Keshet is thrilled to have the inside scoop on the recently published The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew. Eli Glasman shared his inspiration for penning the work, and offered us a taste of the novel. Take a look!
My debut novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, is about, Yossi, a young gay teenager living in the Melbourne Orthodox Jewish community, as he comes to terms with his sexuality and learns to reconcile his religious beliefs with his sexual orientation.
I wrote the novel because someone very close to me has been in this situation. It was my love with this person, which made me feel frustrated by the implicit and often explicit homophobia within the Orthodox life. The laws against homosexuality was one of the major things which encouraged my movement away from the religious lifestyle.
When I started the novel, I was going through a period in my early twenties, which I think we all go through, where I was rethinking my upbringing with an adult perspective. This book was in large part a way for me to reconnect with Judaism in a way I’d not allowed myself to in the past.
Through Yossi, I could feel the love of Judaism and a belief in God, which I hadn’t felt since I was teenager. Yossi is far more passionate about religion than I was at his age, and I must say, that a lot of his love of Judaism rubbed off on me.
Check out this excerpt from The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew that author Eli Glasman has shared with us:
READING AN ARTICLE online from one of New York’s Jewish newspapers, I found an advertisement offering a Jewish alternative to homosexuality. I followed the link and read through everything the website had to say. The administrator of the website was a guy named Rabbi Pilcer. It took me three weeks to get up the courage to send him an email asking if I could speak with him.
He replied immediately, despite the time difference, saying that we could talk on Gmail chat. I double-clicked his name, wrote Are you there? and hugged myself as I waited for him to respond.
I’m here, he wrote back. What’s your name?
I drew in a deep breath, took the rubber band off my wrist and rubbed the tender welt that had formed on my skin. Flick the rubber band every time you have a sexual thought about another man, the website had advised. You’ll associate the pain with these thoughts and soon they will stop.
It hadn’t worked at all.
I pocketed the rubber band and squeezed the bridge of my nose. I felt uncomfortable giving a stranger information about me, especially over the internet, but I had to know if there was something he could do.
Yossi, I replied.
Hello, Yossi. What’s on your mind?
I scratched the skin around my thumbnail. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to help, I thought. He was a rabbi, after all. What would he know about this? Although, I figured, just because he was a rabbi, it didn’t mean that he didn’t have another qualification. He could have been a psychologist or something as well.
The rubber band thing isn’t working, I wrote.
The curser blinked in the text box for a few seconds before Rabbi Pilcer entered his next sentence.
So, you believe you’re a homosexual.
I winced at the sight of the word ‘homosexual’. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling him this.
I leant forwards and rested my head on my hands, knotting my fingers into my mesh of curly hair, accidentally causing my Yarmulke to fall off and land on the keyboard. Feeling the air against my naked hair made me uneasy. I put my hand on my head while I picked up the Yarmulke and nestled it back into place.
Yossi? Are you there? the rabbi wrote.
I stared at his question for a few moments and then sighed. Even with the safety of distance and anonymity, I felt uncomfortable talking about it.
I closed the chat box and set my laptop to sleep. I then stood up from my desk and dragged my feet across the carpet to the other end of my room, building up static in my fingertips that was zapped out with a gentle prick as I touched the metal handle of my window and pulled it open.
From outside came the noise of traffic and chatter, and the smell of smog. We were positioned on Carlisle Street, the shopping strip of the Melbourne Jewish community, between a Jewish bookstore and a bakery.
I’d lived in this house my entire life. I belonged here. My place was amongst other Jews, keeping alive traditions that were centuries old. I couldn’t imagine a life where each day bled into the next with nothing more to punctuate existence but payday and a piss up on the weekend. A life with no God, no holy days, no prayers, no significance to food or clothing.
I rubbed my wrist again, feeling the slight lump on my skin. I knew that there was only sin in acting on my impulses, not simply in being the way I was. And yet, just having these terrible feelings made me feel like less of a Jew.
At that moment, a droning buzz broke into my thoughts. I turned to my desk to see my iPhone light up. I looked at the screen, rolled my eyes and walked out of my room and down the hall until I reached the front door. I opened it to find Menachem standing there with his phone at his ear.
‘Why don’t you just knock like a normal person?’ I asked.
‘This is more efficient,’ he replied, ending the call. ‘If I prank call you, I know you’ll be the one to answer the door.’
Menachem stepped inside and peeked down the hall towards the kitchen. I could hear my father in there. I figured Menachem was scared my father would see him here and tell his parents he’d been playing violent video games, which was, after all, the reason he’d come. All the public libraries were closed and his family was too religious to have internet in the house, so he had to come to mine to fulfill his gaming needs.
Menachem tiptoed into my room and I followed close behind.
As soon as the door was closed, he started a game of Grand Theft Auto. I didn’t like to watch those sorts of games, nor listen to them, so I made him play with the sound off.
For ages he sat hunched in front of my laptop, hardly talking, while I lay sprawled on my bed singing Jewish hymns into a handheld electric fan. I liked the way the spinning blades chopped my voice so that I sounded kind of mechanical.
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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!
In June of 2001, when I was 16 years old, I went to my very first New York City Pride Parade.
Having just come out less than year earlier, I was equal parts excited and anxious about the spectacle that I was about to be a part of. Excited because this would mark my first foray into one of the most seminal events on the gay calendar, but anxious because I had no idea what it meant to participate in it.
I was so new to the community, and so very, very young that I really did not have any concept of what it meant to be proud. I mean, I had slowly developed a community of friends through this incredible organization called Pride for Youth, which hosted a weekly coffeehouse for LGBT teens every Friday evening, and which I credit sincerely with helping me to develop and cultivate my own identity. Without Pride for Youth, I would not be anywhere near able to have any pride in who I am, let alone be able to write about it in a national blog. So I saw the Parade sort of as an opportunity to show off this new, still very fresh identity, and to share in a day of celebration with other people of that same—or similar—identity.
Truth be told, however, save for getting a bit…closer with a friend of a friend (sorry mom!) I don’t remember much about that parade, except feeling…overwhelmed.
So many scantily clad, unbelievably beautiful bodies gyrating to ever-pulsating music, balloons and rainbows as far as the eye could see, cheering, clapping, and dancing. I certainly felt swept up in the extreme joy that pervaded all of lower Manhattan, but I’m not sure if I felt pride. It all just seemed so…surface, as if the ecstasy of the moment betrayed a sense of apprehension underneath; dancing because as gay individuals, we didn’t have the rights to do much else.
And, in the summer of 2001, we very much did not. There was scant representation of LGBT characters in media, if at all, hate crimes legislation had just stalled in the US Congress, as the specter of Matthew Shepherd’s gruesome death still loomed large, and marriage equality was prohibitively, if not laughably, far into the future. We needed the exuberance of the Pride Parades to remind ourselves just how fabulous we were, since the rest of society didn’t quite get it yet.
13 years later, and our communal status has grown exponentially. Our rights as US citizens are at an all-time high, with 19 states—and the incredible District of Columbia—giving full equality in marriage to LGB citizens, states like Maryland signing unprecedented anti-discrimination legislation into law, and signs that gay is fast becoming “the new normal.” With every passing year, we have more to celebrate, as the rest of society catches up with our own community’s realization of how awesome we are.
Certainly this is reason enough to be proud. To that, I would respond with a very qualified yes. Just as many in society recently—and spectacularly—instructed a certain Princeton undergrad to check his privilege, I urge us all to check our pride. Not because it may lead to arrogance, or haughtiness—we’re not doing quite that well yet—but lest it lead to complacency. Our accomplishments are great, and ever-growing. Gay representatives, judges, senators, and football players are amazing, as are bearded Eurovision winners, and they will help round out models of all shapes, sizes, and genders for LGBT youth. But the recent Supreme Court rulings leave me hesitant at best for the Hobby Lobby case, and what will amount to legally sanctioned LGBT discrimination if the Court rules for Hobby Lobby. Do we run the risk of being too busy celebrating, and not fighting?
