I spend my workdays gathering and leveraging financial resources for grassroots community organizers and artists working at the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial and economic justice. As a fundraiser at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I am a professional queer.
One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get to sit with people who have been supporting lesbian feminist organizing in the U.S. for twenty or thirty years and hear the stories they tell. The people I meet have often gone on incredible journeys of lost or compromised employment, complicated family relationships, losing and finding faith communities, geographic relocation, all while navigating feelings of being simultaneously privileged in some ways and oppressed in others.
Hearing stories from these community members has made me reflect a lot on mine. And, the donors often wrap up their tales with a request to know how I ended up sitting across from them. I don’t have just one story, or course, but every version I have ever found myself telling comes down to this: I am a queer activist because I am a Jew.
I was raised in an affluent community with a big Jewish population, high levels of education, and almost no Republicans. My synagogue prided itself–and still does–on providing shelter every night for eight homeless men, five nights a week, for most of the year. My Jewish community emphasized a set of social justice values: standing up for and standing with your neighbor who is oppressed, questioning authority, and supporting impoverished people in and around your community.
We were taught that we could not allow our current and unprecedented level of acceptance by wider American society to trump our understanding of what it means for a community to be powerless in the face of systemic oppression. We were taught that as Jews it was our job to fight for a more just and whole world.
That is the context into which I came out: not a community without homophobia, but one in which I knew that I would have access to a higher set of principles if and when incidents of homophobia happened.
A year after telling my family and friends that I “liked girls,” I went to a weekend advocacy training for teens in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The training included optional issue briefings on sexuality-based employment discrimination, hate crimes, and funding for AIDS research. That weekend, which ended with a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for the issues we cared about at our legislators’ offices, was my first experience publicly arguing for LGBT rights. It happened not only in a Jewish context but because my Jewish community was committed to teaching its young people how to fight for the causes we cared about.
After I came out of the closet, I had gone looking for other LGBTQ people my age besides the ones at school, and when I found them, it turned my world upside-down.
The teens I met at the LGBT Community Center’s drop-in program had life experiences totally different from mine, and those differences broke over and over again along racial and economic lines. I met people who had been kicked out of their homes because they were gay, threatened with violence over their gender presentation, suspended from school when they defended themselves against homophobic violence, and harassed regularly by police. I became intensely aware of how my white privilege and wealthy background had not only shielded me from experiencing similar things, but from even knowing those things were possible.
Getting involved in a multiracial, cross-class, queer community had attuned me to types of injustice I had never before noticed, and growing up in a justice-minded Jewish community meant I could not just stand by and watch.
Six months after my trip to Washington D.C., I marched in the streets of Manhattan in memory of Matthew Shepard, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, calling for an end to anti-gay hate crimes and to racist police violence–and the people I walked with were Jews I had met in D.C. and queer people I had met at the Center.
I was raised by a community less than two generations removed from violence at the hands of the state in the old country. My community still remembered facing discrimination at the hands of landlords, employers, and colleagues here in what was supposed to be the Goldene Medine (or golden county). Despite this history, my community remained committed to a notion that a more whole world was possible with enough human effort and determination.
My Jewish community taught me that we all have important work to do to bring justice, and that while the work might be difficult, it was neither impossible nor negotiable. I am deeply fortunate to have the cushions of economic security, a high-quality education, and an incredibly supportive family that are unavailable to many LGBTQ people. My Judaism teaches me that my access to those buffers is precisely what must compel me to fight for those who don’t have them.
Like this post?
At Keshet we know how important it is to provide diverse resources for families. Last year we worked with author Elisabeth Kushner to create the first Jewish themed picture book featuring an LGBT family, The Purim Superhero. When we heard that S. Bear Bergman, Jewish educator, author, and storyteller, was creating an LGBTQ2S-themed book club, we knew we needed to learn more. Read on to get the scoop on the Flamingo Rampant Book Club, which features picture books for 4-8 year olds. Joining the book club means you’ll receive six books throughout the year. Bear is currently raising funding to support the project.
What was your inspiration for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
The truth is I was reading to Stanley, my four-year-old one night before bed. We had some new LGBTQ2S themed picture books, which my husband, who’s an expert on the topic, had ordered. These were out of print or from small publishers. Stanley asked if we could read the new books, and I said “sure, why not?” But every single one of them contained really difficult, extended descriptions of bullying. We read a couple, but eventually he looked at me and said, “I don’t want this anymore. I don’t like these bully stories.”
