Tag Archives: inclusion work

Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan

Today we are sharing Joanna Ware’s Keynote speech from Kindness Counts: Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan, a conference hosted by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA.

This post is a little longer than our usual blog posts, but we think it is worth the read. 

Today, I’m going to be talking about family and kinship in Jewish history and within the LGBTQ community. Before I start though, I want to say something about language. I am going to be using the word “queer” today, and I want to acknowledge that it’s a word that may be uncomfortable for some. It is a word that has been filled with pain and violence, and also a word imbued with liberation.

“Queer” was reclaimed by ACT-UP activists who refused to concede that their lives were worthless because of their queerness. I hope that you will accept my invitation to lean into that discomfort if you feel it today, and stay with me. When I use queer, it is both as an umbrella term for LGBTQ community, as well as a loving celebration of outsiders, of difference and apartness as something to cherish, rather than something to erase.

If you’ve been attending shul recently, or if you’ve been following along at home, you know that at this point in our annual reading of the Torah we are deep in Joseph’s story.

Joseph is a ready touch-point for those of us who search our tradition’s texts for echoes of our vibrant, colorful, fabulous, often-outsider, queer lives. As my colleague Gregg Drinkwater has written, “The great rabbinic and medieval commentators make the modern task of ‘queering’ Joseph even easier, with all of them having noted that Joseph had a certain ‘sensibility.’”

Joseph is described as “behaving like a boy, penciling his eyes, curling his hair, and lifting his heel.” When Joseph is in Egypt, he rejects Potiphar wife’s advances, uninterested in sex with her. (This rejection of heterosexual desire and adultery is ultimately what lands him in jail.)

And, of course, there is the matter of his flamboyantly colorful coat; a symbol of his father’s love and preference, and the catalyst for his brothers’ betrayal. Throughout his life, Joseph is cast as the outsider. Ultimately, it is his apartness and difference that elevates him. His gift of insight, dream interpretation, and wisdom is what makes him valuable to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and are his (and his family’s) saving grace.

It is not so much Joseph’s potential queerness though, important as it is, that I am interested in talking about today. Rather, I am captured by the story of Joseph’s family.

Joseph is deeply, deeply betrayed by his family of origin. He is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery because of his difference. And yet, when Joseph’s family returns—unknowingly—to him, asking for help and compassion, he welcomes them. Precisely the qualities within him that they cast out—his unnerving seeing, his apartness, his queerness—are ultimately the reason they are drawn back to him.

JW_PJW_JJ_SF_London

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

When I think about family, I think both about a Jewish familial model—loving, central, complicated at times, and also largely a matter of birth—as well as my queer history of chosen family. Ask an LGBTQ person of a certain age (or us younger folks well-educated in queer history), and most of us will tell you that when we hear “oh yeah, they’re family” from another LGBTQ person, we know that they are not saying that this person is their blood relation, what they are saying is that they are one of us.

When it was unsafe to name aloud our markers of difference, we found other words: “Friend of Dorothy”: a reference to the gay subcultural icon Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz; “Friend of Mrs. King”; “confirmed bachelor”; “in the life”; and, “family”.

Family is, indeed, a way of saying “she’s our kind,” but it is about quite a bit more, as well.

Queer history is abounding in stories of rejection and exile. Young gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people rejected by their families of origin, thrown out of their homes and told never to return unless they “weren’t that way” often found each other. They found each other on the streets and in bars, and—confronted with a world that was telling them from every direction that who we were was wrong, broken, diseased, unworthy, criminal, and a perversion—came together against it.

Family came to signify the kind of kinship and “us-ness” wrought by fighting oppression and recognizing that we were in it together. We bailed each other out of jail, nursed the physical and emotional wounds of violence, sexual assault, and humiliation at the hands of those in power, and grew resilient, beautiful, powerful families in the midst, in spite of, and in response to that brokenness.

Chosen families are built and created, and they come together for celebration and grieving, for healing and for play, and because when no one else will show up for us—we do.

Chosen family is about surviving in a world that wants to be rid of you.

Sylvia Rae Rivera

Sylvia Rae Rivera, one of the founders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

In New York City, in the 1970s, Sylvia Rivera, Bubbles Rose Marie, and Marsha P. Johnson created STAR—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. STAR was created for, in Sylvia’s words, “street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at the time.” Sylvia and Marsha took in young gay and gender variant homeless youth, they hustled in the streets so that their “kids” wouldn’t have to. They got a building and paid the rent and worked to put food on the table to protect their kids from violence and degradation. They were a family.

Through the late 80s and 90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, it was chosen gay and queer family that served as nurses, care-takers, emotional support, and in-home hospice. Chosen family who escorted people to doctor’s appointments and support group meetings, who slipped crushed ice into the lips of the dying, who made funeral arrangements and sat shiva. They were family.

Chosen families are often understood in contrast to families of origin—a response to rejection by blood family when someone comes out. And, for many people this was true. We built chosen family because it was our only option. For others though, and for many LGBTQ people today, it is a less stark scenario. Many of us have families of origin with whom we are still in relationship—sometimes beautiful, loving, whole relationships, and sometimes relationships that are fractured and more complicated but nonetheless present and persistent.

