Tag Archives: queer

Lightness, Darkness, Transition

"Light from the Darkness" was produced by European Southern Observatory (ESO).

“Light from the Darkness” was produced by European Southern Observatory (ESO).

When the winter solstice arrived, we went from the darkest days of the year to a gradual increase of light. Now, as the snow promises to melt and winter is on its way out, the days seem much longer and the darkness much shorter.

Those themes of light and dark usually accompany me in the Spring and, when thinking about light and dark, this story came to mind. It takes place a few winters ago when my grandmother was in the hospital.

The story is not about her passing, but takes place near the end of her life.

My light at that time was my passage into a long awaited physical transition. I was living in Brooklyn and had just starting taking hormones. I was ritually checking my face every morning to see if I magically sprouted a beard overnight and wondering if people would still recognize me—although after 3 months on on hormones, I can say that I looked pretty similar to before I started.

However, I was more masculine presenting and my friends commented on how my energy was shifting. I had come out to most of the people in my life, but had been a little lax on telling relatives.  I only told my grandparents when it felt like I absolutely had to, when I actually started growing a beard. But, that winter wasn’t the right time to tell my grandmother, she was in and out of the hospital and I didn’t want to confuse her.

My lightness was my transition, but my darkness was understanding that my grandmother was at the end of her life.

On a visit home to Boston, my mother and I headed to the hospital during the first few hours of a long, rainy-sleety winter storm. As you may have experienced with sickness or relatives or friends in the hospital, sometimes things move very fast. Although we had just come to visit, complications brought my grandmother into the ER, and my mother and I ended up spending most of the night in the hospital. It was the only place I wanted to be. Living in Brooklyn, it was hard to feel like I was supporting the family through my grandmother’s sickness and being present with my mother felt like a sacred task.

When we were allowed to see my grandmother, I stood by her bedside—and I thought, this must be so bizarre for her, does she see the changes in me? Won’t she be confused by the person she thinks is her granddaughter? We stayed by her bedside while she drifted in and out of sleep, and eventually my anxieties floated away.

When my grandmother started to open her eyes and realize we were sitting next to her, she looked right at me. Her wrinkled hand lifted out of the hospital blankets and pointed (shakily) at me. She said my name quietly.

Growing louder, she shouted, “there’s a stain on your sweater!” As my mother and I tried not to laugh, I looked down and realized there was indeed a stain on my sweater.

I am not sure how much my grandmother understood my transition, but it didn’t matter in that moment. Family is family and as she pointed out, stains are stains. Her comment had provided just the light I needed during that dark night.

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Posted on March 13, 2015

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My Second Trip to the Mikveh

June, 1997, Cincinnati, OH

It was the end of a journey. It was the beginning of a transition. I had spent five intense years of study, learning, mistakes, and growth at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Those years had transformed me from a college prep to a religious leader. (Well, a potential religious leader.) The following day, I would be ordained “Rabbi.” The journey had been difficult, and it was just short of a miracle that I completed all my academic requirements in time for Ordination. I had secured a job as Assistant Rabbi of University Synagogue in Los Angeles. I was exuberant. And I was terrified.

unnamed-2Jews love to mark transition with ritual ceremony. So on this “Erev-S’micha” (day before Ordination), three soon-to-be rabbis joined me on a pilgrimage to the Cincinnati Mikveh. We had decided to prepare texts for group study after individual immersions.

Now the Cincinnati Mikveh is not your glamorous health spa. The space was dark and even a bit moldy at the time. But we had it to ourselves, and we created holy space. I showered, carefully cleaning my body and mind in preparation for immersion. I was nervous and even admittedly embarrassed at the thought of removing my clothes before my colleagues. I waited my turn, and then entered the mikveh chamber.

Standing at the top of the steps, I wanted to enter the mayim-chaim (living waters) slowly and deliberately. I stepped down. The water was lukewarm. Another step. I got goose bumps. Finally, I descended all the way and carefully lifted my feet allowing the river of transformation to fully acknowledge me. And as I recited the Shehechianu, I closed my eyes. Tranquility embraced me.

