Introducing “Ask Asher” – Keshet’s new advice column! Each month we’ll be answering your questions and doling out advice. Have a question about LGBTQ life? Jewish life? LGBTQ Jewish Life? Ask Asher! Send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org and you might be featured in our next column.
Q. “How can I celebrate Pride if I’m only out to certain people?”
Asher: You don’t have to be completely out to go to Pride. People of all sexual orientations and identities attend (including straight people), so you don’t have to out yourself if you’re not ready. Bring some friends who know for support, and have fun!
Q. “I don’t want to march alone at Pride. Is marching with Keshet at Pride a good first date?”
Asher: Bringing a date to Pride is like bringing a boxed meal to an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you’re in a relationship already, by all means, bring that lucky guy or gal, but if you’re single, wouldn’t you rather take a look at the spread first?
Pride is an excellent opportunity to meet people; bringing someone on a first date to the parade will seriously hamper your ability to engage with others, regardless of whether or not they are romantic prospects. If you can, organize a group of friends to march with, so no one will get jealous when you start to talk to new people. Oh, and the people at Keshet are awesome and super friendly, so if you need someone to march with, you should contact them. Have fun!
Q: “I just came out, and it’s a big deal. I don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want to march in a parade just because I’m gay. How do I deal with the whole idea of Pride month?”
Asher: No one is forcing you to march in any parade. If you don’t want to “deal with the whole idea of Pride month,” just don’t participate in any Pride-related activities or events. There is no “right way” to be LGBT; you can be as much or as little of a part of the community as you’d like. That said, your strong resistance to Pride is just another way of making a big deal out of it (which is okay, by the way).
So, how do you deal with being out? You don’t, because you can’t change it; you do the things you love with the people you love, and eventually you won’t feel like being out is such a burden. Happy Pride!
Q: “How do I involve my Jewish community in celebrating Pride?”
Asher: Try contacting the leaders of your faith community and ask them if they’d like to participate in Pride.
I recommend already having a specific plan in place (such as marching under a banner or holding a Pride-related service), so that you can present a full-fledged idea (which will be easier to get behind than just saying “Let’s do something for Pride!”). Good luck and have fun!
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This weekend Boston celebrated Pride and Keshet marched through the streets with a rainbow chuppah. Take a look at a few of our favorite moments from the parade—including a proposal. (And, check out our list of pride events happening throughout the country—let us know how your community is celebrating! Be sure to download some of our signs and check out our Pride resources!)
In June of 2001, when I was 16 years old, I went to my very first New York City Pride Parade.
Having just come out less than year earlier, I was equal parts excited and anxious about the spectacle that I was about to be a part of. Excited because this would mark my first foray into one of the most seminal events on the gay calendar, but anxious because I had no idea what it meant to participate in it.
I was so new to the community, and so very, very young that I really did not have any concept of what it meant to be proud. I mean, I had slowly developed a community of friends through this incredible organization called Pride for Youth, which hosted a weekly coffeehouse for LGBT teens every Friday evening, and which I credit sincerely with helping me to develop and cultivate my own identity. Without Pride for Youth, I would not be anywhere near able to have any pride in who I am, let alone be able to write about it in a national blog. So I saw the Parade sort of as an opportunity to show off this new, still very fresh identity, and to share in a day of celebration with other people of that same—or similar—identity.
Truth be told, however, save for getting a bit…closer with a friend of a friend (sorry mom!) I don’t remember much about that parade, except feeling…overwhelmed.
So many scantily clad, unbelievably beautiful bodies gyrating to ever-pulsating music, balloons and rainbows as far as the eye could see, cheering, clapping, and dancing. I certainly felt swept up in the extreme joy that pervaded all of lower Manhattan, but I’m not sure if I felt pride. It all just seemed so…surface, as if the ecstasy of the moment betrayed a sense of apprehension underneath; dancing because as gay individuals, we didn’t have the rights to do much else.
And, in the summer of 2001, we very much did not. There was scant representation of LGBT characters in media, if at all, hate crimes legislation had just stalled in the US Congress, as the specter of Matthew Shepherd’s gruesome death still loomed large, and marriage equality was prohibitively, if not laughably, far into the future. We needed the exuberance of the Pride Parades to remind ourselves just how fabulous we were, since the rest of society didn’t quite get it yet.
13 years later, and our communal status has grown exponentially. Our rights as US citizens are at an all-time high, with 19 states—and the incredible District of Columbia—giving full equality in marriage to LGB citizens, states like Maryland signing unprecedented anti-discrimination legislation into law, and signs that gay is fast becoming “the new normal.” With every passing year, we have more to celebrate, as the rest of society catches up with our own community’s realization of how awesome we are.