Chosen family and family of origin are not in direct opposition to one another, and both have something to teach us about kinship, obligation, and us-ness.

For queer people, kinship is often the edge upon which we tread the line between coming out and remaining closeted.

Every, seemingly innocuous question can be a moment for a gut-check:

  • “What did you do for the holidays?”
  • “What did you do this weekend?”
  • “Is your wife here?”
  • “Do you have kids?”

Do I want to be out with these people? Is it worth the risk? What’s the benefit? How long have I known them? What is there to lose? Can I sidestep this conversation all together?

I am out in every aspect of my life. I came out seven years ago and haven’t looked back. I am a queer professional and I rarely encounter people who don’t know that I’m queer either before or immediately after I meet them. So, I rarely interface with this calculation, and yet I’m still not free from it.

A month ago, in Washington, D.C., in the course of making small talk with a cab driver, I outed myself. “No, I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, I have a girlfriend.” The next five minutes in that car were profoundly unpleasant and offensive; the cab driver’s response was ripe with misogyny, homophobia, and vulgarity. I had miscalculated.

I am incredibly insulated from this kind of risk most of the time. I live in one of the 22 states that prohibit employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity, and I work for an LGBT organization. 52% of the LGBT population in the United States does not live where employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity is legally prohibited. 52% of LGBT people live in a state without employment protections. 52% of LGBT people can be fired for that kind of miscalculation; for presuming goodwill and discovering animosity instead.

Joanna and her mom

Joanna and her mom.

I have had friends and partners whose families were similarly at risk by them being out.

Just as kinship ties can implicate and out as us queer people, our kinship ties with our families of origin can put them at risk. The Keshet Parent & Family Connection works with parents across the country, many of whom have struggled with precisely this. Their child’s coming out has implications in their own life, and they often feel adrift as they try to cope with this new challenge.

My mother has told me that she hesitates, sometimes, to come out as the parent of a queer daughter—afraid  for her colleague’s reactions, afraid that she will have to continue working with people who could profoundly disappoint her, afraid that she can’t insulate me from their bigotry. She isn’t afraid for her job, but I am well aware that other parents are afraid.

There are the teachers in under-funded schools across the country that could lose their job for having a gay child, and it could be justified as budget cuts. There are the Orthodox families who love their gay child fiercely, and are terrified for what it means for the rest of their children for their kid to be out: terrified that their family will be ostracized, that they will lose business, terrified of the real possibility that younger siblings will be bullied in school, will have trouble finding a shidduch, will resent their sibling for implicating them in their struggle as a queer person.

If kinship is about us-ness, then it is indeed about being implicated in both the celebrations and the struggles our loved ones face. It is about, as my girlfriend puts it, tying your boats together.

We know how to make sense of this when it comes to marriage and children, but we often struggle to name, categorize, and validate chosen families and kinship ties without the ready, heteronormative markers of traditional family structures.

I have nightmares sometimes about my queer chosen family being hospitalized, and being unable to reach them.

I’m racing through the halls of a hospital, and someone stops me:

“Are you family?”

“Who is this person to you?”

“Are you related?”

How can I answer?

Are you family? “Yes!” (But… maybe not like you mean it.)

Who is this person to you? “How could I possibly explain?” (They are my ex-partner’s best friend and my child’s quasi-parent and they co-signed on my car loan and we make soup for each other on a rotating weekly basis and they are the one person who knows exactly what I need when I’m sick or angry or heartbroken. There’s no word for that person, except family.)

Are you related? “Technically? No.”

Joanna and members of her chosen family

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’m reading Joseph’s story, and about his family. Joseph responds to his brothers with compassion, but distance. He doesn’t trust them immediately, and he doesn’t reveal himself.

Nonetheless, he does not turn them away out of spite or anger. Which I think many of us could agree would be a very human impulse on his part to the people who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.

And what do his brothers think about all of this? As far as they know, Joseph is a stranger—a person of power in a foreign land who is meeting them with compassion in a time of need. They are starving, and he offers them food. Not, as far as they are concerned, out of an obvious sense of kinship or family ties, but because that is what is right, and just. Our sages warn us about the cost of ignoring the needs of the oppressed and suffering.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are offered a story about Rabbi Judah and Samuel:

Rabbi Judah is sitting with Samuel, when a woman comes before them and cries out about an injustice inflicted upon her. When Samuel ignores this woman’s cries, Rabbi Judah confronts him, asking “Don’t you agree with the proverb that teaches “one who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard’?”

Samuel, realizing his error, responds “You’re right! Though I am your superior, I will have cold water poured on me as punishment for ignoring a cry of injustice!”

“But,” Samuel continues, “my superior, Mar Akba, who failed to judge rightly and wronged this woman, will have hot water poured on him as punshiment. For it is written:  Execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor, lest My fury go forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings’ ” (Jer. 21:12).” (B. Shab 55a)

“One who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard.”

This call to act toward justice is, as I hear it, a call to act as pulled by bonds of mutuality, of relational obligation, of being in it together and bound up in the oppression and liberation of other people. It is, I think, the natural outcome of defining and seeing our bonds of kinship broadly.

If we internalize the lessons and possibilities of queer people’s chosen family, it pushes us to ask ourselves: to whom am I obligated?

