jewish community. But I hope it is equally upsetting to anyone who thinks carefully about the issues involved.
First and foremost, this act of exclusion was a denial of the fundamental Jewish value of betzelem Elohim, the understanding that every human being is created in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of respect. More than that, Judaism commands compassion from its adherents. The Torah is clear that we must act with an understanding of mutual obligation (“love”) toward not only those who are like us (“kinfolk”) but those whom we perceive as being unlike us (“strangers”) as well. Biblical tradition is particularly concerned with our treatment of the marginalized and oppressed, frequently reminding us that we, ourselves, were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Even were someone not willing to accord another the respect and dignity due to them, Jewish tradition is adamant that one must not publicly shame them. Leviticus 25:17 instructs “Do not wrong one another.” The rabbis interpreted this to refer to speaking harshly or humiliating another person. It is worth quoting the Talmudic discussion at length for its remarkably contemporary insight into the profoundly destructive quality of such shaming:
Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong, because of the first it is written, ‘and you shall be in awe of your God,’ but not of the second. R. Eleazar said: The one affects [the victim's] person, the other [only] money. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: For the former restoration is possible, but not for the latter. A Mishnaic sage recited before R. Nahman b. Isaac: One who publicly shames [a] neighbor it is as though [that one] murdered [the other]. Whereupon he remarked to him, ‘You say well, because I have seen [such shaming]- the redness departing and paleness replacing it.’ (Baba Metzia 58b)
On another level, we can see the refusal to allow Kay Long and other transgender people access to the Western Wall as an attempt to block out the transformations of Jewish life that they represent. In his book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? journalist Touré derides the “authenticity police,” those who feel they have the right to judge whether others are authentically Black. LGBTQ Jews have worked to free themselves and others from similar attitudes within Jewish life. In coming together as communities of choice rather than coercion, contemporary Jews celebrate the growing visible diversity of Jewish experience. In insisting that we are the authorities on our own lives and that we are the ones who determine how we are defined, LGBTQ Jews present a challenge to traditional authority.
The challenge, however, exists within progressive Judaism as well. Liberal communities continue to erect their own gates marked “Women” and “Men,” assuming binary gender identities are the exclusive options present or available to their members. These gates may only be visible on bathroom doors but they are present as well throughout our educational, social, and spiritual activities. When my youngest child began college, she was asked which pronoun she would like used when referring to her. How many synagogues include that simple question on membership forms?
Jewish mysticism teaches that our individual lives and actions are inextricably linked with the very order of the cosmos. Affirming the unity of God requires inward as well as outward harmony throughout creation. When transgender Jews are denied the integrity of identity, the damage is profound for us all.
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As a member of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, Keshet is proud to join with many of our fellow social justice organizations in supporting this campaign for racial justice. As an organization working for LGBT equality, we view our struggle as part of a broader movement for equality, dignity, and justice for all people. With gratitude to our friends at Bend the Arc for providing the tools and framework for this action.
The 114th Congress began last week in the midst of a profound and continuing effort to confront — and end — systemic racism in America. Let’s put this struggle at the top of the agenda for the new Congress.
The sustained outcry over the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police — and the failure of the justice system to address those killings — is forcing this nation to address the unhealed scars of our past.
The pattern is all too clear. In the past few years, young black males in this country have been 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.
This must stop. Only when every black life matters in America, will every life in America matter.
Keshet is joining with Bend the Arc and other Jewish organizations to take the demands from Ferguson Action to Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McConnell, urging that they prioritize the unfinished business of addressing racial injustice in our society. Add your signature.
Back in the Civil Rights era, American Jews stood with our sisters and brothers in the struggle for full equality and dignity for every member of our society. It’s time to be united again.
Help us send Congress a strong message that the struggle for full equality and dignity for every member of our society is a top priority for American Jews. And they should make history by making it their top priority as well.
Editors note: Thanks for all of your support! This campaign is now closed.
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“Mommy, that’s a mitzvah!”
That was my 4-year-old daughter’s reaction when I told her I was becoming a gestational surrogate.
“Am I going to get another baby brother?”
“No, honey. I am going to grow the baby for someone else.”
“You know that only women can grow babies, right?” She nods. “Gil and Tomer are two daddies, two men, so neither of them can grow a baby–they need help. So I’m going to grow their baby for them.”
A few seconds of silence. Then Ramona’s face splits into an enormous grin, and she says, “Mommy, that’s a mitzvah!”
That was Ramona’s foray into surrogacy advocacy. Since that moment, my daughter has become surrogacy’s youngest and most passionate spokesperson. She will tell anyone who will listen, without missing a beat, that the babies in Mommy’s belly are not ours, but rather, they belong to Gil and Tomer, the couple I got matched with through our surrogacy agency.
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In December Keshet had a chance to work with Kim of Hebrica Judaic Art. Kim’s story—she’s a convert to Judaism who grew up in the segregated South—made quite an impression on me, so I welcomed the opportunity to chat more with the artist. We started our conversation with a question about why working with Keshet made sense for Kim’s Jewish (and artistic) values. “I feel very strongly about Jewish togetherness,” she shared. “All Jews, either born to it or having chosen it, all levels of observance, all walks of life. The Torah and all the holiness of Judaism belong to all Jews, equally.”
Kim’s personal story is intertwined with her discovery of Judaic artist. Her journey started in the segregated American south and involved converting to Judaism in order to find a new way of expressing herself.
Growing up in the segregated South, color and class distinctions were finely drawn, but Judaism was scarcely on the radar. I had Jewish friends, but I don’t think Judaism was well understood in the “buckle” of the Bible Belt. I didn’t really have a religion myself. And art was just something I did for my own amusement, or for friends.
All my life, I had always done some kind of art…pen-and-ink, pencil, charcoal…everything in black-and-white.
And then I converted to Judaism. Overnight, literally, I began working in color…paints, watercolors, pastels. It was so odd to me. I had always been such a black-and-white kind of gal (ask my husband; he says I don’t see any shades of gray). Where did this come from? Why did I suddenly start seeing the world in color? The truth is that I have no idea. I only know that it happened.
And then I went to Israel; Jerusalem, actually, for the first time, for a month. You might think there’s not much color in Jerusalem. After all, it’s in the Judean desert. And all the buildings are made from this kind of sandstone that goes from a light blond in the morning to blazing white in the heat of the day, to a golden glow in the afternoon. But colors, not so much. Yet, I saw them.
Jerusalem wasn’t Kim’s only source of inspiration. The idea of “hiddur mitzvah,” or doing a commandment beautifully, informs her art, as well as the texts themselves.
The sacred texts of Judaism inspire my creative work. The first time I saw a page of Hebrew, I was captivated and made up my mind to learn the language. The shapes of the letters are so beautiful, from the very precise Torah style to looser ones and even fonts I sort of invented.
The pursuit of art draws me deeper into the text. That’s how I learn, and a papercut becomes almost a meditation on the subject. Some people are great at praying, or visiting the sick, or cooking for the oneg, or teaching in the religious school. I cut paper. And I hope that, when a piece is done, someone will look at it and say to themselves, wow. That really touches me. Or, I should look into that a little more.
Kim Phillips was certified in pararabbinics at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and studied at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. There, she found the creative spark for Hebrica, her Judaic art. Visit her website to see more of Kim’s art.
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Last month, an article entitled to Warning: Hollywood’s Coming For Your Home and Children! by Robert C. Avrech appeared in the Jewish Action magazine.
One morning, shortly after this issue of the magazine reached homes, I received an email from a friend who was extremely upset by this article and its vehement and mean-spirited diatribe against our homosexual children and members of the community.
In short, Mr. Avrech posits his view of what a moral community is and it does not include our LGBTQ members—nor does it include divorced families, single moms, and a whole litany of others he considers to not be upright, including all hues of feminism.
Among many other things, the author laments the gay couple in Modern Family and the fact that “homosexual radicals” have pressured A&E to cancel Duck Dynasty because “the far left has demonized Phil Robertson, the family patriarch as a homophobe because he supports traditional marriage.” Parenthetically, it is important to remember that the patriarch of the show Duck Dynasty was called homophobic not because he supports traditional marriage but because he compared homosexuality to bestiality and other vile stereotypes.
Further, Avrech states, “Today it is militant homosexuals who drive the agenda. Tomorrow it will be sharia-yearning Islamists demanding sitcoms about happy-go-lucky polygamists.” To call this overtly and supremely offensive does not even begin to address the problem with such flawed reasoning. His use of histrionics does not do honor to him nor to the magazine that published this piece.
So, why am I and so many other parents and families in the Orthodox community so upset? This magazine comes into Orthodox homes several times over the course of the year. For about 10–13% of us, just as in the general community and in the larger Jewish community, our homes include LGBTQ loved ones.
