When she was only in sixth grade, Caroline came to Keshet with an idea: organizing an official Day of Silence at her middle school as her Bat Mitzvah project. She spoke at the Keshet Cabaret this month about her involvement with GLSEN, her passion for Day of Silence, and her own coming out.
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.
Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his passion for policy and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.
Many of you have now most likely seen comedian and professional beard-sporter Zach Galifianakis grill President Barack Obama on his faux talk show “Between Two Ferns.” President Obama appeared on the show to discuss the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to urge the younger generation who frequent Galifinakis’ show to check out the ACA website, and hopefully to sign up for Health Insurance through its Marketplace. If you haven’t seen the interview yet, you’ve probably been avoiding all social media outlets over the last week. Not only has the internet exploded over the interview, but there have been more than a few responses from pundits and members of Congress who feel that the interview besmirched the honor of the office of the President. (Believe me, I watched the interview, and the only thing I think it ‘besmirched’ was the good name of spider bites, something whose ‘good-name’ has already been called into question, if you ask me.)
President Obama, as well as a wide variety of spokespeople, celebrities, and representatives of the administration, have been making a concerted media blitz over the last few months to seriously encourage Americans – specifically young, healthy Americans such as this writer – to explore all that the Affordable Care Act has to offer in terms of the quality, variety, and innovations within health care. For all intents and purposes, this media blitz has been a success, as despite the extraordinarily well-covered website issues during its initial rollout, Obamacare has now enrolled 4.2 million new members into some form of private or state-run health insurance program since it was enacted about 2 months ago.
However, the long, winding road of providing more healthcare opportunities to millions of Americans stretches much longer than the 2 months since the ACA rollout, as this weekend we mark the four-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing the ACA into law.
While four years may not seem like a tremendously long time, a lot has shifted in the American culture since then (I didn’t even have a smart phone four years ago and I was barely a year into rabbinical school)!
For LGBT Americans, this is even truer, as in four seemingly short years, our rights and privileges in terms of marriage, protection from discrimination, and general presence in society have skyrocketed. They are by no means where they need to be, (take a look at my call to action for the Jewish community in regards to the Hobby Lobby court case), in some states they appear to be regressing, but we are definitely on our way.
In the context of healthcare, it is vital to look back at the cultural landscape for LGBT Americans four years ago. In December of 2009, the Center for American Progress published a memo called “How to Close the LGBT Health Disparities Gap.” The memo excoriated the healthcare system of the time, citing frightening statistics about the ever widening gap between LGBT – most especially transgender – Americans and heterosexuals in terms of access to healthcare, and the quality of care provided, in addition to highlighting rampant discrimination against LGBT Americans by healthcare providers. The memo asserted strongly that LGBT Americans were on the whole markedly less healthy than their heterosexual counterparts, due in no small part to societal discrimination; put simply, intolerance was making us sick emotionally, mentally, and physically, because providers did not know how best to serve us, and most importantly, we are often too scared to ask.
So what’s changed since 2009, as a result of the ACA? First and foremost, the basic fact that the 40+ million people uninsured in this country will now have better access to better care is a huge boon. Specifically for the LGBT community, the ACA mandates that any policy offered through the Marketplace cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity whatsoever. This is a huge step in erasing the stigma felt by so many LGBT Americans in regards to healthcare, and ensuring that they are suitably provided for. Additionally, the abolition of the pre-existing conditions condition in all health insurance policies also guarantees that LGBT Americans living with long-term diseases such as HIV/AIDS and many types of cancers are taken care of as well.
These are huge steps forward, representative of the general march towards real equality we’ve seen over the last four years. But there is so much more to be done.
While we are attaining unprecedented heights in terms of marriage equality nationwide, healthcare disparity, and the general societal discrimination that triggers it are still widespread. The CAP memo suggested that the US Department of Health and Human Services create an Office of LGBT Health in order to address this disparity; four years later, and no such office exists, and the education needed to help healthcare providers understand the specific needs of the LGBT community is still woefully absent.
Does the ACA help to negate the need for such an office? It certainly does, but it is by no means enough. Once more people realize that discrimination against LGBT people in all of its facets – school bullying, homophobic legislation, workplace bigotry – is making us sick, then we as a society can work towards putting a real stop to it.