Soon after, the four of us sat clad in towels, studying Pirkei AvotMidrash, and Commentaries. After discussing the voices of our people, we then shared the texts of our souls. What a beautiful moment it was. We had all come so far. Soon it was my turn.

“You know, “I began, “I was about to say that this was my first time to the mikveh. But I’ve actually immersed once before …”

I continued to relate the story about the day I “came out.”

August, 1994, Great Barrington, MA

It was the summer of 1994, and I was working as an Educator at the UAHC Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I kept myself busy, and I dreaded being alone. For whenever I was alone, I would ask myself, as I had every day of my life since I was sixteen, “Am I gay?

I hated asking that question, and I constantly pushed the answer deep into the canyons of my heart. I could not bear denying the truth any longer. Too many nights without sleep had already tortured my soul. Something had to change. I needed to take a stand. So I arranged a day off with two close friends. I had it all planned out. We would stay up late and engage in a deep conversation.

And I would come out to them.

But things never seem to happen the way we plan.

The three of us left camp in the evening and soon arrived at a country hotel. As they relaxed, my heart began to pound harder and harder. How was I supposed to do this? I wanted so very much for them to ask the question of revelation, as God asked Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Aye-ka (where are you)?” And I wanted to respond with the strength of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah when they shouted, “Hineini! (Here I am!).”

But they never asked. And I never answered. Another sleepless night.

The next day, the three of us drove up through the Berkshires to Pittsfield where we saw a movie. “OK,” I thought, “after the movie we’ll talk.” But after the movie we ate. “OK, after we eat, we’ll talk.” But after that came more excuses. My friends didn’t understand why I was so reclusive. We then drove over to a small lake nestled in the rolling hills of Southwest Massachusetts.

My friends fell asleep in the car. They were bonded. I was apart. And I was jealous. So I got out of the car and walked into the serenity of an August afternoon.

I was alone. And I was a nervous wreck.

But I took a deep breath, and for the first time in my life, as I saw my reflection in the lake, I got myself to say out loud, “I might be a gay man.” I think I said it twice. And as the words lingered on my tongue, an incredible emotion enveloped me.

Just allowing for the possibility that I might be gay released me from those chains of years of denial. I was alone, yet I was no longer afraid of being alone. I undressed, and I entered that lake. And as soon as my head slid beneath her surface, I transformed the lake into a mikveh.

And that mikveh transformed me. It was glorious!

When I finished, I dried myself off, dressed, and got back into the car. I woke up my friends, but didn’t tell them a thing. I didn’t need to anymore. I came out to myself, and that was a big step. Later, in the appropriate time, I would come out to them.

That was my first trip to the mikveh.

 June, 1997, Cincinnati, OH

As I finished my story, my colleagues looked on. I had never before shared that experience.

I had never before even thought to share it. Sure, they knew I was gay. But my account put into perspective that Jewish ritual can sanctify all of life’s passages.

The following day we marched into the historic Plum Street Temple to the call of the shofar. As Hebrew Union College president, Rabbi Shelly Zimmerman, reached out to ordain me with the title of “Rav b’Yisrael,” I said to myself, “Hineini! I am here, and I am ready!”

2001, Los Angeles, CA

While my first trip to the mikveh released me, my second trip to the mikveh transformed me. I haven’t yet immersed a third time. I am waiting for my next life-cycle, which will occur when my life-partner and I stand beneath a huppah in the near future. And yet I am at the mikveh throughout the year, accompanying others who make time to nurture life transitions through Jewish ceremony. Each of them has a story. Each of them has a journey. And each of them has answered the question, “Aye-ka (where are you)?”

Epilogue: 2015, Culver City, CA

Two days before Ron Galperin and I were married in 2002, we immersed as one in the mikveh.

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Posted on March 11, 2015

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On Love and Parenting

This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we are sharing love stories. We kicked things off with a two part series from Aden and his fiance, Josh. Today’s story is one of love and parenthood. If you have a love story for the Keshet blog, let us know!  Celebrate all kinds of love with our queer Jewish Valentines! 

Lonely.
Fear.
Anger.
The Closet.

Hope.
Liberation.
Self-Determination.
Coming Out.