And all of a sudden I started thinking: “What are we sending our kids to bed with? What are the last images and stories that we’re offering them to carry into their dreams?”
The books we’d just read were fairly horrible–I mean, everything turned out all right in the end. But the descriptions of bullying we’re so substantial, they almost seemed like manuals for taunting, ostracization, and harassment. I’m a writer, and a lecturer; I do a lot of work around questions of gender and sexual orientation and I have for more than two decades. I am fortunate to be married to a guy who, among his many sterling personal qualities, is an expert on creating celebratory and inclusive classrooms for people of all genders and sexual orientations.
The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club include full stories of people of color written by people of color. Why was this important for you?
My family, which includes my chosen family, is fairly racially diverse and certainly diverse in terms of genders and sexual orientations. And my artistic community, ditto. We really wanted books that represented the world in which we actually live, and we also wanted to contribute positively to the experiences of families of color–especially LGBTQ2S families of color. At the moment, there are–as far as we know–only three or four books anywhere at all that feature lesbian or gay or bi or trans families that are anything other than white.
The industry average for representations of people of color in children’s books in 7%. To me, that’s a really shameful number. The prevailing wisdom within publishing directly mirrors the inequalities that already exist in our society–girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Parents will buy books featuring white children or families for their Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children, but white parents won’t buy books featuring Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children or families for their white children. The result of all this is that the overwhelmingly majority of picture books center on white children; mostly boys.
So much of LGBTQ literature for kids focuses on stories of overcoming bullies and challenges centering on their (or their families) LGBTQ identity. The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club take a different approach–how has this shifted the narrative of the book club?
There are so many other things to talk about! That’s the thing that I find so bewildering. Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome. Flamingo Rampant Book Club’s mandate is positive representations. If people really feel that they urgently require a book that is about bullying in order to bring some realism, there are plenty of books for them already.
If a family isn’t LGBTQ, is this the right book club for them?
Absolutely. This book club is a good fit for any family regardless of sexual orientation, gender, family size or style, race, ethnicity that wants their children to grow up with positive messages about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queerer, or gender-independent people. That’s all that’s required. Whether your family knows LGBTQ2S people or not, these books all center around a story. So there’s plenty to hold the attention of a young person, and plenty of opportunity to open up conversations about issues of gender or sexual orientation without it seeming abstract, or like it’s coming out of nowhere. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who does a lot of work and writing around parenting and spirituality and was an early supporter of Flamingo Rampant’s first project, told us that her favorite thing about those books was that they gave her a way to talk to her children about gender roles that was based on something they had just positively experienced together.
I also got the following email recently from a friend, who had just received it from their friend:
Do you remember the book you gave [our daughter]–The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy about Transgender children? We had a friend visit who is trans and we read the book to [our daughter] so she could better understand who [our friend] is. [Our daughter] got very excited after I read the book to her, saying ” so [our friend] used to be a girl and now he is a boy” I said yes and then she said very happily: “so that means Fairies are real” That’s life with a four-year-old.
What has surprised you during this process?
Honestly, I have been surprised at how many people have marginalized this series as something that would only be of interest to LGBTQ2S parents and families. Of course, it’s lovely to have affirming books to show our children that represent our family and family like ours. But my kid sees positive images of families like ours every day-he lives in one! Think about the child who doesn’t get any specifically positive images of LGBTQ2S families. That kid is left with whatever filters through from media, and whatever kids say on the playground. I hope progressive, feminist parents will also recognize this book series a powerful tool for positive change in their families, schools, libraries and so on.
What’s next for you and for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
Well, the next 20 days will be devoted to getting enough people to sign-up that we can make this project happen. If 450 families don’t sign up for subscriptions, or if we don’t get the equivalent in funding, then there will be no books for anyone. So right now, I’m hustling to make sure we get the most media exposure that we can manage to make sure that the message reaches as far as I can get it to reach. After that, a nice nap. And after that, I’ll be doing some dates with the Jewish Book Council this year to various Jewish Book Festivals across the United States, continuing to perform and lecture at universities and festivals, trying to figure out the kindergarten drop off and pick up schedule, and trying to make some progress on my novel.
Like this post?
