Tag Archives: queer clergy

A Hanukkah Blessing

In preparation for Hanukkah, a time in the year when we welcome in the light of hope and liberation, we asked Alex Weissman and his mom Cyd to write a blessing celebrating LGBTQ people and families.

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Cyd and Alex are quite the mother/son Jewish duo. Alex is an out queer rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the former Social Justice Coordinator at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, and a leading LGBTQ Jewish voice for justice. A longtime leader in Jewish education and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion, Cyd infused her children’s life with Jewish content that reflected their family’s values, from modeling how to hold space as a ritual leader for her son—the future rabbi, to sending her children out into the world with her own take on the Priestly Blessing: “May God bless you and keep you safe and sound.”

When we asked Alex to tell us more about his Jewish experience growing up, he explained: “My mom used to teach my friends and me at religious school. She was always (and still is) intent on ‘whole person’ learning. It didn’t matter if we could just recite Ashrei—she wanted to make sure we could also articulate the joy of dwelling in the house of God and what that felt like.”

We share their blessing with you today in the same spirit of “whole person” Judaism that Cyd passed on to Alex. May it be that this year, as we gather our families to kindle the lights of Hanukkah, we do so in wholeness and holiness.

Here I am, ready and prepared to light the Hanukkah candles, as “our rabbis taught: The law of Hanukkah demands that everyone should light one lamp for themselves and for their household. Those who seek to fulfil the obligation well have a lamp lit for every member of the household (from Shabbat 21b).” We know we could be a household that celebrates the light of one. Instead, we remind ourselves that light increases with the opportunity for each of us to celebrate with our own Chanukiah. May we dedicate ourselves in all our days to honoring each other’s unique light, as it shines through the miracle of our gender and sexual differences. May our homes become homes of light for all people (adapted from Isaiah 56:7).

 Download a copy of the Hanukkah blessing here.

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Posted on December 16, 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

Hints of “Queerness” from Our Ancestors, Our Sages, and Our God

lisa_1

Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), offered these words last week as leaders from day schools across Los Angeles came together to discuss concrete strategies and tools for creating more LGBTQ inclusive institutions at the Keshet Leadership summit in LA.

We come together in the midst of our annual study of the Book of Genesis, with its many examples of the presence of LGBTQ people—of alternative family structures and gender non-conformity. I thought to mention a few examples, in the hopes you’ll take opportunities to study these and others later on.

First, consider Sarai, matriarch of our people, who while unable to get pregnant, suggests that her husband Avram have a child with a surrogate (her handmaid Hagar). Our first alternative family structure—not only surrogacy, but one dad and two moms.

By the way, one of our Talmud sages, without a hint of irony or distress, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah of parenting, takes note of the long years of infertility of Sarah and Abraham, and suggests that our matriarch and patriarch appear to be tumtumim (people of indeterminate gender).

Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Later, and again without criticism, the Torah and our tradition show us there has always been gender non-conformity.  Consider Rebekah when first we meet her in Chayei Sarah—how “butch” is Rebekah!—strong enough to hoist bucketful after bucketful of water to water many camels.

And then Rebekah and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, whom we meet in Toldot, remind us that there have always been boys who present more “macho” and boys who present more “sissy”—consider the rough and tumble hairy hunter Esau—“a man of the outdoors” (25:27)—twin but certainly not an identical one, to his smooth, mild brother Jacob, who prefers to stay at home and try vegetarian recipes (red lentil stew, for example, 25:29).

Or, in the Genesis stories still to come, consider the children of Jacob:

How Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, “went out to see the daughters of the land” [34:1].  Did she “go out” to see the “daughters” or did she “come out”? We know nothing of what Dinah thought or felt or intended or did on her visit. She never speaks a word in Torah, and we don’t know what eventually became of her.  We do know that when she ventured forth, away from home, to visit other women, Shechem, the Hittite prince, “saw her, took her, lay her down and raped her.” [34:2]

How many women and LGBTQ people today find themselves unsafe to venture forth alone anywhere in the world? And how many lesbians have been rudely told or violently “shown” that their attraction to women is only because they need a man to show them “how it’s done”?

Jacob blesses Joseph and gives him the coat.

Jacob blesses Joseph and gives him the coat.