Lust.
Sex.
Love.
Dating.

Commitment.
Community.
Bonding.
Marriage.

Longing.
Questioning.
Exploring.
Dreaming of our family.

Anxiety.
Anticipation.
Joy.
Conception.

Heart pumping.
Adrenaline racing.
Tears streaming.
Birth.

Love.
Love.
Love.
Family.

This is the journey of our lives. Having been together for over 19 years, my husband and I have traveled this wonderful path. If we had only overcome the first stage, dayenu, that would have been enough. Had we only reached just one additional stage thereafter, dayenu, that too would have been enough.

But, we did want more. While we had a very full and blessed life as a couple we knew very early on in our relationship that we shared a mutual desire to have children and create a family. How we would do so remained elusive for several years until we decided to have children via surrogacy.

Lee and his family.

Lee and his family.

Today, we are blessed with two beautiful children, an almost 8-year old son and 4-year old daughter. They are the true joys of our lives. They complete us and we are blessed.

In writing this blog, I was asked to ponder how love and parenthood go hand in hand. So many books have been written. So many stories have been told.  In so many ways I feel inadequate and certainly very humbled trying to articulate my own thoughts and ideas about such an important and awesome emotion and responsibility. Yet, I recognize that with all that has been said in literature, in the press, on social media, so much more needs to be said because the writings of love about LGBT parenting remains under-represented and certainly under constant attack. My husband and I stand in stark contrast to that precept and loudly say that we love our children unequivocally and as wholly and as wholesomely as any loving and devoted parent on the planet.

When I saw my son crawl and then walk, I felt love.

When my daughter gives me a kiss and a hug, I feel love.

When my son performs his piano recital, I feel love.

When my daughter kicks the ball and rides her bike, I feel love.

When my husband and I sit down to Shabbos dinner every Friday night and recite the parental blessings over our children, I feel love.

When I wake my children up in the morning and prepare them for school, make their lunch and put them on the school bus, I feel love.

When my husband puts our children to bed at night, reads them a book, sings a song or lullaby, I feel love.

When they spend time with their cousins, their grandmother, their loved ones, I feel love.

When I pick my children up from Hebrew School and they tell me a story from the Torah that they learned this week, I feel love.

When we roll around the floor, get goofy, make silly noises and have all out belly laughs, I feel love.

Love.

That’s what I feel every day I wake up and look into my children’s eyes.

This is love. This is my love. And no one will tell me otherwise.

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Posted on February 5, 2015

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Will You Travel Through Space and Time with Me?: A Proposal at a Pride Parade

In honor of Valentine’s Day we are sharing love stories this month. We’re kicking things off with a two part series from Aden and his fiance, Josh. We’ve followed Josh’s story since he first came out, and it’s great to see him so in love. Tomorrow we’ll hear Josh’s side of this love story! If you have a love story for the Keshet blog, let us know!  Celebrate all kinds of love with our queer Jewish Valentines! 

I first met Josh when I was on a date with my previous partner.

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A friend of ours had asked if we had wanted to go to a Keshet Shabbat dinner and we obliged. After the service concluded we sat down with a couple of strangers and began talking. I remember telling Josh about my switch from going to school for Unitarian Universalist ministry, and then finding Judaism.

I told him that sometimes, there are things that are unexplainable, that cannot be reasoned, and that is where faith in God begins. As I was leaving the Shabbat dinner that evening, I remember thinking “wow, if I were not with my current partner, I would totally date this guy”.

In April, my relationship of over four years, began to unravel. For the next six months, my ex and I were on and off. During one of our breakups, I had begun online dating, not looking for anything too serious. In early October, we officially ended our four year relationship. I met Josh, again, just a few weeks after.

Our first date was amazing, we talked about the intersection of queer identities and religion. We were so engrossed we walked roughly 5 miles. At the end of our date we sat outside, and I gave him a little kiss on the cheek.

Prior to this I had been in only heteronormative relationships, and was terrified of being perceived as visibly queer. I was afraid to give up any of my privilege that came with being in what was perceived as a normative relationship. Our third date was my conversion ceremony; Rabbi Zecher of Temple Israel of Boston asked how Josh and I knew each other. I hesitantly explained “we’re dating.” I was reluctant to put a label on us that would make this a real relationship.