Certainly this is reason enough to be proud. To that, I would respond with a very qualified yes. Just as many in society recently—and spectacularly—instructed a certain Princeton undergrad to check his privilege, I urge us all to check our pride. Not because it may lead to arrogance, or haughtiness—we’re not doing quite that well yet—but lest it lead to complacency. Our accomplishments are great, and ever-growing. Gay representatives, judges, senators, and football players are amazing, as are bearded Eurovision winners, and they will help round out models of all shapes, sizes, and genders for LGBT youth. But the recent Supreme Court rulings leave me hesitant at best for the Hobby Lobby case, and what will amount to legally sanctioned LGBT discrimination if the Court rules for Hobby Lobby. Do we run the risk of being too busy celebrating, and not fighting?
With each step forward we take as a community, society seems to mandate that we take about a half step back. This is of course a vast improvement from my first parade in 2001, when any small inch forward resulted in blocks of pushback, but we must forever pepper our pride with action. We need pride, it fuels us forward, ever closer to each other, and to the rest of the world. May our pride remind us that our work is never done.
This year will mark the 9th year that I have been marching in the Cadillac Barbie Indy Pride Parade in Indianapolis. My son had been out a few years and I took the plunge by joining other members of my PFLAG chapter to march in the parade. I have to say that I was not prepared for what I would witness that morning.
But as I marched in Pride that first year, I learned that not all LGBT people are as fortunate as Matthew. Before the parade started, people began lining the sidewalks along the parade route. At the appointed time, my group began marching. One of the women walking with me was another Jewish mom. She was an “old-timer” and I was a novice.
We walked very slowly down the street behind our PFLAG banner. I was smiling and waving, and then I heard a roaring sound. As the crowd noticed our banner, they began cheering and shouting—”We love you PFLAG—thank you—thank you!” I looked around and realized that it was LGBT adults who were doing the yelling and cheering. I looked at the woman I was marching with and even though she was smiling, she had tears streaming down her face.
I knew that too many LGBT young people faced scorn and isolation from their parents, and were bullied by their classmates. But until that moment, I hadn’t understood that the LGBT adults who lined the sidewalks were still suffering from the pain of rejection from their parents—many of whom were not alive anymore. That pain never went away.
And then I realized that we—the supportive parents of LGBT children—represented the parents that these people never had.
I kept waving and smiling, but now I, too, had tears running down my face.
Annette Gross has continued to support her son and her community by founding the Indianapolis chapter of Keshet Parent & Family Connection program. The Keshet Parent and Family Connection is a diverse network of parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who are available to offer support to other parents dealing with any stage of their child’s coming out process. Anyone can join or start their own chapter – visit our website to see more!
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Coming out is hard. Coming out to your family at Shabbat dinner is really hard. Take a look at how one family reacted to their son’s news, and help us work towards a truly inclusive Jewish community.
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.
Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.
Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.
As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.
My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.
Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.
Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.
However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by. Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.
Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Rabbi Joshua Lesser tackles Parashat Vayikra and asks the gay men in his Jewish community to stand up.
I remember my first pair of rollerblades. More specifically, I remember the bloody mess I was the first time I gave them a try. I couldn’t figure out the brakes and there was a hill and a busy street—you can figure out where this is going. Never was I so grateful to hit a telephone pole. The second time I bladed I fared better, that is until a piece of rusty wire got caught in the wheels bringing them to a sharp halt. The rules of physics being what they are, I fell on my face. Slapstick being as reliable as physics, my fall brought me injury in the form of much laughter. The next time I was invited to go rollerblading, I stopped and stared at the skates. Were these skates nothing more than simple instruments of cruel pain? Could I give it another go? Or should I simply be done with them all together?
This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra, and although Leviticus begins innocently enough, with a listing of the various sacrifices performed in the Mishkan, as LGBT people, we all know where this book is heading. Much like my rollerblades just the title Leviticus inspires dread and fear in gay men that has caused us to disengage with the entire book, and for some, Judaism altogether. And so it is ironic that Leviticus begins with the word vayikra—”And God called.” Ramban cites a midrash that connects Leviticus with the end of the book of Exodus where we find a complete description of the Mishkan’s construction and that it was worthy of the Shechinah (God’s Presence). So magnificent and awesome was God’s glory within the Mishkan that Moses was terrified to enter. Thus, the call from God in this portion was an invitation to Moses and the Israelites to come inside—signaling to them that the Mishkan was built for their mutual relationship.
Similarly, Ramban also notes that the word for sacrifice is connected to the Hebrew word that means, “to draw close.” In this light the sacrificial system is one of the primary ways that the Mishkan was to be used to enhance the biblical human-Divine relationship, Ramban sees this sacrificial system as a ritualistic way to build a meaningful relationship with the Divine. In other words, when we discard Leviticus wholesale because of its foreign rituals or its later prohibitions, we risk missing the emphasis of how ritual can bring us closer to Judaism, community and God (or godliness).
For gay men in particular, this is a real danger in today’s Jewish world. In the rabbinic commentaries, much to do is made about the way the first word of this portion is written—the last letter of “vayikra” is an aleph, which in the Torah is written smaller than the other letters. While the rabbis speculate how this is connected to Moses’ humility, I wonder if the aleph might stand for the first call that God speaks to humanity, which begins with the aleph in question. In Genesis, God calls to his first human creations, “Ayeca?”/”Where are you?”
Indeed, I often find that I have the same question for gay Jewish men in Jewish communal life: Where are you? Having served in different LGBT communities, I have found that, while gay Jewish men aren’t exactly nonexistent, they participate in smaller numbers than lesbians, and additionally, it seems gay Jewish men wait until they are older to make affiliations within Jewish communal life. In one rabbinical school class, we were taught that, as rabbis, we could expect to attract members of our demographic most significantly. In other words, a married woman rabbi could expect to have substantial participation from other married women. However, at my particular synagogue, this has not occurred—instead, we have attracted large numbers of people from all demographics but my own (gay Jewish men in their 30s). While this may be too anecdotal to draw strong conclusions, I couple this particular piece of anecdotal evidence with the fact that I consistently meet gay Jewish men in social settings who seek me out to share their experiences of having been made to feel unwelcome in their synagogues, their families. Many express disdain for Judaism and God altogether mentioning the prohibitions in Leviticus. Intertwined in these discussions is often a sense of lingering shame.
Upon reading the list of sacrifices in Vayikra while considering Ramban’s theory that they served to draw people, within the context of their community, closer to a sense of the Divine, I conclude that somehow these sacrifices served to remove the barriers that kept people distant from a sense of the Divine. As a result of this reading, I have wrestled with the question of determining how the self-imposed barriers could be removed that prevents gay men from feeling more connected with their Jewish community and to God. In what ways could we engage ritually to enhance our Jewish spiritual lives? While I think this question is relevant for all people, I think for gay men the answers are different.
While it is critical that the larger Jewish community work to remake itself so that it is more accessible to gay Jewish men, it is our responsibility as gay Jews to undertake our own self examination. We have the ability to identify those things that have blocked our connection to God and to ritual. Unless the answer is utter rejection, we must do our inner work. Leviticus and its sacrificial systems are buttressed by a calling to take personal responsibility and cultivate vulnerability. Giving an offering, in particular the act of sacrificing the life of a sentient being, brings us face to face with the fragility of life moment to moment. Rabbi Kerry Olitsky points out that the sacrificial system demanded an entirely embodied process. One had to engage all of one’s senses to participate. Taken together this is incredibly vulnerable.
Moreover, even more intensely vulnerable is that the heart of the issue demands gay Jewish men to embrace their sexuality and acknowledge that not only are we holy as human beings, but our bodies are holy and our sexual connections can be holy. To wrestle with this is to also acknowledge when our sexual acts are not holy. As gay men can we make ourselves vulnerable enough to invite a sense God’s presence in our sexuality? To do so, is a sacrifice not in the sense of giving something up, but rather creating room for godliness to dwell.
Asking gay Jewish men to be vulnerable in order to read and engage with Leviticus, which is arguably the core of ritual Judaism and holiness, when it is the source of direct pain and alienation may be unreasonable. Certainly, there is some danger in this, and the possibility of re-wounding may even be likely. However, there is also much to be gained by making peace with this book that contains the infamous 18:22 and 20:13 verses because it also contains much more—Leviticus also includes some of Judaism’s most compassionate and beautiful teachings that can serve to awaken the desire to infuse our life with the awareness of the glory of God’s presence. As this portion reminds us, God’s perpetually call to us, despite fear and harm. The question that remains is, can we, as gay men make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear it? And if we do that, can we sacrifice the baggage that keeps us distant so that we may answer from the authentic place within us that longs for God in our lives.
Part Two of a two-part story of a gay rabbinical student in the Reform Movement. Yesterday Ari shared his place in the history of openly gay rabbinical students. Today Ari delves deeper into navigating his identities. You can also hear from Rabbi Elianna Yolkut on her journey from the closet to the pulpit on Rabbis Without Borders.
