With the High Holidays right around the corner, now is a great time to be thinking about the message your synagogue sends to new and potential members about LGBT inclusion.
Here are several suggestions for how to make your synagogue a more inclusive, welcoming, and safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning individuals and families. This guide is neither exhaustive, nor does it apply to every synagogue community. A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile the original, more detailed version of this guide—which will be published on the Keshet website soon.
Values and Policies:
Here a few suggestions to help you express your values clearly through your synagogue administration:
- Make inclusion of LGBT members a core value of your synagogue: Before you can examine how your synagogue could become more inclusive of LGBT individuals and families, there must be a commitment and buy in on the part of all staff, lay leaders, and members for this to be a core value of your community. It is essential that this value be explicitly expressed and discussed openly. One way to do this is to open up public and communal discussions about LGBT inclusion at the beginning of the year, or when discussing the vision and values of your synagogue. LGBT inclusion must be discussed by your board, professional staff, clergy, committees and lay leadership, general membership and in your religious school and teen programming
- Make sure your registration forms are inclusive of LGBT families and individuals: When crafting registration forms and other documentation, be sure that they are welcoming to a spouse or partner of any gender. Rather than marking only “mother” and “father,” or “husband” and “wife,” write “parent 1” and “parent 2,” or “partner 1” and “partner 2,” etc. If you need to ask for the gender of an individual, allow room for a write in category if the member identifies outside of the two binary genders (male and female), or avoid asking for gender if the information is not necessary.
Language and Communication:
As a synagogue professional or lay leader you are an important role model in the lives of the individuals in your community.
- Do not assume the sexuality or gender of your members: When leaders make incorrect assumptions about the sexuality or gender of community members we risk rendering gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning individuals invisible. For example, when talking to members of all ages about dating, don’t assume that they are interested in the “opposite sex”, and rather than referring to members as “ladies,” “girls,” or “boys,” ask them how they identify, and what words they use to describe themselves.
In order to achieve your goals, your values of equality and inclusivity must be embedded in the everyday culture and activity of your synagogue.
- Talk together about how to make your synagogue more supportive of LGBT members…often: The only true way to create a fully open and supportive community is to be committed to values of equality and respect all the time, every day. Have your rabbi, professionals, lay leaders and members check in regularly and discuss how your synagogue is meeting its goals and achieving its values.
Torah and Ritual Moments:
Our commitment to the inclusion of LGBT Jews is not just a secular value, but a Jewish value.
- LGBT issues on the bimah: Invite clergy or others speak from the bimah about Jewish values of equality, inclusivity, and safety for all LGBT individuals. This is an important way to teach about LGBT issues, encourage sensitivity regarding sexuality and gender expression and also publicly discuss your synagogue’s commitment to its LGBT members. Click here and enter the keyword “sermon” to see examples of sermons on LGBT themes.
- Provide adult learning on LGBT topics: When appropriate, integrate LGBT issues and topics into lectures and learning series in order to see how inclusivity is essential to our Judaism. 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 a LGBT lens. One way to do this is to use the book Torah Queeries, or Keshet’s Torah Queeries online database, which provides a LGBT reading of each parasha (torah portion). You can also introduce or bring in LGBT scholars who interpret Torah from a LGBT perspective (Here is an example from Dr. Joy Ladin, and one from Rabbi Steven Greenberg. When studying Jewish history, include the history of LGBT Jews (for example: http://lgbtjewishheroes.org/). And start a conversation about Keshet’s Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community with your community. These are just a few examples of the many possible ways to teach about LGBT and Jewish topics.
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One of my family’s favorite Sarah Silverman routines plays on the Jewish habit of always claiming one of our own: “You know that self-hating, Jew for Jesus, Holocaust denier—Jewish!” So when I emailed an article about the recent Louisiana court decision against marriage equality to my son, a law student, I noted: “You know that anti-equality, out-of-step-with-the-times-judge?—Jewish!”
Why do we do this?
Why does it matter?