Last week I stood in a room full of Jewish leaders who made me hopeful about the future of the Jewish world. These leaders—from 16 Jewish day schools, synagogues, camps, Hillels, and community organizations—came to Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit to study together, discuss LGBT inclusion practices, and create action plans for greater LGBT inclusion within their institutions in the coming year.
These leaders are ready to go beyond acceptance and move towards proactive inclusion, devoting their time and resources to intentionally working to create communities where inclusion is a central value.
I love what one religious school teacher from a Conservative synagogue said when asked what the most significant thing she gained from the day: “Being LGBT friendly is more than welcoming someone with your words—it takes systematic planning on the program and policy levels.”
I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the coming year.
Below are some of our favorite photos from the day—take a look! And check out our full album of photos here.
Learn more about Keshet’s Leadership Project here!
As Pride month comes to a close, we asked a few rabbis to share their thoughts on their own LGBTQ communities. Let us know in the comments, what about inclusion work makes you proud?
DO YOU OFFICIATE AT SAME-SEX MARRIAGES?: Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz
In 2001, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, a prestigious center-city congregation, had fallen on hard times. In three decades membership had fallen from 1,800 households to 300 something. The pulpit was vacant. Career wise, it was a stepping stone to nowhere.
I had been in Miami 25 years, five as associate rabbi at a conventional suburban Reform congregation, 20 as director of the Havurah of South Florida, a progressive outreach program.
I was on sabbatical from the Havurah, considering my next direction, when friends brought me to Temple Israel. I saw a physical plant capable of becoming the great Jewish center South Florida lacked. Within the congregation was a nascent havurah, Ruach, formed by and for the LGBT community.
I began a series of interviews to see if there might be a match between me and the congregation.
One question surprised me, because it was asked by an old-time member. “Rabbi, do you officiate at same-sex marriages?”
I didn’t know what answer he expected. Perhaps he was from the old institution, resentful of the gay intrusion. Perhaps he was a member of Ruach itself. Either way, my answer surprised him and the others around the table.
“It’s easy to do a same-sex marriage,” I said. “The difficulty is same-sex divorce.”
More than a decade before, two women from the Havurah of South Florida had told me they would like to be married. We gathered the Havurah and presented the issue. Ultimately, we realized we couldn’t do a marriage unless we could also do a divorce. It took weeks to prepare durable parties of attorney and other legal documents to protect the union. We also prepared one additional document, an agreement, should there be a separation, to come back to a rabbi for a bill of divorce, to allow the individuals to marry another person, should they choose.
With this work done, we celebrated that marriage.
I described that incident to the interviewing committee.
“With that work done,” I said, “I will surely officiate at a same-sex marriage.”
I got the job.
WHY I’M PROUD: Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin
I am proud of my synagogue, Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, because our members don’t care about whether or not someone is gay or straight, or where they fall on spectrum. It is irrelevant and a non issue when someone walks in our doors. ICCJ is a place where people can flourish in a Jewish community, no matter their sexual orientation.
Looking back ten years ago, before we had any out LGBT members, we created membership forms with spaces for “Adult One” and “Adult Two.” This way if someone who identified as LGBT wanted to join our community, they would feel welcome from the first Shalom.
When I teach, I bring in Jewish LGBT writers, because they are part of the larger Jewish conversation. This way, the shul is a microcosm of the larger Jewish world.
Earlier this month we heard from Jordan Dashow about how having pride in his queer identity meant having pride in his Jewish queer identity. Now Jordan reflects on being a survivor of sexual assault—and how that experience further defines his identity as a proud LGBTQ Jew.
(Trigger warning: This post discusses issues related to sexual violence.)
It is April 2, 2014, over three-and-a-half years after I publicly came out as gay on Facebook. I am in a classroom at Tufts University, not paying as much attention to the professor as I should be, as I contemplate what I had drafted moments before I left for class. My heart is racing. I am staring at my computer screen, full of white and blue pixels, as my hand hovers over my laptop’s touchpad. It feels like the last few years have all been leading up to this moment. I know people will notice. I know they will talk about it. I question whether I should restrict my post so no one on my limited profile—most of the adults I’m friends with—can see it. I hesitate, yet I make my decision. I click the blue button that says “post.” My status, a call for people to attend “It Happens Here” at Tufts, begins: “3.5 years ago I was sexually assaulted at Tufts University.”