In 2008, I made the decision to enter rabbinical school as an openly gay man. The decision was in some ways very easy and in some ways very difficult. My concerns centered on one main question: what would my gay and Jewish community be like? After my initial year at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Israel, I received some less than ideal news: my new home would be at the HUC campus in…Cincinnati.
This had not been my initial choice and I was none too pleased, having been born and raised in New York. But, I thought, “I am sure that I will not only be welcomed with open arms, but I will find a loving community who can help model for me being a gay rabbinical student, and subsequently a gay rabbi…right?”
I soon discovered, at least for my first year, I was the only openly gay student on campus; my therapist always tells me that it’s important to note openly gay, because you never know, and I do appreciate her optimism. Somehow by default, I became a halutz (a pioneer), the very identity I had hoped to avoid when I chose to be a gay rabbinical student in the Reform world, as opposed to the Conservative one.
In Cincinnati, I had to actively think about how to navigate all of my identities with a limited support network. In a conservative Midwestern city, I found myself working with even smaller–and sometimes even more conservative–congregations as their student rabbi. How would I come out to my student pulpits? Should I use them as bully pulpits to advocate for the causes that I find important and meaningful? How do I seek out a solid LGBT Jewish community outside of the school, when school takes up most of my life? And of course the biggest question: am I a gay rabbi, or am I a rabbi who is gay?
These two sentences may sound alike, but they could not be more different, as I discovered a few months ago in trying to craft a personal statement to send out to congregations to apply for possible rabbinic positions. In my personal statement, I told a story of building a relationship with a congregant in a community in Northwest Florida who was initially hesitant about having an openly gay rabbinical student; the fact that I had not yet mentioned my sexuality to that community, but rather had been outed by my predecessor is a whole other story. I wrote that over the two years I served there, we grew to form an incredible relationship, and that I hoped to have shifted his perspective if only a small amount.
The story I told for my personal statement was met with a resounding and near universal opposition. I was told that it foregrounded my sexuality too much: It showed me as “the gay rabbi” more than “Ari who is gay”…and also holds many other identities and traits, of equal value and import. While this is certainly true, it felt strange to hear from – mostly straight – friends, colleagues, and teachers that it would behoove me to “tamp down the gay.” In a recent article in Slate.com, gay writer J. Bryan Lowder lamented how some public figures have taken to coming out by stating that being gay is only but one small part of who they are, not their whole essence. Lowder believes, as do I, that this emphasis diminishes the value of coming out and acting as a role model to fellow LGBT people.
As I round the bases towards my eventual finishing of this program, I have no more answers to that quandary than I did when I started. I think sometimes you just have to be a halutz, taking the lonely road for the sake of those who will one day follow. It can be challenging, but at least it creates some pretty great stories.
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This spring, Rabbi Jason Klein was elected to lead the Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinic association, making him the first out gay man to hold such a national position in the U.S. Keshet caught up with Rabbi Klein to discuss his experiences in Jewish institutions, the next steps for inclusion at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), and what it’s been like to be out.
You’re the first openly gay man to lead a national rabbinic association in the U.S. What has the response been like? Among Reconstructionist Jews, and also across the Jewish community?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive from Jews of all denominational identifications. I have been struck by some younger people’s feeling affirmed in their own identities as LGBTQ or allies and the responses of elders who have watched so much change happen around creating warm communities just within the span of their adult lives. Continue reading
As we’ve explored in earlier posts by and about Orthodox Jews who are also LGBTQ (including a round-up of blogs, a video from hip-hop artist Y-Love, what it;s like to come out at an Orthodox high school, and an interview with the first out gay Orthodox rabbi), being Orthodox and LGBTQ is complicated. Luckily, in recent years there have been a growing number people and organizations providing support, safe space, and resources for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families. Eshel, dedicated to building “understanding, support, and community for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in traditional Jewish communities,” is a prominent example of the work being done by, and on behalf of, LGBT Orthodox Jews.
In January 2013, the author of this post attended a shabbaton organized by Eshel. These reflections originally ran on his blog, Orthodox, Gay, and Married Jew. We’re grateful for the opportunity to share his powerful post.
Like angels in the sky
in a garden full of glory
the galaxies so brilliantly related
on that first page of our story
The shabbaton started with davening on Friday night. I had been to support groups in the past, both for JQY or Jewish Queer Youth (an organization based in NYC whose primary objective is to give support to young men and woman struggling with issues related to being LGBT; please see www.jqyouth.org for more information) and a non-religious (and non-agenda driven) support group for gay married men (if you would like information about this group, please email me). When I went to these groups, which had about 10-20 people, I was scared and overwhelmed. Continue reading