Inclusion is a Jewish Value

Keshet staff member Sho Garland shares, from personal experience, why LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish life is essential.

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

—Hillel, Pirke Avot , 1:14

In this ethical teaching, Hillel challenges us to view our treatment of ourselves and others through the lens of our community’s values. At Keshet, we work for the full equality and inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life. From personal experience, I know that there is work to be done at this identity intersection, and that living at this intersection can be challenging. As Hillel teaches us, inclusion is a Jewish value to work toward.

Nearly 30 years ago, I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, into a Jewish nuclear family. It wasn’t until I started to form my own family that I realized the ways in which my parents had intentionally inculcated Jewish identity in my life from the earliest of ages. As a child, I grew up in a Conservative synagogue that was liturgically traditional and ideologically liberal. I attended a Jewish day school for 10 years — from preschool through eighth grade.

As I came of age, I struggled internally with the gendered expectations of my world. My mother was mostly supportive. After all, she’d grown up in the 1960s. She was a feminist. She’s had hair shorter than her ears for my entire life.

Still, little parts of the Jewish and secular worlds’ expectations about gender slowly crept in. My class in day school was small, and we were frequently separated into boys and girls for gym class and classroom activities. Beginning in fourth grade, I quickly started to feel like an outsider: not girly enough to fit in with the girls, not boyish enough to be one of the boys.

This manifested itself when it came time for me to become a B’nai Mitzvah, an adult in the Jewish community. The day was pressure-filled and nerve-wracking. I went shopping with my mother for my bat mitzvah outfit, and chose a flattering suit tailored for women that came with a jacket and two options for the bottom: a skirt or pants. I told my mother that I wanted to get the pants, but she refused. Eventually, we compromised and bought both bottom pieces with the agreement that I would wear the skirt for my bat mitzvah ceremony. She was fine with the suit, and she was fine with me wearing the pants for another occasion, but I had to wear the skirt for my bat mitzvah. Even my enlightened mother wasn’t fully inclusive when it came to gender expression for a major Jewish life-cycle event.

This was one of my first instances of repression in the name of Judaism that I can remember: I was told that my chosen gender expression was unacceptable. Instead, I had to conform, and conform I did. I participated in Jewish youth group activities as a teenager, but never talked about my burgeoning LGBTQ identity at regional USY conventions or summer camp. Even when I entered secular schooling in ninth grade, I only dated boys and eventually wore a dress to prom. Knowing that I wanted to be free to explore my queer identity as a young adult, I intentionally chose a small liberal arts college without much on-campus Jewish life.

College actually gave me a rare and precious gift greater than any formal or informal education: I met my wife. She was the first person I trusted with my internal struggle with gender, and she fully accepted me without question. “We’ll figure it out,” she told me at the tender age of 18, sitting on my dorm room bed. “If anything changes, or if it becomes a bigger deal for you, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”

Nearly 11 years later, we’ve figured it out for the most part—although we’ve certainly hit some bumps along the way. After nearly a decade away from Jewish life as part of my daily existence, I realized that I wanted Judaism to be a part of my adult life. In 2012, we had a Jewish wedding. Yet — true to the power of self-repression — I wore a wedding dress. I looked beautiful, but we don’t have any pictures of our wedding printed and framed in our home. When I look at those photos, I don’t see myself. I see a stranger — someone who’s foreign to me and my life. That’s hard for my wife, but she understands. We’ve found our own version of inclusion in our family.

When I speak to community members now, whether it’s one-on-one or in groups, I tell my story in order to illustrate that Hillel quote. I am now “for myself.” It took me nearly 30 years. Each time I tell my story, I am a little bit more “for myself,” because I am asking others to be “for me.” Each community—Jewish, LGBTQ, or otherwise—is responsible for defining what our communal liberation looks like. I ask the Jewish community to help me in this work—to not leave me and other LGBTQ Jews doing the work of our liberation alone. If we are only “for ourselves,” then what are we? If any community exists only for itself, we aren’t being true to the lessons in Judaism that teach us to be inclusive, to “welcome the stranger,” and to incorporate those who are different from us. “And if not now, when?” Now is the moment to embrace LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish community. If we do so, then in thirty years, someone else will be able to write about how empowered their formative years were, in stark contrast to my own.

I hope that this LGBTQ Pride Month, communities around the world will take the lessons of Hillel to heart and work toward the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life. If we do, we can show that it is each Jew’s responsibility to work toward all of our liberation. Let us show our Pride through welcoming, inclusive action. If we do, then one day none of us will be only “for ourselves.” All of us will be “for each other,” and we will be the change that we want to see in the world.

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