Last week Josh Zakim, son of the famous Jewish-American religious and civil rights leader Lenny Zakim, did something pretty fantastic. He stood up for equality…and made a powerful statement about the need to speak out for communities that stretch beyond your own. How? Just by going about his (anything but ordinary) day-to-day business as a Boston City Councilor.
Councilor Zakim didn’t realize he was giving me, and every other informal Jewish educator, fodder for discussion when he spearheaded a Resolution in Boston, but he was. Josh Zakim took a stand in Boston about Arizona’s SB 1062. If you aren’t familiar with the legislation, this law would, to quote Zakim’s Resolution, “allow individuals and corporations in Arizona to freely discriminate against other Arizonans who do not share their religious beliefs and… directly targets the community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Arizonans.” The Boston City Council unanimously adopted the Resolution to reject what Zakim called a “Jim Crow-like bill.”
I was lucky enough to catch up with Councilor Zakim, and I asked him what inspired him—as a Bostonian—to take action on legislation that was being enacted across the country. His answer was quick and clear, “this was something important that needed to be said,” he told me. “If Boston is going to be a leader in social justice and equality we needed to take a stand, and need to continue to do so even when it’s not directly under our control.”
As I spoke with the Councilor, it was hard to suppress my years of informal Jewish education training. Some tiny voice inside of me was shouting “it’s like those discussions about the needs of Jewish versus non-Jewish communities, and how we, as Jews, prioritize where and when we give back!”
My inner educator voice, which by all definitions of the word is extremely nerdy, wanted to ask Josh about the difference between our immediate and extended communities; does community start small and spiral out? After all, I’ve led countless discussions on a piece of Jewish text that instructs that one first supports themselves, and then “his parents if they are poor, next his grown children, next his siblings, and next his extended family, next his neighbors, next the people of his town, and next the people of other towns.” It’s easy to declare a desire to help everyone. It’s harder to know where to put your efforts.
So, why did the Councilor go out on a limb about Arizona when half a country and a time zone or two separated the two States? Really, who are we obligated to help?
Zakim reminded me that “even if these battles have been on the right track in Massachusetts, they are far from done here and elsewhere; sometimes it’s easy to forget that in other States (and other countries) things are far worse.” It’s true—these, and other, issues of equality and justice are being dealt with not only in Josh’s hometown of Boston and elsewhere in the United States, but across the globe in places like Ukraine and Uganda. Furthermore, he pointed out that not every community is as lucky as the Jewish community of Boston—where forward thinking leaders stand up for their constituents.
“You need to speak up for what you believe in. Everyone deserves to have equal rights,” the Councilor shared. He didn’t hesitate to compare his guiding philosophy to the spirit of Tikkun Olam, thanking his parents and his sisters for helping him to develop his sense of Justice.
Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim is only in his first term, but he’s living up to the family name and showing how important it is to stand up in the face of injustice—both near and far.
Mississippi’s state legislature is debating a bill that critics say would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people. Lex Rofes, a Southern Jewish activist, shares memories of his uncle’s struggles as a gay rights advocate in the 1970s on the Southern & Jewish blog.
Why would he do this? What reason did he have to hide his identity as he sought to make equal rights for LGBT individuals a reality?
His reasons were practical, and heartbreaking. He was a teacher, and at the time, it was completely within the realm of acceptable activity to fire teachers if they were “discovered” to be homosexual. Allowing his face to be seen could have consequences.
Later in the year, he decided that he no longer could hide this aspect of his identity. He decided he would inform the school that he was gay. He would no longer bring fake “girlfriends” to school functions, and, if asked by his students, he would talk with them honestly about the fact that he is attracted to men and not women.
Upon learning this, the school fired my Uncle Eric.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his learning, as well as his years of work with the RAC, and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be paying attention to two Supreme Court cases.
An arts & crafts supply chain from Oklahoma is paving the way for legalized discrimination. Think I’m being dramatic? I assure you, I’m not.
A few months ago, the Supreme Court decided to hear two cases: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wagon Specialties v. Sebelius. Both of these cases challenge the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that businesses must include contraception in their healthcare plans. In both cases, the owners of the two corporations claim that the contraception mandate violates their first amendment right of freedom to exercise their religion. These owners claim that the religious rights of their corporations are being infringed upon—in other words, since the owners of Hobby Lobby are Christian, Hobby Lobby itself is Christian as well. If the idea of a non-sentient corporation having its own religious beliefs sounds a bit strange to you, that’s because it is.
