It’s been just over a week since Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. Leelah grew up not far from where I live in Cincinnati. If you haven’t heard Leelah’s story, it’s a tragic one. Leelah was a trans teen who chose to kill herself because, as she wrote in her suicide note, “the life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.”
Leelah’s note was posted on tumblr shortly after she purposefully walked in front of a truck on a dark night, but tumblr has since removed the blog post. In that post, Leelah described feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body ever since she was four years old.
Leelah’s parents were not supportive of her gender identity, to say the least. For several months, they completely isolated Leelah by removing her from public school, taking away her computer and phone, and not letting her use social media. Leelah’s parents also took her to Christian therapists who she said told her she was selfish and wrong.
So, Leelah felt her best option was suicide. For Leelah, I am so sad. For every person who struggles for acceptance of their sexuality and/or gender identity, I am sad. For every person who feels life is not worth living, I am so sad and distraught.
That Leelah’s parents used religion (Christianity) to reject their child’s gender identity makes me angry. Clearly, there are many Christians who would accept Leelah for who she was. Certainly, there are some Jews who would argue acceptance of Leelah, and other Jews who would argue rejection.
My Judaism and my humanism bring me to a very simple conclusion: Leelah was a person. She was Leelah. And, my humanness moves me to compassion, to understanding, and to acceptance of others and their feelings.
I do not believe that religion should be used to marginalize and stigmatize. I want to be part of a religious community that is open to possibilities – and that empowers every person to be himself or herself.
Leelah ended her suicide note by asking us to fix society. Our actions cannot bring Leelah back, but hopefully they can make a difference in the lives of others.
Here are just a few small steps you can take to support others:
• Read PFLAG’s Guide to Being a Trans Ally
• If you’re involved in Jewish organizational life, talk to the leadership about how your organization can be most inclusive
• If you have children or work with children, open the door to important and honest conversations about sexuality and gender
• Know the signs of suicide and be ready when you see the sings to open up important conversations and make connections between people and resources available
In the words of Leelah Alcorn, “Fix society. Please.” Challenge accepted.
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For the last couple of years, I’ve admired the creativity of several of my Facebook friends who have posted photos of their Elves on the Shelf staged quite mischievously each night leading up to Christmas. It seemed Jewish families just didn’t have a good option available for such a doll in their house. And then, last year, I stumbled on the Kickstarter campaign for the Mensch on a Bench and was very impressed to see a Jewish version of this toy.
The Mensch, named Moshe, is a one-foot tall plush doll. To my eye, he looks stereotypically Jewish: he’s got a beard, a black hat, and a scarf resembling a tallit (prayer shawl). He’s got a Hebrew name (Moshe) and could have jumped off the screen of Fiddler on the Roof. When I see the Mensch, he looks nothing like most Jews I know.
Most Jews I know never wear a tallit. Most Jews I know never wear a black hat. And, most Jews I know don’t have beards. Only some of the Jews I know are men. And only some are white.
I understand that the Mensch’s creator had to choose one “look” for the Mensch, and so it’s impossible for him to represent us all. Admittedly, I’m not sure what the Mensch should look like. But I can’t help but wonder if this Mensch is inadvertently perpetuating some stereotypes – conveying that this is what “authentic” Jews look like.
If the Mensch looked more like the Elf but was wearing blue and white, I’d be happier. Or, if there were different versions of the Mensch showing the diversity of the Jewish community, I’d be way happier (and I’d probably buy them all!).
Also problematic is the book that accompanies Moshe the Mensch. That story opens with an illustration of a family lighting a Hanukkah menorah. You guessed it: a white family with a mom and a dad and a son and a daughter. A family in which the dad and son wear yalmulkes as head covering. While some families I know look this, others do not. Some have two dads, some have only a mom, some have a child or parent of a different race, some have no children. And while some Jewish men (and women!) wear yarmulkes, most do not. When we designed coloring book pages at OurJewishCommunity.org for Hanukkah, we purposefully included images that reflected diversity: interfaith families, Jews without yarmulkes, kids in wheelchairs, same-sex parents, etc.
Sadly, I think the images reflected in this opening illustration of the Mensch book present the most traditional approach, one that simply doesn’t reflect the identity of most Jews today. While Moshe may be typical of how Jews are most often portrayed, I think it misses an opportunity to more accurately reflect the diversity of the Jewish community.
A few months ago, I had an opportunity to meet with the Mensch’s creator (and he was nice enough to give me a Mensch!). A former Hasbro employee, now a dad and an entrepreneur, Neal Hoffman is an impressive guy.
