This spring, Rabbi Jason Klein was elected to lead the Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinic association, making him the first out gay man to hold such a national position in the U.S. Keshet caught up with Rabbi Klein to discuss his experiences in Jewish institutions, the next steps for inclusion at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), and what it’s been like to be out.
You’re the first openly gay man to lead a national rabbinic association in the U.S. What has the response been like? Among Reconstructionist Jews, and also across the Jewish community?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive from Jews of all denominational identifications. I have been struck by some younger people’s feeling affirmed in their own identities as LGBTQ or allies and the responses of elders who have watched so much change happen around creating warm communities just within the span of their adult lives.
Do you think the response was different because Rabbi Toba Spitzer was first out leader of a national rabbinic organization (also the RRA)? Is it different for lesbians and gay men in leadership?
I am thrilled that Rabbi Spitzer blazed this path in 2007 as the first out person to have such a role and to her as a senior colleague and mentor. There are a variety of reasons for why having a gay man in a leading role is significant.
First, for many people, it is easiest to feel most welcome and empowered when it is easiest to see themselves in someone else, so the more people of different Jewish, backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, and other points of diversity there are in leading Jewish roles, the more other people can see themselves in those roles.
The second reason has something to do with the history of sexuality itself, which set the stage for sexual orientation identity in modern times. Since ancient times, women’s sexuality has been, in many quarters, made invisible compared to men’s sexuality. Even in the Hebrew Bible, sexual activity itself seems to be defined by the presence of a man. For a variety of complicated reasons largely connected to this history, to lingering sexism and heterosexism, and the fact that most sexual violence is perpetuated by men, I believe that women’s sexuality comes across to many as less threatening than men’s — and, therefore, when someone comes out as not conforming to the norm, the presence of a gay man may arouse more fear in some people than the presence of a lesbian.