With whose fortunes and futures are mine tied?

In what ways is my freedom bound up with yours?

When you are unsafe, how can I feel safety and stability?

These are, I think, deeply important questions for the work of creating Jewish communities that are celebrate and welcome LGBTQ people; for fostering wholeness and holiness.

When we expand our sense of the “we,” and look beyond the traditional answers of who constitutes the “us” and who is the “them,” when we redefine for ourselves the bounds of obligation and connection, we are doing the sacred work of transforming our communities for the better.

I’ve been thinking about these questions a great deal in the last two weeks. We are seeing a movement build across the country insisting that the lives of black people matter; that we are not done with the work of rectifying our country’s racist history and present; that thedisproportionately high rates of violence at the hands of police, arrests, and incarceration of black people is a stain on our national conscience.

Joanna and her cousins.

Joanna and her brothers and cousins.

Where is my place in it? What is my obligation? As a queer Jew whose chosen family and family of origin include people of color, I have a stake in this game.

As a queer Jew, I have communal histories that remind me to be on the look out for the big acts of violence—like what we’re seeing in Missouri, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere in our country. Like the heartbreaking news coming out of France, and the dramatically increased numbers of people leaving the country due to rising anti-Semitism. Like the news out of Kansas City, where two young Muslim boys were struck by a car—killing one of them—in an intentional act of Islamophobic violence. Like the 238 transgender people—most of them women of color—killed in 2013 for being transgender, and the countless other transgender people who died because of transphobia.

People like Leslie Feinberg, a secular Jew and transgender activist, whose death from Lyme-disease could have been prevent in a world where transgender people did not face enormous barriers to economic stability and rampant stigma in health care settings. These are the big, obvious, heartbreaking signs of brokenness. These are the proverbial women who, just like in the Talmud story I shared with you, cry out in front of our faces, to whom we are reminded not to close our ears.

But when I think about kinship, and our obligation to the other, I also think about the lessons I’ve learned about how damaging the subtle, insidious forms of normalized oppression can be. I think about what happens when we decide that some swath of people are “them” rather than “us.” I worry about the dehumanization that happens when we seek out excuses and explanations to justify racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia.

I worry about what happens when we say “well, she was just too much,” “he was too flamboyant,” “he looked so obviously Jewish,” “he was too big and too black.” I worry about what happens to our hearts and souls when we respond to injustice and oppression by asking “what did he do to deserve it?” rather than “what did I do to allow this to happen? How can I change it?”

Perhaps, a queer Jewish reading of this section of our Torah isn’t just about Joseph and his lifted heel, but is also about imagining ourselves as his brothers, being met with compassion and welcome in a strange and frightening place.

Perhaps, our lesson can be to tap into a deepening well of empathy, and hold on to the insights of queer people who have been building chosen family as we want to define it; who have been spreading the ties and obligations of kinship far and wide.

What might that mean for how Jewish communities welcome, celebrate, and show up for LGBTQ people? People of color? All of us on the margins?

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Posted on December 11, 2014

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

Finding a Space to Feel Safe & Accepted: The Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton

One day at synagogue, my friend excitedly came up to me, and asked me to come to the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton with her. Now, I had no idea what she meant, but she went on to explain that is a weekend retreat for queer Jewish teens. It sounded cool, and she was really excited, so I said “sure, I’d go.”

Alex KohlI never expected what I’d find there. I identify as bisexual. I’ve never been particularly shy about anything, including my sexuality, but I never paraded it.

The phrase “I’m bisexual” always came out of my mouth as quietly as possible.

Most of my friends know, and the ones who don’t know because it just hasn’t come up. I’ve met a few people who have had issues with it—I’ve been told I’m “not natural” and that “being homophobic isn’t any worse than being homosexual”—but overall, most people I’ve met have been great about it.

However, at the Shabbaton, among a community of Jewish teens, people weren’t just accepting of my sexuality—they embraced it.

I was surrounded by people with every gender and sexuality under the sun, and I loved it. One of the aspects of being bisexual is that biphobia isn’t just a phenomenon among homophobic heterosexuals—I’ve experienced biphobia from members of the LGBTQ+ as well, including the statement “so you’re not really queer.”

At the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, for the first time, I felt truly safe and completely accepted.

Safe is a word that gets tossed around a lot—a safe environment, a safe space, etc.—but that’s because having a space where you feel truly safe is a vital aspect to being human.

And regarding my sexuality, my safe space had been a few people here and there. But at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, I found a whole community who embraced me with arms wide open.

Giving Tuesday 2014That’s why I send rainbow-themed pictures to the friends I made on the Shabbaton. And why, when my female friend suggested wearing a tie and slacks to the next Shabbaton, I nodded enthusiastically.

And why, whenever I say the phrase “I’m bisexual,” I say it loudly.

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Posted on December 2, 2014

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This Thanksgiving I’m Thankful for…

unnamedWith Thanksgiving only a day away, I’m anticipating that moment during dinner—or perhaps during halftime—when we pause to share what we’re thankful for.

This year, while I celebrate all there is to be thankful for, I am still aware of the work that is left to be done. I am optimistic about the future, and ready to tackle the barriers to inclusion that still exist. I’m grateful, and ready to take on more.

