Our friends at The Canteen shared an Orthodox Rabbi’s hopes and prayers for LGBTQ children. Rabbi Avi Orlow, the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), concluded his blog post by sharing that “There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, ‘This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.’” What do you think? And, If you—or your family—need resources and support, check out the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program.
As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.
Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a Rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.
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It was a small miracle when the Northern Virginia Pride (NOVA) committee scheduled its first pride after three years of planning and venue-seeking.
When we (Nice Jewish Girls) heard about the Norther Virginia Pride celebration, we were thrilled! We couldn’t wait to recreate our successful Jacob’s Tent Project, which had been our inaugural effort to bring more Jewish groups to the Pride celebration in DC.
We were so excited, that is until we checked the date—October 4th—Yom Kippur.
Arlington, we have a problem.
Other cities have had this problem too.
In 2011 Atlanta Pride was held on Yom Kippur when the Atlanta Pride Committee asserted that the overlap was an accident. The Atlanta Pride Committee felt, at the time, they had to hold Pride on Yom Kippur due to venue limitations. Available venues and dates for an event this size were limited and Yom Kippur was open at one favored venue.
But, we weren’t ready to give up. The Nice Jewish Girls started talking to each other and put it to our membership. Our members sent emails. We sent the message out of Facebook and Twitter. We all asked the same thing, change the date. We worked every angle we could find. We networked with other organizations that so we sent a united message. Within 36 hours, the date was changed from October 4th to October 5th.
Now, we just have to deliver—so who will join us on October 5th?
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My niece just started Hebrew School. As someone who didn’t have a formal Jewish education as a kid, I’m pretty jealous of what she gets to do. She’s only five, but she’s already discovering the essence of Judaism—learning. Week one she decorated a spice box for havdalah (or, “a jewelry box for cinnamon” as she first explained it), and the next week she created a mobile featuring the highlights of the creation story. She not only gets to create art, she also gets to mumble prayers at dinner time. But, perhaps most importantly, she’s learning about Kehillah, or community.
Kehillah is particularly important this time of year. With Rosh Hashanah only a few days away, I’m zoned in on my community.
My immediate community, my partner and I, have a tradition of baking an apple pie on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Last year we tried to do this over a campfire in Utah—which, to be frank, was an utter failure. I do not recommend this.
My community of friends has been planning for weeks—coordinating potlucks and rides to services. Emails have been flying back and forth about starting times for dinners (late enough to accommodate those who are going to services, early enough for those traveling across town to still get home at a reasonable time) and dietary restrictions (of both the kashrut and allergy kind.) My community, in our late twenties and early thirties, is one mostly far away from our biological families, some in relationships, and most without children. Celebrating together, as a community, means being part of a family.
My extended community, those who I know on a more casual basis, is on my mind as well. In the past 24 hours alone I’ve asked the property manager of my condo building if he needs a place for Rosh Hashanah, and offered an invite to a fellow photographer to join a potluck dinner. This time of year I don’t want anyone to feel excluded.
And then, of course, there’s my extended-extended community—the entire Jewish world.
One of the many perks of working at Keshet is being aware of the lengths that my co-workers go through to ensure that everyone in the Jewish community has a place to feel welcome, especially during the holidays. Last week I overheard my office mate speaking on the phone with someone who was in need of an LGBT friendly synagogue for Rosh Hashanah services. I listened as she googled synagogue after synagogue, providing not just the names of welcoming places to worship, but also providing driving and public transportation directions. (For those of you still looking for an LGBT friendly congregation, check out Keshet’s Equality Guide here!)
Kehillah keeps us together year round. During the High Holidays, it takes on a special importance. Knowing we have a welcoming and inclusive community to celebrate, reflect, pray, and, of course, eat with means knowing we belong. I wish everyone in the MyJewishLearning and Keshet community a happy and healthy new year.
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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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Rabbi Jane Litman first presented these words of Torah for Simchat Torah in 2006, as part of the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Her message is just as profound and relevant today.
Wow! Here we are – we have accomplished so much. We were oppressed, then came together and confronted the oppression. We built a movement, resolved internal disputes, struggled with leadership, created a new set of social norms, overcame setbacks, and moved forward. It’s taken a long time – many years – but now, finally, we’re poised to reap the rewards of all our efforts…. Only to find that we’re back at the beginning! Sound familiar? No, it’s not the story of gay rights during the Bush years; it’s actually the underlying revelation of Judaism’s ritual Torah cycle. Continue reading
There are more spiritually resonant symbols associated with the Festival of Sukkot than with any other major Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur, the only visual marker is the special clothing many wear as symbols of teshuvah. On Passover, the redemptive symbol of matzah is joined by the visual and performative symbolism of the Seder. Shavuot has almost no visible reminders of the holiday other than the special liturgy. But Sukkot offers the 4 species (lulav, etrog, willows, and myrtle), each with their own multi-layered significance, as well as the sukkah itself, a symbolically powerful stage that encourages those celebrating the holiday to open their hearts, their minds and their homes to a transformative experience of the divine. During the 7 days of Sukkot, observant Jews live – or at least eat their meals – surrounded by the walls of a fragile hut with a roof covered in branches sparse enough to allow glimpses of the heavens and an expanded field of vision.
As the weather begins to cool, and as – at least in Israel – the rainy season draws near, Jews go outside to a structure far from the comfort and reassurance of the bricks, mortar, steel, and concrete that normally shelter them, literally and figuratively, from directly engaging with the outside world. During the rest of the year, even when Jews leave their homes to join together as a community, they usually gather in synagogues for prayer and study, in schools for learning and training, and in Jewish community centers for fun, leisure and public programs. In all of these communal institutions, as in our own homes, solid walls provide structure and safety, boundaries and reassurance. Those inside are protected from the outside elements and from those not like themselves, able to feel safe with their own kind. Seeking community and shelter within, these communal structures keep out those who, the people inside feel, may pose a danger – those with whom they feel less comfortable. Continue reading
Communities, institutions, families and friendships create a sense of common identity, a sense of “we.” Since no two people – no two Jews, or gay men, or lesbians, or transgender people, or Orthodox Jews, or even identical twins – are the same, that sense of common identity is always created despite our differences, as when my family saw my sister as one of us despite the fact that she was the only blond, blue-eyed, left-handed member. Those were trivial differences, but they still made us uncomfortable; my parents teased my sister about them, and when she was small she would sometimes cry, because she didn’t want to be different. She wanted to be one of us.
I knew how my sister felt. Even though I looked the way a member of my family was supposed to look, I knew that I was different – different in a way I feared would, if it were discovered, permanently exclude me from my family, the Jewish people and, for that matter, the human race. My body was male, but my gender identity was female. I looked like and tried to act like a boy, but my male body and identity felt deeply, disturbingly, wrong. Continue reading
If it takes holy chutzpah to argue with God, Jonah has it in spades. God’s word steers him to Nineveh, the great Babylonian metropolis whose wickedness is driving the Divine to distraction, but instead of traveling to Nineveh to “proclaim judgment upon it” (Jonah 1:2) as God asks, Jonah books passage on a boat heading to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. Angered that Jonah would turn “away from the service of the Lord” (1:3), God sends a storm to shake up his ship. While the sailors pray and bail water, Jonah sleeps down below in the ship’s hold. After the sailors toss him overboard in the hope of calming the storm and deflecting God’s anger, Jonah spends three nights in the belly of a giant fish, and finally gets coughed up onto the beach of Babylonia. There, he makes a half-hearted pass through the city, proclaiming destruction in forty days.
Gut yontef, L’shanah Tovah, Shabbat Shalom!
Before I begin, I want to offer my deepest thanks to all of my beloved Sha’ar Zahav community for the opportunity to be here with you this year. It is a privilege and a joy, and at this time of year I am especially grateful to God and to all of you.
We stand here tonight without knowing quite where we are. Or more precisely, we don’t know quite when we are. Shabbat has come in; the sun is just gone over the horizon. During this evening’s service light gives way to dark, and the old year and the new year meet. We cannot ever pinpoint the exact moment when the old year disappears forever. But we know that there is a time at sundown when it is no longer the past year and it is not yet the year to come. It is old and new, both and neither one, at the same time. For fleeting minutes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, time and certainty are suspended, and we who have come to pray are lifted up into twilight and its mystery. Continue reading