I return to the email I received from my friend a month ago.
My friend, who has a gay child and is part of our ESHEL community of Orthodox LGBTQ Jews and their families, was so hurt and devastated by this article. Within a few days of the article being published, about nine families in the same situation were sending emails back and forth. During that time a letter was crafted and sent to the editor of Jewish Action. I still do not know whether or not the magazine will publish the letter.
The problem we in the Orthodox community confront is that seemingly moderate venues still lean to the right in terms of lack of acceptance and honest discussion of what the challenges are, and instead opt for immediate dismissal.
Dismissal of our beautiful, intelligent, and amazing children and family members is not something we can live with or accept. Judaism does not teach to do this but rather espouses maxims for living such as “judge the other favorably” and “do not judge another person until you have reached his place.”
Further, there are texts that clearly cause us to question time held notions of binary categories of sexuality. We know in modern medicine about the continuum of how The Creator of All has created us and this is even acknowledged in our Jewish texts (check out Mishnah Bikkurim, Chapter Four as a wonderful example).
Inclusion and acceptance of others has always been a challenge in Jewish Law. Included in those categories of how and if one should be included are women, those who have mental defects or illness, the lame, the hearing impaired, and yes, those of us who are left-handed!
However, what is fascinating to me about Jewish law is the great extent to which our venerated teachers of old will go to in trying to include as many as possible and to be gentle and caring to all, as we find in Masechet Hagiga, for those of you who want yet another substantial text reference.
As a Modern Orthodox Jew (or as I like to call it, a Halachically observant and accepting of the multi-vocality of Jewish expression Jew), I find these texts and so many others comforting. However, what is more important to me is for all of us to realize that the texts say what the texts say, not what individuals with their own agendas want them to espouse in support of their own personal agendas. Often Talmudic discussions end with “it’s a difficult matter” or “this cannot be resolved” or other expressions acknowledging that simple answers are too often inaccurate and more often potentially harmful. I would caution all those who are in the Halachically observant range to consider this important teaching of our beloved scholars of old and those today as well.
What have we, our group of concerned parents of LGBTQ Jews in our observant families, learned from this, or rather confirmed yet again as a result of this experience? Advocacy is critical as we protect and cherish the ones we love so dearly.
It is so important that we stand up and speak on behalf of our wonderful family members when others seek to marginalize or worse, malign them. After all, we are all aware that language used can bring death as well as life, as we learn in Mishlei (Proverbs).
Let us commit ourselves to bring and cherish life together—the life and potential and contributions of all Jewish community members, including the LGBTQ children, parents, siblings, relatives, and friends among us.
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Lesléa Newman, known for her children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, explores illness and death in her newest book. From diagnosis through yahrzeit (one-year anniversary of death), she grapples with what it means to lose a mother. To honor her mother’s memory, Lesléa Newman will donate $1.00 to the Cancer Connection for each book ordered by January 25 (her mom’s birthday).
Mirrors are covered
Wooden benches are set out
Have a good mourning
Where’s the coffee pot?
I ask my father, who knows
my mother would know
Welcome. Please come in.
Sit anywhere. Except there!
That’s my mother’s chair
Ancient Hebrew prayers
cannot bring my mother back,
so what good are they?
My aunt spills her tea
when I speak to her softly
in my mother’s voice
White coffee cup smeared
with my mother’s red lipstick.
Don’t you dare wash it.
my mother and I both love
clog my throat like mud
My mother’s old friend
cups my face with both her hands
Fingers wet with tears
My aunt stands to leave.
“Call if you need anything.”
I need my mother.
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It’s been just over a week since Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. Leelah grew up not far from where I live in Cincinnati. If you haven’t heard Leelah’s story, it’s a tragic one. Leelah was a trans teen who chose to kill herself because, as she wrote in her suicide note, “the life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.”
Leelah’s note was posted on tumblr shortly after she purposefully walked in front of a truck on a dark night, but tumblr has since removed the blog post. In that post, Leelah described feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body ever since she was four years old.
Leelah’s parents were not supportive of her gender identity, to say the least. For several months, they completely isolated Leelah by removing her from public school, taking away her computer and phone, and not letting her use social media. Leelah’s parents also took her to Christian therapists who she said told her she was selfish and wrong.
So, Leelah felt her best option was suicide. For Leelah, I am so sad. For every person who struggles for acceptance of their sexuality and/or gender identity, I am sad. For every person who feels life is not worth living, I am so sad and distraught.