So, here’s my “Things to be Thankful for” Thanksgiving list; what’s making yours?

1. This Thanksgiving I am thankful that over 64% of the U.S. population can marry the person they love. In 35 states—plus Washington, D.C.—same-sex couples have the freedom to marry.

2. This Thanksgiving, I will pause to reflect on the memory of the life of Leslie Feinberg, and be thankful for her writing and the work she accomplished. Feinberg, who identified as “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist” was known for her transgender advocacy work, her writing, and her political organizing. She died on November 15th, leaving behind a legacy of fighting oppression.

3. This past year the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton brought together over 40 Jewish teenagers looking for a safe space. It was an honor to be a part of the weekend. I’m appreciative of the many conversations I had that opened my eyes to not just the challenges that today’s youth face, but also the amazing strength they possess. I’m thankful that so many young Jews found a place to feel safe, and thankful that registration is open for our next Shabbaton.

4. I’m thankful for the readers of the Keshet blog, and those who engage in meaningful conversation with us on our blog, through facebook, and on twitter. Having a safe space to share personal reflections, examinations of Judaism, and stories of inclusion is important to me—and I’m thankful that it is important to you as well.

5. And, of course, no Thanksgiving list would be complete without something lighthearted—like tiny hamsters enjoying a Thanksgiving meal.

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Posted on November 26, 2014

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Hints of “Queerness” from Our Ancestors, Our Sages, and Our God

lisa_1

Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), offered these words last week as leaders from day schools across Los Angeles came together to discuss concrete strategies and tools for creating more LGBTQ inclusive institutions at the Keshet Leadership summit in LA.

We come together in the midst of our annual study of the Book of Genesis, with its many examples of the presence of LGBTQ people—of alternative family structures and gender non-conformity. I thought to mention a few examples, in the hopes you’ll take opportunities to study these and others later on.

First, consider Sarai, matriarch of our people, who while unable to get pregnant, suggests that her husband Avram have a child with a surrogate (her handmaid Hagar). Our first alternative family structure—not only surrogacy, but one dad and two moms.

By the way, one of our Talmud sages, without a hint of irony or distress, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah of parenting, takes note of the long years of infertility of Sarah and Abraham, and suggests that our matriarch and patriarch appear to be tumtumim (people of indeterminate gender).

Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Later, and again without criticism, the Torah and our tradition show us there has always been gender non-conformity.  Consider Rebekah when first we meet her in Chayei Sarah—how “butch” is Rebekah!—strong enough to hoist bucketful after bucketful of water to water many camels.

And then Rebekah and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, whom we meet in Toldot, remind us that there have always been boys who present more “macho” and boys who present more “sissy”—consider the rough and tumble hairy hunter Esau—“a man of the outdoors” (25:27)—twin but certainly not an identical one, to his smooth, mild brother Jacob, who prefers to stay at home and try vegetarian recipes (red lentil stew, for example, 25:29).

Or, in the Genesis stories still to come, consider the children of Jacob:

How Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, “went out to see the daughters of the land” [34:1].  Did she “go out” to see the “daughters” or did she “come out”? We know nothing of what Dinah thought or felt or intended or did on her visit. She never speaks a word in Torah, and we don’t know what eventually became of her.  We do know that when she ventured forth, away from home, to visit other women, Shechem, the Hittite prince, “saw her, took her, lay her down and raped her.” [34:2]

How many women and LGBTQ people today find themselves unsafe to venture forth alone anywhere in the world? And how many lesbians have been rudely told or violently “shown” that their attraction to women is only because they need a man to show them “how it’s done”?

Jacob blesses Joseph and gives him the coat.

Jacob blesses Joseph and gives him the coat.

Why does Joseph’s coat of many colors make his brothers so angry? Were they simply jealous that Jacob favored their little brother? What if something else was going on? What if Joseph himself favored the coat because he was drawn to different colors? Because he liked its length or it felt like a dress to him?

What if his brothers bullied him for being too feminine and his father’s favor of the coat was a way of telling Joseph that, whoever he chose to be, Jacob would love him always?

It shouldn’t be surprising that in our tradition we find hints and even discussion that “queerness” existed, as well as a certain comfort level with it on the part of our ancestors, of our sages and of God.

What should be surprising is that so many of us are still taken by surprise at these suggestions.

Recently, I sat around a table with seven other gay men and lesbians between the ages of 55 and 71, and told them about Keshet’s Leadership Project. They all join me in thanking you for doing the work, for already understanding, already knowing, that a leadership summit like this one is necessary. We speculated a bit on what our younger years might have been like—how much better those years might have been (and later ones as well)—had our teachers and schools—especially religious schools—set LGBTQ inclusion as a priority.

Do not oppress the stranger,” one of them said, we’re taught that over and over again but it doesn’t always register with people that a stranger could be your own child or your own parent or sibling.

