The excitement in the halls was palpable. Was the enthusiasm because of the record-breaking number of attendees (1,000), the new venue John Jay College, or was it the opening panel with Ruth Calderon? The spirit of optimism and confidence at the recent JOFA conference was so high that most likely it had to be more than the sum of these wonderful elements. For what happened was the creation of a historic gathering in which we saw how far we have come.
The days of tiptoeing around difficult subjects have been swept aside. Instead, we saw new faces exploring new uncharted territory. Topics that had previously been “dealt with” were now embraced and engaged on a profound level.
For the first time, LGBTQ concerns were taken up during four separate sessions in this one-day conference. Here, Queer, and Machmir: Orthodox Life in the LGBT Community launched the events. A screening of DevOut, a movie about the spiritual lives of lesbian and transgender Orthodox women, followed a lunchtime affinity gathering. Finally, a panel entitled Modern Family: Unconventional Structures offered a picture of the challenges faced by nontraditional family constellations in Orthodox contexts.
Miryam Kabakov, one of Eshel’s Executive Directors, remembered that ten years ago, when she had given a session at the JOFA conference on Lesbians in Orthodoxy, the session was nowhere to be found on the program. Only through word of mouth could JOFA attendees locate the “secret” session. Most of the women who attended that session were not openly lesbian, bi, or trans women, but rather agunot, divorced, childless, and single women, who said they were there because this session spoke to their own marginalized status in Orthodoxy.
Ten years later, a cross-section of the conference came to the sessions on LGBT Orthodox Jews. People wanted to explore how issues of gender identity and sexual orientation impact their own lives and those of their family and friends. Parents who have heard the statement: “Imma, Abba – I’m gay,” wanted to hear from a panel of LGBT Orthodox Jews to understand what lay ahead in their children’s future living in Orthodox community.
JOFA has come of age not only due to the persistence and vision of great women, but in some measure due to the men, rabbis and laymen, fathers and brothers who did more than cheer from the sidelines. Orthodox men are increasingly present as “allies.” Many Orthodox men, among them leaders, have joined the chorus of voices when it comes to women’s access and leadership. For both women and LGBT people, allies broaden the field of concern making the challenges of a minority a calling that we all face together. This groundswell of communal action has the power to urge leaders toward an expanded understanding of community itself. The very power of alliance is that it moves us from a place of pain and complaint to a broad sense of communal purpose and shared values. In a sense, alliance is a first step in a process of communal expansion, one in which a new sense of “us” appears on the horizon.
We at Eshel are very grateful to JOFA for opening up the international conference to our voices. Your alliance is not only incredibly encouraging; it will make an enormous practical difference for us. Parents and siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, teachers and students, and friends can help us to urge our religious leaders to open up a space of hope for LGBT Orthodox people and their families.
This year’s JOFA conference felt like a whole community beginning to walk forward together. What comes to mind is Moshe’s insistence to Pharoah that the service to God that he has in mind cannot be done by a few chosen insiders: “With our children and our elders will we go, with our sons and our daughters….will we go” (Exodus 10:9). The deepest religious vision, and truest service, requires us all. No doubt people will excel in different ways. We will need the old to carry memory and the young to carry promise. We will need strong-hearted women and men to lead us so that no one will be left behind. Redemption, like the revelation to come, requires us all.
Eshel’s Retreat for Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children is March 7-9, 2014. If you know anyone who might benefit, please share this link.
Become a member of Eshel’s Orthodox Allies Roundtable; an organizing effort to gently and respectfully move our communities forward. Sign up as an ally. Join OAR.
Listen to a recording of the session, Here, Queer, and Machmir from the JOFA Conference: