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.
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Deciding to become a rabbi is a momentous decision. For a gay man, the decision is even more fraught. In the first of this two part-series, Ari Naveh provides an intimate look at his decision-making process for picking a rabbinical school.
In 2006, after years of debate, arguments, and failed attempts, the Conservative Movement (finally) voted to allow the admission of openly gay students into their flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.
Among the ‘liberal’ seminaries—including Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College—JTS was the last to make such a decision, and the vote was met in most circles with joy, celebration, and the feeling of great relief. Now openly gay prospective rabbinical students who were raised in the Conservative Movement, or who found meaning in its tenets, could learn to become its leaders in the hallowed halls of the world-renowned and historically impressive institution.
Having known that my life’s ambition was to attend rabbinical school in some capacity, the JTS decision was monumental for me. While I was raised in the Reform Movement, I felt drawn to many of the tenets of Conservative Judaism. It was incredibly heartening to know that I now had the full breadth of non-Orthodox options available to me.
But, when it came time to take that next step and apply to rabbinical school in 2008, I couldn’t shake that low-level feeling of unwelcomedness at JTS. With the decision only two years old, being an openly gay rabbinical student at JTS still seemed fraught with a sizeable number of complications.
Did I want to be a halutz (pioneer) for the Conservative Movement, gaining the notoriety and the fame—or perhaps infamy—as one of the first openly gay students in their seminary?
Was I comfortable with carrying that weight on my shoulders, along with all of the academic—and halakhic—requirements?
On the one hand, being a student at JTS was an opportunity to be a role model to many, showing bravery in the face of a slowly changing institution in specific, and a society in general. On the other hand, it seemed lonely.
What kind of community would I be able to foster if I was among the only gay students there? To whom could I turn for support? I weighed those options heavily and realized that loneliness could not beat out bravery. I chose to attend Hebrew Union College, which had a strong history of LGBT inclusion, having welcomed their first gay seminarians way back in 1990. I did not—and do not—regret my decision, as I felt it right to honor my Movement, and join what I thought could be a great and vibrant cohort of openly LGBT students.
Now, almost six years later, I reflect on my decision often. JTS’s momentous decision in 2006 opened the door for many, and demonstrated a change in the tide. While my path ultimately took me to Hebrew Union College and the Reform Movement, seeing the Jewish community opening and redefining the notion of inclusion made rabbinical school that much safer for me.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Check out today’s powerful and brave post on The Canteen from David Furman, who reflects on coming out and his world at Summer camp. If you’re struggling with how to come out, be sure to check out some of Keshet’s resources and stories of coming out on our blog.
I first thought that I might be different when I was in sixth grade. I went to Jewish day school, and I was horribly bullied for being different. My reaction was to revel in the negative attention, to try to act like I liked it…it was the only way I knew to fit in. My only friends were two girls. And by friends, I mean they were willing to hang out with me at school, and we talked on the phone a couple times. Not a couple times a week – a couple of times. One day at school, these girls asked me who my crush was, but I had never really thought about it before. When I started to think about it, I realized it was Danny. I was confused, so I just stuffed it down and lied to make it easier. I said it was one of them.
Years later when I was seventeen, I was searching for something to connect to, a place to feel comfortable. A friend in USYconvinced me to work at Camp Solomon Schechter for the summer. I was hesitant, but I figured, why not? At Jewish camp, I found the home I had been searching for, the acceptance I had been longing for. People loved me, no matter what. In the worst of times, Schechter was my refuge. I would always look forward to summer, for moments of serenity and happiness. I have worked at camp every summer since, and as of four years ago, I work there full time (my dream job).
Let me introduce myself. My name is David Furman, and I am the Assistant Director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. And I am gay. I came out one month ago at twenty-nine years old. And I came out on Facebook, so the whole world would know. (I didn’t tell a single person before I posted it on Facebook…scary!)
So why now? And why Facebook?
When I was 21, I came out as transgender and identified as a boy. Simultaneously I also came out as frum. At the same time that I began binding, I began wearing tzitzit. I took on a name I had used with friends in high school while also taking on the obligation of t’filah. I asked people to use the pronouns he/his and him when referring to me and when I was bestowed aliyot at shul, I made sure the gabbai said Simcha ben Rachel Dvorah v’Eben instead of Simcha bat.
After over a decade of feeling uncomfortable in Jewish ritual spaces despite my desire to nurture my neshama (soul), I realized how large a role gender identity played in my ability to move within Jewish spaces in general.
When I moved to Brooklyn six years ago, I sought out different entrances into Jewish community. Upon attending a prospective members’ gathering at a local Conservative shul with my then-partner, I was unexpectedly met with confusion from established members. Addressing my cis-female (i.e. not transgender) partner, a middle-aged man asked “Is this your brother?” referring to me. He was reading me through heterosexual and cis-gender eyes, or from his assumptions about the world as a straight and cis-man. Instead of appearing to him as I was, a 23-year-old queer person with his partner, the middle-aged man rendered me a teenager tagging along with his older sister.
One shabbes whilst attempting to mingle with members of the same shul, I struck up conversation with a middle-aged straight couple. “Where does your family live?” they asked. Slightly confused, I responded that my parents are in Boston but that my brother lives around the corner. After a few more questions with the kind of subtle condescension adults normally intone when speaking to children, they asked if I had ever met Ari. I knew Ari to be a young boy of about twelve who attended the shul with his father. I looked at them perplexed as to why they felt I needed to meet a child. “No,” I said. “I don’t know Ari.” As I endured this well-meaning couple introducing me to Ari before taking leave to talk to other adults, I realized they had read me as belonging to Ari’s peer group.
While I wasn’t turned off from attending the shul’s services, further similar interactions did alienate me from attempting to participate in their community.
Over the two years I vigorously navigated frumkeit as a transgender person I tried various community settings from black sheep Orthodox to suburban chavurah and found the assumption, and often, the law of the gender binary, cis-gender experience and heterosexuality overwhelming. Too overwhelming. Eventually I found it easier to just daven (pray) and carry out mitzvot alone. A position contrary to the intention and spirit of Judaism.
Later still, I chose to depart from frumkeit and Jewish community altogether. Instead I invested my energy into Brooklyn’s radical queer community and found deeply restorative reflections of myself in others. In my newfound circle I was met with more mochin d’gadlut, more expanded consciousness, than I had ever found in a Jewish community. Instead of battling continuous streams of assumptions and straight-tinted goggles, I experienced the possibility of community constantly working on creating awareness of the many different kinds of plights people deal with every day.
Three years ago I helped found the transgender and Jewish band Schmekel (I play drums). The project combines Jewish and punk sounds with Jewish and queer topics. Through Schmekel I have found an entrance into Jewish community on my terms. Performing and talking about the occupation of two currently divergent identities has helped in manifesting a union. In turn, Schmekel has manifested community. This became glaringly obvious to me at an early show we played on the first floor of a queer house. Our last song of the night was New Men with Old Man Names, a celebratory tune intended to poke fun at our transmasculine friends who selected dated appellations like Harvey, Enoch and Amos. The song ends with Hava Nagilah. As we reached the point of launching into the classic Jewish tune, the already packed room made up of mostly queer Jews erupted into a frenzied mosh-hora-pit. As I furiously banged out a two-step, the floor bounced beneath me and the crowd shouted along with such ruach (spirit), I couldn’t distinguish my lead singer’s voice from that of the spontaneous community that had formed in front of me.
Whenever we play the kitschy and beloved Hora song, the always mostly queer crowd instinctively leads us through as if unleashing a lifetime’s worth of alienation around a tradition so profoundly loved. It is from this place that I have begun to pick up the pieces of the emunah (faith) my neshama intrinsically makes home in.
Read an interview with members of the band Schmekel here.
Every June people across the world celebrate LGBTQ Pride. As LGBTQ Jews and allies, we are proud of our own identities and those of our loved ones. Whether you are looking for a Pride Shabbat service, a fabulous Jewish sign to hold in a Pride Parade, or just want some inspiration, you’ve come to the right place!
Visit our Pride Events page for a list of Jewish LGBTQ Pride events happening across the United States (and a few in Canada too!) this June.
Download your own Pride posters, stickers, and a graphic to help you celebrate and show your pride!
III. Sermons and D’vrei Torah
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Alex Carter sees the beauty of the delicate ecosystem of the Biblical wilderness – and in the unique queer culture we’re in danger of losing.
This week’s parsha, B’midbar, begins, as many parshiyot begin, with the words, “G-d spoke to Moses…” But this week, it specifies that G-d spoke to Moses “in the wilderness of Sinai…” It continues with a census of the men of military age, and with a description of how the tribes were to be arranged in the camp and for marching through the wilderness. Each tribe was placed in relation to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was at the center of the community at all times.
But I want to focus on the very first line – “G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai….” Continue reading
I’ve never been one to have high expectations. I tend to take situations as they come and to be spontaneous in my decision making. That being said, I didn’t have any idea what I was in for as I stepped out of van and onto the cold snowy ground of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut this January.
Maybe I was subconsciously hoping the sky would be teeming with a myriad of rainbows, the clouds would part, and beautiful, teenage, gay women would fall from the sky, dancing to the hora and studying Torah.
Well, that didn’t happen. However, the weekend Keshet had in store for me and other LGBTQ Jewish youth at the second LGBTQ Jewish Teens and Allies Shabbaton was equally as magical.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Kerrick Lucker discusses how LGBT Jews can examine their own behavior, and learn to treat one another more justly.
It’s one thing to break down barriers of oppression. It’s quite another to build up a community of shared liberation. This is what Moses and the People of Israel are learning in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Mishpatim.
A shared sense of community sometimes arises naturally out of shared oppression, but when liberation happens – and we start to experience the brisk wind of real freedom – that sense of community often quickly dissolves. Freedom is hard work. Self-governance is hardest of all. People under the yoke of oppression seldom think about this in the face of all of freedom’s obvious benefits, but oddly enough, once you’re out in the desert and having to find your own food and make your own laws and mediate your own conflicts, there can be a strange yearning for the old days in mitzrayim, the narrow place. Continue reading
The Internet has proven to be a powerful resource for the LGBTQ community, and especially so for those members who are more isolated by their communal affiliation or religious practices. Blogs, websites, and listservs help connect LGBTQ Jews, especially Orthodox and other traditional Jews, who struggle deeply to reconcile belief, community, and identity. Here, we give you a brief roundup of blogs by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Orthodox Jews. These voices remind us that queer Jews come in every stripe of practice, affiliation, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and these blogs reminds queer Jews everywhere that no one is alone.
A Gay Orthodox Jew
Ely Winkler’s thoughtful chronicle of reconciling his Jewish and gay identities.
It’s Like Disapproving of Rain
A gay woman writes about encountering — and countering — homophobia at the Shabbos table, along with her journey to embrace herself, and her desire to have a nice, traditional Jewish family…with another nice Jewish girl by her side.
Gotta Give ‘Em Hope
Chaim Levin grew up Lubavitch Hasidic Orthodox in Crown Heights, Brooklyn New York and was often bullied as a kid. After being thrown out of yeshiva after admitting his attraction to men, undergoing “reparative therapy,” and attempting suicide, he finally emerged a proud gay Jewish man. These are his musings. Continue reading