Tag Archives: allies

Federations Get Serious About LGBTQ Inclusion

This summer the UJA-Federation of New York hosted a Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement, a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish institutions. Earlier, Keshet shared a prayer Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered. We know you’ll appreciate the reflections of Jill Schreibman, a conference participant and long time LGBTQ advocate. 

Community-Conversation-200x115When my supervisor told me that UJA-Federation of New York was hosting a conference on LGBTQ engagement in the Jewish community, I was delighted that they were beginning a dialogue but couldn’t imagine how they would appeal to the vast range of experiences that would be represented in the room. Some participants had been working professionally in the LGBTQ community for decades while others were contemplating the topic for the first time. I came to the conference in the former category.

I was the founding director of Westchester County’s center for LGBTQ adolescents, a program of Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) that opened in 1995. While I left that position many years ago, I stayed involved with the program as a member of the Advisory Board and was attending the conference in that capacity. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

When I arrived at the conference, which took place this summer, I was immediately struck by the number of participants. There must have been close to 200 people in the room. After casual conversations with several people, it was clear that UJA-Federation had convened a cross-section of Jewish New York, all with the common desire to begin the discussion of how to make the community more inclusive of its LGBTQ members.

The panels that opened up the conference spoke movingly from two different perspectives. The first group described their first-hand experiences within their Jewish communities, as LGBTQ individuals, and one parent of a gay son. The second panel was comprised of professionals, some of whom work at the cross-section of Jewish and LGBTQ circles. I appreciated the candor and courage of the first panel, but was truly riveted by the second.

I was fascinated when one of the panelists put the issue in a historical context and spoke about how New York’s Jewish and LGBTQ communities came together in the early years of the AIDS crisis and how LGBTQ inclusion is consistent with Jewish values. I was reminded that, while so much progress has been made in the past two years, we were at the conference on the shoulders of the courageous people who advocated and struggled for LGBTQ rights over many decades. It was a humbling, and I felt both the privilege to be living through these historic times and the responsibility to make a contribution.

UJA-Federation's LGBTQ conference kicked off with speakers sharing their individual and family journeys. From left to right: Jeff Schoenfeld, Amram Altzman, Diane Wener, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, and Joy Ladin.

UJA-Federation’s LGBTQ conference kicked off with speakers sharing their individual and family journeys. From left to right: Jeff Schoenfeld, Amram Altzman, Diane Wener, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, and Joy Ladin.

Another panelist was the researcher whose team led the Jewish Community Study of New York. The data she presented was interesting but what was more thought-provoking to me was a point made by an audience member who identified as Orthodox. The study separated the data on the Orthodox community so that more accurate comparisons could be made between groups, and while the questioner said she understood this reasoning, she described her feelings around the risk of marginalizing the Orthodox community by segregating the data; certainly a feeling that many LGBTQ people can identify with. For me, that moment crystallized why such a conference was necessary: regardless of where one may fall on the political, spiritual or religious spectrum, the ability to truly understand what it feels like to be marginalized and the desire to be recognized and treated as equal is a profound place to begin a dialogue.

I was also moved by the discussions in the smaller breakout sessions around gender identity. I thought I was “sensitive” to many of the issues that a transgender person faces, until one of the presenters spoke of her experiences around her daughter’s bat mitzvah and how her family and community reacted to her new identity. Her courage and her willingness to be vulnerable about her experiences with a group of total strangers at the conference, was inspiring.

I look forward to continuing the work with an ever-expanding group of allies.

Like this post? 

Posted on September 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Is Your Hillel Inclusive?

As students return to college campuses, now is a great time to be thinking about how LGBTQ inclusive your Hillel can be. Here are several suggestions to make your Hillel more inclusive, welcoming, and a safe environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning individuals and families. Even if your campus doesn’t have a Hillel, you can adopt these practices for any student group. A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile the original version of this guide—which can be found on the Keshet website.

1024px-College_graduate_studentsCreate Inclusive Policies:
Both current and potential LGBTQ students, as well as LGBTQ staff and faculty members, need to know that your Hillel values equality, and is committed to protecting against discrimination and harassment.

By mentioning this commitment in your existing policy documents or creating new language, you will communicate a commitment to equal treatment for all. For example, you should have a comprehensive anti-bullying statement for students and also inclusive anti-harassment Human Resources policies for staff. Click here for sample language for different anti-harassment policies and inclusivity statements. The statement should be easily available on your website, printed marketing materials, or other communications where fit.

Let the Campus (and the World) Know About Your Commitment to LGBTQ Inclusion:
Even if you think it is obvious, explicitly state in marketing materials, on your website, and other communications that your Hillel welcomes LGBTQ students. This will go a long way in letting potential students know that Hillel is a safe space for them, and letting all other constituents know the values of your institution.

Educate Yourself and Others on LGBTQ Terms:
Oftentimes one of the greatest challenges for non-LGBTQ people in talking about LGBTQ issues is uncertainty regarding language and vocabulary. As many terms are new, or are used differently by different people and in different contexts, people are sometimes uncertain and embarrassed to enter the conversation for fear of being wrong or of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings. Click here for a list of LGBTQ terms and definitions.

When Planning Icebreakers or Small Groups, Do Not Automatically Group Students by Binary Gender (male or female):
It is sometimes an impulse of staff and students alike to group students based on binary gender (male or female). However, this is problematic for several reasons:

  • It renders gender non-conforming or transgender students invisible, by assuming binary gender and categorizing students without consent;
  • It encourages students to view gender as an either/or category, which reinforces stereotypes; and
  • It discourages students from branching out and exploring friendships and experiences beyond their assigned or assumed gender.

Consider asking students to count off, or divide them alphabetically or by birthdays instead.

Create Programlogo-without-web-325x150ming that Addresses Jewish LGBTQ Issues:
Our commitment to the inclusion of LGBTQ Jews is not just a secular value, but a Jewish value. When appropriate, integrate LGBTQ issues and topics into your programming in order to demonstrate how inclusivity is essential to our Judaism. Going beyond the prohibitions in Leviticus, Judaism says much about positive sexuality, gender, and how to treat all people with respect.

  • When discussing Jewish ethics around love and sex, do not just refer to heterosexual dating and marriage, but include a full spectrum of relationships and ways to experience human love.
  • When studying Torah, understand the text using an LGBTQ lens. One way to do this is to use our book Torah Queeries, which provides an LGBTQ reading of each parasha or our Torah Queeries online database. You can also introduce or bring in LGBTQ scholars who interpret Torah from an LGBTQ perspective (Here is an example from Dr. Joy Ladin, and one from Rabbi Steven Greenberg.)
  • When studying Jewish history, include the history of LGBTQ Jews.

Proud to be Queer and JewishAnother tangible and easy way to start a conversation about LGBTQ inclusion at your Hillel is to share Keshet’s Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community poster or handout with your students. Hillel and Keshet partnered to create this special, co-branded version in the hopes that every Hillel will display these posters on their walls and use them in student programming. This resource can be printed and included in materials for new staff and student leadership, encouraging the issue of LGBTQ inclusion–and what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive community more broadly–will be emphasized on your campus right from the start.

These are just a few examples of the many possible ways to teach about LGBTQ and Jewish topics. What steps are you taking to make your campus a safe and inclusive one?

Like this post?                                                                                                              

Posted on September 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Conversation on Being Champions of Memory

10517379_10152597006364123_982551248731753375_oLast week our Boston community sat down for a conversation with Ayala Katz, mother of one of the victims of the 2009 Tel Aviv LGBT youth center shooting. Jayne Guberman, a founding member and mentor for the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, moderated the conversation with Ayala about their shared experience parenting LGBTQ children, Ayala’s fierce LGBTQ rights activism in response to her son Nir’s tragic death, and the strength she and her family draw from one another.