Despite my best efforts to run, I found myself falling in love with Josh. I loved going to shul with him on Friday nights, debating scripture, and spending holidays with our families.

After six months of dating, I began to look into rings. I tried desperately to talk myself out of this proposition. I had always viewed fast engagements as irresponsible. I could not reason this feeling away. I truly believe that our love is beyond time and beyond reason.

Pride season is Josh’s favorite time of the year. He talks about it in all seasons of the year and usually marches with Keshet. So, one night while out at a bar Josh and his family, listening to Josh’s uncles’ band, I found myself asking Josh’s cousin what she was doing the day of the Pride Parade. I had decided in that moment to go for it and make a proposal during Pride. I gave myself two weeks to buy a ring, plan the proposal, and to ask for his parents’ blessing.

On Saturday, June 14, 2014, Josh and I headed into Boston bright and early to help Keshet set up.  I got down on one knee holding a sign asking Josh to travel through space and time with me, a reference to our favorite show: Doctor Who. Nothing could have ever prepared me for the embrace of our community. The whole route, we were congratulated on our engagement, and I was truly beaming.

Before this moment Pride was simply the “Queer Fourth of July,” yet I now see it as time to make the invisible visible. I cannot be more proud of our relationship, our love, and our faith. I look forward to sharing our next part of our Jewish journey.

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Posted on February 2, 2015

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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

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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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How To Hire a Trans Rabbi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on November 6, 2014

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The Coming Out Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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Coming Out and Being Proud

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!

rp_10172680_10152410248549809_7254544815864323903_n-300x300.jpgIt is hard to imagine that this year marks only the fifth year in which I’ll be out of the closet for National Coming Out Day. My queer identity is such a strong part of my identity that it is hard to remember that for the majority of my life it was one of my deepest secrets.

This past year, I also publicly come out as a survivor of sexual violence. My identity as a survivor strongly informs my identity as a queer Jew, and this upcoming National Coming Out Day will mark my first Coming Out Day as a Jewish queer survivor.  

This past June, I wrote about taking pride in my identities as a Jewish Queer Survivor. Now, almost half a year since I wrote those posts, as I reflect on being out, I realize one thing: I am lucky.

I am lucky for the Jewish communities I have been a part of.

Since I came out as queer, I found a Jewish community that embraced my identities, including my queer identity at Tufts Hillel. When I was going through the sexual misconduct adjudication process at Tufts, a Hillel staff member was one of several people who provided me with the support I needed during a difficult time. Now that I am in DC, I am in the process of exploring new Jewish communities and realize how lucky I am that I can truly be myself in each community I explore.

I am lucky to be accepted.

As support and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals continues to grow, especially among my generation, it is easy to forget how much homophobia still exists, both in the Jewish and non-Jewish world. When I read the comments and tweets in response to my piece in June about taking pride in my Jewish queer identity, I was reminded that not everyone is as lucky as me to have found such great support among family and friends. I was even more shocked when the Advocate picked up my blog post, especially because my story did not seem newsworthy to me; it just seemed like the norm for so many people I know.

And lastly, I am lucky for the support I have received.

As a survivor, I have seen how rape culture re-victimizes survivors through a culture of victim-blaming, institutions which offer more opportunities to succeed for rapists than survivors, and a legal system which leaves little hope for justice. Yet, I was fortunate to receive the support of family, friends, and even teachers. Perhaps one of the most touching responses I received were from two former teachers—one a teacher from elementary and middle school who saw my article on Keshet and one from a former professor who reached out to me after reading a piece I wrote for the Tufts Daily about Tufts’ history of letting rapists remain on campus.

I had been publicly out as queer and as a survivor before I wrote my blog posts for Keshet. However, writing during pride month gave me the opportunity to not only come out in a more public space online but to also reflect on having pride in my identities—a feeling that doesn’t necessarily come with coming out. And I couldn’t be any prouder to be out for the month of National Coming Out Day.

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Posted on October 23, 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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