Coming out as a survivor of sexual violence has been a difficult process, and in some ways it has been even more difficult than coming out as queer. Whereas our heteronormative society teaches queer people that there is something wrong with us, our society which is steeped in rape culture—a culture that excuses, normalizes, and at times even condones rape—teaches survivors that not only is the sexual assault partially our fault but that we should hide our identities. For me, knowing who I could confide in about my experiences as a survivor was even more difficult than figuring out who I could confide in about my sexuality.
So do I take pride in my identity as a survivor? It seems like an odd question to ask, especially considering the physically, emotionally and psychologically violent experience that comes with that identity. Yet, it is an important question. Too often survivors, like queer individuals, are expected to remain silent about this part of their identity. And I refuse to be silent.
So yes, I am proud. I am not proud of what was done to me, but I am proud of who I am. I am proud of how I have turned my experience into a tool for advocacy. I am proud that in a society that tells me I should shun this identity, I have found a way to embrace it. To own it. To not be ashamed by it. Because, ultimately, even our negative experiences inform who we are.
As I said in my last post, taking pride in your identity is when you no longer only reveal that identity when it is unavoidable but freely offer up that information because you have nothing to be ashamed of. And when it comes to being a survivor, we shouldn’t be the ones who are ashamed. Our assailants should be.
But why even talk about this? It may seem odd to be discussing my identity as a survivor in a post about Jewish queer pride but for me, it could not be any more appropriate. I am writing this post in May, a month after Sexual Assault Awareness Month, although it will be posted during LGBT month. For me, those two months are inextricably linked.
At the end of the day, our identities do not exist in a vacuum. My queer identity is shaped by my identity as a Jewish survivor. My Jewish identity is shaped by my identity as a queer survivor. And my identity as a survivor is shaped by my identity as a queer Jew. I cannot separate these identities from each other nor can I separate them from any of my other identities. The fact of the matter is, I cannot truly have pride in my Jewish queer identity if I do not take pride in my identity as a survivor as well.
So let this LGBTQ Pride month not just be an opportunity for us to take pride in our LGBTQ identities; let it be an opportunity to take pride in all of our oppressed identities. You do not need to love the experiences that gave you those identities or resulted from those identities; however, I do strongly believe that we need to have pride in ourselves, and that is only possible once we reject the stigmas society has put on our oppressed identities and have taken ownership of them for ourselves. So let this LGBTQ Pride month be an opportunity to recognize that all of our identities inform our queer identity, and let’s take pride in that. Because that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Sexual Assault Resources:
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Organization Members are LGBT anti-violence organizations across the country. This list includes organizations listed by state, alphabetically, with support for survivors of sexual assault, partner abuse, and hate violence.
The Network/La Red hotline provides emotional support, information and safety planning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and/or transgender (LGBQ/T) folks, as well as folks in SM/kink and polyamorous communities who are being abused or have been abused by a partner. They also offer information and support to friends, family or co-workers on the issue of domestic violence in LGBQ/T communities. You don’t have to leave or want to leave your relationship to get support. The hotline is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 1-6 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to midnight. Call 617-742-4911 (voice) or 617-227-4911 (TTY).
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: Find “live help for sexual assault victims and their friends and families” at the RAINN national sexual assault online helpline. It is free, confidential, and secure.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
This past Saturday, Keshet Staff Member Joanna Ware joined Temple Hillel B’nai Torah to deliver a d’var Torah on gender justice and gender variance in Jewish text, as well as the effects of transphobia today. We have shared the text of Joanna’s d’var Torah here.
Shabbat Shalom! Thank you to Rabbi Penzner for the invitation to bring some Torah to all of you today. Rabbi Penzner asked me to speak in honor of the other holiday we’re marking today, International Women’s Day, and how it reminds us to work toward gender equality and justice. First though, I want to start with the text we just read.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the first in the book of Leviticus, and it lays out for us a set of laws of ritual, sacrificial preparation. Sacrifices were the ancient Israelite’s way of honoring and nurturing their sacred relationship with the divine. We nurture relationships every day, with our loved ones and with what we understand to be holy and sacred, and while we no longer do so with ritual sacrifices, today prayer, study, mitzvot, acts of loving kindness, and tikkun olam serve as our stand-in for temple sacrifice; our means of nurturing our relationship with God, with Sacredness. What Vayikra reminds us, however, is that this relationship isn’t accidental or happenstance, and that God models for us an expectation of intentionally stepping in to relationship. The opening text of this Parsha, the opening text of the entire book of Leviticus, reads:
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Vayikra al-Moshe, v’yedaber Adonai elav, meyohal mo’ed
And God called out to Moses, and Adonai spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting
We have a curious repetition here in the narrative, first God calls out to Moses, and then God speaks to him. Why both? Rashi teaches that God’s initial calling out to Moses is indicative of a loving relationship, of an invitation into an intentional, purposeful relationship; this text is read in juxtaposition to how God speaks to the prophet Balaam, where we are told that God “happens upon” Balaam; it is accidental rather than intentional. And then? We are taught that God’s relationship with Moses is loving, whereas God’s relationship with Balaam is “impure.” So we have one piece of a model for building loving relationships: act with intention, thoughtfulness, and care. Continue reading
There is no doubt that love is in the air—as a hopeless romantic, Valentine’s Day is a holiday I always want to celebrate. Sure, it’s hard to make an argument for Valentine’s Day as a Jewish holiday, but every holiday can’t be perfect. And the argument that the day has become all about commercialism isn’t lost on me—although I’m willing to forgive any holiday that is accompanied by such fantastic discounts on chocolate. The day isn’t perfect, but it gives us an opportunity to think about love—and think about how to celebrate love.
As a wedding photographer, I’m part of many couples’ celebrations of love. If you think navigating the ins and outs of Valentine’s Day shopping is complicated, you should try planning a wedding. To say a lot goes into it is an understatement—and as the photographer, I need to know it all. Where—and when—will you be singing the ketubah? What is the story behind your chuppah? Will there be a tish or a bedekn? Will you both be stepping on the wine glass? The questions go on and on.
Last week, perhaps inspired by pervasive and inescapable Valentine’s Day decorations, I sat down with a few of my wedding planning forms. The forms ask all of the questions—the whens, the wheres, the whos, the hows, and the whats. My forms, which were passed on to me by others in the business, ask some pretty basic questions, like “What will the bride be wearing?,” or, “When will the groom head to the ceremony site?” Over the course of the past few years, I’ve updated forms to meet the needs of my couples. Now, I no longer have a “one size fits all” form, but instead one for a bride and groom, a groom and groom, and a bride and bride.
As the number of states legalizing gay marriage continues to rise, I’ve seen more and more wedding photographers figuring out how to update their contracts and forms. Even though it seems like a small detail, the forms that wedding professionals use help to set the tone. When I sat down with my forms last week, I made the decision to update to one single gender neutral form—one that refers to the couple simply as “the couple,” and asks for details regarding “partner one” and “partner two.” While I want my wedding couples to feel as if every detail of their process is customized to their specific needs, I also want to set a tone of inclusion—making it clear that I welcome couples that fall into any and all gender categories.
When we celebrate love, we should be celebrating inclusion. So, should your Valentine’s Day plans tomorrow night lead you to the chuppah, here’s to a celebration that welcomes everyone.
If you’re looking for more information on Jewish clergy and institutions dedicated to inclusion, check out Keshet’s Equality Guide.
Silence and lies. These are your choices when you’re in the closet. When your friends start talking about crushes, hot celebrities, sex—do you stay silent? Or do you lie? Do you stay silent and hope your friends won’t notice? Do you lie and hope your friends aren’t laughing in their heads because they somehow discovered the truth?
Life in the closet is a play, and it’s up to you when the curtains close.
For me, that moment came my freshman year at Tufts University. It was several days into the community service pre-orientation I had signed up for, FOCUS (Freshman Orientation CommUnity Service), and my FOCUS family—as our group of 8 freshman and 2 leaders were called—had just gotten falafel for dinner. A group of us were talking with one of my FOCUS leaders, and the topic of sexuality came up. Discussing a Jewish friend of hers, my FOCUS leader remarked how she felt that there weren’t that many gay Jews out there.
Suddenly, time slowed down in my head. Was this the moment I would finally talk about my sexuality publicly? I had known going into Tufts that I was going to “skip” the coming out process as much as possible. I had already told my family and my best friend and I didn’t want to come out afterwards in the traditional sense. I wanted to go to Tufts as someone who was out and let everyone else just find out (it’s much easier than it sounds when you had a graduating class of 48—word travels fast). But now that the perfect moment had presented itself, I hesitated.