The program opened with a d’var Torah from Rabbi Matthew Soffer from Temple Israel of Boston. We know you will find his words inspiring. 

On behalf of our Temple Israel community, and our Equality and Inclusion Team here, I’d like to thank Keshet and Idit Klein for the honor of hosting this gathering.

I’m not one to think that spaces are inherently holy… as people who have davvened (prayed) in bars with me know full well. Synagogues are only as holy as their actions and impact prove them to be.

I’m a rabbi at this congregation, but I’m also an individual who was raised as a little brother to someone who grew up in a Jewish community in which he couldn’t share his identity until he left.

If only he could have found a time machine and flown back to future to the present, because of Keshet, he wouldn’t have had to play “catch up” on all the love that he lost from the Jewish community.

10668844_10152597006359123_6631014068707235258_oA teacher of mine (the great Jewish liturgist Dr. Larry Hoffman) taught me to think of Judaism not just as a “religion” or a tribe, not even just as a people, or a people – but as a conversation. Judaism is a Conversation.

I wanted to just open this Conversation with a word of Torah, from our Scripture – because I think it has everything to do with why we’re here. The word of Torah from this week’s portion pertains to memory.

It’s in this week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, we encounter a famous and disturbing mitzvah.  Deuteronomy 25:17 reads: “Zachor eit asher asah l’cha Amaleik baderech b’tzeitchem mitzrayim…” “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”

Our parasha is saying to us: remember what happened to your people, at the very point at which you were most vulnerable! And when are we supposed to remember this horror?

Our text continues: “V’hayah b’haniach Adonai Elohecha l’cha mikol oy’vecha misaviv…” “When the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal is giving you as a hereditary portion you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

When are we to remember? When we are… home. Safe.

This space, Temple Israel, is as safe a space as any. And still it’s mandated that when you’re feeling safe, when you’re protected, THAT’S precisely when you are to remind yourself about your vulnerable past. Perhaps that’s because we know that if just “sit back and relax” and let the story of today happen without our voice and our past, then ignorance and hatred will start growing like weeds.

In Judaism, we don’t have a word for history. Today the Hebrew word for history: HISTORIA. (The first phrase I learned in my year of study in Jerusalem was “zeh lo big deal!”). History is what happened in the past and it remains in the past. It’s passive. In Judaism we have ZIKARON, memory. Memory is something entirely different. Memory is ACTIVE. What distinguishes memory from history is that it’s wedded to responsibility.

Memory is how we carry our story into the future. Memory enables us to hold and preserve a tragic past in our heart and then with our hands build a future that changes the story, that adds healing and wholeness to the narrative that will be read about us in ages to come.

Simply put, we are at our best when we are champions of memory.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that we – Temple Israel and Keshet – are currently in a state of mourning. Just yesterday we observed here a funeral of a beautiful human being named David Passer.  A champion of Keshet, a leader at Temple Israel, and the Executive Director of Shir Tikvah in Weyland. David and his husband Marc made history – and memory – when they courageously became the first same-sex couple in our Commonwealth to join a Temple community as a family.

Many of us sat Shiva yesterday or today at Shir Tikveh. I lift this up because if it weren’t for David’s memory, the Conversation that is Judaism here in Boston and the Commonwealth might still be years behind where it is now. That’s because David was a champion of memory. Keshet is a big open tent filled with champions of memory; folks embracing memory to transform the world as it is into the world as it should be.

10572131_10152597007289123_2297184364043410804_oAyala Katz is a champion par excellence of memory: thank you for being our teacher on this day. This space is blessed to have you here.

We are blessed to be having this Conversation – a conversation about equality and inclusion, about what love really looks like, a conversation about hope.

Thank you.