Why does Joseph’s coat of many colors make his brothers so angry? Were they simply jealous that Jacob favored their little brother? What if something else was going on? What if Joseph himself favored the coat because he was drawn to different colors? Because he liked its length or it felt like a dress to him?

What if his brothers bullied him for being too feminine and his father’s favor of the coat was a way of telling Joseph that, whoever he chose to be, Jacob would love him always?

It shouldn’t be surprising that in our tradition we find hints and even discussion that “queerness” existed, as well as a certain comfort level with it on the part of our ancestors, of our sages and of God.

What should be surprising is that so many of us are still taken by surprise at these suggestions.

Recently, I sat around a table with seven other gay men and lesbians between the ages of 55 and 71, and told them about Keshet’s Leadership Project. They all join me in thanking you for doing the work, for already understanding, already knowing, that a leadership summit like this one is necessary. We speculated a bit on what our younger years might have been like—how much better those years might have been (and later ones as well)—had our teachers and schools—especially religious schools—set LGBTQ inclusion as a priority.

Do not oppress the stranger,” one of them said, we’re taught that over and over again but it doesn’t always register with people that a stranger could be your own child or your own parent or sibling.

“Do not hide yourself from your own kin,” we read in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning, and when will everyone come to understand that hiding yourself isn’t only what a person who is “in the closet” does, it’s also what people do when they sense someone is in the closet but don’t open the door and invite that person to come out into open arms and open minds and open hearts.

field-corner_hpWe are told, said another of my friends, DO NOT harvest all the way to the corner of the fields, but leave some there so that the vulnerable ones among us might come and find sustenance, might share in the fields of plenty, might glean nourishment for themselves and not just “depend on the kindness of strangers.” This mitzvah is not only about physical sustenance, she said, though that’s vital; it’s also about spiritual sustenance—that’s why there are Jewish day schools; and it’s also about emotional sustenance—if you are asked (either subtly or outright) to deny or ignore a core part of yourself each time you enter your home or shul or school, how long before you’d stop trying to come in at all, much less stay in?

“Diversity is what we all have in common,” someone said last night. Diversity is what God created and delighted in from the first week of creation and ever since, saying gleefully over and over—ki tov—how good is this, and even tov ma’od —how very good indeed!  So shouldn’t we, created in God’s image, also embrace diversity and delight in it just like God does?

Indeed we should.

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Posted on November 24, 2014

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Transgender Day of Remembrance and the Life of Sarah

This d’var Torah was given by Rabbi Becky Silverstein at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center on Friday, November 14th. We are privileged to share these words of wisdom in honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.

16 years ago, Rita Hester, a transwoman of color, was murdered in her Boston apartment. The first Transgender Day of Remembrance was organized to remember her and protest her death.

This year Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, and Kandy Hall were all killed for being transgender. As was Aniya Parker, who was murdered only two miles away from my apartment in Los Angeles.

TDOR_20132These are just some of the names of transgender people in whose memory I offer these words of Torah.

It is somewhat ironic that this week’s Torah portion is called Haye Sarah, the life or lifetimes of Sarah, as it mentions her only in death.

א וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִיםשְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹבְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her.

The last we hear about Sarah’s life is in last week’s Torah portion, giving birth to Isaac and sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness—a mixed legacy indeed. Throughout the earlier chapter of Genesis, Sarah is more often the subject of objectification than a person with her own voice. Twice Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister without her consent. Her voice is heard only when she expels Hagar and Ishmael in chapter 16 and in last week’s parashah, laughing at the somewhat strange way G-d has constructed her life.

Even these moments of voice only serve to narrow our picture of this matriarch, a woman tied to her ability to conceive. The text presents us with a caricature of a person, a part of a life, used as a literary tool.

Like Sarah, transgender people are often reduced to being only partially human, used as a canvas on which we displace our own fears about gender and society. Questions about our personal history, our medical transitions, our desire for equal rights; confrontations about our chosen pronouns, our chosen names, and chosen families: these all serve to dehumanize the transgender community. It is this dehumanization that allows for the separation and fear to grow in other human beings, and creates a scenario in which one human can possibly think it is okay to kill another because of their identity. Even in the time of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black, and Transparent, the transgender experience is presented in limited ways that often serve to exploit or dehumanize. That both Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have had to explain on public television why questions about their medical transition are simply inappropriate is evidence of this trend.