Overall, I like the Mensch and think it’s nice that there is a Jewish version of the Elf. Also great is that the the Mensch encourages mensch-like qualities. He comes with a set of Hanukkah rules, one of which is to choose a night of Hanukkah to give gifts to people in need.
It turns out I’m not the only one evaluating the Mensch this week. The Mensch on the Bench will be on Shark Tank this Friday night, so we’ll see what the sharks think. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Mensch’s looks; please share your comments here.
As a rabbi of an innovative global organization, it is important for me not just to be in my office but to also be on the road learning from others. That means I try to attend a handful of conferences each year—and today I’m a first-time attendee at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, known in shorthand as “the GA.” It’s a conference for volunteer and professional leaders of Jewish Federations and those with an interest in Jewish philanthropy.
At events like this, my hopes are that I will make connections to new friends and colleagues, that I will learn some new tools, that I will leave with just as many questions as answers, and that I will have a sense of optimism about what is possible in the Jewish community.
When I was flipping through the list of sessions, I realized there are two ways to view them, one more positive than the other.
There’s a long-standing tradition that Jewish telegrams were easy to recognize because they would say simply, “letter to follow. Begin worrying.” And, it is easy to read through a list of session topics at a conference like this, and to begin panicking: How will we fundraise? What will Israel’s future look like? How will we engage teens/young adults/aging adults/interfaith families/fill-in-the-blank? What will we do about rising anti-Semitism in Europe? How do we balance collectivism and individualism? Is Jewish education working or not?
Some people answer those questions with doom-and-gloom answers. But I don’t think that’s what this conference is about (otherwise I wouldn’t be here!). Conferences like this work when those in the room confront the realities of Jewish life and then figure out how to embrace opportunities for what could be rather than bemoan what is.
While there is some truth that worrying is part of the Jewish historical experience, it is also the case that celebration has long been an affirmation of a positive Jewish identity. We are a people of happiness and joy, laughter and humor. We are a people of hope.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a speaker at this conference, once said that “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of inextinguishable hope.”
Being at a conference with thousands of people who care about Jewish life and want to celebrate it – this gives me much hope. My telegram (now a tweet) from my time at the GA will say: email to follow, no need to worry—we are a people of hope.
To watch my Rosh Hashanah sermon on which this blog post is loosely based, please click here.
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There’s an old joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. The three leaders are speaking on a panel at a conference and are all asked the same question: “What would you like people to say about you after you die?” The priest answers first and says he hopes people will talk about how he was able to shepherd his flock and help them understand the love that God has for them as Catholics. The minister then says that he hopes he will be remembered for being a caring and thoughtful man who brought many people closer to Christ. The rabbi answers last; after a pause, she says “I would want people at my funeral to say: ‘look! She’s breathing!’”
Joking aside, the question of what we hope is said about our lives is a fascinating one. Each of us leaves a legacy—and the new year is a wonderful time to think about what that will look like.
One of the things that always strikes me about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that in some ways the holidays can make us feel like we are starting the new year with a clean slate. But to think like that suggests that our actions and words only have a fleeting impact on others and on the world in which we live. The reality is that all of what we do, i.e. the good and the bad which will ultimately comprise our legacy, is created over our lifetimes and felt for a long time.
In our fast-paced world, many of us don’t have the luxury to reflect on what we do well. Instead, we only find time to dwell on our missteps, often rewinding in our minds those things we regret. But, there’s value in also focusing on where we do well and where we do good. It can help us chart our course for being our best selves moving forward.
A centuries-old tradition that some Jews participate in is writing an ethical will—a document that articulates values to pass on to future generations. This is certainly a worthwhile practice. But whether we write such a document or not – all of us can at least take a few minutes to focus on what it is that matters to us: if we were going to write a personal vision statement, what would that look like?
I recently read a graphic novel called On Purpose by Vic Strecher. Dr. Strecher points out that having a purpose has many benefits; focusing on something beyond our egos helps us grow, helps makes us more resilient, and can actually help prevent disease. In reading this book I realized that charting our purpose in a forward direction is how we can work to make sure that we ultimately have the legacy we want. To paraphrase psychiatrist Victor Frankl, it’s not just about having the means to live, but having meaning to live.
This blog post is a shortened version of my Yom Kippur sermon which can be viewed here.
When I entered rabbinical school, I never imagined I would become a rabbi of an online synagogue. In fact, when I started at the Hebrew Union College in 2003, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I blogged during the year I was living in Israel so that my family and friends could see my photos, but even that was pretty uncommon. And while I sometimes spoke to my family using a microphone plugged into my computer, the idea of video-chat didn’t even cross my mind.
Fast forward to 2008. I was being ordained a rabbi and had been working for two years as an intern in an independent congregation, Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. Congregation Beth Adam came into existence in 1981 and has been known since then as an outside-the-box, evolving, intentional, and thoughtful congregation. Though the congregation only had a few hundred members, its vision statement, re-written in 2006, said that Beth Adam aspired to be “a worldwide Jewish and humanistic resource.”
How could a small congregation in the Midwest be a worldwide resource? The answer was obvious in 2008: by using technology. After surveying lots of demographic research and hosting focus groups, Beth Adam made the bold move to launch an online congregation. At the time, there were very few models for this. But, we knew that times were changing and we needed to create a new access point for Jewish engagement.
So, seven years ago on Rosh Hashanah we launched our online community and a few hundred people participated in that first service. Now, tens of thousands of people join in our High Holidays each year. It is touching to see Jews from around the world sharing their holiday experience.
While other synagogues have started to stream, we are much more than a congregation that streams. Our liturgy is original, reflecting our humanistic voice. And, while our High Holidays are streamed from our bricks-and-mortar sanctuary, our Shabbats are informal chats just for the online community. Our Yom Kippur memorial service includes photos of those being remembered, submitted by our participants. We are open 24/7/365 and offer podcasts, blogs, educational materials, ecards, recipes, discussion boards, and more. We even host “cyber-onegs” after services where people in Cincinnati chat with the people watching online, who often chat among themselves during the entire service. We are happy to serve as rabbis for our online participants. Though I could not have imagined any of this ten years ago, I see how essential it is as part of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience.
Many people ask me if an online congregation is somehow less (less good? less real? less meaningful?) than a traditional congregation. My answer is that neither is inherently better than the other. Some will always prefer in-real-life interaction and others will prefer online interaction. Providing diverse options allows people to choose what works best for them. And, what I am sure of is that the words of our participants speak for themselves:
“Today, after finding your website, is the first time since my Bat Mitzvah that I have been excited about being Jewish. My Bat Mitzvah was about 35 years ago.”
“Even as you open your doors to the world, you make us feel personally invited and connected.”
“Whether we connect hearts, hopes and dreams with people face to face in a synagogue or through an internet connection, the people are real and the community becomes real.”
If you’d like to join us for the High Holidays, you can learn more at OurJewishCommunity.org. Wishing you all a sweet New Year!
It’s been a week since Robin Williams’ death. My Facebook newsfeed continues to be filled with beautiful tributes to and memories of him. I think it’s safe to say his death came as a shock to most people. Many asked “how can someone so funny, so successful, so [fill in the blank] take his life?”
The reality, though, is that none of us can possibly know what it was like to be Robin Williams. He struggled with a mental illness, one from which he felt the only option was to take his own life. While we can try our best to understand, to empathize, to imagine what it would be like to be in Robin’s shoes, we must still acknowledge that we can never fully know.
It is so easy to make assumptions about other people. And, yet, to do so is to cheat ourselves and them—for by doing this, we take only a snapshot of what we imagine to be, colored by our own experiences. We do not have a full portrait of the complexity of someone else’s individual experience.
One of my favorite YouTube videos is called “Empathy.” It opens with a question from Henry David Thoreau: “could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes in an instant?” Continuing with footage from a hospital, the video includes thought bubbles over each person’s head, sharing what’s on their minds. We don’t have this luxury in our interactions with others—but perhaps if we knew what was going on in others’ hearts and minds, we would be a bit more compassionate.
I am reminded of Rabbi Hillel’s words 2,000 years ago: “don’t judge another until you have stood in his or her place.” The reality is we can never stand in another’s place. So perhaps the message is more simply stated as, “don’t judge others.”
It does strike me that in just over a month we’ll be observing Rosh Hashanah, also known as the “Day of Judgment.” For me, Rosh Hashanah is not about an external judge evaluating individuals. It’s about doing my own reflection and self-evaluation, constantly retaking my measurements to better understand if I am hitting my own potential. And if I am not, figuring out where the opportunities for growth are.
We can never know what it is like to be anyone other than ourselves. We can only know what’s in our own hearts. Being on a journey to discover that seems like a much better use of our energy than jumping to assumptions about others.