Tag Archives: inclusion work

It’s the Little Things Part 2: In Pursuit of Imperfection  

cropped-full-logoToday’s post from Carson Gleberman of “Umm, About That..” offers advice from parents of LGBTQ children. If you’re looking for more support, check out the Keshet Parent & Family Connection.

Carson’s last post showed how small changes in language could be powerful signals that help open conversations, and listening for the question behind the question can help you get to the answer your kid really needs. But how do we get over our fear of sputtering to a confused stop, of making a mess in a sensitive situation?

My current and recent teen interviews revealed that parental willingness to show discomfort, surprise, and a lack of knowledge actually turn out to be seeds of strength to help their kids.

“One beautiful thing about my son is that through all these questions of mine he just kept bringing me information, articles, and websites. So I would advise any parent, always be open to learning more because it is amazing what you can learn from your children.” —MS

Seeing the parents “behind the curtain,” like the struggling Wizard of Oz, is fine as long as what they see is that you are indeed trying, or even thinking about trying.

“It’s universal that kids will complain about how their parents reacted [to coming out news], but that’s OK. Don’t feel shame or guilt over your first reaction. Deal with it honestly, and then just be supportive.”—AR

“It took me 4 years between realizing that I was queer and coming out. I don’t think it will take my parents quite that long. It’s been two years and they may still not be fully there, but it’s OK.”—AA

“I wanted my parents to at least acknowledge that they might move from where they were to a different place, but they wouldn’t, at first. We had terrible fights.”—IK

Family_jumpAwkward efforts may be especially valued.

“I was touched after I first came out that my parents obsessed over recommending movies with gay characters in them even if they were really bad movies. I didn’t want to watch them, or finish them if we had started, but I knew they were trying.”—EL

“It’s kind of awkward when my boyfriend comes over. [My dad] doesn’t know how to talk to him. [Not the same as when his older sister brought home her first boyfriend.] It’s weird because he doesn’t know if he should be all guy-to-guy with him, like ‘Hey, what’s up,’ or what. I can understand how he feels because even I think it’s weird that I should have a boyfriend sometimes.”—TA

With respect to our words, is it better to wait or jump in bravely?

“Parents are always growing emotionally too. With that comes better impulse control. Parents would do well to try to sit on their own feelings and rage and just listen.”—LB

“The first time we met the boyfriend, I could tell my son was really uptight. I don’t really interrogate the boyfriends of either my daughter or my son, and I could tell when I shook his hand that he was very bright and personable. But I knew they both were nervous. I empathized! I knew my job was to try to make the boyfriend more comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable.”—MA

Some of my sources felt there was a practical benefit of parental stumbling around their kids’ gender or orientation.

“Sometimes parents’ less-than-full acceptance or slowness in coming to acceptance can actually help prepare kids for the outside world. It’s a kind of tough love.”—LB

“You don’t want to teach your child that the world is an evil place, but there are definitely people out there who will call him names or be mean, and you have to prepare a kid for that somehow.”—SH

We don’t sugar-coat messages to our kids about the world’s expectations regarding punctuality, dress codes, job interview etiquette, the importance of human spell-checking, etc. In a closer parallel, as our kids start moving around independently, we teach them street-wise behavior to make them less-likely crime targets. But conformity to majority expectations or safe practices in these matters rarely threaten teens’ developing sense of self (despite what they may say about the stifling oppression of dress codes).

Gender and orientation, on the other hand, are central to identity.

And even young kids see that heterosexual and cis-gendered are “normal” and anything else is outside the majority, even if they have not directly seen and understood homophobia. So this calls for more nuance in the “real world” prep lessons from parents.

