I spend my workdays gathering and leveraging financial resources for grassroots community organizers and artists working at the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial and economic justice. As a fundraiser at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I am a professional queer.
One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get to sit with people who have been supporting lesbian feminist organizing in the U.S. for twenty or thirty years and hear the stories they tell. The people I meet have often gone on incredible journeys of lost or compromised employment, complicated family relationships, losing and finding faith communities, geographic relocation, all while navigating feelings of being simultaneously privileged in some ways and oppressed in others.
Hearing stories from these community members has made me reflect a lot on mine. And, the donors often wrap up their tales with a request to know how I ended up sitting across from them. I don’t have just one story, or course, but every version I have ever found myself telling comes down to this: I am a queer activist because I am a Jew.
I was raised in an affluent community with a big Jewish population, high levels of education, and almost no Republicans. My synagogue prided itself–and still does–on providing shelter every night for eight homeless men, five nights a week, for most of the year. My Jewish community emphasized a set of social justice values: standing up for and standing with your neighbor who is oppressed, questioning authority, and supporting impoverished people in and around your community.
We were taught that we could not allow our current and unprecedented level of acceptance by wider American society to trump our understanding of what it means for a community to be powerless in the face of systemic oppression. We were taught that as Jews it was our job to fight for a more just and whole world.
That is the context into which I came out: not a community without homophobia, but one in which I knew that I would have access to a higher set of principles if and when incidents of homophobia happened.
A year after telling my family and friends that I “liked girls,” I went to a weekend advocacy training for teens in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The training included optional issue briefings on sexuality-based employment discrimination, hate crimes, and funding for AIDS research. That weekend, which ended with a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for the issues we cared about at our legislators’ offices, was my first experience publicly arguing for LGBT rights. It happened not only in a Jewish context but because my Jewish community was committed to teaching its young people how to fight for the causes we cared about.
After I came out of the closet, I had gone looking for other LGBTQ people my age besides the ones at school, and when I found them, it turned my world upside-down.
The teens I met at the LGBT Community Center’s drop-in program had life experiences totally different from mine, and those differences broke over and over again along racial and economic lines. I met people who had been kicked out of their homes because they were gay, threatened with violence over their gender presentation, suspended from school when they defended themselves against homophobic violence, and harassed regularly by police. I became intensely aware of how my white privilege and wealthy background had not only shielded me from experiencing similar things, but from even knowing those things were possible.
Getting involved in a multiracial, cross-class, queer community had attuned me to types of injustice I had never before noticed, and growing up in a justice-minded Jewish community meant I could not just stand by and watch.
Six months after my trip to Washington D.C., I marched in the streets of Manhattan in memory of Matthew Shepard, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, calling for an end to anti-gay hate crimes and to racist police violence–and the people I walked with were Jews I had met in D.C. and queer people I had met at the Center.
I was raised by a community less than two generations removed from violence at the hands of the state in the old country. My community still remembered facing discrimination at the hands of landlords, employers, and colleagues here in what was supposed to be the Goldene Medine (or golden county). Despite this history, my community remained committed to a notion that a more whole world was possible with enough human effort and determination.
My Jewish community taught me that we all have important work to do to bring justice, and that while the work might be difficult, it was neither impossible nor negotiable. I am deeply fortunate to have the cushions of economic security, a high-quality education, and an incredibly supportive family that are unavailable to many LGBTQ people. My Judaism teaches me that my access to those buffers is precisely what must compel me to fight for those who don’t have them.
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This week our friends at Kveller shared this painful story of a woman losing the support of her father after coming out as a lesbian. If you or a parent you know is struggling with a child coming out, we can help. Check out Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection here. We can match you up with a mentor, another parent who has been through the same situation, and can offer support and resources.
I got married earlier this year and my father was not at my wedding. Five years ago, when I came out to him as a lesbian, he told me that he still loved me but that he thought my relationship was wrong.
He said he would love for me to visit and stay at his house, but that my fiancé was not welcome, because he found it to be “too much” for him. When our daughter was born he didn’t acknowledge her. My brother reports that my father doesn’t think of her as his granddaughter, and believes that she isn’t really my daughter, anyway, because my wife was the one who carried her. He only acknowledges my older daughter from my previous (heterosexual) marriage.