As little as we know about Sarah’s life, we know even less about her death.

ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן–בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.  ג וַיָּקָם, אַבְרָהָם, מֵעַל, פְּנֵי מֵתוֹ; Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her. Abraham rose from beside his dead…

Sarah’s death is told only through the lens of Abraham’s actions. Midrash Tanchuma helps a bit, typing Sarah’s death to the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. According to the midrash, upon hearing the news that Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah’s soul departs from her. The midrash teaches that in the moments before her death Sarah cried out with the broken cries of the shofar, those broken notes the only sounds her body could emit, the only sounds adequate for her anguish.

Though Sarah’s voice could not be heard, her cries continue to haunt us.

I wonder if this is how Sarah thought she would die. I wonder if being beaten and shot was how Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, Kandy Hall, and Aniya Parker thought they were going to die.

Let’s move from Sarah’s death to how she is treated in that death. The text does not tell us, but I imagine Abraham wanting to know why and how Sarah died, and that if Sarah died in the age of CSI that her death would be fully investigated. This is where Sarah’s story and death depart from that of those we remember today: transfolks, transwomen, transwomen of color, whose life experience is ignored even in deathwhose deaths are not investigated and whose burials are not noteworthy.

Our Torah portion continues by retelling Abraham’s purchase of Ma’a’rat Ha’Machpelah, the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites. Abraham seeks to, and succeeds in, securing a burial place for his family, a place that will keep Sarah’s memory alive, a touchstone for her in death and for her family in the future. Who creates these sacred places of memory and connection for those who are brutally murdered on our streets? For LGBTQ homeless people living in the shadows? Sarah has a family and a future, even in her death. Even today, people flock to Hebron to visit the burial place of our matriarchs and patriarchs, a trip that is its own sermon. In my first visit I marvelled at the ornate decoration and wondered what was actually in the coffins. Even I, a cyncial post-modern rabbinical student, was moved by the religious devotion. Visiting the grave of a loved one can be a powerful experiencethe grave itself making concrete the death the visitor remembers and helping them to make concrete the memories.

The knowledge that one will have a place to be buried and those to look after them is a privilege. Those who are killed on our streets or in their homes because they are transgender are often wandering, disconnected from their families of origin, and they continue to wander even in their deaths.

kaddish_hpThey float from protest to memory, to newspaper story to Transgender Day of Remembrance. Very few have someone whose responsibility it is to say Kaddish for them. The community is their connection. The transgender voices who live make real their lives and experiences and stories, we tell them to ourselves so that we never forget. I, and now all of you, are part of that connection.  So that we never forget that the world is stacked against those who dare to transgress what society expects of uswith respect to gender or other identities.

Why bring this Torah today? Because kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is one of the greatest mitzvot our tradition teaches. Because justice is a Jewish value and Transgender Day of Remembrance represents the intersection of gender, racial, and economic justice. Because the life and death of transgender folks is not outside of our community, and it is our obligation to stand with each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow.  

Doing the work of deconstructing and consciously choosing our gender identities is work that is important for all of us. Consciously choosing to wear a dress or a tie or a relatively androgynous cardigan is empowering, and once we feel empowered in our own choices, we can better understand how others make theirs. Begin by doing the internal work and standing up for your own right to express your gender, fight the misogyny and gender essentialism in your own lives and the lives of your families. This can be a painful and difficult process, and it is also unavoidable.

More externally focused, respect everyone’s right to choose their pronouns and names and decisions about their bodies, support them in those decisions in their company and when they are not around. One easy place to start is right here, reminding folks that I use he/him/his as pronouns. Try on correcting someone, see how it feels. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities for political action. In doing all of this, we will create a space for the memory of transgender folks, just as Abraham, by securing a burial spot, creates a space for Sarah’s memory.