I think our instinct to do this is an expression of our emotional sense of connection, of family with other Jews. Our tradition names this in the value kol yisrael aravim zeh bazeh: all Israel is responsible for one another. This is often interpreted as meaning we should care for one another but of course it also means that we must not do harm to each other. This was one reason the Louisiana decision was so upsetting to me.
To be honest, I think another reason is because it can be easier to be angry and frustrated about the obvious injuries to LGBT Jews “out there” than to take the time, energy and risks to focus on the ones right here in my own community. I want to hold Judge Feldman accountable for his actions, not just as an American but as a Jew because what he did is contrary both to U.S. law (as evidenced in the other recent federal decisions) but basic Jewish values. I can and will write him a letter to express those opinons. But I don’t know Judge Feldman, I’m not Judge Feldman’s rabbi or part of his community, and that’s probably the most I can do.
On the other hand, there is a great deal to do in the Jewish places I do live—both physically and virtually—the people I know, the groups to which I belong, the organizations to which I give tzedakah. And this is the most painful reason I get so upset when LGBT Jews are injured and excluded by other Jews—that 5775 is approaching and we have so far to go. I feel heartbroken at the failure of Jewish communities that can raise and honor individuals with a great deal of Jewish information but apparently few Jewish values.
During this High Holy Day season we often discuss teshuvah, the process of returning through acknowledging and making amends for the harm we have done ourselves and others. Seldom do we hear about its counterpart, tochachah, “rebuke” or “reproof,” the obligation to tell someone who has harmed you about the damage they have done (for the origins of this practice see Lev. 19:17-18). The reason for this is twofold. First, the Torah, (as well as modern psychology) knows how bad it is for both the individual and the community if someone holds a grudge. Second, withholding the information denies the offender the opportunity to do teshuvah.
I know from personal experience that tochachah can be much harder than teshuvah. It can also place a difficult responsibility on the victim. I also know from personal experience that it can be like coming out. You can’t always predict the outcome but it does personalize the abstract—I am what LGBT looks like, I am the human being who was hurt by your actions.
So if, like me, you were upset by Judge Feldman’s decision as a Jew as well as an American, I hope you’ll think about tochachah on behalf of LGBTQ Jews this High Holy Day season, regardless of your orientation or identification.
It doesn’t have to be a federal court decision—as rabbinic Judaism so profoundly understands, the small, daily actions that make up our lives can have a world changing impact. Speak with your rabbi or other synagogue leaders about how homophobia and transphobia hurt you and the Jewish community and how you need to hear that message from the pulpit. Talk to educators about supplementary school and day school curricula and hiring policies. Check out whether the bathrooms and membership forms are non-gendered and, if not, do something to change them. And, of course, go to www.keshetonline.org for resources that can have a lasting and transformative impact throughout your community.
May the coming year be one of compassionate love and wholeness for all of us.
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Curious about gender? Check out this program the Chicago branch of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection is running on gender fluidity! If you are a parent or a family member of an LGBT individual looking for support, visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBT Jews.
The “gender binary” tells us that there are two ways to live in this world: as a man (who likes masculine things, dresses in masculine ways, has a masculine profession, etc) or as a woman (who likes feminine things, dresses in feminine ways, has a feminine profession, etc).
More and more, people are becoming aware that for some individuals, the gender they were assigned to at birth is not the right one. If you ask people to define “transgender” you are likely to hear things like:
-”someone who was born in the wrong body,”
-”someone who switches to the opposite gender,”
-”someone who was assigned male at birth, but knows themselves to be female.”
While all of these identities are extremely valid and true for many people, they do not capture the experiences of everyone—for example, those for whom the entire idea of only two options of gender is too restrictive.
There are many gender identities and expressions that blur the gender binary or exist outside of it altogether: gender fluid, gender variant, gender creative, third gender, gender neutral, gender non-conforming, and genderqueer, to name a few. But often these narratives are missing from our conversations about gender and trans* identities.
This can leave individuals and parents feeling lost or confused if their or their child’s identity/expression does not fit the typical narrative of what it means to be transgender.
For example: a teen who says “sometimes I feel like a girl, sometimes a boy, sometimes both, sometimes neither! My identity isn’t static.” Without an understanding of gender fluidity as an identity, this might be dismissed as a “phase.”