A special thanks to Temple Israel Boston for partnering with Keshet for the event and to our cosponsors: ADL New England, CJP – Greater Boston’s Jewish FederationCongregation Kehillath IsraelEshelFamily Equality CouncilGann AcademyGLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders)Greater Boston PFLAGJCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day SchoolJewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater BostonJewish Community Centers of Greater BostonNew Israel FundProzdor & Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.

Visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.

Like this post? 

Posted on September 9, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Back to School: What Does Your LGBTQ Jewish Lesson Plan Look Like?

Keshet-SafeZone-Sticker (1)With Labor Day in our rear-view window, summer is officially over. Now that school is back in session, here are a few LGBTQ inclusive lesson plans for your Jewish classroom.

Check out our suggestions for inclusive lesson planning with our easy-to-use collection of educational resourcesYou can find LGBTQ-inclusive lesson plans, resource guides and best practices for creating LGBTQ-inclusive camps, youth groups, and classrooms, as well as samples of educational programs created by other educators, youth professionals, and Jewish youth leaders.

If this is the first time you’re introducing LGBTQ inclusive material to your classroom, start by taking a look at how to include LGBTQ experiences and perspectives in your curriculum for all age levels.

Here are a few of our picks for each age group:

  • Family Portraits and Bible Stories for pre-K through 1st grade will help students explore and affirm different family structures as they appear in the Bible and in students’ own experience.
  • Take a look at What Does It Mean to be an Ally for middle school and high school students. This activity begins withashort text study of Talmudic teachings about communal responsibility. Students then explore together the role of anallyin creating change.
  • For high school students, check out the First Adam. This lesson plan will guide participants towards being able to identify ways that they push traditional gender norms as they explore how how ancient and contemporary Jewish texts understand the first Adam to have had an ambiguous gender identity.
  • If you’re looking for a lesson plan for college and adult students check out Exploring the Rabbinic SodomThis lesson plan was developed for Keshet by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, author of Wrestling with God and Men. This lesson takes a look at the “sin” of Sodom in the rabbinic tradition, using Sanhedrin 109b, Middat Sedom, and Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) on the verse Genesis 19:5 as a way to engage participants in this exploration.

Let us know how you bring LGBTQ inclusion to your classroom!

Check out our resource library for additional lesson plans and resources.

Like this post? 

Posted on September 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Jewish Mom and Her Daughter Talk LGBTQ Inclusion: Part II

You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality.  Read part 1 of their interview here!

Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (2 of 58) (2)Mom: Do you think it’s important for cisgender and straight people to get involved in LGBTQ justice work?
Chloe:
It’s critically important. In order for there to be real change, we need everyone’s involvement, in some way or other. If it’s simply talking with family, friends, colleges, etc, about the issue – lasting, cultural change will require the vast majority of folks in our society to be part of the solution. Not everyone has to be warriors on the front lines. People can just be having conversations with their neighbors over their back fence.

Chloe: Do you think the work we’re doing, in our small and limited way, will have an impact?
Mom:
I’m sure you’ve heard the Margaret Mead quote, but it’s the best way to answer your question. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Mom: Why did you want to get involved in LGBTQ inclusion work at Sha’aray Shalom?
Chloe:
As VP of our GSA at school, I realized that the best way to foster social change is to penetrate every aspect of culture and society and work to bring bout enlightenment and awareness. Religion is a popular place for people to hide behind conservative ideology, but they shouldn’t. Most especially in the religious realm. I believe that mercy, justice, kindness, and freedom and dignity for all people are among the basic tenets, or should be, of a religious life.

Our shul can be much more demonstrably open and inclusive and I want it to be a place where everyone, including LGBTQIA+ people and their families can feel welcome and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. I would be proud to have helped that come about.

Chloe: What got you interested in working at the temple as a front for change?
Mom:
For the reasons you just stated, but also because, as the center of our family’s spiritual life, it’s a logical place for me to want to focus my efforts in this cause. Also, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing with Keshet, and that at the end of the coming year, we will have implemented the Action Plan that we formulated at the Keshet Leadership Summit. At that time, CSS will have a place in Keshet’s fabulous Equality Guide which will enable LGBTQ folks on the South Shore who are searching for an open and inclusive shul to find us.

