Tag Archives: personal profile

Hiddur Mitzvah: Enhancing Values with Art

0291_Keshet_141205

Kim’s art at Glimmer, photo by Tara Luz Stevens of TLS Images.

In December Keshet had a chance to work with Kim of Hebrica Judaic Art. Kim’s story—she’s a convert to Judaism who grew up in the segregated South—made quite an impression on me, so I welcomed the opportunity to chat more with the artist. We started our conversation with a question about why working with Keshet made sense for Kim’s Jewish (and artistic) values. “I feel very strongly about Jewish togetherness,” she shared. “All Jews, either born to it or having chosen it, all levels of observance, all walks of life. The Torah and all the holiness of Judaism belong to all Jews, equally.”

Kim’s personal story is intertwined with her discovery of Judaic artist. Her journey started in the segregated American south and involved converting to Judaism in order to find a new way of expressing herself.

Growing up in the segregated South, color and class distinctions were finely drawn, but Judaism was scarcely on the radar. I had Jewish friends, but I don’t think Judaism was well understood in the “buckle” of the Bible Belt. I didn’t really have a religion myself. And art was just something I did for my own amusement, or for friends.

All my life, I had always done some kind of art…pen-and-ink, pencil, charcoal…everything in black-and-white.

And then I converted to Judaism. Overnight, literally, I began working in color…paints, watercolors, pastels. It was so odd to me. I had always been such a black-and-white kind of gal (ask my husband; he says I don’t see any shades of gray). Where did this come from? Why did I suddenly start seeing the world in color? The truth is that I have no idea. I only know that it happened.

And then I went to Israel; Jerusalem, actually, for the first time, for a month. You might think there’s not much color in Jerusalem. After all, it’s in the Judean desert. And all the buildings are made from this kind of sandstone that goes from a light blond in the morning to blazing white in the heat of the day, to a golden glow in the afternoon. But colors, not so much. Yet, I saw them.

Jerusalem wasn’t Kim’s only source of inspiration. The idea of “hiddur mitzvah,” or doing a commandment beautifully, informs her art, as well as the texts themselves.

The sacred texts of Judaism inspire my creative work. The first time I saw a page of Hebrew, I was captivated and made up my mind to learn the language. The shapes of the letters are so beautiful, from the very precise Torah style to looser ones and even fonts I sort of invented.

Kim's art at Glimmer, photo by Tara Luz Stevens of TLS Images.

Kim’s art at Glimmer, photo by Tara Luz Stevens of TLS Images.

The pursuit of art draws me deeper into the text. That’s how I learn, and a papercut becomes almost a meditation on the subject. Some people are great at praying, or visiting the sick, or cooking for the oneg, or teaching in the religious school. I cut paper. And I hope that, when a piece is done, someone will look at it and say to themselves, wow. That really touches me. Or, I should look into that a little more.

Kim Phillips was certified in pararabbinics at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and studied at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. There, she found the creative spark for Hebrica, her Judaic art. Visit her website to see more of Kim’s art.

Like this post? 

Posted on January 14, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

An Orthodox Mother’s Response to Homophobia in Her Community

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

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

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

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

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

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunnie's children.

Sunnie’s children.

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

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

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

 Like this post? 

Posted on January 9, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Sitting Shiva: A Poem from Lesléa Newman

unnamedWe are honored to share a poem from I Carry My Mother by Lesléa Newman.

Lesléa Newman, known for her children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, explores illness and death in her newest book. From diagnosis through yahrzeit (one-year anniversary of death), she grapples with what it means to lose a mother. To honor her mother’s memory, Lesléa Newman will donate $1.00 to the Cancer Connection for each book ordered by January 25 (her mom’s birthday).

SITTING SHIVA

Mirrors are covered
Wooden benches are set out
Have a good mourning

Where’s the coffee pot?
I ask my father, who knows
my mother would know

Welcome. Please come in.
Sit anywhere. Except there!
That’s my mother’s chair

Ancient Hebrew prayers
cannot bring my mother back,
so what good are they?

My aunt spills her tea
when I speak to her softly
in my mother’s voice

White coffee cup smeared
with my mother’s red lipstick.
Don’t you dare wash it.

Chocolate rugelach
my mother and I both love
clog my throat like mud

My mother’s old friend
cups my face with both her hands
Fingers wet with tears

My aunt stands to leave.
“Call if you need anything.”
I need my mother.

 

Like this post?

Posted on January 7, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Honoring Our Allies

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

Check out these short video profiles of our award winners:

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

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

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

You an check out our photos from Glimmer here.