Four years ago, in an unfortunate landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that corporations should be granted full permission to exercise their first amendment right to free speech in the context of direct donations to all manner of political campaigns. Put simply, the Court stated that corporations are people. The repercussions of this case on the already fraught status of monetary influence on political campaigns were, in a word, ginormous. But we are not here to discuss the unnervingly complicated issues of campaign finance law; I’ll save that for another blog post that you can read when you’ve got hopeless insomnia and that Ambien just isn’t working for you.
No, this is about how a Supreme Court case about campaign financing, and another about birth control, will affect LGBTQ Americans in serious, and terrifying ways—and why the Jewish community needs to pay attention. This is about what keeps me up late at night, worrying about the safety of LGBTQ Americans, and what my Jewish community can do to support equality.
Now, you may be asking yourself: What does this mean for the LGBTQ community—and the Jewish community? Aside from the overwhelmingly negative effects this case could have millions of women in the United States and their access to contraception—access to which Jewish tradition pretty much categorically supports if the Court sides with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wagon Specialties, discrimination against the LGBTQ community in all sorts of forms will now have the legal right to be couched in the extraordinarily misleading language of “freedom of religious expression.”
You may recall the case of the Oregon bakery whose owners refused to bake a cake for a gay couple about to get married in nearby Washington State. Their refusal was on religious grounds, as they claimed that gay marriage stomped all over their belief in “traditional” marriage. The case went to a state Labor Board, who ruled against the bakery, claiming that it was in blatant discrimination of the rights of the couple.
However, if the Supreme Court rules for Hobby Lobby, that bakery would be completely within its rights as a Christian—that’s the bakery, not the owners—to refuse service to all sorts of people with whom it may disagree on religious grounds: gay couples, non-married couples, whatever. So fine, you may say: if a business wants to actively refuse service to any number of prospective clients, thus, you know, hurting its own profits, then zey gezunt, that’s their own silly problem. However, It gets worse: a “religious” company/factory/school/business could claim that it is well within its freedom of religious expression to not hire, fire, refuse to promote, taunt openly, or refuse any benefits to any and all LGBT employees, prospective employees or their spouses. A “religious” apartment complex could handily refuse to rent to someone living with HIV/AIDS, a same-sex couple, or anyone within the LGBT community; “religious” pharmacies could refuse to stock and sell contraceptives, HIV medication, condoms, or any sort of item that may be “against their religious beliefs.”
Our community has been working too hard and long to ensure that such blatant discrimination is legislated into oblivion where it belongs. With one swift bang of the gavel, the Supreme Court could terminate any real prospect of that legislation ever seeing the light of day, thus almost guaranteeing discrimination in the workplace, in medical care, in housing, and virtually everywhere else in this great nation, all for the sake of “religious freedom.”
Maintaining the freedom to practice one’s religion is no doubt vital, and – it should go without saying– already guaranteed to us in the Constitution. As a burgeoning Jewish professional, I know full well the real dangers of denying somebody’s legitimate right to practice their faith, and the even worse dangers when someone else believes their right to ‘practice their religion’ trumps your right as a citizen. However, what Hobby Lobby and the Conestoga Wagon Specialties stores are attempting to portray is not religious discrimination, it is homophobia, misogyny and racism masked in religious doublespeak, and showing a real chance of being codified into law.
The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.
Continue reading here>>
Part Two of a two-part story of a gay rabbinical student in the Reform Movement. Yesterday Ari shared his place in the history of openly gay rabbinical students. Today Ari delves deeper into navigating his identities. You can also hear from Rabbi Elianna Yolkut on her journey from the closet to the pulpit on Rabbis Without Borders.
In 2008, I made the decision to enter rabbinical school as an openly gay man. The decision was in some ways very easy and in some ways very difficult. My concerns centered on one main question: what would my gay and Jewish community be like? After my initial year at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Israel, I received some less than ideal news: my new home would be at the HUC campus in…Cincinnati.
This had not been my initial choice and I was none too pleased, having been born and raised in New York. But, I thought, “I am sure that I will not only be welcomed with open arms, but I will find a loving community who can help model for me being a gay rabbinical student, and subsequently a gay rabbi…right?”
I soon discovered, at least for my first year, I was the only openly gay student on campus; my therapist always tells me that it’s important to note openly gay, because you never know, and I do appreciate her optimism. Somehow by default, I became a halutz (a pioneer), the very identity I had hoped to avoid when I chose to be a gay rabbinical student in the Reform world, as opposed to the Conservative one.
In Cincinnati, I had to actively think about how to navigate all of my identities with a limited support network. In a conservative Midwestern city, I found myself working with even smaller–and sometimes even more conservative–congregations as their student rabbi. How would I come out to my student pulpits? Should I use them as bully pulpits to advocate for the causes that I find important and meaningful? How do I seek out a solid LGBT Jewish community outside of the school, when school takes up most of my life? And of course the biggest question: am I a gay rabbi, or am I a rabbi who is gay?
These two sentences may sound alike, but they could not be more different, as I discovered a few months ago in trying to craft a personal statement to send out to congregations to apply for possible rabbinic positions. In my personal statement, I told a story of building a relationship with a congregant in a community in Northwest Florida who was initially hesitant about having an openly gay rabbinical student; the fact that I had not yet mentioned my sexuality to that community, but rather had been outed by my predecessor is a whole other story. I wrote that over the two years I served there, we grew to form an incredible relationship, and that I hoped to have shifted his perspective if only a small amount.
The story I told for my personal statement was met with a resounding and near universal opposition. I was told that it foregrounded my sexuality too much: It showed me as “the gay rabbi” more than “Ari who is gay”…and also holds many other identities and traits, of equal value and import. While this is certainly true, it felt strange to hear from – mostly straight – friends, colleagues, and teachers that it would behoove me to “tamp down the gay.” In a recent article in Slate.com, gay writer J. Bryan Lowder lamented how some public figures have taken to coming out by stating that being gay is only but one small part of who they are, not their whole essence. Lowder believes, as do I, that this emphasis diminishes the value of coming out and acting as a role model to fellow LGBT people.
As I round the bases towards my eventual finishing of this program, I have no more answers to that quandary than I did when I started. I think sometimes you just have to be a halutz, taking the lonely road for the sake of those who will one day follow. It can be challenging, but at least it creates some pretty great stories.
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In 2006 I was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Before you get too impressed, I’ll remind you: in 2006 anyone who picked up a copy of Time Magazine was voted person of the year. With the rise of Wikipedia, YouTube, and other various user-generated content, Time made the bold statement that everyone deserved the title. (Still, I’ve been known to impress strangers when I drop the accolade into casual conversation.)
This year’s Person of the Year is Pope Francis, who was elected head of the Catholic Church earlier in 2013. Although there’s much to be said about Pope Francis’ view on the LGBTQ community and his social justice work, the real story lies with the woman declared runner-up for the title: Edith Windsor.
Edie Windsor embodies sass; the 84-year-old widow was at the forefront of the legal battle that toppled DOMA earlier this year. Edith and I have a lot in common—after all, we both share (or almost shared) the prestigious Time magazine title. More importantly, we’re both individuals—and, how does that saying go? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has?” Margaret Mead had a point—albeit one that has been turned into a bit of a cliché.
Edie was a fighter and a leader her whole life, she was taught at an early age “that if a boy called her ‘a dirty Jew,’ she should pull his hair and run home.” Hearing tales of her relationship with Thea Spyer conjures themes and images from the most romantic of blockbuster movies, but what sets her story apart was (and is) her bravery as an individual. After Thea passed away in 2009, Edie was handed an estate-tax bill of $364,053—a tax that legally recognized spouses are exempt from. She filed with the IRS. When the claim was denied, she took action. She fought back through injustice, and she has paved the equality path for queer couples in America.
Edie Windsor represents the power of the individual—a Jewish lesbian born to immigrant parents in Philadelphia who refused to back down. She might not be Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, but she sure is mine.
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“Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” exhorts Deuteronomy. Today, we woke up in a more just nation, as the four states that voted on marriage equality all chose in favor of extending (or, in the case of Minnesota, not limiting) the civil rights of LGBT Americans. Yes, marriage equality went four-for-four: a clean sweep for justice!
Over the past few weeks, we’ve run posts with words of Torah in favor of marriage equality in the four states where it was on the ballot: Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, and Maine. So…nu? How did it all unfold, exactly?
Here’s what happened, state-by-state.