Or what about a child who is raised as a daughter, who then comes out as trans and whose preferred gender pronouns are he/him/his, but who still feels comfortable wearing dresses and has no interest in surgery or hormones. This may cause his parent to wonder “is my kid really transgender?”
Or imagine a teen who was raised and identifies as a boy, but enjoys both masculine and feminine clothing and style depending on the day. He may feel as if he has to choose just one or the other and stick with it, or risk being called “confused” or “attention-seeking.”
Chicago’s Parent & Family Connection has been noticing and discussing these situations at our monthly meetings, and is very excited about our upcoming event specifically about these rarely-discussed but important narratives.
Our workshop on Gender Fluidity will be a chance for parents and professionals to learn and ask questions about gender identity, gender expression, and the wide range of forms and combinations these can take. We are hoping this is a step towards a broader and more varied understanding of gender that allows us all to live a bit more freely and true to ourselves.
If you are in the Chicagoland area, we would love for you to join us on Thursday, September 18th from 7-8:30pm at Beth Emet for this exciting event with speaker Biz Lindsay-Ryan, an experienced presenter on gender and LGBTQ issues!
If you can’t make this event but would still like to get involved with our group, check out the many other things we have planned for the upcoming months, including a film screening and educational/support meetings where you can connect with other family members of LGBTQ individuals.
Chicago’s branch of Parent & Family Connection is run by Response, a social service agency for youth and young adults. Through Counseling, a Center for Sexual Health, and Outreach programs, we help adolescents and their families in the Jewish and general community develop skills in communication, decision-making, and leadership necessary to deal with life’s challenges. Learn more from Response, a program of JCFS, supported by Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation.
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- Visit Keshet’s Family & Parent Connection for more info about Keshet’s program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.
Want to make your organization more inclusive? Take a look at the images you include in your materials- are you representing the diversity of your community? CJP, Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, just released their 2015 calendar and with it, showed their commitment to inclusion.
The month of August features two brides signing their ketubah. (And, as an added bonus, these brides are the daughter and daughter-in-law of a founding member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program and Keshet board member!) We sat down with Julie Somers, CJP’s Vice President of Marketing, to get the scoop on the calendar.
CJP profiles so many diverse organizations and causes in the yearly calendar. What is the goal of project?
The CJP Calendar helps tell the story of CJP’s mission, the people we touch and the organizations that partner with us to make an impact in the Jewish community and beyond. And, of course it’s very practical as it serves to provide information on the dates of all the Jewish holidays!
Why was it important to CJP to include an LGBT moment in the calendar?
Our community is diverse and we want people to see themselves on the pages of our calendar.
What was the process for selecting the photo of Jewish two brides?
In our efforts to include the diversity of the Jewish community throughout the calendar, we reached out to Keshet to find a photo of a same sex couple celebrating a ritual of Jewish life.
This powerful image captured the beauty of a Jewish wedding ceremony. Last year we featured a family with two moms who were hanging a mezuzah. There wasn’t any pushback- CJP has been at the forefront of establishing an inclusive community for LGBT since 1998 when we developed a team of LGBT leaders to create programming. Along with Keshet, we support a community where Jews of all gender identities and sexual orientations are valued and integrated in Jewish communal life. I have heard it said that CJP opened the door and Keshet opened the entire house!
What other ways does CJP work towards inclusion and ensuring a strong and welcoming Jewish community?
CJP and our partners have numerous programs that strive to create an inclusive community where everyone feels welcome. This includes programs for interfaith couples and families, work that supports people with disabilities in the areas of education, recreation, employment, housing and synagogue inclusion, and strong engagement offerings for our Young Adult community as well as services and programs for our seniors.
Where can someone get their hands on a CJP Calendar?
Calendars can be requested via email to email@example.com.
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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.
When 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.
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.
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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.
Create 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 Programming 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.
Another 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?
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Last 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.
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.
A 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.
We are blessed to be having this Conversation – a conversation about equality and inclusion, about what love really looks like, a conversation about hope.
