20 years of inspiring and provoking
Welcome to our third installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first two posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Rabbi Reuben Zellman.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is no stranger to accolades – but this year, she’s being fêted not only for her accomplishments, but for reaching an important anniversary. Rabbi Kleinbaum was installed as the first rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, in September of 1992. She arrived at the height of the AIDS crisis, and quickly made a name for herself by addressing the community’s tremendous loss with compassion, leadership, and spiritual guidance. In the years since, Rabbi Kleinbaum has made civil rights for LGBT Jews – and the inclusion of their voices as part of the religious conversation – a major part of her rabbinate. This year marks her 20th anniversary at CBST, and the filmmaker David Sigal has put together a video in honor of the occasion, including interviews with politicians, famous rabbis, and of course, her mother, who immediately offers some sweet baby pictures of this indefatigable leader:
This video pretty much says it all, but we had a few more question for Rabbi Kleinbaum, so we quickly caught up with her, amidst all the celebration of her work. Continue reading
Judaism, a religion that focuses primarily on life, rather than the afterlife, provides a meticulous set of standards regarding the handling of corpses, which must be shown great respect. The body is washed, dressed in a simple gown, and never left alone before burial. All of these ministrations are carefully provided by a synagogue or community hevra kadisha, or holy committee.
Because the body is traditionally cared for by those of the same gender, making sure that a hevra kadisha is informed about and sensitive to the needs of transgender and genderqueer people is very important.
Here, Eliron Hamburger, a hevra kadisha member at Chochmat HaLev, in Berkeley, provides a checklist for all hevra kadisha members to consider. The answers may vary from community to community, but the questions themselves are thought-provoking, challenging us to look at this life-cycle event through the lens of transgender inclusion. Consider bringing it to the ritual committee at your synagogue or sharing with your family.
Welcome to our second installment of “Queer Clergy in Action” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. If you missed our first post in this series about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first out gay Orthodox rabbi, you can read it here.
In 2003, Reuben Zellman became the first transgender rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Movement’s seminary. Ordained in 2010, Rabbi Zellman has spent the past two and a half years at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA, as Assistant Rabbi and Music Director. We were thrilled to catch up with him by phone.
How has being queer informed your work as a rabbi?
The primary ways being queer has informed my work are really twofold. First of all, I wouldn’t have even considered becoming a rabbi if not for support – serious nudging, actually – from the queer Jewish community of which I was a part. I belong to Sha’ar Zahav, which is such a supportive community, and people there basically convinced me that I could – and should – be a rabbi. Continue reading
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. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country. We hope they inspire you. Drop us a note if you have a story to tell and you may end up as next month’s feature! You can read the inaugural post in this series, on the Israel Center for Conservative Judaism, here.
Here, Elise Richman of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, New York, shares what happened when they invited writer gay Jewish author Wayne Hoffman to speak at the synagogue for one of their first LGBT events. Special thanks to Rika Levin for sharing this with us. (Westchester County, where New Rochelle is located, is the 7th largest Jewish population in the country and one of the the fastest growing Jewish populations!)
On a recent Sunday, we all woke up a little more tired than usual. After all, we had to change our clocks and lost an hour of our precious time. Time means different things to different people, but this Sunday the large group of people gathered at Beth El Synagogue Center learned even more about the value of time as we “spring forward.” I refer not to the changing of the clocks, but to an effort to change perceptions, as Beth El strives to communicate a message of inclusiveness to its diverse Jewish community. More than 70 individuals, including over a dozen teens, gathered to hear the gay Jewish author Wayne Hoffman speak about his experience integrating these dual identities in his own life and work. Continue reading
The High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – can be the most synagogue-centric of the Jewish calendar year. They’re also among the most-well attended, even by those who may not otherwise go to synagogue.
Many interfaith couples and families, along with adults raised in interfaith homes, don’t feel welcome in Jewish organizations. And since many LGBTQ Jews feel excluded from Jewish communal organizations, it’s a double challenge for Interfaith LGBTQ Jews. This might be one of the reasons LGBTQ Jews are more likely to interdate and intermarry than their straight peers. But it’s also a reason why our organizations must ensure that every member of the Jewish community is welcomed and included this holiday season – and all year long.