With each step forward we take as a community, society seems to mandate that we take about a half step back. This is of course a vast improvement from my first parade in 2001, when any small inch forward resulted in blocks of pushback, but we must forever pepper our pride with action. We need pride, it fuels us forward, ever closer to each other, and to the rest of the world. May our pride remind us that our work is never done.
As we celebrate the ten year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist rabbi who performed same-sex religious weddings before the verdict—but was finally able to legally marry Massachusetts same-sex couples 10 years ago.
I performed a number of weddings while still a rabbinical student, in the mid-1990s, as my friends began to make lifetime commitments and, being unaffiliated, turned to me—clergy in training!—to help them with their ceremonies. It was somewhat ironic that so many of my (straight) friends and acquaintances turned to me for this particular lifecycle event, as I had never been a huge fan of marriage. That may have been due to my own inklings as a kid that heterosexual white-wedding fantasies were not for me, or due to many years of being single and having to sit through other people’s weddings, or to my feminist and lesbian questioning of an institution that had historically been far from progressive.
Yet with all of that, I was happy to help my friends take this first step in creating a Jewish household together. My movement, Reconstructionism, was the first to officially sanction same-sex religious ceremonies, and so I had no qualms about helping anyone, gay or straight, craft a Jewish ceremony that reflected their sensibilities and values.
What I realized, however, soon after I began to do weddings, was that I had no interest in being an agent of the state for an institution that discriminated against me. Once I became a rabbi, I concluded that to sign a marriage license for a heterosexual couple would be somewhat akin to driving a bus that I was forced to sit at the back of. If I couldn’t get legally married, then how in the world could I participate in legally sanctioning the marriages of others?
And so, my policy for doing (heterosexual) weddings was that the couple would need to take care of the civil piece themselves, and further, that somewhere in the ceremony we would need to mention that legal marriage remained a privilege not accessible to everyone. With these two stipulations in place, I found myself able to stand under the chuppah with couples with a sense of integrity and wholeheartedness.
When the SJC (Supreme Judicial Court) handed down its landmark decision in 2003, I realized that my policy would soon be up for revision. As it happened, the first wedding I had scheduled for the spring of 2004, once the new marriage laws were in place, involved a lesbian couple. Not only that, but they had decided—for reasons of their own—to hold the ceremony in a restaurant with a bowling alley.
I had decided before rabbinical school that my achievable lifetime goal would be to bowl in every state of the U.S. (My unachievable goal would be world peace). So to officiate at my first civilly-sanctioned same-sex marriage in a bowling alley was too good to be true! And indeed, it was a marvelous moment when I signed the civil document, and under the chuppah pronounced the couple, by the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, legally married.” Mazel tov!
Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his passion for policy and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.
Many of you have now most likely seen comedian and professional beard-sporter Zach Galifianakis grill President Barack Obama on his faux talk show “Between Two Ferns.” President Obama appeared on the show to discuss the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to urge the younger generation who frequent Galifinakis’ show to check out the ACA website, and hopefully to sign up for Health Insurance through its Marketplace. If you haven’t seen the interview yet, you’ve probably been avoiding all social media outlets over the last week. Not only has the internet exploded over the interview, but there have been more than a few responses from pundits and members of Congress who feel that the interview besmirched the honor of the office of the President. (Believe me, I watched the interview, and the only thing I think it ‘besmirched’ was the good name of spider bites, something whose ‘good-name’ has already been called into question, if you ask me.)
President Obama, as well as a wide variety of spokespeople, celebrities, and representatives of the administration, have been making a concerted media blitz over the last few months to seriously encourage Americans – specifically young, healthy Americans such as this writer – to explore all that the Affordable Care Act has to offer in terms of the quality, variety, and innovations within health care. For all intents and purposes, this media blitz has been a success, as despite the extraordinarily well-covered website issues during its initial rollout, Obamacare has now enrolled 4.2 million new members into some form of private or state-run health insurance program since it was enacted about 2 months ago.