Like this post? 

Posted on December 29, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan

Today we are sharing Joanna Ware’s Keynote speech from Kindness Counts: Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan, a conference hosted by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA.

This post is a little longer than our usual blog posts, but we think it is worth the read. 

Today, I’m going to be talking about family and kinship in Jewish history and within the LGBTQ community. Before I start though, I want to say something about language. I am going to be using the word “queer” today, and I want to acknowledge that it’s a word that may be uncomfortable for some. It is a word that has been filled with pain and violence, and also a word imbued with liberation.

“Queer” was reclaimed by ACT-UP activists who refused to concede that their lives were worthless because of their queerness. I hope that you will accept my invitation to lean into that discomfort if you feel it today, and stay with me. When I use queer, it is both as an umbrella term for LGBTQ community, as well as a loving celebration of outsiders, of difference and apartness as something to cherish, rather than something to erase.

If you’ve been attending shul recently, or if you’ve been following along at home, you know that at this point in our annual reading of the Torah we are deep in Joseph’s story.

Joseph is a ready touch-point for those of us who search our tradition’s texts for echoes of our vibrant, colorful, fabulous, often-outsider, queer lives. As my colleague Gregg Drinkwater has written, “The great rabbinic and medieval commentators make the modern task of ‘queering’ Joseph even easier, with all of them having noted that Joseph had a certain ‘sensibility.’”

Joseph is described as “behaving like a boy, penciling his eyes, curling his hair, and lifting his heel.” When Joseph is in Egypt, he rejects Potiphar wife’s advances, uninterested in sex with her. (This rejection of heterosexual desire and adultery is ultimately what lands him in jail.)

And, of course, there is the matter of his flamboyantly colorful coat; a symbol of his father’s love and preference, and the catalyst for his brothers’ betrayal. Throughout his life, Joseph is cast as the outsider. Ultimately, it is his apartness and difference that elevates him. His gift of insight, dream interpretation, and wisdom is what makes him valuable to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and are his (and his family’s) saving grace.

It is not so much Joseph’s potential queerness though, important as it is, that I am interested in talking about today. Rather, I am captured by the story of Joseph’s family.

Joseph is deeply, deeply betrayed by his family of origin. He is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery because of his difference. And yet, when Joseph’s family returns—unknowingly—to him, asking for help and compassion, he welcomes them. Precisely the qualities within him that they cast out—his unnerving seeing, his apartness, his queerness—are ultimately the reason they are drawn back to him.

JW_PJW_JJ_SF_London

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

When I think about family, I think both about a Jewish familial model—loving, central, complicated at times, and also largely a matter of birth—as well as my queer history of chosen family. Ask an LGBTQ person of a certain age (or us younger folks well-educated in queer history), and most of us will tell you that when we hear “oh yeah, they’re family” from another LGBTQ person, we know that they are not saying that this person is their blood relation, what they are saying is that they are one of us.

When it was unsafe to name aloud our markers of difference, we found other words: “Friend of Dorothy”: a reference to the gay subcultural icon Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz; “Friend of Mrs. King”; “confirmed bachelor”; “in the life”; and, “family”.

Family is, indeed, a way of saying “she’s our kind,” but it is about quite a bit more, as well.

Queer history is abounding in stories of rejection and exile. Young gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people rejected by their families of origin, thrown out of their homes and told never to return unless they “weren’t that way” often found each other. They found each other on the streets and in bars, and—confronted with a world that was telling them from every direction that who we were was wrong, broken, diseased, unworthy, criminal, and a perversion—came together against it.

Family came to signify the kind of kinship and “us-ness” wrought by fighting oppression and recognizing that we were in it together. We bailed each other out of jail, nursed the physical and emotional wounds of violence, sexual assault, and humiliation at the hands of those in power, and grew resilient, beautiful, powerful families in the midst, in spite of, and in response to that brokenness.

Chosen families are built and created, and they come together for celebration and grieving, for healing and for play, and because when no one else will show up for us—we do.

Chosen family is about surviving in a world that wants to be rid of you.

Sylvia Rae Rivera

Sylvia Rae Rivera, one of the founders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

In New York City, in the 1970s, Sylvia Rivera, Bubbles Rose Marie, and Marsha P. Johnson created STAR—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. STAR was created for, in Sylvia’s words, “street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at the time.” Sylvia and Marsha took in young gay and gender variant homeless youth, they hustled in the streets so that their “kids” wouldn’t have to. They got a building and paid the rent and worked to put food on the table to protect their kids from violence and degradation. They were a family.