Here are four easy steps your organization can take right now.
1. Update your website.
- State explicitly on your homepage that your community includes and welcomes both LGBTQ and interfaith families and looks forward to engaging them in all activities;
- Use photos that reflect your community’s diversity.
2. Create a Welcoming Policy Document.
- Start the policy with a statement of inclusion;
- Let interfaith LGBTQ families know what their membership status will be;
- Let partners and spouses who are not Jewish know if there are restrictions for leadership positions.
3. Make your inclusion visible.
- Add an Organizational Affiliate Badge from InterfaithFamily.com to your homepage, in your links section, or on your about us page.
- Put a Safe Zone sticker on your door or your website.
- Mention the “I” Word: when creating publicity materials for your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, events, and programming. Don’t forget to explicitly invite “interfaith families,” and “LGBT families.” (InterfaithFamily’s studies have found that 72% of our users find it “important” that a synagogue say its programming is “for interfaith families” in marketing material.)
4. Don’t assume.
- We all have different levels of Jewish knowledge and hurdles that match, so:
- Translate all Hebrew/Yiddish language;
- Avoid terms like “non-Jew” to describe a partner who isn’t Jewish (I can only speak for myself, but I do not identify as a “non-Christian”);
- Provide easy access material (like our booklets), for visitors and others who might want a refresher; locate them near main doors as well as in low traffic areas.
For more information on making your synagogue welcoming and inclusive to all types of interfaith families, check out InterfaithFamily’s Resource Center for Program Providers.
With the High Holidays approaching, and major spiritual heavy lifting to be done, it’s an especially important time of year for LGBT Jews and allies to find inclusive Jewish spaces. If you’re in New York City (and over a million of you are), we’ve located a wonderful synagogue doing great work to make sure all Jews feel included: the Israel Center for Conservative Judaism in Queens.
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.
So we’re starting this regular column to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country. We’re calling it “The Tachlis of Inclusion” — tachlis being the Jewish term for the substance of something, the mechanics, the nuts-and-bolts of it.
We’ll share a different story of one synagogue (or school, or camp) finding success on the road to inclusion. We hope they inspire you. We’re always looking for institutions to profile – drop us a note if you have a story to tell and you may end up as next month’s feature!
In this month’s installment of Tachlis of Inclusion, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin talked with us about how the ICCJ has built a community where individuals and families of every background, configuration, identity, and interest are welcomed and valued. We first met Rabbi Fryer Bodzin in 2008, when she attended a Keshet Training Institute.
There’s a great video of what inclusion looks like at the congregation you lead, Israel Center for Conservative Judaism. What are some of the LGBT-inclusive projects, initiatives, and general stuff you and ICCJ have been working on recently?
Thanks for taking notice of our video. We tried to capture that we truly are a diverse community. At ICCJ, we focus on enabling and encouraging people to travel on their Jewish journeys. We are not a massive synagogue, but we are very diverse. We have a significant Jews by Choice population, and our membership has a 100-year age range. It is just taken for granted that we are LGBT inclusive. For example, on our membership form, we have spaces for Adult 1 and Adult 2, instead of Male or Female. There is no stigma here about one’s sexual orientation.
We heard that you hung our Seven Jewish Values poster up in the synagogue — can you share why, and what responses you’ve received?
The seven values are not just LGBT values, they are universal values. They are what lead to a caring community, which is what we strive to be. The poster is up in our lobby so that when people walk through the doors they will know what they are walking into. Hopefully, everyone, no matter how they identify, will read it and think, “Hey, this is a welcoming community.”
You wrote a beautiful piece in eJewish Philanthropy this past February on the “changing modern Jewish family,” where you shared different ideas about creative inclusive space, and you mentioned attending a Keshet Training Institute. Can you talk about some of ways institutions can cultivate spaces that acknowledge, include and value these modern families?
