As Pride month comes to a close, we asked a few rabbis to share their thoughts on their own LGBTQ communities. Let us know in the comments, what about inclusion work makes you proud?
DO YOU OFFICIATE AT SAME-SEX MARRIAGES?: Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz
In 2001, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, a prestigious center-city congregation, had fallen on hard times. In three decades membership had fallen from 1,800 households to 300 something. The pulpit was vacant. Career wise, it was a stepping stone to nowhere.
I had been in Miami 25 years, five as associate rabbi at a conventional suburban Reform congregation, 20 as director of the Havurah of South Florida, a progressive outreach program.
I was on sabbatical from the Havurah, considering my next direction, when friends brought me to Temple Israel. I saw a physical plant capable of becoming the great Jewish center South Florida lacked. Within the congregation was a nascent havurah, Ruach, formed by and for the LGBT community.
I began a series of interviews to see if there might be a match between me and the congregation.
One question surprised me, because it was asked by an old-time member. “Rabbi, do you officiate at same-sex marriages?”
I didn’t know what answer he expected. Perhaps he was from the old institution, resentful of the gay intrusion. Perhaps he was a member of Ruach itself. Either way, my answer surprised him and the others around the table.
“It’s easy to do a same-sex marriage,” I said. “The difficulty is same-sex divorce.”
More than a decade before, two women from the Havurah of South Florida had told me they would like to be married. We gathered the Havurah and presented the issue. Ultimately, we realized we couldn’t do a marriage unless we could also do a divorce. It took weeks to prepare durable parties of attorney and other legal documents to protect the union. We also prepared one additional document, an agreement, should there be a separation, to come back to a rabbi for a bill of divorce, to allow the individuals to marry another person, should they choose.
With this work done, we celebrated that marriage.
I described that incident to the interviewing committee.
“With that work done,” I said, “I will surely officiate at a same-sex marriage.”
I got the job.
WHY I’M PROUD: Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin
I am proud of my synagogue, Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, because our members don’t care about whether or not someone is gay or straight, or where they fall on spectrum. It is irrelevant and a non issue when someone walks in our doors. ICCJ is a place where people can flourish in a Jewish community, no matter their sexual orientation.
Looking back ten years ago, before we had any out LGBT members, we created membership forms with spaces for “Adult One” and “Adult Two.” This way if someone who identified as LGBT wanted to join our community, they would feel welcome from the first Shalom.
When I teach, I bring in Jewish LGBT writers, because they are part of the larger Jewish conversation. This way, the shul is a microcosm of the larger Jewish world.
Pride is not automatic.
It is not thrust upon us
like responsibility on a new parent,
nor handed to us
on a silver platter.
Rather, it is found.
Bubbling in the depths of our soul.
It grows like the first buds of spring
hindered by the weather
but strong none the less
until it blooms into a full flower.
Why am I proud?
I was proud to be queer
when I first came out
and finally felt myself telling the truth
after a lifetime of lies
as if I had finally brought freedom to myself
instead of shying away
from the life I could live.
I was proud to be queer
when my younger brother came into my room
and said, “Alex, when did you know you weren’t straight”
and after a discussion on my bed
left by saying
“Well, it doesn’t matter”
“I don’t know yet if I’m straight or not.”
I was proud to be queer
when a friend messaged me on Facebook
and trusted me with their biggest secret
“I think I’m bi”
and gave me insight into their life
that no one else knew.
I was proud to be queer
when DOMA and Prop 8 were repealed
and I sat with my friends
and cheered for a victory
that was finally mine
A victory that mattered in my life
A victory not only for me
but for everyone.
But more than just queer
I’m proud to be Jewish
I’m proud to have a community
that welcome me in my entirety
that doesn’t care who I love as long as I love my culture.
I was proud to be a queer Jew
when we discussed homosexuality in a Torah studies class
and the entire class agreed
that the Torah is not an excuse to discriminate.
And I am proud to be a queer Jew.
I am proud of the life I live
I am proud of the voice I’ve been given
I am proud of the fear I have destroyed
And I am proud to be me
in the purest, truest form
I am proud to be me.