>> Read the rest of Fix Society. Now. Please! on the Rabbis Without Borders blog.
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This year we celebrated the work of two allies to the LGBT Jewish community with the inaugural Landres Courage for Dignity Award. The award was established by Shawn Landres and his family to recognize individuals who display public courage as allies to support the full inclusion of LGBT people or others whose dignity is at stake. The award was presented earlier this month at Glimmer, out Bay Area fundraiser.
Check out these short video profiles of our award winners:
Ayala Katz, an Israeli mother transformed by tragedy into an advocate for LGBT equality. Ayala was Named “one of the 50 most influential people in Israel” by Haaretz.
During her tenure as the CEO of the San Francisco based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, Jennifer Gorovitz championed outreach and inclusion for all Jews in the Bay Area who felt excluded from Jewish life.
At Glimmer we also honored Martin Tannenbaum with the Rosh Pina “Cornerstone” Award. Martin is an inspiring leader in the Jewish communities of the Bay Area, Salt Lake City, and beyond. and is a past chair of the Keshet Board of Directors and a member of the Board of Directors since 2010.
You an check out our photos from Glimmer here.
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For families and couples who are interfaith, particularly those who are in a Jewish and Christian relationship, December can be a balancing beam—multiple traditions, holidays, and rituals demand equal attention. For interfaith couples of all faiths, holidays shine a spotlight on what makes being in an interfaith relationship so challenging…and so potentially rewarding.
As someone in an interfaith relationship, I actually enjoy December. There’s not much of a dilemma for me—but I know how incredibly lucky I am.
Although I’m the Jewish half of the couple, I’m the one who pulls the Christmas decorations out of the attic each year. And, as I’ve written in the past, I was raised in an interfaith family. Growing up, there was no great December holiday crisis. Hanukkah and Christmas made sense as a pair, and melted into one super month-long celebration of family, goodwill, and warm and fuzzy feelings. Perhaps some of my fondest holiday memories included the overlap of the two holidays. While it might not be featured in any Norman Rockwell, I relished the scene of a crackling fire, a fully lit menorah, and potato latkes enjoyed in front of the well decorated tree.
In my relationship, there has never been much tension around holidays and differences of faith. Perhaps it’s because if you had to narrow my partner and I down to one shared value it would probably be our mutual and never-ending curiosity for life. Having different traditions doesn’t actually separate us; it gives us more to talk about. And, as long as the respect for each other—and for each other’s families, tradition, and faiths—remains, we don’t experience any pushback from our respective families.
When I sat down to write this piece, I was already aware of how lucky my partner and I were. But when I started speaking with other couples, I was struck by how unprepared I was to offer advice on how to navigate December as an interfaith couple. Every situation is so different, and often quite delicate.
For Ilana and her partner, for instance, the best way to observe Hanukkah and Christmas as an interfaith couple has simply been to be there for each other. Ilana shared that before bringing her partner home, “there were a lot of hard conversations. First, many in my family had to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t bringing home a man. There has been some real fear and sadness, even though my family loves [my partner] as a person.” Common ground was found in looking at what Christmas and Hanukkah traditions Ilana and her partner shared, like discussing where they would be donating money and why. Observing the holidays together meant being open, listening, and being ready to say, “It would be really meaningful for me if you would be at this or did this with me.” Ilana’s advice for an interfaith couple? “Explore, have fun, ask questions.”
Another couple shared that the stress of the holidays wasn’t really a reality until they had kids. Now the holidays have a new meaning. Each year December is a little different for them, as they take the time to discuss with their daughter what each of her dads believe, and how and why they observe different holidays as a family. Their advice? Take each year—and each holiday—as it comes, and be ready for the questions your kids ask to evolve as they grow up. I recommend taking a look at the materials that InterfaithFamily has for parents navigating Hanukkah and the December dilemma.
I’ll leave you with one last resource: holiday cards that help create a safe space for all relationships and families. Alexis Gewertz founded the holiday greeting card line HappyChalladays after spending years looking for the perfect way for her and her partner to celebrate in an inclusive and interfaith way. Alexis and her artistic partner Chelsea Scudder launched their own line of interfaith holiday cards, perfect for anyone looking to send out holiday greetings.
After speaking to many about navigating holidays as an interfaith couple, a clear theme emerged: the importance of asking questions and simply being there for one another. I can’t think of a better piece of advice, for December and beyond.
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