“As parents, we have fears, but if we ask for help we can reduce the problems our kids face… He knew I was confused but he also knew I was there for him no matter what. I think feeling your 100% support is very important for them, and then they become your support too.”—MS

“For parents who want their kids not to have such a hard life, if they know they have their parents full support it eliminates the hardest problem they’ll ever face.”—BK

“It’s how they show the worry that matters. If you assume the world is all homophobic, you want the kid to hide it, but the message that you shouldn’t have to hide it is much better.”—KP

KPFC-photo-small-675x170“It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of parents have grief, even if they are progressive. You had a dream of your kid’s life, and now it won’t be like that. My mom was completely worried that I’d be lonely and sad. She went to a PFLAG meeting [see also Keshet's Parent & Family Connection], met other parents and found out that this wasn’t going to be the case. Then she became an activist.”—AR

 

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Posted on March 18, 2015

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Marriage: A Political Act, A Religious Endeavor, A Chance to Celebrate Love

AbiandMelissaTransplants to California from the Midwest and East Coast, we found each other in the Bay Area. Melissa, a minister in a Protestant Christian tradition, was in her first year as a PhD student in ethics and social theory and Abi, an active participant at her queer Jewish synagogue, was in her first year of her doctoral studies in clinical psychology. Ours has been a journey of learning about each other’s traditions and celebrating what it means to be a multi-faith couple.

Entering into marriage was for us a political act, a religious endeavor, and an opportunity to invite our family and friends into our world.

From the time we decided we would mark our commitment to one another with a wedding, we knew that the ceremony needed to be the focus of the day. We set out to find leaders who would be willing to co-create a multi-faith, feminist, and queer ceremony with us.

Melissa was fortunate enough to be able to turn to a colleague from her seminary days who she knew shared her theology and commitment to radically open language for the divine in ritual. We knew he was still bound by the policies of the church but should the institution not catch up to our love in time that he would be willing to act independently as a theologically trained friend.

Finding someone from Abi’s Jewish tradition turned out to be much more challenging. Trusted leaders, while willing to perform similar-gendered Jewish ceremonies, were unable, because of tradition and/or conscience, to participate in our fully multi-faith ceremony. As a family seeking to be a part of both Jewish and Christian communities, this felt like rejection and was excruciatingly painful.

We finally found a Jewish leader in Colorado who was willing to work with us to craft a ceremony that honored both traditions and truly reflected who we were as individuals and as a couple. The four of us, the two brides, a Pastor and an Emerging Rabbi took to creating. By examining all of the parts of the traditional wedding ceremony in both traditions we were able to identify elements both in common and unique to each tradition. Anything that reflected aspects of marriage that we reject—property exchange, paternalism, misogyny—was cut. Elements were re-imagined to be more egalitarian and / or queered. We wanted to create a ceremony that was true to who we are and meaningful for those celebrating with us.

The whole wedding weekend, including the reception, was a blast. We wanted our guests to know that each piece of our wedding was intentionally orchestrated so we had our leaders explain what the rituals meant during the ceremony and how we had altered them and even provided coloring books for the children to learn about the ceremony in an age-appropriate way.

Entering into the legal relationship of marriage, as imperfect as it is, was a way to claim our civil rights and the protections it bestows upon us and a way to honor the work of all those who work for equality. Our ceremony was our way of claiming our right as members of our religious traditions to enter into public covenant blessed by and accountable to community and proclaiming that being queer and being religious are not antithetical. It was our way of publicly proclaiming that we are committed to being together as two individuals with strong roots, Jewish and Lutheran, Abi and Melissa.

We are grateful for the support of our family and friends, including Reverend Dan Roschke and Emerging Rabbi Dr. Caryn Aviv.

Posted on February 27, 2015

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Open to Me the Gates of Righteousness: Breaking Down Gender Binaries

“Open to me the gates of righteousness,” says the Psalmist, “that I may enter and acknowledge the Holy One.”

Kay Long at the Western Wall.

Kay Long at the Western Wall.

Throughout our Jewish tradition, gateways are images of transition and portals to the sacred. How ironic, then, that a gateway to the Western Wall, for many Jews the holiest place on earth, was literally blocked to Kay Long, a transgender Jew from Tel Aviv. Naturally, this event was painful for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, serving as an example of how there are still those who wish to prevent us from full inclusion in the Jewish community. But I hope it is equally upsetting to anyone who thinks carefully about the issues involved.