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.
Introducing “Ask Asher” – Keshet’s new advice column! Each month we’ll be answering your questions and doling out advice. Have a question about LGBTQ life? Jewish life? LGBTQ Jewish Life? Ask Asher! Send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org and you might be featured in our next column.
Q. “How can I celebrate Pride if I’m only out to certain people?”
Asher: You don’t have to be completely out to go to Pride. People of all sexual orientations and identities attend (including straight people), so you don’t have to out yourself if you’re not ready. Bring some friends who know for support, and have fun!
Q. “I don’t want to march alone at Pride. Is marching with Keshet at Pride a good first date?”
Asher: Bringing a date to Pride is like bringing a boxed meal to an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you’re in a relationship already, by all means, bring that lucky guy or gal, but if you’re single, wouldn’t you rather take a look at the spread first?
Pride is an excellent opportunity to meet people; bringing someone on a first date to the parade will seriously hamper your ability to engage with others, regardless of whether or not they are romantic prospects. If you can, organize a group of friends to march with, so no one will get jealous when you start to talk to new people. Oh, and the people at Keshet are awesome and super friendly, so if you need someone to march with, you should contact them. Have fun!
Q: “I just came out, and it’s a big deal. I don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want to march in a parade just because I’m gay. How do I deal with the whole idea of Pride month?”
Asher: No one is forcing you to march in any parade. If you don’t want to “deal with the whole idea of Pride month,” just don’t participate in any Pride-related activities or events. There is no “right way” to be LGBT; you can be as much or as little of a part of the community as you’d like. That said, your strong resistance to Pride is just another way of making a big deal out of it (which is okay, by the way).
So, how do you deal with being out? You don’t, because you can’t change it; you do the things you love with the people you love, and eventually you won’t feel like being out is such a burden. Happy Pride!
Q: “How do I involve my Jewish community in celebrating Pride?”
Asher: Try contacting the leaders of your faith community and ask them if they’d like to participate in Pride.
I recommend already having a specific plan in place (such as marching under a banner or holding a Pride-related service), so that you can present a full-fledged idea (which will be easier to get behind than just saying “Let’s do something for Pride!”). Good luck and have fun!
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This weekend Boston celebrated Pride and Keshet marched through the streets with a rainbow chuppah. Take a look at a few of our favorite moments from the parade—including a proposal. (And, check out our list of pride events happening throughout the country—let us know how your community is celebrating! Be sure to download some of our signs and check out our Pride resources!)
It’s June, which for many means it’s vacation time. Things slow down at work, the kids aren’t at school, and the opportunities are endless. If you’re looking to fit a little Pride celebration into your vacation, look no further. We’ve got the lowdown on Jewish organizations across the country, and how they are celebrating LGBT pride. (And, if we’ve missed anything, let us know!)
JUNE 22, 2014 Rainbow Shadows: Celebrating Family with Shadow Puppets
In honor of SF Pride Month, join shadow puppeteer Daniel Barash for a performance and puppet-making workshop that celebrates family in all its diversity.
JUNE 25, 2014 LGBT Rights in Africa: A Voice from the Frontlines
AJWS Global Circle and The Young Adult Community at Congregation Emanu-El
invite you to join us for an evening of appetizers and activism.
JUNE 27, 2014 Pride Freedom Seder at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav
Join Congregation Sha’ar Zahav for our Seder and celebrate Pride Weekend with us, as we read the words of our community from our own Pride Haggadah.
JUNE 27, 2014 Shabbat Picnic at Trans March
Join Keshet and Glitter Kehilla for a Shabbat picnic at Trans March. Come meet some new folks, eat some tasty food, and celebrate Trans March!
JUNE 27, 2014 Congregation Beth El’s LGBTQ Pride Shabbat – with Chardonnay!
Celebrate summer and LGBTQ Freedom and Pride at our festive Shabbat evening. Come at 5:30 pm for the first of our seasonal Chardonnay Shabbats – enjoy a glass of wine or juice, refreshments and schmoozing!