“Do not hide yourself from your own kin,” we read in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning, and when will everyone come to understand that hiding yourself isn’t only what a person who is “in the closet” does, it’s also what people do when they sense someone is in the closet but don’t open the door and invite that person to come out into open arms and open minds and open hearts.

field-corner_hpWe are told, said another of my friends, DO NOT harvest all the way to the corner of the fields, but leave some there so that the vulnerable ones among us might come and find sustenance, might share in the fields of plenty, might glean nourishment for themselves and not just “depend on the kindness of strangers.” This mitzvah is not only about physical sustenance, she said, though that’s vital; it’s also about spiritual sustenance—that’s why there are Jewish day schools; and it’s also about emotional sustenance—if you are asked (either subtly or outright) to deny or ignore a core part of yourself each time you enter your home or shul or school, how long before you’d stop trying to come in at all, much less stay in?

“Diversity is what we all have in common,” someone said last night. Diversity is what God created and delighted in from the first week of creation and ever since, saying gleefully over and over—ki tov—how good is this, and even tov ma’od —how very good indeed!  So shouldn’t we, created in God’s image, also embrace diversity and delight in it just like God does?

Indeed we should.

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Posted on November 24, 2014

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Why I’m Passionate about Transgender Justice

If you’re in Boston, please join us for Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 23rd at 2:30pm in John F Kennedy Park. After, we will join the wider Boston community in the 16th Annual Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Kathryn-200x224

As the Boston Community Organizer at Keshet, I’ve been working with community members on a Jewish observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance. A few weeks ago I sat down for an early morning meeting with Simcha, the Community Organizer at Boston Workmen’s Circle who is also gender queer.

Over the steam of my small cup of coffee the question “why are you so passionate about transgender justice work?” floated in my direction. It was a question I had been mulling for quite some time, but I had never quite found the answer.

I began to offer up some semblance of an answer: “Well, it all started in college. I had a lot of transgender friends. I witnessed what they had to deal with, and it wasn’t fair.”

I knew that wasn’t quite the answer, after all those words were about my friends and not about my stake in this work.

I pushed myself to find the real answer. Why am I so passionate about transgender justice work?

Fighting for transgender rights is fighting for the right to move beyond the boxes of “man” and “woman.”

I fight for folks who do not fit in either box or want to be in a different box. And, in doing that work I had to think about my own gender and what box I fit into. Here are a few of my boxes:

  • I enjoy cooking.
  • I don’t walk home alone in the dark.
  • I bless Shabbat candles.
  • I speak up in board meetings.
  • I don’t pretend I never fart.
  • I’ve wrapped Tefillin.

I don’t fit squarely into the “woman” box, and yet, I feel every bit like a woman. My blessing of Shabbat candles, a mitzvah typically reserved for women, does not at all feel at odds with when I wrapped Tefillin, a mitzvah typically reserved for men.

And, that’s when it struck me.

Doing transgender justice work was for me. When I fight for those who very obviously transgress the lines of gender, I am also fight to expand the walls of my very box. Trans* work is gender work and gender work is for all of us.

This year we mark Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston on Sunday, November 23. I invite you to come do gender work for the community, but just as importantly for yourself.

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Posted on November 21, 2014

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Today You Are a Man 

In honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi,” and transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs 

When I arrived in Falls Village, Connecticut with my wife and our two daughters 3 1/2 years ago to become the Executive Director of the Isabella Freedman Center, I had a feeling it would be a transformative experience for us.

Micah

Micah

At the time, Mikayla was 13 and had just had her Bat Mitzvah months earlier, and Gracie had just turned nine. Our older two daughters, Hannah and Alison, were already out of the home and living in Philadelphia, but excited for future visits of the Berkshires.

I came to Isabella Freedman both committed to carrying on the history and ideals of the center’s wonderful programs…and wanting to bring some of my own ideas to the table. I felt that Isabella Freedman, among other things, should be filling gaps for under-served populations in the Jewish community.

And, I had a hunch that Jewish LGBTQ teens might be one of those communities.

While I had no personal experience with that community, I had certainly read about LGBTQ teens in general facing bullying, depression, and worse. I sensed this was an area where we could make a difference.

I was fortunate early in my tenure to meet Keshet’s founder and Executive Director Idit Klein at the Siach Conference, sponsored by Hazon, and held at Isabella Freedman. I floated the idea to Idit of partnering on Jewish LGBTQ Teen programming, and she was quick to jump on board. And from there, I brought the idea to the Caring Commission at UJA-Federation of New York, who, amazingly, agreed to fund our first Shabbaton in full.

Our first gathering, in the late summer of 2012, was much smaller than we hoped. We came close to cancelling it, but, even with just a dozen participants, it became clear almost immediately the impact of what we had started.

Having my own teen, I suggested to Mikayla that she might want to join in for the retreat. There were rarely other teens at Isabella Freedman, and this was a great chance to participate in something.  Mikayla did go. She had a good time; and at the end she commented how she had never met other teens in the LGBTQ community before, and how interesting that had been for her.

When we had our second such gathering, another small Shabbaton in early 2013, it didn’t take any pushing to get Mikayla to attend. Her friends were going to be there. She had a great time, and came out of her shell a bit more.

And a month later, Mikayla sent my wife Jamie and me a text from school. She had something important to talk to us about. And, through the important teen medium of a text message, the teen who had come out of her shell simply “came out.”

We couldn’t have been more proud.

And then came our third and largest Jewish LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton, in April 2014, with 50 teens from around the country, where Mikayla attended an important panel presentation by transgender teens; and afterwards decided to go from “she” to “he,” to transition from “Mikayla” to “Micah,” to go from our daughter to our son.