I’m also extremely excited about helping other religious institutions in the area who might want to open their organizations and create warm, welcoming and inclusive cultures, to follow our lead. Our work with Keshet will empower us to serve as a mentor congregation to others in our community, and it would be an enormous honor to support other groups and help them to do what we will have done.

Mom: Do you plan to carry on with the work you’ve been doing with the GSA at school and the task force at CSS when you get to college? What are your goals for your efforts at Sarah Lawrence?
Chloe:
One of the reasons that Sarah Lawrence was my top choice of colleges, and that I am so thrilled to be going, is because they are ranked amongst the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. I think that much social change and progress is made on college campuses and that progress can be a springboard for change in society-at-large.

I will work with existing groups on campus and perhaps, if I see a need, form a new one. And just as importantly, I will lead by example by making certain, as I do now, that my actions, speech, opinions, deeds, etc, all demonstrate my belief that an equal and fair society for all people is the best kind to live in. It’s my way of working toward tikkun olam.

Like this post? 

Posted on August 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Jewish Mom and Her Daughter Talk LGBTQ Inclusion

You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality. 

10338453_10152492071044123_8737009278356287062_oMom: Chloe, what was the genesis of your interest in LGBTQ equality?
Chloe:
I have always had a strong sense of fairness and have felt very keenly that people in this world should be treated equally and fairly. Unfair treatment of any individual or group has always raised my hackles, and I think that’s been due, in great part, to you and Dad teaching us about the profound importance of equality in our society and equal rights for all people. You taught us that it is our moral and human obligation to work for justice in our world.

As for my particular interest in LGBTQ rights, soon after we moved up here from New Jersey, my friend, Bridget (who has since legally changed their name to Quinn) came out in high school as trans and pansexual. I was not particularly well-versed in the issue at that time, and Quinn taught our friends and me a lot about LGBTQIA+ life, which very much sparked my interest in learning more and working for justice in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Chloe: How did you become interested in LGBTQ rights, Mom?
Jodi:
I have had a passion for civil rights and social justice since I was a kid. In fact, when I was 11, I asked Meema if Jewish girls could become nuns! Without laughing (which I always appreciated her for!) she asked why I would want to become a nun. I answered that it seemed that they devoted their entire lives to helping others and that’s what I wanted to do with mine. She explained that I could live as selfless a life as I chose without becoming a nun and that was the beginning of my realization that I wanted to work in the world to help people. As I grew and matured, my interests were honed and my passion for social justice developed.

I had a very close gay friend in high school, who ended up dying of AIDS some years later, and nobody ever spoke about his being gay and what it must have been like for him. It was not talked about or even acknowledged back then, but I knew it had to be a painful and very difficult life for him. As I have watched LGBTQ rights come more and more into the fore throughout my life, it has become more and more important to me to fight for social justice in this community.

Mom: What are your thoughts about the current state in our country of LGBTQ equality and how things are progressing?
Chloe:
I’m very happy to see that things are changing for the better, at least in our part of the country and world, but there is still a long, long way to go before we have true equality. We have to work hard to educate people and help “normalize” the LBGTQ community in the minds and experience of cisgender and straight people. I think if we keep pushing, we’ll get there.

Chloe: What do you think of the progress we’ve made?
Jodi:
I was young in the 60’s but I know from my parents and family, and learning all about the civil rights movement, that it was an incredibly exciting time in the arena of social justice. I know that to watch real change be born back then, as prolonged and painful as the labor was, was extraordinary. LGBTQ rights and equality is the civil rights issue of our time, and to see the changes that are happening, and the speed with which they’re coming about, is one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I absolutely agree, however, that there is still so much work to do and ground to cover, but we are making real, tangible progress. It’s thrilling.

Like this post? 