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 Federation, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Eshel, Family Equality Council, Gann Academy, GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), Greater Boston PFLAG, JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, New Israel Fund, Prozdor & 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.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, our reflection comes from Maggid Jhos Singer, who shows that standing up as a Jew takes guts and deep self-knowing.
It is the original ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ rant to which all others pale in comparison. Its images of damnation know no bounds; It is one of those bits o’ Bible that has fueled the hateful lust of bigots and fundamentalists for centuries. I would go so far as to call it scriptural porn. It’s the stuff that
usually makes folks like me, a genderqueer Berkeley liberal Jew, run screaming from Judaism,
so it’s kind of odd to admit that I love this portion. It’s scary and exciting and makes me feel like
I’m watching a really weird piece of performance art.
The trick with this portion is staying cool, not reacting to the surface level ugliness and instead tuning into the God in it. When I read it I try to imagine that I’m hearing a song on a static-ravaged transistor radio, I’m standing amidst a huge noisy crowd, I’m getting jostled around, nearby some wild-eyed preacher is raving into a microphone, “Cursed are you sinner, you will burn for Eternity, you are a perversion,” people are yelling back, I hold the radio up to my ear straining to hear and little by little the song cuts through the din and a big smile spreads across my face… Welcome to this week’s parasha.
In brief, this portion tells us that if we are obedient we will be blessed, with the blessings described in one short paragraph. However, if we are not obedient we will be cursed. The Torah then unloads pages of orgiastic curses that we will endure for our transgressions, laid out in graphic, gory detail. It is grating and provocative, and I don’t mean in a nice way. Everything about it is repulsive on the surface. One has to wonder why the Torah would include such ugliness.
But read it carefully, and you will first note that the Torah tells us explicitly that the orators here are not God, but Moses and the Elders: “Moses and the Elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.’ ” (D’varim 27:1)
Perhaps it is simply that Moses, and his cohorts, are on a proto-Pentecostal roll, taking the law
into their own hands, so to speak. To his credit, even in the midst of this diatribe, Moses manages to sputter out a key spiritual concept. He says that it is God’s voice that we should be listening to (28:15), that we must hear the commands that God is giving us (in spite of Moses’ interpretation).
Might Moses have been trying to tell us that we have to fine tune our spiritual hearing so that we can know what it is that God wants from us, rather than what other people want from us? Similarly Moses seems to be implying that God speaks to us as individually and if we let someone else do our channeling for us the price we pay will be high. Additionally, in the midst of describing the litany of ills that will befall us if we don’t follow Moses’s commandments, there is a sweet dose of wisdom slipped in. Moses says, “You will be mocked and starved, diseased and blighted. You will be so bereft and so debased that you will become the supreme example of human depravity to all other peoples, Because you did not serve your Source of Being with gladness and with a full heart when
everything was abundant.” (Deuteronomy 28:47)
I experience this line as God getting in a word edgewise.
There is much to learn from this raw scripture. Coming out as homo-, bi-, or trans-sexual takes steel and faith. It takes tuning out the hate mongers and spiritual terrorists, and overriding the din of ignorance and fear to find God’s message and lock on. Standing up as a Jew, whose faith and ways have been seen as “queer” since we began, takes guts and deep self-knowing. Queer folk, of every stripe, cannot afford to loose our balance. Is it any wonder then, that the Torah includes an opportunity for us to practice listening to the ugliness of degrading threats while training our ears to hear the personal word that God whispers to each of us? After all, didn’t our communal revelation on Sinai begin just like this, in the sound and the fury? So we stay calm, focus our hearts and minds and – “Shema” – we listen.
And there, in the bang-clanking cawing of curses, we hear some of the most loving words of
Torah: “Yea, verily I saith unto you: That you will be destitute, crazed and destroyed if you don’t
give your self to gladness when times are good.” I hear this line being spoken with love and
compassion, I imagine God cradling my head in Its big soft hands and whispering, “Aww now
pun’kin, why so angry? Look around, you are healthy, loved, smart, blessed and cute as a bug’s
ear. Lighten’ up and enjoy it baby.”
