Tag Archives: family

Finding Strength in Community & The Story of Purim

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

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

Painting of Esther and Mordecai by Arent de Gelder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on March 4, 2015

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Parenting an Openly Gay Orthodox Teen

In this post from Kveller, Elana Altzman reflects on her family’s journey when her oldest son came out. You can read the post in its entirety here.

13458701445_0ea733e792_zThe conversation over Shavuot lunch at a friend’s house three years ago started innocently enough—we were talking about the Israeli Rabbinate’s reluctance to provide kosher supervision to food served at non-Orthodox events in Israeli hotels. One of the guests at the meal responded with, “The rabbis have to control who comes in. What if homosexuals come in?”

Like me, this guest was a mother of four sons, an immigrant who came here as a young girl, a woman who did not grow up observant, but became observant as a young adult. Our kids were close in age. Perhaps these similarities made her comment even more shocking to me. Like her, I love my children and care about their happiness, education, and religious commitment. Unlike her, I have a gay son.

My oldest had came out to us a few months before, at the end of his sophomore year in high school. At 16, he was secure enough to come out first to two of his closest friends, then to us, and then to all his friends outside of our community.

But in our neighborhood and our shul in Brooklyn, he remained completely closeted, and knew his chances of being accepted, or even allowed to remain in the shul he grew up in, were slim. He tested the waters some, mentioning that a friend from a summer program was gay, an acquaintance was a lesbian. A neighborhood friend told him gays are disgusting. Another informed him he would burn in hell for being friends with a lesbian girl. An adult leader of the youth minyan, where my son lead services and read Torah regularly, railed against the lifting of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” one Shabbat morning, as part of his discussion of the weekly Torah portion, telling the kids in attendance that homosexuality would lead to the downfall of our society. Another adult shul member told him that someone like him, a teen who was accepting of gays, did not belong in the shul we had been members of for over a decade.

How much worse would it be if he were out as gay himself? We feared the repercussions on all our children, the emotional trauma that would result when our son would be rejected by the community he grew up in. That Shavuot conversation reaffirmed our fears. Our son quickly said goodbye and left the holiday lunch; our younger kids were playing, and my husband and I were thankful that they were unaware of the conversation.

Read the post in its entirety at Kveller.

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Posted on February 10, 2015

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On Love and Parenting

This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we are sharing love stories. We kicked things off with a two part series from Aden and his fiance, Josh. Today’s story is one of love and parenthood. If you have a love story for the Keshet blog, let us know!  Celebrate all kinds of love with our queer Jewish Valentines! 

Lonely.
Fear.
Anger.
The Closet.

Hope.
Liberation.
Self-Determination.
Coming Out.

Lust.
Sex.
Love.
Dating.

Commitment.
Community.
Bonding.
Marriage.

Longing.
Questioning.
Exploring.
Dreaming of our family.

Anxiety.
Anticipation.
Joy.
Conception.

Heart pumping.
Adrenaline racing.
Tears streaming.
Birth.

Love.
Love.
Love.
Family.

This is the journey of our lives. Having been together for over 19 years, my husband and I have traveled this wonderful path. If we had only overcome the first stage, dayenu, that would have been enough. Had we only reached just one additional stage thereafter, dayenu, that too would have been enough.

But, we did want more. While we had a very full and blessed life as a couple we knew very early on in our relationship that we shared a mutual desire to have children and create a family. How we would do so remained elusive for several years until we decided to have children via surrogacy.

Lee and his family.

Lee and his family.

Today, we are blessed with two beautiful children, an almost 8-year old son and 4-year old daughter. They are the true joys of our lives. They complete us and we are blessed.

In writing this blog, I was asked to ponder how love and parenthood go hand in hand. So many books have been written. So many stories have been told.  In so many ways I feel inadequate and certainly very humbled trying to articulate my own thoughts and ideas about such an important and awesome emotion and responsibility. Yet, I recognize that with all that has been said in literature, in the press, on social media, so much more needs to be said because the writings of love about LGBT parenting remains under-represented and certainly under constant attack. My husband and I stand in stark contrast to that precept and loudly say that we love our children unequivocally and as wholly and as wholesomely as any loving and devoted parent on the planet.

When I saw my son crawl and then walk, I felt love.

When my daughter gives me a kiss and a hug, I feel love.

When my son performs his piano recital, I feel love.