A couple of years ago, around the holidays, my father left me a message asking what my older daughter would like as a present. I emailed him back, telling him what both of my daughters would like, and that I wasn’t going to send a message to my children that either of them were more or less my own. If he couldn’t send something for both of them, I wrote, don’t send anything for either of them. He never responded, but a present arrived in the mail for my older daughter only.
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On June 20th, 2014, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered the following words of prayer at the UJA-Federation’s “Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement,” a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBT inclusion in Jewish institutions.
I am here because I am a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi who sees Jews as my people and LGBTQ people as my people. So my partner gets to say, often, that she thinks a man and a woman together are intermarried. I am here because my partner and I celebrated our 30th anniversary this winter and could only get married 3 years ago.
I am here because there are a whole lot of issues other than marriage on the LGBTQ plate. And, I am here because I want as a Jew to say never again and know that I mean never will anyone obliterate any entire population AND I want as a queer person to say never again and know I mean there are so many things that should never happen again.
Never again a rabbinic student going through school in hiding.
Never again to be cast away by those who use the Bible to dismiss us.
Never again a college student jumping off a bridge to his death because his roommate mocked his sexual connection.
Never again a parent unable to be with a child because of misguided lawyers and enacted prejudice.
Never again a trans person attacked on the street just for being transgender.
Never again LGBTQ deaths due to neglect and abandonment.
Never again state-approved killing of LGBTQ people anywhere in the world.
Never again a gay man beaten by Jews on the street.
Yes to the wisdom, clarity, heart God places in human beings and yes to the times they are used for good.
Yes to marriage rights expanding across the country and across state lines, yes to love and yes to great sex.
Yes to the “It Gets Better” videos and to all the ways people encourage those who are losing hope.
Yes to LGBT centers across the country.
Yes to gay churches and synagogues that paved the way and yes to the amazing efforts of gay Muslims that will create a gay mosque and yes to every religious group that opens rather than closing doors.
Yes to activists and advocates of every generation who pushed hard and keep pushing.
Yes to the memory of Stonewall and yes to resistance.
Yes to UJA-Federation opening its doors even if it seems a little scary
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Pride and community go hand in hand. For a good part of my life, I didn’t have much of either.
I grew up in a small suburb in Western Pennsylvania. I was shy, anxious, and uncomfortably Asian-American—not enough of one, too much of the other as far as some members of the Taiwanese émigré community were concerned. While my own parents didn’t give me too much of a hard time about being assimilated, I always worried about measuring up to expectations. And though I had a small group of friends, I never felt at ease with most of my classmates, who all seemed to know more than I did about pop music, shopping, and the opposite sex.
Keep in mind that this was in the ‘80s: before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before Michael Sam and Melissa Etheridge and others who were visibly out and proud. There were no role models where I lived, and no discussion of homosexuality. Looking back, I can tell I had crushes on girls. But had I been aware of it at the time, I probably would have burrowed far, far back into the closet—a closet I didn’t even realize I was in.
Breaking free of all that didn’t happen immediately, but moving to Boston definitely helped. I quickly met a slew of warm, nonjudgmental people who took me just as I was. Naturally, when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and started telling my closest friends, none of them were shocked (or even surprised). Their love and acceptance gave me the confidence to keep coming out of the closet and to venture out to LGBT events, including the swing dancing class where I met my future wife.
Fast forward to 2008 … by then, my wife Kate and I had been legally married for four years. During that time I had experienced her family’s lovely traditions and learned some very basic information about Judaism. Since we both wanted more, we decided to look into joining Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass., where Kate had previously been a member. I was more secure with my lesbian identity by then, but was still a little anxious about how the temple community would react to a same-sex interracial couple.
I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, Temple Emunah, through the efforts of its Keruv committee, had already been working hard on welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as well as interfaith families. This, paired with the natural friendliness of the Emunah members we met, made us feel right at home. And when later on I decided to convert, our rabbi, Rabbi David Lerner, didn’t lecture me on how hard it would be and how much I would have to learn in order to qualify as a Jew. He instead expressed total enthusiasm for the idea and added, “And then you could get married under the chuppah!”