Indeed, the LGBT community has survived, and even thrived, in some part because we know
how to party and be glad. We know how to show up with bells on and bring color and music
into the world. Every community that has instituted a Pride Parade was initially met with
resistance. The megaphoning morality meisters have shown up again and again, bellowing out
their messages of loathing and disgust — but they have never been able to drown out Sylvester z’‘l, or Sister Sledge or Barbra or Judy z’‘l, who have told us in whispers in the dark: Come on get up and dance because somewhere over the rainbow we are a family of the luckiest people in the world. We have listened to them and we have danced and we have been glad and we have known that we are not cursed, but so very blessed.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “Mitzvah g’dolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid.” (It’s a great mitzvah to insist on gladness.) As this week’s teaching reminds us, we must practice being glad when there is something to be glad about. We cannot take a single blessing for granted, peh peh peh, lest the challenges and difficulties of being our true Self become overwhelming. We must be astute enough to know who God created us to be, no matter what the imperfect human authorities in our lives would say about it. Even great human leaders sometimes try to scare us into submitting to their ideas of who we should be. But remember: God relies on each one of us to manifest in this world our own unique aspect of It. Be brave, choose life, choose blessing. Tune out the static, listen hard and I’m sure you will hear a still small voice boldly singing “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh”— “I am what I am” (Exodus 3:14/Jerry Herman by way of Gloria Gaynor).
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Q: What do I do if my rabbi is against my involvement in the LGBT community?
Asher: You do whatever you want. Your rabbi doesn’t own you, and he or she certainly does not have the final word regarding your Judaism and how you express it. Try exposing your rabbi to some great literature on the subject. If your efforts are failing and you feel that the situation has stagnated or even deteriorated, you can find a new rabbi who is LGBT friendly. Good luck!
Q: In my Jewish community, I’m always known as the “gay kid.” In my LGBT communities, I’m always known as the “Jewish kid.” How can I own both identities at the same time?
Asher: People tend to differentiate between others by the qualities that most stand out; the things that make others unique, so it’s only natural that when you are the only “gay kid” or “Jewish kid” in a group, you will be associated thusly. You should also be aware that by asking this question, you are doing the exact same thing in reverse – you are generalizing these groups (which is not a bad thing). This question reminds me of a friend of mine from college; she was the only girl in her town who shaved her head, and that was her identity. When she arrived for freshman orientation, there were five other girls in her class with shaved heads, and she experienced an identity crisis. She learned eventually, like most people, that what makes you unique is ALL of who you are, not one particular piece. So, just be yourself, and stop being so hung up on how you are being perceived or the labels with which you are being associated, because in the long run, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re being treated with respect. In time, you may stop caring so much, which is ultimately what your question is about.
Q: How do I navigate the Hebrew language – where everything has a strict gender – when I’m not willing to identify as one gender or the other?
Asher: Ah, the strict gender binary of the Hebrew language… Unfortunately, even as a Hebrew speaker living in Israel, I don’t have any answers that will satisfy you, as there is no real solution to your question. I know some people who choose to interchange masculine and feminine pronouns, but I’m afraid the Israeli population is not so forgiving. They will correct you. Every. Single. Time. Spend your energy raising awareness about these issues of gender, since the current Hebrew pronouns are rather fixed. Be’hatzlacha – good luck!
Q: I keep hearing “it gets better.” I’m not so sure. Does it?
Asher: For me it did. For my husband it did. For all of my LGBT friends it did. That said, there is really only one way to know for sure if it will happen for you, and I strongly suggest sticking around to find out. Good luck!
Q. I read your last column, thank you! Now I’m wondering… who is Asher of Ask Asher?
Glad to introduce myself. My name is Asher Gelman and I am the Artistic Director for The Stage, Tel Aviv’s premier English-language performing arts organization. I hold a masters degree in Fine Arts from The George Washington University in Dance, and two bachelors degrees from Bard College in Dance and Theater. I made Aliyah to Israel in 2006, where I live with my husband, Mati.
I have been doling out advice for years, both solicited and unsolicited, so this column provides the perfect outlet for my talent for telling other people what to do; especially people I have never met.
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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 resources. You 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 an “ally” in 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 Sodom. This 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.
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