When my daughter kicks the ball and rides her bike, I feel love.

When my husband and I sit down to Shabbos dinner every Friday night and recite the parental blessings over our children, I feel love.

When I wake my children up in the morning and prepare them for school, make their lunch and put them on the school bus, I feel love.

When my husband puts our children to bed at night, reads them a book, sings a song or lullaby, I feel love.

When they spend time with their cousins, their grandmother, their loved ones, I feel love.

When I pick my children up from Hebrew School and they tell me a story from the Torah that they learned this week, I feel love.

When we roll around the floor, get goofy, make silly noises and have all out belly laughs, I feel love.

Love.

That’s what I feel every day I wake up and look into my children’s eyes.

This is love. This is my love. And no one will tell me otherwise.

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Posted on February 5, 2015

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Our Ten Most Popular Posts of 2014

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?

unnamed 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.

10321023_948003815650_1572420430904116827_oHow To Hire a Trans RabbiWhen the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center‘s top choice for a job was a transgender rabbi, they took the steps needed to educate their community.

Coming Out at Shabbat DinnerTake 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 SarahHow 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 TwoSara’s coming out story is a little different— before coming out herself, her brother asked her to help him come out to their mother.

IMG_2264One 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 ProcessComing out as trans isn’t simple. Before coming out to his community, this rabbi had to come out to himself.

 

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Posted on January 30, 2015

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The Joy of Being a Surrogate Mother

Mona-with-sign1“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.”

Blank stare.

“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.

>> Read the rest of The Joy of Being a Surrogate Mother over at Kveller.

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Posted on January 15, 2015

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An Orthodox Mother’s Response to Homophobia in Her Community

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.

warningOne 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.

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

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.

How can we possibly bring together our beautiful family members and celebrate our chagim (holidays) and Shabbat, our simchas, and so much else with this yellow journalism present?

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.

Sunnie's children.

Sunnie’s children.

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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Posted on January 9, 2015

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Sitting Shiva: A Poem from Lesléa Newman

unnamedWe are honored to share a poem from I Carry My Mother by Lesléa Newman.

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).

SITTING SHIVA

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.

Chocolate rugelach
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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Posted on January 7, 2015

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Fix Society. Now. Please!

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 Alcorn

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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Posted on January 6, 2015

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Navigating December as Part of an Interfaith Couple

Photo, art credit, and copyright: Chelsea Scudder

Photo, art credit, and copyright: Chelsea Scudder. Visit HappyChalladays for more cards.

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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Posted on December 23, 2014

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A Hanukkah Blessing

In preparation for Hanukkah, a time in the year when we welcome in the light of hope and liberation, we asked Alex Weissman and his mom Cyd to write a blessing celebrating LGBTQ people and families.

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Cyd and Alex are quite the mother/son Jewish duo. Alex is an out queer rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the former Social Justice Coordinator at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, and a leading LGBTQ Jewish voice for justice. A longtime leader in Jewish education and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion, Cyd infused her children’s life with Jewish content that reflected their family’s values, from modeling how to hold space as a ritual leader for her son—the future rabbi, to sending her children out into the world with her own take on the Priestly Blessing: “May God bless you and keep you safe and sound.”

When we asked Alex to tell us more about his Jewish experience growing up, he explained: “My mom used to teach my friends and me at religious school. She was always (and still is) intent on ‘whole person’ learning. It didn’t matter if we could just recite Ashrei—she wanted to make sure we could also articulate the joy of dwelling in the house of God and what that felt like.”

We share their blessing with you today in the same spirit of “whole person” Judaism that Cyd passed on to Alex. May it be that this year, as we gather our families to kindle the lights of Hanukkah, we do so in wholeness and holiness.

Here I am, ready and prepared to light the Hanukkah candles, as “our rabbis taught: The law of Hanukkah demands that everyone should light one lamp for themselves and for their household. Those who seek to fulfil the obligation well have a lamp lit for every member of the household (from Shabbat 21b).” We know we could be a household that celebrates the light of one. Instead, we remind ourselves that light increases with the opportunity for each of us to celebrate with our own Chanukiah. May we dedicate ourselves in all our days to honoring each other’s unique light, as it shines through the miracle of our gender and sexual differences. May our homes become homes of light for all people (adapted from Isaiah 56:7).

 Download a copy of the Hanukkah blessing here.

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Posted on December 16, 2014

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