When Your Congregation Isn’t as Inclusive as You Thought

Tips for an inclusive synagogue from the mother of a non-binary child.

When my eldest child stopped feeling comfortable in our synagogue, I chalked it up to adolescence and a healthy, ongoing struggle with G-d and prayer. That is, until that child – who also happens to be queer and non-binary –  looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t know if people will accept me.”

My child? The one who has been a regular member of the congregation since birth? The one who staffed the babysitting room, read stories to the other children, and could engage in meaningful conversations with members young and old? The one who lights up a room just by walking through the door? The one who delivered a d’var Torah in a dress and basketball shoes at age 16?

When I asked what, exactly, made this familiar place so uncomfortable, the response was heartfelt and heartbreaking:

“This is where I come to rest and rejuvenate for Shabbat,” they explained. “It’s exhausting and alienating when people assume it’s my job to educate them. Growing up, there was no representation. I didn’t even see an openly gay cis-man at services. Everyone is loving, but I feel invisible.”

In so many ways, our synagogue is incredibly warm and welcoming. My dad encouraged me to join when I graduated from college because they served a sit-down kiddush lunch where you could hang out and schmooze after services. My husband is the guy who notices when someone new shows up to services, then invites them to join our lunch table.

This is where I’ve met many of my dearest friends.

So, what do you do when you find out your congregation is not as inclusive as you thought it was?

You start with language. Here are some suggestions.

Try this: Read Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings, which turns traditional prayers on their heads. Falk invites us to consider how we address and engage with G-d by beginning her blessings with the words “Let us praise…” rather than “Blessed are You,” because in Hebrew, that “You” is masculine. The phrase “Let us praise” is genderless, and as a result, more inclusive. I’m not suggesting that we throw out our tradition. I lead services and I love the comfort and familiarity of prayers I know inside and out. I also know that prayers are made of words. We can control how we think about and use those words, even if we return to the tradition.

What else? Don’t use pronouns (traditionally “he/him/his”) when referring to G-d in English. Say “G-d.” Every time. Pronouns are for people, and G-d is not a person. We are all created in G-d’s image, and that image is diverse and complex.

Try this too: Use “they,” “them,” and “their” as both singular and plural pronouns in community publications like newsletters, websites and event flyers. Trust me – it’s becoming accepted among grammarians and others. And trust me on this too – you’ll get used to it.

Try this: Take a hint from these congregations featured in Tablet Magazine, and rethink how you call people to the Torah.

Finally, don’t assume everyone you meet is straight and cis-gender, or that LGBTQ people are an anomaly or exception. Assume that there are already queer people in your congregation, along with their parents, siblings, and friends. We are sitting next to you in shul.

After reading a blog post I wrote about my experience as the parent of a queer, non-binary child, many synagogue friends and acquaintances thanked me for educating them. They were not judgmental, only curious and appreciative. They were open to discussing something unfamiliar and confusing. Some approached me with tears in their eyes, imploring me to tell my child how loved they are, how integral they are to the congregation.

We all can make our communities more welcoming in ways that might not matter to us as individuals today, but that might make a difference to us and those we love in the future. I wish I had known how to prepare better. I made sure that we welcomed the elderly and the young, married couples and singles, those with children and those without. Every bit of that effort matters, but it wasn’t enough.

If our LGBTQ children, friends, and other loved ones are surrounded by people who openly dismiss them, treat them as exceptions, or ignore their existence, they will feel unwelcome.

If I, as the parent of a non-binary child, can comfortably discuss my child’s identity with my friends and fellow congregants as just another aspect of our complex and sometimes confusing lives, we all will benefit. If I, as a leader in my community, can initiate changes that will make people I may never meet know that they are welcome, I will have done my work here as a Jew and as a human being.

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