However, the long, winding road of providing more healthcare opportunities to millions of Americans stretches much longer than the 2 months since the ACA rollout, as this weekend we mark the four-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing the ACA into law.
While four years may not seem like a tremendously long time, a lot has shifted in the American culture since then (I didn’t even have a smart phone four years ago and I was barely a year into rabbinical school)!
For LGBT Americans, this is even truer, as in four seemingly short years, our rights and privileges in terms of marriage, protection from discrimination, and general presence in society have skyrocketed. They are by no means where they need to be, (take a look at my call to action for the Jewish community in regards to the Hobby Lobby court case), in some states they appear to be regressing, but we are definitely on our way.
In the context of healthcare, it is vital to look back at the cultural landscape for LGBT Americans four years ago. In December of 2009, the Center for American Progress published a memo called “How to Close the LGBT Health Disparities Gap.” The memo excoriated the healthcare system of the time, citing frightening statistics about the ever widening gap between LGBT – most especially transgender – Americans and heterosexuals in terms of access to healthcare, and the quality of care provided, in addition to highlighting rampant discrimination against LGBT Americans by healthcare providers. The memo asserted strongly that LGBT Americans were on the whole markedly less healthy than their heterosexual counterparts, due in no small part to societal discrimination; put simply, intolerance was making us sick emotionally, mentally, and physically, because providers did not know how best to serve us, and most importantly, we are often too scared to ask.
So what’s changed since 2009, as a result of the ACA? First and foremost, the basic fact that the 40+ million people uninsured in this country will now have better access to better care is a huge boon. Specifically for the LGBT community, the ACA mandates that any policy offered through the Marketplace cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity whatsoever. This is a huge step in erasing the stigma felt by so many LGBT Americans in regards to healthcare, and ensuring that they are suitably provided for. Additionally, the abolition of the pre-existing conditions condition in all health insurance policies also guarantees that LGBT Americans living with long-term diseases such as HIV/AIDS and many types of cancers are taken care of as well.
These are huge steps forward, representative of the general march towards real equality we’ve seen over the last four years. But there is so much more to be done.
While we are attaining unprecedented heights in terms of marriage equality nationwide, healthcare disparity, and the general societal discrimination that triggers it are still widespread. The CAP memo suggested that the US Department of Health and Human Services create an Office of LGBT Health in order to address this disparity; four years later, and no such office exists, and the education needed to help healthcare providers understand the specific needs of the LGBT community is still woefully absent.
Does the ACA help to negate the need for such an office? It certainly does, but it is by no means enough. Once more people realize that discrimination against LGBT people in all of its facets – school bullying, homophobic legislation, workplace bigotry – is making us sick, then we as a society can work towards putting a real stop to it.
When Jordyn & Becky first met, they were just starting college. Jordyn had dredlocks. Becky’s time was split between the Engineering Department and the Crew Team. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were still dating. And, Becky’s preferred pronouns were “she” and “her.” Now, 13 years later, all of those things have changed. But their friendship hasn’t. They sat down to talk about their friendship, life, and gender.
Jordyn: I think an important qualifier about our friendship is that it’s one of those fantastic ones where we can (and have) gone months without talking—but we can always pick it back up pretty seamlessly. And, while that’s great for the sake of knowing we’re always out there for each other, it does mean that we’ve missed big moments in each other’s lives. Like, for instance, when you started identifying as gender queer and trans.
Becky: That is an important thing about our relationship. And that’s true. When we first met I identified as a lesbian. It wasn’t really until I started Rabbinical School six years ago that I started to really explore ideas of gender. It was a gradual transition, starting with the way I had my haircut and what clothes I wore, eventually getting to the way I played around with and used pronouns.
Jordyn: I remember a few years ago being part of an email thread where someone said something—in reference to you—along the lines of “and he is going to…” I had to stop and check in. I wanted to be on the right page. Wondering whether or not I was going to support you, or accept you, or be there for you wasn’t the question, it was more making sure I wasn’t messing up with my language.
Becky: And language is really hard. We aren’t socialized to have control over our pronouns; having a conversation about language is a two-step process—first, discussing how we teach language and how we can chose the language we use, and second, taking that step to choose an appropriate pronoun.
Jordyn: And, I’ve messed it up—far more than once…which is really hard for me. It’s hard as an ally, it’s hard as your friend, and it’s hard because I know using the wrong pronoun is being disrespectful and unsupportive. But sometimes it’s that force of habit that makes things challenging.
Becky: We’ve definitely had conversations where you’ve started by saying “I don’t want to mess this up, but….” And, look, as long as you (or anyone) are learning and trying, that’s what I ask for. I don’t necessarily want to have a 15 minute conversation with someone about how they feel guilty each time they mess up my pronoun. Most importantly, we have to trust each other, and trust that our friendship is strong enough that one misused pronoun isn’t going to destroy it.
Jordyn: Still, I don’t want to put you in a position where you’re forced to constantly be a teacher.
Becky: But, I’m going to be a rabbi—being out there as a teacher is a role I’ve stepped into for myself. I don’t ever want to close the conversation about pronouns, or being queer. That being said, it can be exhausting.
Jordyn: Do you have advice, maybe with your rabbi hat on?
Becky: In thinking about being compassionate with someone about getting my pronouns correct, the biblical concept of “lifnei iver” comes to mind.
Becky: Leviticus 19:14 says: “You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord.” 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 two-step process. First, they may be deaf towards the issues of gender and gender identity. I might be the first trans* person they meet. Rashi teaches that though the deaf person is specifically named, we can extend this verse to all those who are alive. I cannot curse someone because of their lack of knowledge. Similarly, withholding my pronoun or not correcting someone is putting a stumbling block in front of them. In the other direction, the person learning about gender or my preferred pronoun needs to acknowledge the stumbling blocks that exist in front of them. They need to know that they will stumble, and that unlike the blind person the Torah refers to, they need not be willfully blind.
Interested in learning more? Check out Becky’s interview with Jennie Roffman, a board member at Congregation Kehillath Israel, reflecting on Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, or some of Keshet’s Trans* resources.
Purim is about concealment. More specifically, it is about movement from the covert to the overt. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward. It is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.
The major characters are all Marranos disguised in costume. They all struggle to manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that, if revealed, would seem to undo them. By the end, everyone is unmasked.
King Ahashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and, because she refuses to take off her royal robes, she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up — or in this case down — as something she is not. Ahashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a foolish, pompous lush dressed in royal robes. He is also terrified of being challenged or used – and that is exactly what happens anyway.
Esther and Mordecai are closet Jews. Each is fearful of the consequences of being found out. Mordecai warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Mordecai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court. He does not flaunt his Jewish identity.
Haman is the scoundrel who, like Esther, is in the right place at the right time. Like the king, he rises to power without any merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordecai.
The turn in the plot occurs when Mordecai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows, be understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordecai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to how Mordecai’s secret if found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to avenge himself of Mordecai and his people.
Unmasked, Mordecai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sackcloth – congruence between the man and his clothes, a boldly public expression of an internal state of affairs. Mordecai’s naked protest sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Ahashverosh.
What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we play hide and seek, how we reveal and conceal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.
But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways, we are all Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordecai teach us something about the search for wholeness? Al the end of the story, all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in self-expression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordecai becomes the king ‘s most trusted counselor. Even Ahashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these full identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.
The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace, Mordecai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later be commands her to do so. It seems that there is a right and a wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self-revelations, but by our careful nurturing of a private world.
As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses disguise for singularly destructive ends and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch, revealing more than an urge for power. Mordecai is revealed by his principles, Haman by his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of one self over another. Instead there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.
The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a playful God who dances in between the revealed and the hidden, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. So we, too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. And when the moments come to stand for one’s inner truths, for principles, or for one’s people, then we must turn inside out and witness, loud and proud and sure.
This essay originated on the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and is reprinted with permission.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. Continue reading here>>
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.
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