And then I spoke: “As someone who’s both gay and Jewish…” The rest of the sentence didn’t matter; from there on out, I was out.
Being out in college was not like I expected. While you’re in the closet, your sexual orientation becomes one of your most important identities; yet when I came out at Tufts, in many ways, my sexual orientation became inconsequential. Tufts is not only queer-friendly but has a lot of queer students. I was no anomaly and people’s sexual orientation was just another characteristic among hundreds of others.
Even at Hillel, my sexual orientation was not only accepted but embraced. After attending a Jewish Day School for 13 years where there was no support for queer students, “that’s so gay” was thrown around daily, and homophobic remarks often times went unchallenged, it was a pleasant surprise to find a Jewish community that not only welcomed queer students but even had programming focusing on the intersection of Judaism and queerness. This past spring, I was elected as president of Tufts Hillel, adding to a sizable list of queer Jewish Hillel presidents at Tufts.
As great as my experience has been overall, there are still moments where I am reminded that Tufts is not as queer friendly as it may sometimes seem. Last year, Tufts passed a new policy allowing religious groups to apply for exemptions from our non-discrimination policy when selecting their leadership criteria, consequently allowing religious groups to forbid queer students from running for leadership positions.
In addition, while my experience overall at Tufts has been great, it’s always important to remember that unfortunately, the queer friendly atmosphere at Tufts is not a microcosm of the larger United States. I was reminded of this just last year, when I returned to New York right after a string of high profile anti-gay hate crimes. My Tufts gay pride and “I like Pro-Choice Boys” pins, which normally adorn my book bag during the year, were, consequently, no longer on my bag when I arrived in NY for break.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be out in college in a safe and overall welcoming community. As my senior year comes to an end in the spring I hope to take the queer-friendly atmosphere I have found here and work to make it a reality wherever I live.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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.
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.
Deciding to become a rabbi is a momentous decision. For a gay man, the decision is even more fraught. In the first of this two part-series, Ari Naveh provides an intimate look at his decision-making process for picking a rabbinical school.
In 2006, after years of debate, arguments, and failed attempts, the Conservative Movement (finally) voted to allow the admission of openly gay students into their flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.
Among the ‘liberal’ seminaries—including Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College—JTS was the last to make such a decision, and the vote was met in most circles with joy, celebration, and the feeling of great relief. Now openly gay prospective rabbinical students who were raised in the Conservative Movement, or who found meaning in its tenets, could learn to become its leaders in the hallowed halls of the world-renowned and historically impressive institution.
Having known that my life’s ambition was to attend rabbinical school in some capacity, the JTS decision was monumental for me. While I was raised in the Reform Movement, I felt drawn to many of the tenets of Conservative Judaism. It was incredibly heartening to know that I now had the full breadth of non-Orthodox options available to me.
But, when it came time to take that next step and apply to rabbinical school in 2008, I couldn’t shake that low-level feeling of unwelcomedness at JTS. With the decision only two years old, being an openly gay rabbinical student at JTS still seemed fraught with a sizeable number of complications.
Did I want to be a halutz (pioneer) for the Conservative Movement, gaining the notoriety and the fame—or perhaps infamy—as one of the first openly gay students in their seminary?
Was I comfortable with carrying that weight on my shoulders, along with all of the academic—and halakhic—requirements?
On the one hand, being a student at JTS was an opportunity to be a role model to many, showing bravery in the face of a slowly changing institution in specific, and a society in general. On the other hand, it seemed lonely.
What kind of community would I be able to foster if I was among the only gay students there? To whom could I turn for support? I weighed those options heavily and realized that loneliness could not beat out bravery. I chose to attend Hebrew Union College, which had a strong history of LGBT inclusion, having welcomed their first gay seminarians way back in 1990. I did not—and do not—regret my decision, as I felt it right to honor my Movement, and join what I thought could be a great and vibrant cohort of openly LGBT students.
Now, almost six years later, I reflect on my decision often. JTS’s momentous decision in 2006 opened the door for many, and demonstrated a change in the tide. While my path ultimately took me to Hebrew Union College and the Reform Movement, seeing the Jewish community opening and redefining the notion of inclusion made rabbinical school that much safer for me.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.