Thank you. When I look at the young families community at my synagogue, it is hard to ignore how diverse they are. While this community is comprised of single parent families, interfaith families, two mommy families — none of that matters when they are here. They really have molded into a community. They celebrate holidays and Shabbat together. They learn together and share b’nei mitzvah experiences together. A few generations ago, the synagogue was the center and the dad worked and the mom stayed home and everyone came to shul on Shabbat. Nowadays, we need to compete with so much. So sometimes a synagogue experience might be a tweet or reading a Facebook status update, and that is fine for me. Everyone has their own entry point to Jewish institutions, even if some people don’t walk in the door so often. What is important for me is that when people walk in the door, no matter their family structure, they feel welcome.
In the course of our work to create and nurture welcoming, inclusive, Jewish communities, we have the privilege of working with incredibly diverse people, institutions, and communities. And yet, over the years of doing this work, we’ve come across a few different messages and responses time and time again. We’ve collected five common things we hear from well-intentioned communities trying to be welcoming, but who aren’t sure where or why to begin. If you see yourself in any of these, don’t fret! We’ve all been there, or somewhere similar, before. Below each common message is some of our thinking about how to deal with this situation in your community, and we’d love to hear from you if you have other ideas, or additional questions!
1. “We don’t have a need for this kind of training; we don’t have any gay or trans people in our community.”
There are LGBTQ people, our families, and our friends in Jewish communities of every denomination, affiliation, size, political persuasion, and in every state and province of North America. (Abroad, too!) Living in a world that repeatedly tells us to be less than our full selves, a world marred by homophobia and transphobia, many of us learn to search for the subtle clues and indicators that it is safe for us to come out. If we don’t see them, we may stay silent about who we are – or who our family members and loved ones are – or we may simply leave in search of another, safer community. Often, when communities are proactive about creating welcoming, inclusive safe environments for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, we show up in unexpected places! (Like next to you in services, at your neighbor’s house for a shiva call, in your son’s Hebrew High class, and on the bimah.)
2. “We already have a lesbian on staff/in the congregation/on a committee/who came to an event once – so we’re already welcoming!”
It can be easy to see one LGBTQ person joining your community, or taking on leadership, and mark it as a harbinger of successful inclusion work. And it’s probably true that you’re doing some things right! But it’s important not to tokenize the one or two out LGBTQ people in your community. Tokenization is when we expect people of a particular identity to be the only folks speaking about, raising issues related to, or advocating for the needs of people who share their identity. Queer people shouldn’t be the only people carrying the flag of LGBTQ inclusion in your community. Because sometimes that flag gets heavy, and they might need to set it down, or hand it off to someone else. It can be exhausting to constantly advocate for yourself and your needs, and if you’re doing all of that work on your own, it’s easy to burn out. So while it’s important to make sure that LGBTQ people are connected to, involved in, and informing the work your community is doing for LGBTQ inclusion, also be sure to check in and see if it’s what they want to be doing, and be diligent about working to recruit other allies who care about LGBTQ issues to help out, as well.
3. “It’s fine to be gay here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.”
Try substituting “Jewish” in for “gay” in the above sentence. “It’s fine to be Jewish here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.” Hearing that would probably rub most Jews – and hopefully most of our allies – the wrong way! Does that mean we can’t talk about Hanukkah? Does it mean we aren’t allowed to daven mincha if we can’t find a secluded, hidden space? Does that mean we shouldn’t be too loud, or serve too much food, or have a nose that is bigger than yours, or in any other way too closely jive with your painful, damaging stereotypes about who Jews are and what we do?
What we hear when we hear phrases like that is that the people saying them are less interested in actually seeing and understanding the complex shapes and diverse realities of our lives as LGBTQ people than they are in appearing inclusive and welcoming to a disinterested outsider. How should we judge what it means to “make a big deal about it”? Often this kind of language is used to police our behavior so as to limit the risk that we discomfit others in the community by being our full selves. This means that we have to second-guess our rights to an authentic gender presentation, public displays of affection, talking about our partners and families, naming our identities, or otherwise ever giving hint to the full realities of our lives. This equation often gives a great deal of weight to the comfort and ease of straight people in a community, and is largely missing a consideration of the inherent risks in living in a homophobic and heteronormative environment – namely pain, fear, rejection, isolation, shame, and both emotional and physical violence.
4. “Well, we don’t talk about sex here/with the kids at this age, so I don’t think this discussion would be appropriate.”
Queer people’s lives are about more than sex, and to talk about LGBQ* people doesn’t necessarily mean talking about sex at all. The perception that LGBQ people are always talking about sex when we talk about our identities is usually rooted in heteronormativity, and an inability to see LGBQ people as vibrantly complex human beings seeking meaningful connections and relationships in many of the same varied ways that straight people do.
Sometimes people ask: “Well then, how do you describe being gay to a nine year old?” Probably if you asked everyone at Keshet, you’d get a different answer, but here’s one possible conversation you could have:
Adult: You know how your parents really love each other, and how they really love you?
Adult: They probably like to show you and tell you that they love you, and that they love each other, all the time, right?
Kid: Yeah! Sometimes my dad puts me on his shoulders so I can touch the trees because I love trees and he loves me! And my ima kisses my knees when I fall down and sings me songs at night because she loves me! Sometimes they kiss each other and cook dinner for each other because they love each other.
Adult: That’s so great! Isn’t it awesome to show the people we love that we love them? You know, as you grow up, you’ll probably love a lot of people, which is really nice! Some people find one person that they fall in love with for the rest of their lives, which is pretty exciting for them.
Kid: That sounds neat.
Adult: Yeah, it is. Have you heard the word gay before? Sometimes boys fall in love with boys, and sometimes girls fall in love with girls and when that happens, they might call themselves gay. It’s a word that people use to describe themselves if they love people of the same gender. Also, sometimes people fall in love with people regardless of their gender. What’s most important is that people who love each other are kind and caring toward each other, like your parents are to each other and to you.
There’s lots of ways to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people without talking about sex, when we remember that our sexual orientation can describe the orientation of our mental, emotional, and physical attractions to people.
But also, LGBTQ people do have sex, and that’s a totally normal part of human sexuality. So when you are having conversations about sex (with adolescents, teens, or adults), it’s really important that LGBQ people’s experiences, needs, and sexual health is included and reflected. There are a lot of excellent resources and tools our there for LGBTQ comprehensive sex-education. Here are a few to start with:
- Sacred Choices, the Union for Reform Judaism’s sex-ed curriculum
- Planned Parenthood has a very large list of comprehensive sexual education curricula and resources, available here.
- Our Whole Lives sex-ed curriculum, developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ
5. “Well, we don’t let the boys wear the Esther costume on Purim because they’re just preschoolers, it would confuse the other students and we don’t want them to be bullied.”
Children begin to hear and absorb cultural messages about appropriate gender roles at a very young age, and they simultaneously express gender variance at a very young age. It can be easy to presume that other children will react the way many adults in our world react to seeing gender variance: with fear, hostility, ridicule, or violence. And yet, when we model a response to gender diversity that is safe, encouraging, and accepting, children follow suit.
One of the most powerful messages an adult can send to a young person is that they have the safety and security to take risks, including taking a risk with their gender. Gender play and exploration is a very natural and healthy part of a young child’s life and growth. While many children who experiment with gender at a young age never express a gender variant identity, for those children who eventually grow into a gender identity that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, early messages of acceptance can be profoundly empowering
What would it take for your community to be safe enough for young people to take risks with their gender? What could happen if the next time Josh reaches for the Esther costume, instead of being told “remember Josh, boys dress up as Mordechai or King A,” Josh was instead told “remember Josh, it’s important to share. We only have one Esther costume, and Rachel, Zach, and Ariel all want to dress up as Esther too”?
*There are a lot of intersections in inclusion work between issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, but they aren’t identical. When it comes to sex, and assumptions about people based on whom we think they have sex with and how they have that sex, we’re often talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people. Some lesbian, gay, bi, and queer people are also trans, but those are two distinct facets of their identities. In responding to this fear of talking about sex when we talk about gay people, we focused on issues of homophobia, and the stigmas facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people’s experiences with sex. So we’ve left off the T in our acronym for this response. Not because trans people don’t matter – but in fact the opposite, because it’s important not to conflate gender diversity with sexual orientation, or transphobia with homophobia. When we do that, trans people’s experiences get lost and collapsed into homophobia, and we all lose out.