Through the late 80s and 90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, it was chosen gay and queer family that served as nurses, care-takers, emotional support, and in-home hospice. Chosen family who escorted people to doctor’s appointments and support group meetings, who slipped crushed ice into the lips of the dying, who made funeral arrangements and sat shiva. They were family.

Chosen families are often understood in contrast to families of origin—a response to rejection by blood family when someone comes out. And, for many people this was true. We built chosen family because it was our only option. For others though, and for many LGBTQ people today, it is a less stark scenario. Many of us have families of origin with whom we are still in relationship—sometimes beautiful, loving, whole relationships, and sometimes relationships that are fractured and more complicated but nonetheless present and persistent.

Chosen family and family of origin are not in direct opposition to one another, and both have something to teach us about kinship, obligation, and us-ness.

For queer people, kinship is often the edge upon which we tread the line between coming out and remaining closeted.

Every, seemingly innocuous question can be a moment for a gut-check:

  • “What did you do for the holidays?”
  • “What did you do this weekend?”
  • “Is your wife here?”
  • “Do you have kids?”

Do I want to be out with these people? Is it worth the risk? What’s the benefit? How long have I known them? What is there to lose? Can I sidestep this conversation all together?

I am out in every aspect of my life. I came out seven years ago and haven’t looked back. I am a queer professional and I rarely encounter people who don’t know that I’m queer either before or immediately after I meet them. So, I rarely interface with this calculation, and yet I’m still not free from it.

A month ago, in Washington, D.C., in the course of making small talk with a cab driver, I outed myself. “No, I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, I have a girlfriend.” The next five minutes in that car were profoundly unpleasant and offensive; the cab driver’s response was ripe with misogyny, homophobia, and vulgarity. I had miscalculated.

I am incredibly insulated from this kind of risk most of the time. I live in one of the 22 states that prohibit employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity, and I work for an LGBT organization. 52% of the LGBT population in the United States does not live where employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity is legally prohibited. 52% of LGBT people live in a state without employment protections. 52% of LGBT people can be fired for that kind of miscalculation; for presuming goodwill and discovering animosity instead.

Joanna and her mom

Joanna and her mom.

I have had friends and partners whose families were similarly at risk by them being out.

Just as kinship ties can implicate and out as us queer people, our kinship ties with our families of origin can put them at risk. The Keshet Parent & Family Connection works with parents across the country, many of whom have struggled with precisely this. Their child’s coming out has implications in their own life, and they often feel adrift as they try to cope with this new challenge.

My mother has told me that she hesitates, sometimes, to come out as the parent of a queer daughter—afraid  for her colleague’s reactions, afraid that she will have to continue working with people who could profoundly disappoint her, afraid that she can’t insulate me from their bigotry. She isn’t afraid for her job, but I am well aware that other parents are afraid.

There are the teachers in under-funded schools across the country that could lose their job for having a gay child, and it could be justified as budget cuts. There are the Orthodox families who love their gay child fiercely, and are terrified for what it means for the rest of their children for their kid to be out: terrified that their family will be ostracized, that they will lose business, terrified of the real possibility that younger siblings will be bullied in school, will have trouble finding a shidduch, will resent their sibling for implicating them in their struggle as a queer person.

If kinship is about us-ness, then it is indeed about being implicated in both the celebrations and the struggles our loved ones face. It is about, as my girlfriend puts it, tying your boats together.

We know how to make sense of this when it comes to marriage and children, but we often struggle to name, categorize, and validate chosen families and kinship ties without the ready, heteronormative markers of traditional family structures.

I have nightmares sometimes about my queer chosen family being hospitalized, and being unable to reach them.

I’m racing through the halls of a hospital, and someone stops me:

“Are you family?”

“Who is this person to you?”

“Are you related?”

How can I answer?

Are you family? “Yes!” (But… maybe not like you mean it.)

Who is this person to you? “How could I possibly explain?” (They are my ex-partner’s best friend and my child’s quasi-parent and they co-signed on my car loan and we make soup for each other on a rotating weekly basis and they are the one person who knows exactly what I need when I’m sick or angry or heartbroken. There’s no word for that person, except family.)

Are you related? “Technically? No.”

Joanna and members of her chosen family

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’m reading Joseph’s story, and about his family. Joseph responds to his brothers with compassion, but distance. He doesn’t trust them immediately, and he doesn’t reveal himself.

Nonetheless, he does not turn them away out of spite or anger. Which I think many of us could agree would be a very human impulse on his part to the people who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.

And what do his brothers think about all of this? As far as they know, Joseph is a stranger—a person of power in a foreign land who is meeting them with compassion in a time of need. They are starving, and he offers them food. Not, as far as they are concerned, out of an obvious sense of kinship or family ties, but because that is what is right, and just. Our sages warn us about the cost of ignoring the needs of the oppressed and suffering.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are offered a story about Rabbi Judah and Samuel:

Rabbi Judah is sitting with Samuel, when a woman comes before them and cries out about an injustice inflicted upon her. When Samuel ignores this woman’s cries, Rabbi Judah confronts him, asking “Don’t you agree with the proverb that teaches “one who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard’?”

Samuel, realizing his error, responds “You’re right! Though I am your superior, I will have cold water poured on me as punishment for ignoring a cry of injustice!”

“But,” Samuel continues, “my superior, Mar Akba, who failed to judge rightly and wronged this woman, will have hot water poured on him as punshiment. For it is written:  Execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor, lest My fury go forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings’ ” (Jer. 21:12).” (B. Shab 55a)

“One who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard.”

This call to act toward justice is, as I hear it, a call to act as pulled by bonds of mutuality, of relational obligation, of being in it together and bound up in the oppression and liberation of other people. It is, I think, the natural outcome of defining and seeing our bonds of kinship broadly.

If we internalize the lessons and possibilities of queer people’s chosen family, it pushes us to ask ourselves: to whom am I obligated?

With whose fortunes and futures are mine tied?

In what ways is my freedom bound up with yours?

When you are unsafe, how can I feel safety and stability?

These are, I think, deeply important questions for the work of creating Jewish communities that are celebrate and welcome LGBTQ people; for fostering wholeness and holiness.

When we expand our sense of the “we,” and look beyond the traditional answers of who constitutes the “us” and who is the “them,” when we redefine for ourselves the bounds of obligation and connection, we are doing the sacred work of transforming our communities for the better.

I’ve been thinking about these questions a great deal in the last two weeks. We are seeing a movement build across the country insisting that the lives of black people matter; that we are not done with the work of rectifying our country’s racist history and present; that thedisproportionately high rates of violence at the hands of police, arrests, and incarceration of black people is a stain on our national conscience.

Joanna and her cousins.

Joanna and her brothers and cousins.

Where is my place in it? What is my obligation? As a queer Jew whose chosen family and family of origin include people of color, I have a stake in this game.

As a queer Jew, I have communal histories that remind me to be on the look out for the big acts of violence—like what we’re seeing in Missouri, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere in our country. Like the heartbreaking news coming out of France, and the dramatically increased numbers of people leaving the country due to rising anti-Semitism. Like the news out of Kansas City, where two young Muslim boys were struck by a car—killing one of them—in an intentional act of Islamophobic violence. Like the 238 transgender people—most of them women of color—killed in 2013 for being transgender, and the countless other transgender people who died because of transphobia.

People like Leslie Feinberg, a secular Jew and transgender activist, whose death from Lyme-disease could have been prevent in a world where transgender people did not face enormous barriers to economic stability and rampant stigma in health care settings. These are the big, obvious, heartbreaking signs of brokenness. These are the proverbial women who, just like in the Talmud story I shared with you, cry out in front of our faces, to whom we are reminded not to close our ears.

But when I think about kinship, and our obligation to the other, I also think about the lessons I’ve learned about how damaging the subtle, insidious forms of normalized oppression can be. I think about what happens when we decide that some swath of people are “them” rather than “us.” I worry about the dehumanization that happens when we seek out excuses and explanations to justify racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia.

I worry about what happens when we say “well, she was just too much,” “he was too flamboyant,” “he looked so obviously Jewish,” “he was too big and too black.” I worry about what happens to our hearts and souls when we respond to injustice and oppression by asking “what did he do to deserve it?” rather than “what did I do to allow this to happen? How can I change it?”

Perhaps, a queer Jewish reading of this section of our Torah isn’t just about Joseph and his lifted heel, but is also about imagining ourselves as his brothers, being met with compassion and welcome in a strange and frightening place.

Perhaps, our lesson can be to tap into a deepening well of empathy, and hold on to the insights of queer people who have been building chosen family as we want to define it; who have been spreading the ties and obligations of kinship far and wide.

What might that mean for how Jewish communities welcome, celebrate, and show up for LGBTQ people? People of color? All of us on the margins?

Like this post? 

Posted on December 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Telling My Story for World AIDS Day

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

(Trigger warning: This post includes stories of suicide.)

I remember vividly the first time I heard the term “AIDS.” It was the Sally Jessy Raphael show right after I got home from school. I remember looking at the screen,  seeing people who were broken, who were abused, who, essentially were being put on a pedestal of shame for the world to see. My mother called out from the kitchen, “Turn that trash off. Those faggots are getting what they deserve.”

But I knew I was not unlike them.

AIDS and HIV related deaths have topped 39 million since the pandemic started. There are more than 35 million people currently living with the virus today, with a bit over one million of those individuals living in the United States. And while the virus does not discriminate, individuals in the LGBTQ community feel the impacts far differently. We tend to not have adequate access to health care, face inherent stress from the discrimination and harassment that is institutional in our country which is proven to impart lesser health outcomes. From my prospective, the most harmful is the stigma that continues to follow this disease for our community.

I realize I don’t tell my story often enough, and I find this to be a personal failure as a member of this community and as a human being. I will not use real names or places because the story is still very raw and honestly, I don’t think those wounds will ever heal.

When I was 19, I was newly liberated: reborn even. I had come out to my Mom and Dad, I was living on my own at University, and had a supportive group of friends around me.

Dustin and Mark were two of those friends.

They had been together for the better part of a decade and were the queer big brothers I never had. I navigated my first two relationships with their help; crying on their shoulders more than I’d like to admit. But, for the first time in my life, I had role models. I had people I looked up to. I had a future.

It was October and the weather had started turning. Mark was constantly getting sick, although no one really thought much of it. I knew the week before my birthday, Mark had a doctor’s appointment. On the night of my birthday, as I was busy prepping for the birthday shenanigans, I missed a call from Mark.

That night, I missed an opportunity to save a life.

Mark was calling because hours before, he had found out he had tested positive for HIV. This man that I knew, who was in a committed relationship, who had taught me how to be strong in the face of adversity, how to be proud about my differences, hung himself in his apartment.

The hours that passed were all a blur. I was in complete shock and all I wanted were answers. Unfortunately, my only access to those answers was Dustin.

And on November 2nd, just one day later, Dustin put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Later, we would find out that Dustin had been cheating and introduced the virus into their relationship.

I’m writing this story to tell you that ten years ago, I lost two of my best friends—my blood—to this virus known as HIV. But the story is unlike the stories of my elders; who watched their loved ones whither away in hospital beds in the 80s and 90s.

My friends did not die because of the virus. My friends died because they knew they would be treated differently. They died because of fear. They died because we as a community have not stepped up to educate.

My friends died because of STIGMA.

I’m not a great Jew. Some love to remind me the last time I stepped into Temple was for a friend’s Bat Mitzvah, and that was quite a few years ago. But I am educated enough to know that in synagogue, we speak all passages of the Torah. We don’t side step the ones we feel uncomfortable speaking, especially if we’re hanging out in Leviticus.

LGBTQ Jews are in a unique situation: we stand steadfast for social justice and humanity and we know we cannot be silent, even in the face of what we feel is uncomfortable.

The importance of kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is taught in our tradition. Remembering, and respecting, the dead is commemorated by reciting the mourner’s Kaddish during prayers.

Today, I ask you to begin your advocacy with our Jewish values. Take a moment to include in your thoughts those we have lost. Stand with your congregation, and recite Kaddish for those we have lost to the AIDS epidemic, those who have no one standing for them.

Hold in your prayers, and your memories, those who had no support, those who felt alone.

And, this World AIDS Day I challenge everyone reading this to call a friend, a neighbor, a coworker… anyone. Reach out to them and remind them that you’ll be there. If you’re feeling extra inspired, there are many different organizations that you can volunteer with—including your closest LGBTQ Community Center, as many of them work directly or indirectly with HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS has taken so much from so many. Let us be kind. Let’s show the world that no one is alone in this fight.

Like this post? 

Posted on November 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Being Thankful: Communities & Identities

In my mind, Thanksgiving has a deeper connection with Judaism than with turkey or cranberry sauce.

kinnus 2013

Nearly 400 Jewish teenagers came together in Kansas City, MO, at Emtza Region USY’s 2013 Kinnus convention. Photograph by Zach Dalin.

Since eighth grade, I haven’t been home for a Thanksgiving dinner.

In the Emtza region of United Synagogue Youth (USY), which encompasses the chunk of the Midwest that’s west of Chicago, we hold our largest convention of the year over Thanksgiving weekend.