Posted on August 27, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

When Anti-Semitism Hits Close to Home

Recently a friend of mine made a very astute point: “We’re from the Midwest. We don’t do conflict.”

His offhanded comment hit home with me, and I’ve found myself using my Midwestern roots as a justification for disengaging. A car cuts me off and starts yelling worrisome obscenities? I’m from the Midwest—I’ll just wave. Facebook sends a slew of disturbing and frightening images my way? I’ll be keeping my thoughts to myself.

salemhatecroppedYesterday my bubble of self-protection was challenged when anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled outside of a home in my own community. I’m lucky to live in one of the most accepting and friendly places in New England. I’m happy to call the town of Salem, Massachusetts home—and although we might be known for witches and Halloween-related tourist traps, it’s a town where one always feels safe.

And, that feeling of security is well earned. This summer Salem was awarded a perfect score on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index. Earlier this year Salem signed an anti-discrimination ordinance specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans* individuals. Salem’s Mayor, Kim Driscoll, even went as far as to donate $5 to nAGLY (the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth) for each phone call her office received objecting to a recent decision to end a contract with college displaying discriminatory practices.

It’s safe to say that it is very safe to be yourself in Salem.

Yesterday I was forced to question that safety. A friend shared a picture with me—anti-Semitic graffiti was found outside a home flying an Israeli flag. This was something I never thought I would see in my very safe, very friendly, very accepting neighborhood. Suddenly the fear of a rise in anti-Semitic actions and the conflict that seemed so far away was playing out in my back yard. Suddenly, I was very afraid.

I am lucky enough to have grown up in a time and place where anti-Semitism is a rarity, making this incident all the more difficult for me to process. This was a new fear for me, as well as a new sadness. Even though the graffiti was blocks away from my home, I felt unwelcome, singled out, and sad. For the first time in my safe community, I felt afraid. Now my familiar coping mechanism of avoiding conflict felt wholly inadequate; my well-being was challenged by one individual’s act of hatred. And I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Keshet-SafeZone-Sticker (1)In today’s highly pressurized world, our responses to actions of hatred become almost more important than the acts themselves. Realizing this, I’m forced to challenge myself and ask at what point do my Midwestern tendencies towards passivity need to be suppressed? How do I respond to the very real evils taking place around me? How do I speak up for myself, and for others, without escalating an unsafe situation? And how do we, as a society, learn to balance our reactions in a way where hatred and fear never win over kindness and morality?

Like this post? 

Posted on August 6, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Just Your Typical Interfaith, Interethnic Two-Dad Family

Last week on the blog, S. Bear Bergman of the Flamingo Rampant Book Club issued a call for children’s books that feature diverse LGBT families. He emphasized the need for books in which diversity itself isn’t the core issue of the plot. That is: “Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome.”

Well, Bear, you (and everyone else too!) are in luck: Your post comes just at the moment that author Dana Alison Levy introduces her debut novel for middle grade (ages 8-12) readers, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.

familyThe family at the heart of The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is made up of two dads, four adopted boys, and various pets. They’re Jewish and Christian and Hindu, white and African American and of Indian descent. They’re interested in soccer and ice hockey and turtles and imaginary friends. They have seriously mixed feelings about homework. And they’re constantly getting into a variety of hilarious scrapes.

Jill Ratzan caught up with Dana Alison Levy to ask her some questions about her book’s inclusion of same-sex parents, religious diversity, and zany humor.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is being hailed as a contemporary take on the classic middle grade family story. What inspired you to modernize this familiar genre? 

I grew up adoring novels that I now know are called “middle grade” but I thought of as just kids books. Books like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet, Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family series, and of course Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books were among my favorites. I also loved the ones that had a little magic thrown in, like Half Magic and Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager. (My sister and I called them “Cheerios books” because we’d reread them again and again, usually while eating Cheerios out of the box.)