I want to end on a more personal note. Transgender Day of Remembrance is both about who I am as a transperson and not about me. Most of the names I read earlier are those of  transwomen, and the majority of those transwomen of color. I do not have friends who have lost their lives because of their gender identity, and, thank G-d, do not feel that my life is at danger. And yet the night Aniya Parker was killed two miles from my apartment, I called my girlfriend crying, shaking, scared. That taste of fear is part of what places Aniya and I together in the same community. My identity as a white transman means that I privilege to use as an ally. And, I hope that my sharing words of Torah for you will elevate the stories of those who have died and continue to make their memories a blessing.

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

Posted on November 17, 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

How To Hire a Trans Rabbi

Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal—but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. Take a look at this story of Tachlis of Inclusion, which we hope you find inspiring as we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” our look at the importance of voting, and the personal reflections of two parents looking at gender roles at daycare.

10321023_948003815650_1572420430904116827_oFor the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), hiring Rabbi Becky Silverstein as their Education Director just made sense. A recent graduate of Hebrew College, Rabbi Silverstein brought the knowledge, the passion, and the training that the position required. He won over the board, the staff, and the community.

What made things just a little bit complicated was the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender—and one of the very few openly transgender rabbis in America.

Keshet has talked with Rabbi Silverstein before to get his perspective on the learning curve associated with being, as a rabbi, a public transgender figure. For Rabbi Silverstein, “As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own process. This requires approaching everyone with compassion and an ear to understanding where they are so that I can respond appropriately.  

We recently talked with Eitan Trabin, PJTC’s Executive Director, about the tachlis of hiring Rabbi Silverstein. Trabin shared how the hiring process developed, “during our first interview with Becky, his pronouns were established. There wasn’t a dramatic moment of head scratching, but after the interview our hiring board took a moment to discuss. I knew we could talk about Becky being trans in terms of learning about it, but this wasn’t going to be something to weigh in terms of hiring. I probably had a dozen conversations with people about transgender education during the hiring process. Most of the people on the hiring committee said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And others said, ‘Oh, okay… so what’s that?’ So, there was education that we had to do right away.”

“There was a little bit of a conversion of ‘How would this be taken by the congregation?’ and the overwhelming weight was given to the fact that the Rabbi Silverstein was an exceptional candidate, no matter what. Which is why we offered him the position.”

When Rabbi Silverstein offered his thoughts on the hiring process he shared that PJTC being so open to discussing pronouns, gender, and creating a dialogue was crucial to feeling like they could be a professional and personal Jewish home for him. Concrete steps that PJTC took made it clear that they were doing their part to be an inclusive and safe place.

After Rabbi Silverstein was hired, one staff member came to Trabin and said, “I’m really excited, I met Becky, I think he’s awesome, and I’d love to know more. This is new to me, I don’t want to do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing, and I want to learn more especially since people will come to me with questions.

Trabin and PJTC decided to hold a “Gender 101” training for their staff. They brought together the staff members who regularly interface with the community and congregation, with the idea that they should understand some basic ideas about gender identity, as well as how to make PJTC more trans friendly. With the help of Dr. Joel Kushner from The Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the staff discussed lexicon, gender identity, and sexual orientation. They examined the practicalities of being an inclusive environment, and looked at how ideas of gender may or may not play out in the synagogue. Together, as a staff and a community, they discussed what could be done to make PJTC more trans friendly.

Trabin felt “the training was successful—folks who were there have been respectful about pronouns. It’s like learning a new language—and you have to think about learning styles and what makes sense. Sometimes it’s not a comment on openness, it’s a matter of understanding what learned behavior there is to overcome, so it might take longer for some people. It’s okay that not everyone gets everything, or that we don’t have all the terminology down. What was important was what this would mean when Rabbi Silverstein arrives, and it was easier to discuss in the concrete than the abstract.”

Where the rubber hits the road and where it makes a difference is being willing to make mistakes, learn, and be open,” Trabin shared.

Tachlis is learning vocabulary, and thinking about how we gender kids, what we do with bathrooms, even if all it comes down to is hearing voices and elevating voices. Sometimes there’s some repetitiveness that is required—we have to keep asking the questions: are we being successful? Are we shifting the conversation? What it would be like if a gender non-conforming kid walks in? How will they feel?”

Next up on PJTC’s inclusion docket?  Broader congregational education on gender and sexuality, and a follow-up for staff and allies on how to correct people’s misuse of pronouns.

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Posted on November 6, 2014

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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.

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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Coming Out All Over Again: An Excerpt from The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality

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!

rachel“I want to tell you about my son,” the father said as he stopped by my office one Sunday morning. “He was just walking down the corridor at school the other day and he saw a girl that he knows from the temple. She had cut off her long hair and had a new, short look. She looked really different, and he noticed that she seemed anxious. So he stopped and said, ‘Kim—you look great! Love the new look!’ She gave him such a big smile. She told him that it was a big day for her. Today she was coming out at school. She held her breath. My son gave her a big hug and said, ‘That’s great. It’s just going to get better from here.’ Rabbi, I’m telling you this because he shared it with me when I was driving him the other day. And when he’d finished telling me about this exchange at school, he said, ‘Dad, I learned that from Rabbi Gurevitz. She helped me see what a difference a friend can make at a time like that.’”


She came up to me in the middle of break one evening at our Hebrew high school. “Rabbi, can I make a time to come and talk to you?” We got together the following week and as she sat down, Jennifer said to me, “So, I’m gay and I have a girlfriend. And that’s all fine. But … why do I feel like God hates me?”

Two moments from my past few years of congregational life as a rabbi. I’ll return to the second moment shortly. But, as I reflect on these experiences, and several others like them, I realize how easily I could have missed them all. And, in doing so, I would have robbed the youth in my community of the pastoral and spiritual support they needed at a crucial turning point in their lives.

I was always “out” in my congregation. I had felt confident enough, during student placement at the end of rabbinical school, that times had changed enough for me to be upfront about that without it impacting my employment prospects. But I wasn’t a spokesperson for gay rights. I would gently drop in a reference to my partner during interviews to make it clear that it was just a natural part of the fabric of my life—it wasn’t an “issue.”

In the first few years of my congregational work, I would choose very carefully when to comment on GLBT-related issues in the context of a sermon or teaching. Often I would let it come from someone else so it didn’t appear to be “my issue.” But then Tyler Clementi committed suicide at Rutgers University. And the media began to pay more attention to the high proportion of teen suicides who were GLBT youth. And Dan Savage launched the YouTube-based “It Gets Better” campaign to provide opportunities for GLBT adults and their allies to record messages for struggling GLBT youth to show them that there were truly good, wonderful things in life beyond the fears and anxieties they may have been struggling with at any given moment in time.

I realized that I had been doing my community, and especially my teenagers, a disservice. I realized that I had been going out of my way not to bring my sexuality to the attention of my students. So anxious was I not to be regarded by anyone as “promoting homosexuality,” I was self-censoring; whereas most heterosexuals wouldn’t pause for a moment before saying, “My husband and I just came back from vacation,” or “I went to the movies last night with my wife and some friends,” I would leave my partner out of my informal conversations.

And the result was that while I was technically “out,” most of the youth in my congregation had no idea. And that meant that none of them knew—really knew—that they had an ally and someone who might understand what they were going through. And I needed to change that.

The week after Clementi’s death I gave a sermon. I wrote a bulletin article. I wrote a blog piece. And I published an op-ed in the local newspapers. The latter, in particular, was picked up by many of our families and shared with their teenagers. I started to do sessions with our high school students and youth group, speaking about my own journey of coming out, and introducing them to other GLBT members of our congregation. I had students catching me in the corridors, thanking me for the piece that I had written in the papers. And, before long, I had students seeking me out for support or simply to share their story, or a brother or sister’s story, with me.

I’ve stayed connected with many of these young people. Jennifer is now at college, and she is thriving. A year ago she walked into my office wanting to know why it felt like God hated her. We met monthly, and we explored where in society and the media we receive the kinds of messages that make us feel this way. We went on a journey together so that Jennifer could find a personal theology that could enable her to celebrate her uniqueness and truly own her image made b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God—an image that must embrace and include our sexuality too. And how could God hate something that was so essential to our being? Something that, when fully expressed, makes us feel more spiritually whole?

Ten years after I first came out, I found myself coming out all over again. This time around it felt even more profound, even more powerful. This time around it was a tikkun—a fixing, a healing, of spirit and of community.

Excerpt from The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, edited by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow © 2014 by Central Conference of American Rabbis. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Like this post? 

unnamed-1The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexualitypublished by CCAR Press, takes a close look at the breadth of human sexuality from a Jewish perspective. For more information and to order copies, visit, ccarpress.org or call 212-972-3636 x243. For those of you in the New York City area, Editor Rabbi Lisa Grushcow will be speaking at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on December 9, 2014 at 7:00 pm. In a discussion entitled, “Let’s Talk About Sex… (in a Liberal Jewish Way),” she along with three contributors to The Sacred Encounter will be discussing borders, boundaries, and what happens in the bedroom.

 

Posted on October 27, 2014

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Obamacare & You: Why the ACA Is Good for the Gays, and What More It Needs To Do

Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his passion for policy and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.

President Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2010.

President Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2010.

Many of you have now most likely seen comedian and professional beard-sporter Zach Galifianakis grill President Barack Obama on his faux talk show “Between Two Ferns.” President Obama appeared on the show to discuss the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to urge the younger generation who frequent Galifinakis’ show to check out the ACA website, and hopefully to sign up for Health Insurance through its Marketplace.  If you haven’t seen the interview yet, you’ve probably been avoiding all social media outlets over the last week. Not only has the internet exploded over the interview, but there have been more than a few responses from pundits and members of Congress who feel that the interview besmirched the honor of the office of the President. (Believe me, I watched the interview, and the only thing I think it ‘besmirched’ was the good name of spider bites, something whose ‘good-name’ has already been called into question, if you ask me.)

President Obama, as well as a wide variety of spokespeople, celebrities, and representatives of the administration, have been making a concerted media blitz over the last few months to seriously encourage Americans – specifically young, healthy Americans such as this writer – to explore all that the Affordable Care Act has to offer in terms of the quality, variety, and innovations within health care. For all intents and purposes, this media blitz has been a success, as despite the extraordinarily well-covered website issues during its initial rollout, Obamacare has now enrolled 4.2 million new members into some form of private or state-run health insurance program since it was enacted about 2 months ago.

However, the long, winding road of providing more healthcare opportunities to millions of Americans stretches much longer than the 2 months since the ACA rollout, as this weekend we mark the four-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing the ACA into law.

While four years may not seem like a tremendously long time, a lot has shifted in the American culture since then (I didn’t even have a smart phone four years ago and I was barely a year into rabbinical school)!

For LGBT Americans, this is even truer, as in four seemingly short years, our rights and privileges in terms of marriage, protection from discrimination, and general presence in society have skyrocketed. They are by no means where they need to be, (take a look at my call to action for the Jewish community in regards to the Hobby Lobby court case), in some states they appear to be regressing, but we are definitely on our way.

In the context of healthcare, it is vital to look back at the cultural landscape for LGBT Americans four years ago. In December of 2009, the Center for American Progress published a memo called “How to Close the LGBT Health Disparities Gap.” The memo excoriated the healthcare system of the time, citing frightening statistics about the ever widening gap between LGBT – most especially transgender – Americans and heterosexuals in terms of access to healthcare, and the quality of care provided, in addition to highlighting rampant discrimination against LGBT Americans by healthcare providers. The memo asserted strongly that LGBT Americans were on the whole markedly less healthy than their heterosexual counterparts, due in no small part to societal discrimination; put simply, intolerance was making us sick emotionally, mentally, and physically, because providers did not know how best to serve us, and most importantly, we are often too scared to ask.

So what’s changed since 2009, as a result of the ACA? First and foremost, the basic fact that the 40+ million people uninsured in this country will now have better access to better care is a huge boon. Specifically for the LGBT community, the ACA mandates that any policy offered through the Marketplace cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity whatsoever. This is a huge step in erasing the stigma felt by so many LGBT Americans in regards to healthcare, and ensuring that they are suitably provided for. Additionally, the abolition of the pre-existing conditions condition in all health insurance policies also guarantees that LGBT Americans living with long-term diseases such as HIV/AIDS and many types of cancers are taken care of as well.

These are huge steps forward, representative of the general march towards real equality we’ve seen over the last four years. But there is so much more to be done.

Ari stands with fellow rabbis for equality.

Ari stands with fellow rabbis for equality.

While we are attaining unprecedented heights in terms of marriage equality nationwide, healthcare disparity, and the general societal discrimination that triggers it are still widespread. The CAP memo suggested that the US Department of Health and Human Services create an Office of LGBT Health in order to address this disparity; four years later, and no such office exists, and the education needed to help healthcare providers understand the specific needs of the LGBT community is still woefully absent.

Does the ACA help to negate the need for such an office? It certainly does, but it is by no means enough. Once more people realize that discrimination against LGBT people in all of its facets – school bullying, homophobic legislation, workplace bigotry – is making us sick, then we as a society can work towards putting a real stop to it.

Posted on March 21, 2014

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My Journey from the Closet to the Pulpit

Inspired by Ari Naveh’s reflections on joining the rabbinate as a gay man, Elianna Yolkut looks back on her own journey from the closet to the pulpit on the Rabbi’s Without Borders blog.

Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.

When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. Continue reading here>>

Posted on February 7, 2014

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Am I a Gay Rabbi, or Am I a Rabbi Who Is Gay?

Part Two of a two-part story of a gay rabbinical student in the Reform Movement. Yesterday Ari shared his place in the history of openly gay rabbinical students. Today Ari delves deeper into navigating his identities. You can also hear from Rabbi Elianna Yolkut on her journey from the closet to the pulpit on Rabbis Without Borders.

Ari Naveh

In 2008, I made the decision to enter rabbinical school as an openly gay man. The decision was in some ways very easy and in some ways very difficult. My concerns centered on one main question: what would my gay and Jewish community be like? After my initial year at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Israel, I received some less than ideal news: my new home would be at the HUC campus in…Cincinnati.

This had not been my initial choice and I was none too pleased, having been born and raised in New York. But, I thought, “I am sure that I will not only be welcomed with open arms, but I will find a loving community who can help model for me being a gay rabbinical student, and subsequently a gay rabbi…right?”

I soon discovered, at least for my first year, I was the only openly gay student on campus; my therapist always tells me that it’s important to note openly gay, because you never know, and I do appreciate her optimism. Somehow by default, I became a halutz (a pioneer), the very identity I had hoped to avoid when I chose to be a gay rabbinical student in the Reform world, as opposed to the Conservative one.

In Cincinnati, I had to actively think about how to navigate all of my identities with a limited support network. In a conservative Midwestern city, I found myself working with even smaller–and sometimes even more conservative–congregations as their student rabbi. How would I come out to my student pulpits? Should I use them as bully pulpits to advocate for the causes that I find important and meaningful? How do I seek out a solid LGBT Jewish community outside of the school, when school takes up most of my life? And of course the biggest question: am I a gay rabbi, or am I a rabbi who is gay?

These two sentences may sound alike, but they could not be more different, as I discovered a few months ago in trying to craft a personal statement to send out to congregations to apply for possible rabbinic positions. In my personal statement, I told a story of building a relationship with a congregant in a community in Northwest Florida who was initially hesitant about having an openly gay rabbinical student; the fact that I had not yet mentioned my sexuality to that community, but rather had been outed by my predecessor is a whole other story. I wrote that over the two years I served there, we grew to form an incredible relationship, and that I hoped to have shifted his perspective if only a small amount.

The story I told for my personal statement was met with a resounding and near universal opposition. I was told that it foregrounded my sexuality too much: It showed me as “the gay rabbi” more than “Ari who is gay”…and also holds many other identities and traits, of equal value and import. While this is certainly true, it felt strange to hear from – mostly straight – friends, colleagues, and teachers that it would behoove me to “tamp down the gay.” In a recent article in Slate.com, gay writer J. Bryan Lowder lamented how some public figures have taken to coming out by stating that being gay is only but one small part of who they are, not their whole essence. Lowder believes, as do I, that this emphasis diminishes the value of coming out and acting as a role model to fellow LGBT people.

As I round the bases towards my eventual finishing of this program, I have no more answers to that quandary than I did when I started. I think sometimes you just have to be a halutz, taking the lonely road for the sake of those who will one day follow. It can be challenging, but at least it creates some pretty great stories.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 30, 2014

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Ari the Big Gay Rabbinical Student: On Navigating Two Challenging Identities

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.

Ari NavehHaving 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.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 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