The most meaningful part of our Kinnus, “convention” in Hebrew, is the way that hotels in places like Minneapolis, St. Louis, Omaha, or Kansas City become oases of Jewish community for a weekend. Over the long weekend of Thanksgiving, a hotel ballroom became a makeshift synagogue, kosher food cafeteria, and center of Jewish life.

What made this experience so special, though, was the fact that it began with Thanksgiving dinner, during which we gathered around tables with friends old and new, and kindled a close community. During my last Kinnus, as we went around the table sharing what we were thankful for, I realized the important role that the Emtza region Jewish community played in my high school years.

This year, I’m thankful for the college I attend, Tufts University. I’m thankful for the opportunity to live in Boston, take classes that I enjoy, and make as many Belgian waffles as I want in the dining hall.

Beyond that, though, I’m thankful that I’ve found a new Jewish community and, more specifically, a Jewish community that celebrates queer identities.

This past weekend our Hillel held a Pride Shabbat, featuring two women who spoke about their experiences as queer individuals in their Jewish communities, services tailored to fit the pride theme with special readings from the Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, and a shabbat dinner featuring blurbs on the tables about queerness and Judaism and rainbow decorations on the walls. The shabbat made me appreciate the Jewish community at this school even more, because it truly welcomes and celebrates everyone in our Hillel community, and the student body of the school at large.

senior photoThis Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my new Jewish community of peers. Though I’ll miss the experience of forging a Jewish community with my friends, I am so grateful for the Jewish community fostered by the Hillel here at Tufts and the fact that it celebrates the intersection of Judaism and pride.

Ari also created community with over 40 of his LGBTQ & Ally Teen peers at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton last year. This #GivingTuesday Keshet will be raising funds to support travel costs for one teen attendant at the Shabbaton. Learn more about the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton here.

Like this post? 

 

Posted on November 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Today You Are a Man 

In honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi,” and transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs 

When I arrived in Falls Village, Connecticut with my wife and our two daughters 3 1/2 years ago to become the Executive Director of the Isabella Freedman Center, I had a feeling it would be a transformative experience for us.

Micah

Micah

At the time, Mikayla was 13 and had just had her Bat Mitzvah months earlier, and Gracie had just turned nine. Our older two daughters, Hannah and Alison, were already out of the home and living in Philadelphia, but excited for future visits of the Berkshires.

I came to Isabella Freedman both committed to carrying on the history and ideals of the center’s wonderful programs…and wanting to bring some of my own ideas to the table. I felt that Isabella Freedman, among other things, should be filling gaps for under-served populations in the Jewish community.

And, I had a hunch that Jewish LGBTQ teens might be one of those communities.

While I had no personal experience with that community, I had certainly read about LGBTQ teens in general facing bullying, depression, and worse. I sensed this was an area where we could make a difference.

I was fortunate early in my tenure to meet Keshet’s founder and Executive Director Idit Klein at the Siach Conference, sponsored by Hazon, and held at Isabella Freedman. I floated the idea to Idit of partnering on Jewish LGBTQ Teen programming, and she was quick to jump on board. And from there, I brought the idea to the Caring Commission at UJA-Federation of New York, who, amazingly, agreed to fund our first Shabbaton in full.

Our first gathering, in the late summer of 2012, was much smaller than we hoped. We came close to cancelling it, but, even with just a dozen participants, it became clear almost immediately the impact of what we had started.

Having my own teen, I suggested to Mikayla that she might want to join in for the retreat. There were rarely other teens at Isabella Freedman, and this was a great chance to participate in something.  Mikayla did go. She had a good time; and at the end she commented how she had never met other teens in the LGBTQ community before, and how interesting that had been for her.

When we had our second such gathering, another small Shabbaton in early 2013, it didn’t take any pushing to get Mikayla to attend. Her friends were going to be there. She had a great time, and came out of her shell a bit more.

And a month later, Mikayla sent my wife Jamie and me a text from school. She had something important to talk to us about. And, through the important teen medium of a text message, the teen who had come out of her shell simply “came out.”

We couldn’t have been more proud.

And then came our third and largest Jewish LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton, in April 2014, with 50 teens from around the country, where Mikayla attended an important panel presentation by transgender teens; and afterwards decided to go from “she” to “he,” to transition from “Mikayla” to “Micah,” to go from our daughter to our son.

Micah has never been happier; and we’ve never been prouder.

Over the summer, while Micah was away visiting family, Jamie transformed a more stereotypical girl’s bedroom to suit Micah’s tastes. I’ve relished taking my son out shopping for men’s clothes. He’s even taken a girl to recent school dances, in a public school that’s been not only accepting but accommodating and supportive.

And Isabella Freedman–which is now part of Hazon through our recent merger–couldn’t be a more amazing environment for a transgender teen.

Four years after her Bat Mitzvah, Mikayla is now a proud Jewish male.

Micah, today you are a man.  And what a man you are.

Like this post?

Posted on November 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

One Family’s Wish for a World without Gender Roles

As we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance be sure to check out these stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” and our look at the importance of voting

Amanda, William, and Charles: photo credit: Beth Soref

Amanda and her family. Photo Credit: Beth Soref

On many Saturdays, we take our son to a minyan where men and women sit separately. I am not thrilled with the arrangement, but what I do like is the fact that the men are as likely as the women to have a baby strapped to their chest, to be chasing a child through the hallway, or to accompany their child to tot Shabbat.

If there’s going to be sex-segregated seating at our Synagogue, I am glad that at least my son will have no clue from looking around which sex traditionally did more of the child care. 

X: A Fabulous Child’s Story is a 1978 tale of an experiment—scientists select a family to raise a child without revealing its sex to anyone. The parents receive an extensive instruction manual to help them figure out how they need to deal with both their child and the outside world. One of the hardest hurdles the family faces is sending their child, X, to school, where there are proscribed behaviors for girls and boys. The story has many lessons about how people are constrained to tasks that are traditionally thought to be well suited for their gender and how gender roles are actively taught and enforced by relatives, teachers, and peers.

My husband and I have a son, and we are not trying to keep his sex a secret. Because he’s a boy, we dress him in clothing that people expect from his gender. (Pink makes me slightly insane, so should he develop a sister, expect her to also wear blue all the time). He attends a daycare that he loves, and we recently went to his two-year conference there to meet with his teachers and see how he was doing.

The daycare center uses a standardized assessment to monitor the development of the children, and one of the questions is whether the children can identify boys and girls. The daycare instructor said they teach the children what clothing girls wear, what clothing boys wear, and then have the children try and identify who is a boy and who is a girl. Perhaps because when our son is not at daycare, he’s hanging out with our friends, who are not really a gender role-conforming bunch, and perhaps because he just hasn’t gotten old enough yet, he could not do it. “That’s not something that’s really important to us,” my husband said to the teacher, clearly wishing we could opt out of that part of the curriculum.

Our son’s daycare, to our knowledge, doesn’t try and constrain the kinds of toys he can play with the way that some of our friends report that their children’s daycares do. When I picked him up the other day he was rocking a baby doll in a stroller with one hand and cooking with a toy kitchen with the other hand. He is, however, young enough that we don’t know a lot of what’s going on during the day.

While I pay people to watch my son so I can write this article, is he being told boys should do certain jobs and girls should do other ones, or that girls and boys should play with different kinds of toys? I sincerely doubt it, but it is theoretically possible and he wouldn’t be able to tell me if that was what was happening. He told me very seriously that he had a great day the other day because he sat on his friend’s big head, which I find entirely suspect—I may not know what his teachers say about gender, but I am pretty sure I know what they say about head-sitting.

We trust the teachers and we know that he loves them—he mutters their names sometimes in his sleep. The only way we could guarantee that he received only gender messages that we approved with is if my husband and I cared for him full-time at home, and if I was the one who did not pursue a career, that would also be teaching a message about gender. (Right now, I do stay home with him several weekdays per week, and it’s awesome. But I am teaching something by not working more, and I know it.)

At daycare, they also tell my son that he’s going to be “like Daddy” when he grows up, which I might object to more if I didn’t think the world would be a better place if everyone (of every gender) was like my husband when they grew up. For my son’s birthday we told him he could pick out something he wanted from the toystore, and he selected a new doll, to accompany his existing doll. On weekends, he likes to wear his baseball hat “like Daddy” and stroll his baby doll through the park across the street “like Daddy.” As I watch him push his stroller back and forth, I think that for now we might be OK with the gender roles we’ve modeled…but he’s going to be exposed to a lot more of the world soon, whether we’re ready or not, and we’ll have to see how he comes out of it.

Ray Marcum, backWhen it is time for our son’s three-year assessment, we will start encouraging him to wear a yarmulke full-time “like Daddy.” I wonder what will happen to any daughters we might have, these small imaginary children dressed in blue. Will we also get them to wear a yarmulke when they turn three? Will I then have to start wearing one too? And what will the daycare think of that?

Like this post?

Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. How will your Jewish community observe the day?

Posted on November 5, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Coming Out Process

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

MBYHeadshot1For me, coming out has never been as simple as you would think. I’ve done it a few timesI first came out as queer as a teenager, and now as an adult I have come out all over again as transgender. This latest coming-out process has taken me the better part of two years, countless half-steps in the direction of being out, and finally the decision to just trust that it would work out.

The first step, and the hardest, was coming out to myself.

On some level, I had known that I was trans for a very long timeever since I first heard the term transgender. I read everything about gender and transition that I could get my hands on. Something about these stories grabbed my attention in a way that nothing else had. I never could understand why anyone thought it was difficult to understand or unfamiliarit made perfect sense to me. That probably should have been my first clue.

Then I found gender theory. Oddly, the distant academic language about gender as cultural performance became one of my best tools for convincing myself that I was not transgender: If gender is not real, if it is culturally arbitrary, then it does not matter what gender I am. If it does not matter what gender I am, then I can’t be trans, right? Or how about another one: If culture defines what genders are acceptable and legible, and our culture has a gender category for a person with my genetics and body to look the way I do, then I can “get by” as a butch. That means I’m not transgender, right? I can “slide by” in public as a just-barely-almost-not-quite-kinda-sorta woman, so I don’t need to think of myself as transgender, right?

There was one major area of my life where these justifications and excuses did not work.

In my relationship with Jewish ritual, which was becoming more and more important in my life, there never seemed to be room for these excuses. In fact, there never seemed to be room for my sense of ambiguity around gender at all: so much of our ritual, language, and practice is strictly gendered, even in our progressive and egalitarian movements. It seemed impossible to approach a Hebrew text, be called to the Torah, or pray in Hebrew without thinking about gender. I always had to insert some distance between myself and our traditionbetween myself and Godto avoid the dreaded gender meltdown.

It was during this time that I began rabbinical school in the Conservative movement. I had watched my tradition struggleand have some success, however imperfectat becoming a tradition that welcomed and treated with dignity all people. I wasn’t always happy with the way these conversations were going, and I came to the rabbinate in order to add my voice. I came out of a sense of obligation to Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and a desire to build moral and welcoming communities.

Over time, it got harder and harder to do the work of becoming a rabbi without engaging my own “gender stuff.”

Finally, one Friday night at Kabbalat Shabbat, it just clicked: I didn’t have to think so hard about gender all the time. I didn’t need a mental list of justifications for my gender identityand I was exhausting myself by constantly maintaining that list. The truth was much simpler than that: I was just transgender. It was a scary feeling, because seeing myself as transgender was something I had worked very hard not to do for so long, but it was also a tremendous relief. Over the course of the coming weeks, I felt myself letting go of the emotional distance I had kept between myself and my life.  I was not sure what my next steps were, what kind of new gender identity I would build for myself, what coming out would be like, whether I would transition—there were plenty of reasons to be anxious. But I began to notice that even with all of the anxiety, I was present in a way that I had not been before.

From that Shabbat, it took more than two years to come out more or less completely, to figure out how and whether to transition, and to begin negotiating the complex legal, medical, and bureaucratic mess that those of us who transition have to deal with.

A few close friends and family members knew right away, and were there with me as I thought about when and whether to come out, what transition would mean, and all of the other questions I had. Sometimes I wish I had come out sooner. I especially wish that I had been more completely out during my time in rabbinical schoolI wish that I had been able to add my voice specifically as a trans person to our conversations, and that I had been more present to my classmates, colleagues, and teachers. Most importantly, I wish I had been in a position to show them at the time the trust that I know they deserved. But there were too many other factors in life, and my time line did not allow that. In the end, it was reaching the end of my studies and preparing to work as a rabbi that gave me the final push to put the last pieces in place to be able to transition. It was in thinking about the ordination ceremony that I knew for certain that if I could not stand in front of my teachers and mentors in my full self, and have them call me by a name that fit me, the ceremony would feel empty and fake. And, shortly afterwards, I decided that if I continued to put off transition for “someday” in the future, I would continue to not be present to the work I was doing right now in my community.

How could I possibly be a rabbi building Jewish community if I was hiding from the community I wanted to serve?

So I jumped in to the coming out process—talking with close and extended family, friends, coworkers, and others. It was both more frightening and easier than I expected. So far, in sharing the news of my transition with my colleagues and my communities, I have received nothing but support and shared excitement. Not a single one of the worst-case scenarios or explosions that I feared has happened. Instead, people have surprised me with their generosity of spirit. Being out has given me the ability to raise my voice, to educate and advocate in my community. More than that, it has given me the ability to experience again what a beautiful community it is.

Like this post?

Posted on October 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy