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.
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Deciding to become a rabbi is a momentous decision. For a gay man, the decision is even more fraught. In the first of this two part-series, Ari Naveh provides an intimate look at his decision-making process for picking a rabbinical school.
In 2006, after years of debate, arguments, and failed attempts, the Conservative Movement (finally) voted to allow the admission of openly gay students into their flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.
Among the ‘liberal’ seminaries—including Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College—JTS was the last to make such a decision, and the vote was met in most circles with joy, celebration, and the feeling of great relief. Now openly gay prospective rabbinical students who were raised in the Conservative Movement, or who found meaning in its tenets, could learn to become its leaders in the hallowed halls of the world-renowned and historically impressive institution.
Having known that my life’s ambition was to attend rabbinical school in some capacity, the JTS decision was monumental for me. While I was raised in the Reform Movement, I felt drawn to many of the tenets of Conservative Judaism. It was incredibly heartening to know that I now had the full breadth of non-Orthodox options available to me.
But, when it came time to take that next step and apply to rabbinical school in 2008, I couldn’t shake that low-level feeling of unwelcomedness at JTS. With the decision only two years old, being an openly gay rabbinical student at JTS still seemed fraught with a sizeable number of complications.
Did I want to be a halutz (pioneer) for the Conservative Movement, gaining the notoriety and the fame—or perhaps infamy—as one of the first openly gay students in their seminary?
Was I comfortable with carrying that weight on my shoulders, along with all of the academic—and halakhic—requirements?
On the one hand, being a student at JTS was an opportunity to be a role model to many, showing bravery in the face of a slowly changing institution in specific, and a society in general. On the other hand, it seemed lonely.
What kind of community would I be able to foster if I was among the only gay students there? To whom could I turn for support? I weighed those options heavily and realized that loneliness could not beat out bravery. I chose to attend Hebrew Union College, which had a strong history of LGBT inclusion, having welcomed their first gay seminarians way back in 1990. I did not—and do not—regret my decision, as I felt it right to honor my Movement, and join what I thought could be a great and vibrant cohort of openly LGBT students.
Now, almost six years later, I reflect on my decision often. JTS’s momentous decision in 2006 opened the door for many, and demonstrated a change in the tide. While my path ultimately took me to Hebrew Union College and the Reform Movement, seeing the Jewish community opening and redefining the notion of inclusion made rabbinical school that much safer for me.
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“There was a deep sense of comfort, of relief, of finally feeling like we could be ourselves.”
“I was amazed at how liberating it was to spend time with others with whom we have so much in common.”
“Being in a community that truly felt like a community for so many reasons that are absent in my day-to-day life experience in our Orthodox community.”
— Eshel Shabbaton attendees
When I was 24, I came out to my parents the day before the gay pride parade in New York City. My parents and I were closer than close, and they knew everything about me, except for this. I carried around this decade-old secret in shame, pain and confusion.
The day I unleashed my secret, I felt like I was walking a foot above ground. It was the end of hiding, a realization that I was not going to change and an indication that I had achieved some degree of self-acceptance. My friend came to pick me up the next morning, to escort me to the parade to march with 500,000 other people down Fifth Avenue, steps away from my parents’ apartment. It was one of the most freeing and jubilant days of my life.
When the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would decide on the legality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, I decided to take a look at a speech I gave about lesbian and gay families for my synagogue’s oratory contest in 2004. At the time, Multnomah County, Oregon (a mile from where I lived) had briefly legalized same-sex marriage, bringing LGBTQ rights to the local forefront for the first time I could remember; I, as a not-yet-aware-I-was-queer 13-year-old, wanted to share my thoughts from a Jewish perspective. My speech (which won second place in the middle school division!) was well-intentioned, but often misguided. Among other things, it:
- Called homosexuality a lifestyle
- Discussed the Torah’s call to kill men who have sex with men in a “well, we shouldn’t kill, but obviously it must be bad if the Torah said it was worthy of death” kind of tone
- Acknowledged that same-sex couples could make great parents and that adopting was a mitzvah
In the years between giving that speech in 2004 and now, I grew and changed: from a middle schooler to a grad student, from a Conservative Jew to a humanistic one, and from a closeted boy to a proud queer man. During many of those years, I struggled to understand and accept my sexual orientation. I recently reflected upon what I wish I had known before that struggle, when I gave my speech nine years ago: Continue reading
A girl, her two moms, and the woman who created this now famous book
When Heather Has Two Mommies, a children’s book whose title character has lesbian parents, hit the bookshelves in 1989, its author, Lesléa Newman, did not expect too much. She had trouble getting a publisher and never imagined the book would ever see the light of day.
The book itself is a sweet story about a little girl named Heather. One of her moms is a doctor, the other, a carpenter, and together, they do the kinds of things all kids love to do with their families: hang out at the park on nice days, bake cookies on rainy days. Heather learns in school that families come in all shapes and sizes: some of her friends have step-parents, some have only one parent, and some have brothers and sisters. To those of us (like this blogger) who grew up in a post-Heather world, it can feel a little strange that this charming child caused such an uproar.
This groundbreaking book just celebrated its 23rd birthday!
LGBT-inclusive children’s books published since Heather’s debut owe a debt of gratitude to Lesléa Newman for paving the way. (See our earlier post about the first Jewish children’s book with gay characters, The Purim Superhero, that was just published this month.) Indeed, Heather Has Two Mommies has had a permanent effect on children’s literature, for all its ongoing controversy – and that controversy has had an effect on its author: “All the protest against Heather Has Two Mommies inspired me to become an activist…. My work in the world is to do tikkun olam, to repair the world, make the world a safer place for others, and I take that very seriously.”
Listen to Lesléa Newman share how Heather Has Two Mommies came to be.
Lesléa is the author of more than sixty books for readers of all ages including picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, poetry collections, and short story collections. Her latest book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepherd, came out this past September. You can see a video preview here, and read more about the book here. For her work, Lesléa was honored by Keshet as an LGBT Jewish Hero.
Nick Teich is a busy person. In between pursuing a Ph.D. in social policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, working as a licensed social worker, and founding and running the first-ever summer camp for transgender and gender-variant kids, Nick wrote Trans 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue, hailed as a go-to source for “students, professionals, friends and family members.” We caught up with Nick to ask him about the inspiration for the book, how it’s been received, and why a “simple guide” is so vital.
How has this book not yet been written? What inspired you to write it?
There are a lot of books out there that are clinically-focused, academic, or just plain memoirs. I thought it was important that students of gender-related disciplines, students who will be working with people in a clinical setting, and the public in general learn what transgenderism is, starting at the very beginning. I run into a lot of people who feel like their questions are “dumb” or that they should know more about the subject than they do, and I believe that holds them back from learning more. This is not a subject most people know much about, if anything. I wanted to give people an easy-to-read and somewhat entertaining way to learn about transgender people and the issues they face in society. It was important to me that there be some levity because the subject is often so serious, so I added cartoons, one for each chapter, that playfully mock ignorance and discrimination toward transgender people.
As October moves on into November, we move from LGBT Month into Trans Awareness Month, culminating in Transgender Day of Remembrance. (You can find much more about Trans Day of Remembrance in our Jewish Guide to Marking Transgender Day of Remembrance.) Check out this series of videos of transgender Jews and allies created as part of the “I AM: Trans People Speak” project. We’re grateful to Keshet members Alex, David, Stacy, Stephanie, and Suzie for sharing their lives with us and to the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition for this project.
“Eventually, [my job] became unbearable because the senior staff were making my life miserable because I was open about being transgender. So even somebody like myself, with all these credentials and all this training and all this experience — still gets discriminated against. I can’t reach my full potential, because of other people’s discrimination against me. [Judaism] connects me throughout the generations, with people all over the world. …Being Jewish has helped me in dealing with being transgender.”
We know that this post is much longer than our usual posts. We do hope you’ll stick with it to the end – Rafi’s story is very compelling. We promise it will be worth your time!
(This talk was delivered at Bonai Shalom, Boulder, Colorado, November 2, 2012)
My name is Rafi. I am a transgender Jewish man. This means that I was born female and transitioned to male. Thanks to advances in medical science, this is not something that you can see when you look at me. I’m an appropriate height for a (Jewish) male, I have lots of facial hair and other fur, my voice has deepened to the level of a higher-pitched male. For the most part, I “pass” as a dude.
When I was a little girl growing up in Colorado, I felt there was something different about me. I yearned with all of my heart to be a boy. I wasn’t particularly masculine as a child. Although I did love going fishing and “fixing things” with my father, my favorite colors were pink and purple, I played with baby dolls almost exclusively, I loved drawing and coloring, and playing make-believe games with friends. But at night, when I was about to go to sleep, I would pray, “Dear G-d, please make me a boy,” and was disappointed when I awoke and was still very much a girl. Continue reading
In honor of National Coming Out Day, we bring you the coming out musings of David Levy, long-time Keshet member and board member, who explains why he doesn’t think the coming out process is ever over… and why that’s not a bad thing.
Coming out is such a profound aspect of the LGBT experience for many of us that it’s taken on a special place within queer culture. When I was growing up, coming out stories dominated gay fiction and cinema. Swapping our own stories of coming out is a frequent characteristic of gay dating. But there are two questions that come up in these contexts that always aggravate me:
“How old were you when you came out?” and,
“Don’t you wish we lived in a time when no one had to come out?” Continue reading