JUNE 27, 2014 Pride Shabbat at Congregation Netivot Shalom
Congregation Netivot Shalom invites you to celebrate their inclusive community. At this Shabbat, they’ll celebrate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. Please bring a kosher potluck item to share.
JUNE 29, 2014 March with Keshet in the Pride Parade!
Like LGBTQ Jews? Like Keshet? Show your support by marching with us at Pride! RSVP for more details.
JUNE 20, 2014 Pride Musical Shabbat Service and Picnic in the Park
Join your friends for Keshet’s annual Pride Shabbat Picnic at Cheesman Park. This year Pride Shabbat will be co-sponsored by our friends at B’nai Havurah, the Denver JCC, and Judaism Your Way!
JUNE 22, 2014 March with Jewish Community Pride!
Join your friends at Keshet and many other local Jewish community organizations to show your pride and support of the LGBTQI Jewish community!
JUNE 22, 2014 Out of the Closet Concert
Enjoy a unique musical program of music from American singers, lyricists and composers who are both closeted and out of the closet.
JUNE 21, 2014 Pride Shabbat
Join us for TBZ’s 4th Annual Pride Shabbat. Friday night service at 6:30pm and Shabbat morning at 10am. This event is open to both TBZ members and the community at large.
JUNE 20, 2014 Gay Pride Shabbat Services at Temple Emanu-El
Shabbat Celebration with compelling stories, incredible music, and meaningful prayer.
JUNE 27, 2014 Pride Kabbalat Shabbat Service with Guest Speaker Hon. Bill De Blasio, Mayor of the City of New York, introduced by CBST member Cynthia Nixon
Pride Shabbat is at the heart of New York City’s Pride celebrations! Come early to get a seat!
JUNE 28, 2014 Pride Shabbat Morning Services and Pride Multi-Generational Picnic
Join CBST for our Pride Shabbat Morning Services – Liberal Format on Saturday, June 28, 29 Sivan at 10am, at 57 Bethune Street.
JUNE 29, 2014 NYC’s Gay Pride Parade
The LGBTQ Jewish community along with their families, friends, and allies will be marching in the NYC Gay Pride Parade under the Mosaic of Westchester Banner. Please join us in the celebration!
JUNE 28, 2014 Marching in Houston Pride Parade
Keshet Houston will be marching in the 2014 Houston Pride Parade for the first time. People from across the Jewish community are invited to join us!
JUNE 27, 2014 Pride Shabbat at Temple Beth Am
TBA is delighted to host this year’s city-wide Pride Shabbat! Open to the entire Jewish community, and is a celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Jews, with their friends, allies, and families.
Growing up Colin Weil never doubted that he’d have the family he wanted—a husband and kids.
When I called Colin last week, I explained to him that Keshet was looking to celebrate gay, Jewish dads for Father’s Day. “Great!” was his animated response. “I love celebrating, and I love being celebrated!” His enthusiasm didn’t dwindle as we chatted away about how he became a father, his co-parenting story, and how he has begun showing Jewish values and LGBT pride to his young daughter.
Colin’s story of fatherhood is rooted in a pride of his own LGBT identity—and he appreciates how lucky he is. Coming out to his family in the late 1980’s could have gone poorly, but his family and friends have always accepted him. Colin joked that his mom, Sonya Michel, a women and gender historian who co-wrote The Jewish Woman in America alongside Paula Hyman and Charlotte Baum, would have been disappointed if she didn’t have a gay son.
When Colin hit 40, he was single and ready to seriously think about kids. Over the next few years he considered surrogacy, but found it wouldn’t be the right fit for him. Three years later a mutual family friend introduced Colin to a single, straight woman who was also contemplating having children. They were set up on, what Colin called, a “blind co-parenting date.” Over the next few months they emailed, called, met, and even went to couples counseling as they thought about becoming co-parents. Their daughter Stella was born in February of 2011.
Colin shares custody of his daughter. He lives in New York City’s West Village, which he calls “pretty much a Nirvana” for being a gay, Jewish parent. He’s spent the past few years exposing his daughter to aspects of LGBT culture, while also immersing her in Jewish traditions. His lullabies for Stella have ranged from rock n’ roll, to children’s songs, to traditional Jewish melodies. Every Shabbat they light the candles together. Stella’s mom comes from an interfaith background herself—so Stella is immersed in aspects of Jewish traditions, celebrates Easter and Christmas, and benefits from having a mother who identifies as a bit of a Jew-bu.
Colin’s co-parenting situation might seem unique—it did to me. Well, until he put it in terms that are really quite easy to understand, “it’s as if we got divorced before ever getting married.” When I asked Colin if his family had been accepting of his parenting choices he told me that they very quickly accepted his decision. After all, parenting was always part of his plan. “I never stopped assuming that just because I was gay that I wouldn’t have what the rest of my family has—kids.”
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Two weeks ago over 40 teens gathered for an LGBTQ & Ally Shabbaton organized by Keshet and Hazon. Upon returning home from the weekend, one of the participants shared her story under the pseudonym of Esther Sarah.
I chose the pseudonym of Esther Sarah very specifically. In both of their stories, these women are forced to hide something about them, even though it was something central to their identity. Esther had to hide the fact that she was Jewish when she was sent to marry Achashveros, and Sarah had to hide the fact that she was Avraham’s wife when she and Avraham went to Pharaoh during a famine. I too, am forced to hide something central to my identity: my sexuality. Ultimately, in both stories, both women eventually are able to stop hiding, and when they are open about their true selves, they save everyone around. That gives me a great deal of hope.
I always knew I was bisexual, before I even knew what that meant. For the longest time I just assumed that the way I felt about girls was the way all girls felt about each other. I also figured that since I liked boys too, that I was “normal” and didn’t need to worry about any of it. But, after a friend came out to me at summer camp the summer before eighth grade, I realized that my feelings were legitimate, and needed to be recognized. Thus began my journey of questioning, coming out, and, sadly, staying in the closet sometimes.
I’m out to my immediate family, but I’m not out to the rest of my family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins). I have heard extremely homophobic things come out of the mouths of my relatives, which makes me incredibly upset. This is my family! How can they say such cruel things? Would they still say them if I was out? Right now, this is a question that I’m scared to know the answer to.
I’ve heard many horror stories of people coming out to relatives and being kicked out subsequently, and not being allowed to be part of their own families anymore. In fact, I know a person who, upon coming out, had to hear their own uncle begin to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The person was dead to their family. It’s horrifying.
Every now and again I toy with the idea of coming out. I tell myself that this Thanksgiving, this Pesach, this holiday will be when I finally tell everyone. And then I hear things like “Homosexuals should try to be straight and normal before they go off and choose their lifestyle,” and I remember why I’m still not out. I hate being closeted more than I can say, but I still love my family. And I don’t want to be hated or disrespected. Not that anyone does, but still.
The parallels between my story and the stories of Esther and Sarah are amazing. Like me right now, they hid who they were because it seemed like the safest course of action. But, eventually, the only way they could save themselves and their loved ones was to “come out”, and reveal their true identities. I know that, eventually, I will have to come out of the closet to my family and reveal my true identity. It’s scary, but I can look to Esther and Sarah to remind me that the bravery of revealing yourself will yield positive results.
I’ve always said that Passover felt like the most relevant Jewish holiday to me. As a teenager I insisted on placing an orange on the seder plate as a way of reminding my family and me that there are still folks who are left out of their Jewish and broader communities.
I attended sedarim two of the four years I lived in London, thousands of miles from my family. One seder was at the home of a Jewish couple friend of mine and one was in my own kitchen, attended only by three non-Jewish friends. I was proud to be able to celebrate my favorite Jewish holiday so far away from my family, when I’d never really worked to develop a Jewish practice of my own. My relationship with Judaism in recent years has waxed and waned, but consistently centered around ritual and community rather than observance or devotion to Torah. With this in mind I was nervous about attending the seder in my own home, hosted by my roommate Joanna and our friend Becky, both of whom could talk Jewish circles around my knowledge of practice and theory. Joanna reassured me that although there were rabbinical students attending, everyone was open and excited to be sharing the seder with a group of radical, progressive, queer or queer friendly people, regardless of religious affiliation or practice.
My Pesach 2013 (5773) was one of the most meaningful days of my Jewish life. We were asked by the hosts to bring two items: one that represented mitzrayim—a dark place—for us, and one that had some symbolism related to what we wanted in the coming year. We talked about oppression and slavery, both literal and metaphorical. The food and wine were amazing, but the company and conversation were what the Passovers of the rest of my life will have to live up to.
The thing that I had to keep reminding myself of while I was sitting there, surrounded by people who were so intelligent and deeply passionate about creating a just world, was that this was everyday life in my new queer, Jewish community. This seder that rejuvenated me and encouraged me to be a better person was simply a collection of people who would become my community for the following year (and for forever, I hope). Although we were instructed to think about the objects we brought in advance, no one was expected to share if they didn’t want to. Unlike any seder I’ve ever been to, I wanted to keep talking Pesach far beyond the time when the meal was served.
This year I will be in Melbourne, Australia for Pesach, where I’ve just moved with my partner. I’ve been invited to a seder at the home of a woman whom I met on an airplane; a woman who minutes prior had invited me to join her book club. This is the part of Jewish community that I cherish, and why I’m so excited to attend. I will attempt to carry the warmth last year’s seder in Boston to the Melbourne table of a family that I don’t yet know, comforted by the fact that holidays away from relatives and with different combinations of family can be a crucial part of making a home wherever I am.
Many LGBT Jews and allies find Leviticus to be challenging. Here is one rabbi’s reading of the passage. More can be found here.
Among LGBT Jews and their allies, Leviticus is a dirty word. And not just because of its two famous homophobic verses. There are many challenging issues with Leviticus. For instance, while we support gender equality, Leviticus establishes an all-male system of ritual leadership. While we affirm the equal worth of people with physical disabilities, Leviticus excludes them from the priesthood. And of course, while we celebrate the blessing and beauty in loving same-sex relationships, Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for gay men who have intercourse.
So how do we work with a sacred text that is at odds with some of our deepest values–values that other parts of Torah affirm (like every person being created in God’s image)? For me, it starts with an approach to sacred texts that views them as human-created documents. Consistent with my Reconstructionist philosophy, I view the Torah as a record of our Israelite ancestors’ best efforts to describe their experiences of God and Truth.
The Torah contains tremendous spiritual wisdom as well as the spiritual errors of the people who created it. Seen this way, the Torah takes its place in Jewish religious life as the beginning of an ongoing process of spiritual discussion and discernment–but it does not have the final word on the subjects it addresses. When credible reinterpretations of harmful biblical laws are not possible, we dissent from those verses without abandoning our faith or our intimate relationship to Torah.
This is how I approach the anti-gay verses in Leviticus. I’m not persuaded by the attempts some have made to reinterpret Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to mean something other than what they appear to mean. Rather, I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).
Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.” Part of a thoughtful, liberal religious approach to Judaism is the process of studying our sacred texts, discussing them, and very thoughtfully picking and choosing our present day beliefs and practices in community with each other.
So, why am I writing about Leviticus for Keshet? Well, because, alongside the passages in the book that we are right to reject, Leviticus also contains spiritual riches that can help us in these times. For starters, Leviticus is the source of “love your neighbor (19:12).” Futhermore, Leviticus offers a model of economies and ecosystems operating in a way that ensures health for the land and fairness and compassion for the weakest members of society–quite a contrast to our self-inflicted plagues of greed and ecological degradation. Leviticus also understands that animals and human beings share a common life force, and that the act of taking an animal’s life for meat deserves awe and ritual–compare that with our inhumane and unhealthy factory farm system. And perhaps most remarkably of all: Leviticus calls on each of us to be holy because God is holy. How the ancient Israelite priesthood understood what creates holiness is different than how we understand it. But Leviticus reminds us of the importance of embracing the charge to try to figure out what it means to be holy in the here and now.
Studying Leviticus from a progressive religious Jewish perspective is frustrating and rewarding, alienating and inspiring. But it’s quite worth the workout!