And that’s exactly what we did! In 2009, a few weeks after my conversion, Kate and I stood under the chuppah, and Rabbi Lerner married us in a special ceremony in front of our family and Temple Emunah friends. And five years later, we stood again on the bimah and received an aliyah in honor of our 5th and 10th wedding anniversaries: a public statement of love and acceptance that I, in my wildest dreams, would never have predicted.
When I reflect on that happy moment and on all the congratulations and warm wishes we received that day, I’m incredibly thankful for the embrace and support of our temple. I’m also grateful to all the organizations working toward inclusion, whether it’s Keshet’s efforts with the Jewish community or the many civil rights groups advocating for marriage equality and equal protection under the law. And I’m proud to belong to a faith that declares that we are all made in the image of God, and commands us to treat each other accordingly.
As Passover approaches, our friends at Kveller asked their readers and writers: “What do you need an exodus from?” Check out these testimonies from four Kveller readers as part of their “What’s Your Exodus?” series.
The first is by a woman who wants to “own” her same-sex relationship in front of her coworkers. Can you relate? Read her story here.
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.
Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.
Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.
As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.
My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.
Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.
Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.
However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by. Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.
Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
I’ve never been one to have high expectations. I tend to take situations as they come and to be spontaneous in my decision making. That being said, I didn’t have any idea what I was in for as I stepped out of van and onto the cold snowy ground of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut this January.
Maybe I was subconsciously hoping the sky would be teeming with a myriad of rainbows, the clouds would part, and beautiful, teenage, gay women would fall from the sky, dancing to the hora and studying Torah.
Well, that didn’t happen. However, the weekend Keshet had in store for me and other LGBTQ Jewish youth at the second LGBTQ Jewish Teens and Allies Shabbaton was equally as magical.
Nobody prepares you for those odd, out-of-the-way problems life presents every once in a while. I grapple with one such issue rather often – something I never thought I’d have to deal with. But then I grew up, fell in love with a (female) rabbi, and everything got complicated.
That’s when I took on the dreaded “r” word. You know — the word that describes a rabbi’s partner. A rabbi’s female partner. Because, you know, once you know that someone’s a rabbi’s partner, what else do you really need to know? There are so many rights (and rites) denied to me as a lesbian, in the world in general as well as in Judaism. This one word, which frankly somewhat offends my feminist sensibilities with what I believe are the implications it carries about the appropriateness of defining a woman (or anyone) through her partner’s profession, has not been one of them. It’s a word my partner’s congregants sometimes use, though most of them aren’t familiar with the term. It’s something tossed out with a grin by Jewish professionals, as though it’s somehow extra-cute to call me a rebbetzin when the rabbi I’m partnered to is female.
Maybe one day this can be a term I embrace, but clearly, I’m definitely not there yet.
“Integrating all of the disparate parts”
Welcome to our fourth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first three posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Rabbi Denise Eger was one of the first out gay rabbis ordained, receiving her ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1988. Since 1992, she has served as rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami, a community she helped found, which is dedicated to serving the LGBT and wider Jewish community in West Hollywood, CA. She is a founding member of the Religion and Faith Council of the Human Rights Campaign. In 2009, Rabbi Eger became both the first woman and the first gay rabbi to be president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. We caught up with Rabbi Eger about her work, her inspiration, and an exciting new role for her. Continue reading
20 years of inspiring and provoking
Welcome to our third installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first two posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Rabbi Reuben Zellman.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is no stranger to accolades – but this year, she’s being fêted not only for her accomplishments, but for reaching an important anniversary. Rabbi Kleinbaum was installed as the first rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, in September of 1992. She arrived at the height of the AIDS crisis, and quickly made a name for herself by addressing the community’s tremendous loss with compassion, leadership, and spiritual guidance. In the years since, Rabbi Kleinbaum has made civil rights for LGBT Jews – and the inclusion of their voices as part of the religious conversation – a major part of her rabbinate. This year marks her 20th anniversary at CBST, and the filmmaker David Sigal has put together a video in honor of the occasion, including interviews with politicians, famous rabbis, and of course, her mother, who immediately offers some sweet baby pictures of this indefatigable leader:
This video pretty much says it all, but we had a few more question for Rabbi Kleinbaum, so we quickly caught up with her, amidst all the celebration of her work. Continue reading