When I thought about writing the Fletchers, I wanted that same kind of story, but set in the world we live in now. And the world we live in has many more diverse types of families than ever before. Still, the core of the story is the same as these books written dozens of years ago: a loving family and the shenanigans and trials they go through in a year.

The boys in The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher struggle with various “issues” like whether or not to try out for the school play, how to approach a grumpy neighbor, and how to repair a damaged friendship. The fact that they have two dads is never itself an issue, though. What made you decide to take this perspective?

That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. I guess in part I believe that kids, if they’re lucky (and the Fletcher kids are really lucky), get to live in a bubble for a while. In the bubble, they don’t have to pay a lot of attention to the big issues of society, be it race, or socioeconomic inequality, or sexual orientation. Nobody gets to stay in the bubble for long, but for this book at least, I wanted the Fletcher kids to have the luxury of taking their life for granted.

I worry about this element of the story, honestly. I know that our world is not colorblind, nor blind to differences in sexual orientation. Most kids like the Fletchers will, at some point, experience some challenging and hurtful moments related to these issues. I would hate for kids or parents to feel that, just because the book doesn’t focus on those moments, it erases those challenges. But I wanted to avoid writing an “issue” book and instead let the more universal and mundane hurts and conflicts rise in importance.

One of my hopes in focusing the story on the everyday challenges in the Fletchers’ school year is to normalize and universalize the experiences of a family that might look different on the outside. Hopefully I was able to do that without ignoring what makes them unique.

One of the Fletcher dads was raised Jewish (“bar mitzvahed and everything!”), while the other is Episcopalian. They want to honor these traditions while making sure that their sons’ African American and Hindu birth backgrounds are also recognized. The family loves creating holiday celebrations that can “belong . . . to everyone,” like hosting elaborate Halloween parties and leaving a plate of latkes for Santa Claus. Again, why did you choose to bring this aspect of interfaith families to your story?

This part of the book came pretty close to my life. I was raised Jewish, though not religious, and my husband comes from a Catholic background. Both of us have strong ties to our traditions, but neither feel that the organized religion quite represents us. So the question becomes: how can we maintain traditions and a sense of spirituality without organized religion? Many of our friends also struggle to answer this question with their families, merging different religious traditions into something new.

Like the Fletchers, we believe in marrying rituals and traditions from all faiths, melding them and shaping them to become our own. When writing the book I wanted to include the Hindu festival of Holi, which takes place in early spring and involves a massive color fight, and I also wanted to include Sukkot, which I think the Fletchers would really get behind (An outdoor house for all meals? Of course!). But I just ran out of room!

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is full of anecdotes of everyday family zaniness, including a series of Thanksgiving cooking mishaps, an ice rink surprise, and a memorable incident involving a sandwich, a dripping-wet cat, and a pair of underwear. Do you have a favorite Fletcher family moment?

I confess, the scene of Zeus the cat falling into the bathtub then racing around the house dripping wet while being chased by Frog [the youngest of the boys], wearing only his underwear and a cape, was one of my favorites to write. I will not speak to whether a version of this story happened in my household, but leave it up to the readers to wonder.

I hear that a sequel is in the works! What can you tell us about it?

Yes!! I’m so very delighted that I get to spend more time with the Fletchers! I am working on the sequel now, and it will come out in the spring of 2016 (In theory at least. Publishing works in mysterious ways). While I won’t say too much, I will say that we pick up pretty much where this book ends, with the Fletchers heading out to their beloved Rock Island for summer vacation. Rock Island is a place where time stands still, except this year, the boys must tackle some unexpected changes — on the island and even in themselves.

Dana Alison Levy was raised by pirates but escaped at a young age and went on to earn a degree in aeronautics and puppetry. Actually, that’s not true—she just likes to make things up. That’s why she always wanted to write books. She was born and raised in New England and studied English literature before going to graduate school for business. While there is value in all learning, had she known she would end up writing for a living, she might not have struggled through all those statistics and finance classes. You can find Dana online at www.danaalisonlevy.com or on Twitter and Facebook.

Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Want to learn how to help your community be more LGBT inclusive? Sign-up to learn more!

Posted on July 29, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Does Inclusion Look Like?

Last week I stood in a room full of Jewish leaders who made me hopeful about the future of the Jewish world. These leadersfrom 16 Jewish day schools, synagogues, camps, Hillels, and community organizationscame to Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit to study together, discuss LGBT inclusion practices, and create action plans for greater LGBT inclusion within their institutions in the coming year.

These leaders are ready to go beyond acceptance and move towards proactive inclusion, devoting their time and resources to intentionally working to create communities where inclusion is a central value.

I love what one religious school teacher from a Conservative synagogue said when asked what the most significant thing she gained from the day: “Being LGBT friendly is more than welcoming someone with your wordsit takes systematic planning on the program and policy levels.”

I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the coming year.

Below are some of our favorite photos from the daytake a look! And check out our full album of photos here.

Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (1 of 58) 2

Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (58 of 58) (2) Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (46 of 58) (2) Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (45 of 58) (2) Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (31 of 58) (2) Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (24 of 58) (2) Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (8 of 58) (2) Boston Leadership Summit 2014 _ Rozensky (2 of 58) (2)

Learn more about Keshet’s Leadership Project here!

Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Get breaking LGBTQ Jewish news, resources and inspiration from Keshet in your inbox!

Posted on July 23, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

My Daughter’s Gay Uncles

My brother is gay and his amazing boyfriend, Risto, is the newest member of our family. I never presented Risto as anything other than Rob’s boyfriend to my daughter and she has never mentioned anything about two men loving each other and sharing the same bed when they visit.

Sugarman pic (600x800)My daughter is lucky to have amazing aunts and uncles who love her and spoil her constantly. There is no difference in her mind between having an aunt and uncle who are married and uncles who are in a relationship together.

Me: Remember, some kids don’t have a mommy and a daddy. Some have two mommies, two daddies ,or only one. Families are all different.
Daughter: Yeah mommy. That’s right.
Me: Even though Uncle Robbie Dobbie (to most people, that would be just Uncle Rob, but not in our family) and Risto don’t have kids, they love each other.
Daughter:Yeah. They do.

At my daughter’s birthday party, which was a family-only event, she was truly the center of attention. After the party, my brother and his boyfriend stayed with us overnight for a longer visit.

My daughter’s love for them is amazing. It is almost as if she knows their relationship is special and she wants to be a part of it. One minute she was hanging on Risto playing with him and his iPad and giggling with Uncle Robbie Dobbie the next minute.

She really understands that Uncle Robbie Dobbie and Risto “go together.” There is no difference in her eyes between them and her other aunts and uncles. That is a gift and I am grateful to be living in a time when relationships are simply relationships and love is simply love.

While we are Jewish and Risto is not, he attends family holidays with us and has enjoyed learning more about Judaism. I believe our family has welcomed even more by his inclusion in our holiday events. Who doesn’t like having 4 glasses of wine at Pesach (Passover) anyway?

What my daughter does not yet realize are the perks of having gay uncles (not being stereotypical here; they actually agree with these): they spoil her with princess supplies like no one else, my brother made her a mermaid birthday cake with a doll (Risto did the doll’s hair) and when she is a little older, Uncle Robbie Dobbie will be more than happy to play “Wonder Woman” with her, just as we did as children (unfortunately, I was “Wonder Girl” as my brother got to be “Wonder Woman”). My daughter is one lucky girl!

My daughter is growing up in such a different world than I grew up in. And while the world is much scarier now, it is also filled with such hope. People who are gay and lesbian can get married in many states and they are able to receive benefits. This is monumental and my daughter gets to be a part of it and witness it. I hope she will be witness to more barriers being broken down as she grows up.

Do you have an LGBTQ family member? Click here to learn more about the Keshet Family & Parent Connection! Join a community of parents across the country who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community.

Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on July 9, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy