Tag Archives: queer community

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?

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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

Finding a Space to Feel Safe & Accepted: The Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton

One day at synagogue, my friend excitedly came up to me, and asked me to come to the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton with her. Now, I had no idea what she meant, but she went on to explain that is a weekend retreat for queer Jewish teens. It sounded cool, and she was really excited, so I said “sure, I’d go.”

Alex KohlI never expected what I’d find there. I identify as bisexual. I’ve never been particularly shy about anything, including my sexuality, but I never paraded it.

The phrase “I’m bisexual” always came out of my mouth as quietly as possible.

Most of my friends know, and the ones who don’t know because it just hasn’t come up. I’ve met a few people who have had issues with it—I’ve been told I’m “not natural” and that “being homophobic isn’t any worse than being homosexual”—but overall, most people I’ve met have been great about it.

However, at the Shabbaton, among a community of Jewish teens, people weren’t just accepting of my sexuality—they embraced it.

I was surrounded by people with every gender and sexuality under the sun, and I loved it. One of the aspects of being bisexual is that biphobia isn’t just a phenomenon among homophobic heterosexuals—I’ve experienced biphobia from members of the LGBTQ+ as well, including the statement “so you’re not really queer.”

At the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, for the first time, I felt truly safe and completely accepted.

Safe is a word that gets tossed around a lot—a safe environment, a safe space, etc.—but that’s because having a space where you feel truly safe is a vital aspect to being human.

And regarding my sexuality, my safe space had been a few people here and there. But at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, I found a whole community who embraced me with arms wide open.

Giving Tuesday 2014That’s why I send rainbow-themed pictures to the friends I made on the Shabbaton. And why, when my female friend suggested wearing a tie and slacks to the next Shabbaton, I nodded enthusiastically.

And why, whenever I say the phrase “I’m bisexual,” I say it loudly.

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Posted on December 2, 2014

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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.

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Posted on November 26, 2014

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Why I’m Passionate about Transgender Justice

If you’re in Boston, please join us for Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 23rd at 2:30pm in John F Kennedy Park. After, we will join the wider Boston community in the 16th Annual Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Kathryn-200x224

As the Boston Community Organizer at Keshet, I’ve been working with community members on a Jewish observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance. A few weeks ago I sat down for an early morning meeting with Simcha, the Community Organizer at Boston Workmen’s Circle who is also gender queer.

Over the steam of my small cup of coffee the question “why are you so passionate about transgender justice work?” floated in my direction. It was a question I had been mulling for quite some time, but I had never quite found the answer.

I began to offer up some semblance of an answer: “Well, it all started in college. I had a lot of transgender friends. I witnessed what they had to deal with, and it wasn’t fair.”

I knew that wasn’t quite the answer, after all those words were about my friends and not about my stake in this work.

I pushed myself to find the real answer. Why am I so passionate about transgender justice work?

Fighting for transgender rights is fighting for the right to move beyond the boxes of “man” and “woman.”

I fight for folks who do not fit in either box or want to be in a different box. And, in doing that work I had to think about my own gender and what box I fit into. Here are a few of my boxes:

  • I enjoy cooking.
  • I don’t walk home alone in the dark.
  • I bless Shabbat candles.
  • I speak up in board meetings.
  • I don’t pretend I never fart.
  • I’ve wrapped Tefillin.

I don’t fit squarely into the “woman” box, and yet, I feel every bit like a woman. My blessing of Shabbat candles, a mitzvah typically reserved for women, does not at all feel at odds with when I wrapped Tefillin, a mitzvah typically reserved for men.

And, that’s when it struck me.

Doing transgender justice work was for me. When I fight for those who very obviously transgress the lines of gender, I am also fight to expand the walls of my very box. Trans* work is gender work and gender work is for all of us.

This year we mark Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston on Sunday, November 23. I invite you to come do gender work for the community, but just as importantly for yourself.

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Posted on November 21, 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

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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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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.

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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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Sukkot: A Time (and Place) for Welcoming

When  joined the Boston Jewish community in the Keshet Sukkah this past week, she shared her thoughts on what it means to be welcoming. Earlier this month Kat shared her coming out story, reflecting on what it means to be a queer Jew-by-choice finding a space where she felt welcomed in the Jewish community. 

Kathryn gets into the welcoming spirit with her sukkah decorations.

Kathryn gets ready for the holiday.

Welcoming is something I think a lot about as I work as the Boston Community Organizer for Keshet, where my goal is to make the Jewish world a more welcoming place for queer folks. I think Sukkot has two special things to teach us about what it means to be welcoming.

1. The first is that we need to be visibly welcoming. Sukkot is different from other holidays because nearly all the barriers to entry are eliminated. There are no tickets and really no need for invitationinstead we construct a sukkah outside of our home that any passerby can see and enter.

How often does this barrier-free welcome actually occur in our community? Even before my time at Keshet I would talk with leaders at organizations that would say their organization were completely welcoming, but when I asked how they let people know about their welcoming policies, they wouldn’t have much of an answer. In the same way folks avoid inviting themselves over for dinner, welcome isn’t assumed. Instead an invitation needs to be extended and standing welcomes need to be made continually visible.

2. The second piece Sukkot teaches us about welcoming is based in the tradition that we are supposed to live in our huts. Sukkahs are cute and festive but I’ve never really heard them described as cozy and comfortable. Being truly welcoming involves a little discomfort. I have yet to meet someone who is turning their sukkah into their new tiny house and that’s with good reason.

Last week, I caught Rich, Keshet’s Director of Finance and Administration, peering out one of the windows in our office to check how heavy the wind was, getting worried that his sukkah at home might blow over. Sukkahs have patchy roofs and flimsy walls that won’t do much to protect you from the elements. They make for uncomfortable living. Like living the discomfort of a sukkah, outsiders bring difference and the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable. But I’ve always found that places of agitation and discomfort are often the most fertile ground for growth.

Sukkot teaches us that to be truly welcoming we need to make ourselves visible and we need to push ourselves to be a little uncomfortable to make room for a wider welcome.

So the questions I’ll leave you with are these: In what way are you pushing yourself to be little uncomfortable in order to make room for others?  And…in what ways are you making your welcome visible?

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Posted on October 13, 2014

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Ask Asher: Coming Out

Have a question about LGBTQ life? Jewish life? LGBTQ Jewish Life? Ask Asher! Send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org and you might be featured in our next column. And, check out Keshet’s resources for National Coming Out Day!

Dear Asher,
National Coming Out Day is this month, what advice do you have for someone who wants to come out? I’m ready, but…. I’m also not ready. Eeek!
Sincerely,
Closeted for Now

comingoutFINALDear Closeted for Now,
How exciting for you to be thinking about coming out!  My advice about coming out of the closet has always been: if coming out poses no physical or financial threat to you, you should do it as soon as possible.

What that means is, if you are worried you may become a target of violence, or may lose your job or get kicked out of your home, you should either wait until those circumstances change or take the necessary steps to change them before coming out. That said, it doesn’t sound like you are in any real danger, and are actually just nervous, which is totally legitimate.

Coming out can be a bit daunting to many people, but the best way to think about it is to approach it as a process, not a singular action. You may choose to come out to everyone at the same time in some very loud and fabulous way, but I think the better method is to do it gradually. Tell a close friend or relative. Then, tell another, and so on and so forth. Each time you open up to someone, it will become easier. Eventually, it will be hard to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t, and then you’ll just be out.

One important thing to remember: people will talk to each other. If you are truly afraid of certain people finding out, you may not be ready to come out, as it is not right or fair to bring other people into your closet by telling them that they absolutely cannot tell anyone about your secret. Of course, you may request that your friends and family keep it to themselves for now, but don’t be surprised when they don’t. Another piece of advice—keep a journal. I came out 15 years ago (I’m 30 now) and don’t remember what it was like to be closeted and coming out. What I wouldn’t give to have had that entire process documented so I could read it now, half a lifetime later…Good luck!

All the Best,
Asher

Dear Asher,
How do I mark National Coming Out Day if I’m already out? I want to be supportive—and I want to celebrate!
Sincerely,
So Out & So Proud

Dear So Out & So Proud,
Good for you for being “So Out & So Proud”—sounds like a good slogan for a T-Shirt or bumper sticker… I’m thinking fuchsia. Seriously, make it happen. There is nothing more important than visibility for the LGBTQ community, so feel free to make yourself as visible as you want!

Also, why not donate a bit of your disposable income to one of those amazing organizations that helps those who are not as fortunate as you are to be So Out and So Proud? Or, depending upon where you live, you could volunteer at a local LGBTQ organization.  There are so many ways to help; just pick one.

That said, I really hope you make a T-Shirt, because that would just be fabulous.

Have Fun,
Asher
P.S.  Send pictures of the T-Shirt.

Dear Asher,
I am an adult gay man, and my little sister just came out to me as a FTM transgender. Of course, I told him I love him and am here for him, but inside a part of me is mourning the loss of the little girl with whom I used to play dress up, and who I took to her first day of kindergarten.

How do you suggest that I honor both him and his transition, without denying my own profound sense of loss?

Sincerely,
My Brother’s Keeper

Dear My Brother’s Keeper,
First of all, it is wonderful that you are making such an effort with your brother. I know that the shift in pronouns (as well as pretty much everything else in our gender-centric world) can be difficult, but it is so important that he feels supported, even if you mess up a lot at first. Eventually, this will all get easier, and you will look back with bewilderment on the days you used female pronouns to describe him. As hard as this transition is for you, imagine how hard it must be for him.

You cannot imagine what this transition is like for him; having a supportive older brother like you is EXACTLY what he needs. And just how you held his hand through the first day of kindergarten, you have the opportunity to hold his hand through this, to look out for him, to protect him, the way you always have.

Instead of seeing his transition as the “loss” of your sister, try to approach it as the “gaining” of a brother.

Your sister is not dead, and your brother shouldn’t ask you to pretend that he wasn’t outwardly identifying as a woman for most of his life. I know I’m going to get a lot of crap for this, but I find it disrespectful when people make others alter their memories because of an identity change.  You should hold onto those memories, especially the meaningful ones, because they helped make you who you are. Your brother should respect those memories the way you remember them, and not ask you to alter them, even if he felt like a boy at the time; he shouldn’t ask you to experience your life through his eyes, just as you shouldn’t ask him to experience his life through yours. So, that said, instead of focusing on the “loss” (and let’s face it, you were never going to take him to another first day of kindergarten, even if he hadn’t transitioned), try to be as present as possible during this important time in his life; it will lead to even more incredible memories, and will further solidify your bond with your brother.

Should all of us be so lucky as to have an older brother like you.

Best of Luck,
Asher

Posted on October 8, 2014

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Everyday I Come Out for my Child

Rabbi Ari Moffic, the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, is a member of the Chicago Chapter of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program, a national leadership and mentorship network of parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews. Want to get involved? Know someone who could use another parent to talk to? Find a chapter, get support, take action. Ari and Tam

Before our child was two we realized that their inclinations, interests, and style for dress fit with the “opposite gender.” Everyone we know had a hypothesis about why this was so. We started down a journey, led by our child, of new language, new specialists, new research that was foreign to us.

As is often the case, our child’s interests lead us to learn about and experience new things. In our case, the very identity our child was affirming brought us into a new realm. I feel that I am coming out every day with this child.

Our children are separate entities from us but are a reflection of us in some ways. Every time we are in public and another mom makes a comment about my child’s dress, or assumes a gender, or looks confused because she thought our youngest was a different gender, I am coming out. That’s all about me and my insecurities and my fears and my still unease at times. Imagine how my five and a half year old must feel.

We have a confident, engaging, happy, wild, full of life, articulate, passionate child. I don’t want to project my stuff onto our child. But I do know, because we have talked about it, and because there have been tears and anger and hurt that my child has felt different, has felt vulnerable, has been embarrassed to be who our child is. Other kids make comments, sometimes daily, about how our child dresses, what our child likes, which pronouns my child asks to use and honor.

As a rabbi married to a rabbi I think we know about the offerings in our Jewish community. However, it was in meeting Joanna Ware at a Jewish conference, that I learned that our own Jewish Child and Family Services had a support group for parents of L,G,B,T,Q children. If I didn’t know this existed, I wonder how many other parents are clueless too.

If there was ever a time to be a gender variant child, now seems to be good. Sprouting up in major cities are gender programs at Children’s Hospitals. Facebook groups and in-person play groups exist. However, there is something different about getting support from our own Jewish community. For me it is comforting, specific, and familiar to be with other Jewish parents on this journey.

Our Response Center, an agency of JCFS, led by the approachable, warm, and knowledgeable Rachel Marro, offers a monthly Parent & Family Connections group in partnership with Keshet. In addition, she offers support as parents mobilize and take action as allies and advocates. Rachel also matches parents with mentors who can serve as one-on-one support through email or in-person to brainstorm everything from school issues to playdates to camp to daily angst and communicating with extended family. There is nothing like talking mom to mom.

Response offered a program lead by Biz Lindsey-Ryan this fall on gender fluidity among children. The program was well attended by both teachers and professionals who work with children as well as parents. Biz taught us about language and terms, she led us in interactive exercises helping us explore our concepts of our own gender and through videos and slides helped us understand how we can help ALL children move beyond binary and strict gender roles to be free to explore and lead however they can without the stigma of limiting and harmful labels.

It was just a thoughtful and helpful program and many in attendance will now look to Biz to come to their schools and synagogues for follow-up conversations. I am thankful that our Jewish community offers these opportunities for connection and learning. The more Jewish professionals know what is offered in their neck of the woods and the more we are willing to talk about the gender elephant in the room, the more we will feel less like hiding and will feel embraced and understood.

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! Like this post? 

Posted on October 7, 2014

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