First and foremost, this act of exclusion was a denial of the fundamental Jewish value of betzelem Elohim, the understanding that every human being is created in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of respect. More than that, Judaism commands compassion from its adherents. The Torah is clear that we must act with an understanding of mutual obligation (“love”) toward not only those who are like us (“kinfolk”) but those whom we perceive as being unlike us (“strangers”) as well. Biblical tradition is particularly concerned with our treatment of the marginalized and oppressed, frequently reminding us that we, ourselves, were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Even were someone not willing to accord another the respect and dignity due to them, Jewish tradition is adamant that one must not publicly shame them. Leviticus 25:17 instructs “Do not wrong one another.” The rabbis interpreted this to refer to speaking harshly or humiliating another person. It is worth quoting the Talmudic discussion at length for its remarkably contemporary insight into the profoundly destructive quality of such shaming:

Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong, because of the first it is written, ‘and you shall be in awe of your God,’ but not of the second. R. Eleazar said: The one affects [the victim's] person, the other [only] money. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: For the former restoration is possible, but not for the latter. A Mishnaic sage recited before R. Nahman b. Isaac: One who publicly shames [a] neighbor it is as though [that one] murdered [the other]. Whereupon he remarked to him, ‘You say well, because I have seen [such shaming]- the redness departing and paleness replacing it.’ (Baba Metzia 58b)

Sadly, we have come to understand that the shaming they are forced to endure becomes an act of murder for too many transgender people, especially teens like Leelah Alcorn, when it ends in suicide.

On another level, we can see the refusal to allow Kay Long and other transgender people access to the Western Wall as an attempt to block out the transformations of Jewish life that they represent. In his book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? journalist Touré derides the “authenticity police,” those who feel they have the right to judge whether others are authentically Black. LGBTQ Jews have worked to free themselves and others from similar attitudes within Jewish life. In coming together as communities of choice rather than coercion, contemporary Jews celebrate the growing visible diversity of Jewish experience. In insisting that we are the authorities on our own lives and that we are the ones who determine how we are defined, LGBTQ Jews present a challenge to traditional authority.

all gender restroom

Download this sign by clicking on the image.

The challenge, however, exists within progressive Judaism as well. Liberal communities continue to erect their own gates marked “Women” and “Men,” assuming binary gender identities are the exclusive options present or available to their members. These gates may only be visible on bathroom doors but they are present as well throughout our educational, social, and spiritual activities. When my youngest child began college, she was asked which pronoun she would like used when referring to her. How many synagogues include that simple question on membership forms?

Jewish mysticism teaches that our individual lives and actions are inextricably linked with the very order of the cosmos. Affirming the unity of God requires inward as well as outward harmony throughout creation. When transgender Jews are denied the integrity of identity, the damage is profound for us all.

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Posted on January 20, 2015

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An Orthodox Mother’s Response to Homophobia in Her Community

Last month, an article entitled to Warning: Hollywood’s Coming For Your Home and Children!  by Robert C. Avrech appeared in the Jewish Action magazine.

warningOne morning, shortly after this issue of the magazine reached homes, I received an email from a friend who was extremely upset by this article and its vehement and mean-spirited diatribe against our homosexual children and members of the community.

In short, Mr. Avrech posits his view of what a moral community is and it does not include our LGBTQ members—nor does it include divorced families, single moms, and a whole litany of others he considers to not be upright, including all hues of feminism.

Among many other things, the author laments the gay couple in Modern Family and the fact that “homosexual radicals” have pressured A&E to cancel Duck Dynasty because “the far left has demonized Phil Robertson, the family patriarch as a homophobe because he supports traditional marriage.” Parenthetically, it is important to remember that the patriarch of the show Duck Dynasty was called homophobic not because he supports traditional marriage but because he compared homosexuality to bestiality and other vile stereotypes.

Further, Avrech states, “Today it is militant homosexuals who drive the agenda. Tomorrow it will be sharia-yearning Islamists demanding sitcoms about happy-go-lucky polygamists.” To call this overtly and supremely offensive does not even begin to address the problem with such flawed reasoning. His use of histrionics does not do honor to him nor to the magazine that published this piece.

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

So, why am I and so many other parents and families in the Orthodox community so upset? This magazine comes into Orthodox homes several times over the course of the year. For about 10–13% of us, just as in the general community and in the larger Jewish community, our homes include LGBTQ loved ones.

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

I return to the email I received from my friend a month ago.

My friend, who has a gay child and is part of our ESHEL community of Orthodox LGBTQ Jews and their families, was so hurt and devastated by this article. Within a few days of the article being published, about nine families in the same situation were sending emails back and forth. During that time a letter was crafted and sent to the editor of Jewish Action. I still do not know whether or not the magazine will publish the letter.

The problem we in the Orthodox community confront is that seemingly moderate venues still lean to the right in terms of lack of acceptance and honest discussion of what the challenges are, and instead opt for immediate dismissal.

Dismissal of our beautiful, intelligent, and amazing children and family members is not something we can live with or accept. Judaism does not teach to do this but rather espouses maxims for living such as “judge the other favorably” and “do not judge another person until you have reached his place.”

Further, there are texts that clearly cause us to question time held notions of binary categories of sexuality. We know in modern medicine about the continuum of how The Creator of All has created us and this is even acknowledged in our Jewish texts (check out Mishnah Bikkurim, Chapter Four as a wonderful example).

Inclusion and acceptance of others has always been a challenge in Jewish Law. Included in those categories of how and if one should be included are women, those who have mental defects or illness, the lame, the hearing impaired, and yes, those of us who are left-handed!

However, what is fascinating to me about Jewish law is the great extent to which our venerated teachers of old will go to in trying to include as many as possible and to be gentle and caring to all, as we find in Masechet Hagiga, for those of you who want yet another substantial text reference.

As a Modern Orthodox Jew (or as I like to call it, a Halachically observant and accepting of the multi-vocality of Jewish expression Jew), I find these texts and so many others comforting. However, what is more important to me is for all of us to realize that the texts say what the texts say, not what individuals with their own agendas want them to espouse in support of their own personal agendas. Often Talmudic discussions end with “it’s a difficult matter” or “this cannot be resolved” or other expressions acknowledging that simple answers are too often inaccurate and more often potentially harmful. I would caution all those who are in the Halachically observant range to consider this important teaching of our beloved scholars of old and those today as well.

Sunnie's children.

Sunnie’s children.

What have we, our group of concerned parents of LGBTQ Jews in our observant families, learned from this, or rather confirmed yet again as a result of this experience? Advocacy is critical as we protect and cherish the ones we love so dearly.

It is so important that we stand up and speak on behalf of our wonderful family members when others seek to marginalize or worse, malign them. After all, we are all aware that language used can bring death as well as life, as we learn in Mishlei (Proverbs).

Let us commit ourselves to bring and cherish life together—the life and potential and contributions of all Jewish community members, including the LGBTQ children, parents, siblings, relatives, and friends among us.

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Posted on January 9, 2015

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Honoring Our Allies

This year we celebrated the work of two allies to the LGBT Jewish community with the inaugural Landres Courage for Dignity Award. The award was established by Shawn Landres and his family to recognize individuals who display public courage as allies to support the full inclusion of LGBT people or others whose dignity is at stake. The award was presented earlier this month at Glimmer, out Bay Area fundraiser.

Check out these short video profiles of our award winners:

Ayala Katz, an Israeli mother transformed by tragedy into an advocate for LGBT equality. Ayala was Named “one of the 50 most influential people in Israel” by Haaretz.

During her tenure as the CEO of the San Francisco based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, Jennifer Gorovitz championed outreach and inclusion for all Jews in the Bay Area who felt excluded from Jewish life.

At Glimmer we also honored Martin Tannenbaum with the Rosh Pina “Cornerstone” Award. Martin is an inspiring leader in the Jewish communities of the Bay Area, Salt Lake City, and beyond. and is a past chair of the Keshet Board of Directors and a member of the Board of Directors since 2010.

You an check out our photos from Glimmer here.

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Posted on December 29, 2014

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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

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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

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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.

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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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