Micah has never been happier; and we’ve never been prouder.

Over the summer, while Micah was away visiting family, Jamie transformed a more stereotypical girl’s bedroom to suit Micah’s tastes. I’ve relished taking my son out shopping for men’s clothes. He’s even taken a girl to recent school dances, in a public school that’s been not only accepting but accommodating and supportive.

And Isabella Freedman–which is now part of Hazon through our recent merger–couldn’t be a more amazing environment for a transgender teen.

Four years after her Bat Mitzvah, Mikayla is now a proud Jewish male.

Micah, today you are a man.  And what a man you are.

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Posted on November 12, 2014

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How To Hire a Trans Rabbi

Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal—but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. Take a look at this story of Tachlis of Inclusion, which we hope you find inspiring as we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” our look at the importance of voting, and the personal reflections of two parents looking at gender roles at daycare.

10321023_948003815650_1572420430904116827_oFor the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), hiring Rabbi Becky Silverstein as their Education Director just made sense. A recent graduate of Hebrew College, Rabbi Silverstein brought the knowledge, the passion, and the training that the position required. He won over the board, the staff, and the community.

What made things just a little bit complicated was the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender—and one of the very few openly transgender rabbis in America.

Keshet has talked with Rabbi Silverstein before to get his perspective on the learning curve associated with being, as a rabbi, a public transgender figure. For Rabbi Silverstein, “As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own process. This requires approaching everyone with compassion and an ear to understanding where they are so that I can respond appropriately.  

We recently talked with Eitan Trabin, PJTC’s Executive Director, about the tachlis of hiring Rabbi Silverstein. Trabin shared how the hiring process developed, “during our first interview with Becky, his pronouns were established. There wasn’t a dramatic moment of head scratching, but after the interview our hiring board took a moment to discuss. I knew we could talk about Becky being trans in terms of learning about it, but this wasn’t going to be something to weigh in terms of hiring. I probably had a dozen conversations with people about transgender education during the hiring process. Most of the people on the hiring committee said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And others said, ‘Oh, okay… so what’s that?’ So, there was education that we had to do right away.”

“There was a little bit of a conversion of ‘How would this be taken by the congregation?’ and the overwhelming weight was given to the fact that the Rabbi Silverstein was an exceptional candidate, no matter what. Which is why we offered him the position.”

When Rabbi Silverstein offered his thoughts on the hiring process he shared that PJTC being so open to discussing pronouns, gender, and creating a dialogue was crucial to feeling like they could be a professional and personal Jewish home for him. Concrete steps that PJTC took made it clear that they were doing their part to be an inclusive and safe place.

After Rabbi Silverstein was hired, one staff member came to Trabin and said, “I’m really excited, I met Becky, I think he’s awesome, and I’d love to know more. This is new to me, I don’t want to do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing, and I want to learn more especially since people will come to me with questions.

Trabin and PJTC decided to hold a “Gender 101” training for their staff. They brought together the staff members who regularly interface with the community and congregation, with the idea that they should understand some basic ideas about gender identity, as well as how to make PJTC more trans friendly. With the help of Dr. Joel Kushner from The Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the staff discussed lexicon, gender identity, and sexual orientation. They examined the practicalities of being an inclusive environment, and looked at how ideas of gender may or may not play out in the synagogue. Together, as a staff and a community, they discussed what could be done to make PJTC more trans friendly.

Trabin felt “the training was successful—folks who were there have been respectful about pronouns. It’s like learning a new language—and you have to think about learning styles and what makes sense. Sometimes it’s not a comment on openness, it’s a matter of understanding what learned behavior there is to overcome, so it might take longer for some people. It’s okay that not everyone gets everything, or that we don’t have all the terminology down. What was important was what this would mean when Rabbi Silverstein arrives, and it was easier to discuss in the concrete than the abstract.”

Where the rubber hits the road and where it makes a difference is being willing to make mistakes, learn, and be open,” Trabin shared.

Tachlis is learning vocabulary, and thinking about how we gender kids, what we do with bathrooms, even if all it comes down to is hearing voices and elevating voices. Sometimes there’s some repetitiveness that is required—we have to keep asking the questions: are we being successful? Are we shifting the conversation? What it would be like if a gender non-conforming kid walks in? How will they feel?”

Next up on PJTC’s inclusion docket?  Broader congregational education on gender and sexuality, and a follow-up for staff and allies on how to correct people’s misuse of pronouns.

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Posted on November 6, 2014

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Transgender 101

The work of transgender inclusion in the Jewish community requires proactive action. Some of the steps we can take to welcome the trans people inside—and on the margins—of our communities are straightforward. But sometimes, well-meaning allies stumble, get confused, feel unsure, and run into snags in the tachlis (detailsof being welcoming and inclusive, because we are human and fallible.

TDOR_20132The sacred work of undoing centuries of oppression is a tall order. We’ve pulled together some common questions, answered them, and tried to explain why some questions are more—or  less—okay to ask transgender people in your life and community. Some of these are questions I asked myself, and was gently (or not so gently) told weren’t okay.  We hope you find this piece inspiring and informative as we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and that you can join us in supporting a Jewish community that embraces people of all gender identities.

What does transgender mean?

Transgender (or just “trans” or “trans*”) is an umbrella term for anyone who knows themselves to be a gender that is different than the gender they were assigned at birth. Turns out, everyone has a gender identity! For some of us, our knowledge of our own gender matches what the doctor, nurse, or midwife declared when we were born (“It’s a girl!”). If that’s the case, then we’re cisgender. If not, then we could fall under the transgender umbrella. Some transgender people also identify with other, more specific gender identity labels.

What does gender variant or gender non conforming mean?

Gender variant or gender non conforming are also umbrella categories can include anyone whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is outside of social norms of women who are “feminine” and men who are “masculine.” Terms people might use include gender expansivegenderqueer, agender, gender fluid, gender flexible, and more.

Isn’t gender just the two options, boy and girl?

Nope! Societies across the world and throughout time have recognized that gender is more complicated than just the two options, sometimes described as “the gender binary.” If someone you know uses language for themselves or someone else that you’re not familiar with, it’s usually okay to ask them in private what those terms mean to them.

I’m really curious about the experience of a transgender person I know, but I don’t want to be rude, are there questions that are inappropriate?

You bet. Many transgender people are routinely asked deeply private questions about their bodies, identities, histories, and experiences by strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike. This kind of question-asking is emotionally exhausting, can out someone against their will (potentially jeopardizing their safety, job, and relationships), and can be humiliating. If you are very close to someone, you can ask them if they’d like to talk about their transition or their identity, and if they say yes, let them steer the conversation.

Questions to avoid:

  • “Have you had the surgery?”
    Every transgender person’s transition looks different, and not everyone has a medical transition. Even if they did, it’s probably not your business unless you are their doctor (and even then, it’s irrelevant for a lot of medical treatment). If they want to talk to you about their transition, they probably will!
  • “What’s your real name?”
    The name they just told you is probably the name they want you to use. If you know a transgender person’s assigned name and preferred name, you should ask them if there are any circumstances in which they’d like you to use their assigned name, and then respect their answer.
  • “How do you have sex?” 
    Active communication about sex with partners is great! Probing into the nitty gritty of someone else’s sex life usually feels invasive. People have sex in LOTS of different ways, transgender people included. If you are involved with someone who is transgender and are looking for resources for yourself or your partner, there are a bunch on the internet.
  • “Did your family reject you?”
    This question can feel sensationalizing or incredibly painful, depending on the person’s experience. It’s probably best left for more intimate conversation with a good friend, rather than an oneg.

How do I support transgender people in my life or community?

There are some super easy things you can do to support transgender people in your life!

  • Respect their names and pronouns.
    Pronouns are a really basic way that we signal our gender to the world around us, so respecting people’s pronouns is important! Some gender non conforming people use alternative pronouns like “they/them/theirs” or “ze/hir.” This might take some getting used to, but putting forth the effort will make a huge difference to the people you care about! For more help with pronouns, check out the Trans Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right by Davey Shlasko.
  • Correct others if they mis-pronoun someone.
    Check with the transgender people you know first, but for a lot of transgender people it’s helpful to have friends and allies who will correct others if they get their pronoun wrong. Your transgender friends might have some caveats though, like don’t do so in front of them, or don’t correct someone who is addressing a large crowd, but definitely correct someone in private or small-group conversation.
  • Advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms.
    Transgender people experience a lot of oppression around bathrooms, and access to safe bathrooms can make a big difference in people’s comfort and sense of welcome in a community. You can even use our signs to make your institution’s bathrooms all-gender!
  • Reflect on your assumptions about gender-norms.
    Being thoughtful and reflective on the ways that gender norms, and attendant social policing, can negatively impact all of us—but transgender people in particular, is part of the long-term work of making the world safer for people of all genders. This is the root of transphobia, and transphobic violence, and the more you think about and talk about it helps break down those pervasive, damaging norms and stereotypes.
  • Allow your friends to be open about their transgender experience, but don’t define them by it.
    Don’t just talk to your transgender community members about their transgender experience, talk to them about their golf swing, art project, marathon, recent travel, knitting, meditation practice, or cooking adventures too!
  • Be open to learning and feedback.
    You might get something wrong some time, and that’s okay. If transgender people in your life ask you to do something differently to be an ally to them, listen with an open heart! Be open to feedback, try not to get defensive, and remember that it’s super vulnerable for them to give you this feedback.
  • Incorporate transgender-affirming rituals into your Jewish communal life.
    There are a growing number of resources for celebrating transgender people’s lives Jewishly. Check out resources like TransTexts and TransTorah for examples.

It’s important to say two last things:

First, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or universal list, because we’re talking about responding to humans who are all different from each other and may very well disagree with each other (and me!). Second, there are a lot of excellent resources on transgender experiences all over the internet, written by transgender people. To learn more, go hear what they have to say! Read some of the incredible pieces on our blog, by writers like Emily Aviva, Duncan, Rafi, Simcha, Y.C., Becky, Taan, and Micah. Listen to Keshet Board Member Joy Ladin’s incredible interview on Gender and the Syntax of Being. (And then hurry to your local independent bookstore to buy her books!) Check out TransTorah and their fabulous resources, including Trans Etiquette/Support/Respect 101 by Micah Bazant and Making Your Jewish Community Transgender Friendly by Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Rueben Zellman.

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Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. We’re asking Jewish organizations to make a commitment to mark this day. Let us know how your Jewish community will observe the day.

Posted on November 3, 2014

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Getting Comfortable Coming Out

Ailsa & Kate

Ailsa & Kate (R to L)

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

In the spirit of Yom Kippur and the holiday season, I have a confession to make. It’s taken me a while to get comfortable with coming out.

That’s partially because I’ve been shy as long as I can remember. (My high school yearbook picture has the caption “Quietest Girl.”) And it’s partially because, given my ethnicity, it’s already hard to blend in. Nor do I want people to see me only as Chinese-American, gay, and Jewish, especially since I still occasionally feel insecure about my level of Shabbat observance, Mandarin fluency, or GLBT activism.

So most of my initial coming-out experiences happened with close friends (99% of whom already knew!) or in GLBT-friendly environments. Once I started dating Kate (now my wife), my sexual orientation became more obvious. But despite living in a state where we had marriage equality and other rights, I still was tentative sometimes.

All this helps explain why I find one specific coming-out experience so memorable.

It happened in November 2008, when our synagogue, Temple Emunah, hosted a panel titled “Marriage, Intermarriage, Same-Sex Marriage.” The room was packed with people wanting to hear how the local Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis engaged with these issues. We were particularly interested in how Rabbi Bukiet of Chabad and Rabbi Jaffe of Temple Isaiah approached the question of same-sex marriage. (Our spiritual leader, Rabbi Lerner, had already offered to marry us once I’d converted, so we already knew where he stood.)

The rabbis spoke thoughtfully, impressing us with their honesty and willingness to grapple with some thorny topics. Then during the Q&A session, an audience member we didn’t know said they weren’t aware of any gays or lesbians at Emunah. In hindsight, I understand their point of view. We ourselves weren’t familiar with many other GLBT members. At the time, though, I was only aware of feeling invisible, and hating it.

My hand shot up of its own accord as I blurted out, “Um, right here!” “Yes, over here!” my wife chimed in. The questioner seemed taken aback but not angry; I don’t even remember their reply. I was too busy thinking, “I just outed us to this entire room …”

My usual coming-out anxiety was this time mixed: half-amused, half-horrified chagrin. Then I felt relief, as nobody batted an eye at what we’d said (a testimony to how just inclusive Emunah is.) Later, I realized I’d come out to a bunch of people I didn’t know that well … and I was actually happy with having done it.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this moment. I doubt anyone else even remembers the exchange. And I didn’t suddenly start divulging my deepest secrets to random strangers. (There is way too much ingrained modesty for that to happen.) But I do feel like it helped me be more comfortable with coming out in more public ways, like our aufruf in front of the congregation on Shabbat.

In honor of this month’s National Coming Out Day, I’m taking my cue from this memory. Even when I could passwhen I could get away with not talking about being Jewish or gay or anything else not immediately obviousI’ll choose to be true to myself and to encourage other people to do the same. Despite all the amazing progress made recently in marriage equality and other areas, we don’t yet live in a world where everyone is fully accepted in all our complexity and humanity. Coming out is one way to help make that world a reality.

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Posted on October 21, 2014

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Simchat Torah: Rejoice in Resources

With Simchat Torah around the corner, we’re thinking about the resources the Jewish community needs to be more inclusive, welcoming, and a safer environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning individuals and families.

A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile these resources!

stack-of-books2

Make sure your library has current LGBT books and media:
Often times when students are questioning their sexuality or gender identification, they will turn to the internet for information and support. But, they may also look for books, movies, magazines, and other materials. Be sure to have updated and current LGBT resources, and have them readily available and prominently displayed.  Librarians, educators, and other administrators should be made aware of these resources and be available to help LGBT students find and access them. Click here, here, here, and here for lists of LGBT books and media.

Provide training for your staff, lay leadership, and community members:
Once your organization has committed to the full inclusion of LGBT individuals and families it is important to provide your community with the skills they need to put these goals into action.  In a training, all stakeholders will have the opportunity to gain tools and resources, reflect on the needs of your population, and learn more about how to create inclusive community. Click here to find out more about Keshet trainings.

Collect and share resources on Jewish LGBT issues and topics:
Luckily, you do not need to reinvent the wheel when introducing LGBT issues and ideas to your community. There are many resources out there to help you.

Keshet provides many resources on our website including:

  • Videos;
  • Torah Queeries, textual interpretation of Torah and Jewish holidays from a LGBT lens;
  • Wrestling with God,”  a collection of classical texts that deal with sexuality, gender and theology;
  • and Trans Texts, a resource created by Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla, which explores what traditional Jewish texts have to say about transgender and gender nonconforming experiences and gender in general.

And, here are a few other resources that may be relevant to your institution:

Make sure your institution is in Keshet’s Equality Guide:
The Equality Guide is simple way for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews and their loved ones to find inclusive Jewish clergy and institutions and learn about their policies and practices.

What steps will you be taking to make your Jewish community more inclusive?

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Posted on October 15, 2014

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