Hineini: 10 Years of Coming Out in Jewish Spaces

A dozen or so years ago, I was working as an educator at a large Conservative synagogue in the suburbs of Boston. Gay marriage was on the verge of legalization – and therefore on the front page of the newspaper every day.

The Conservative movement had not yet revised its decades-old opinions of sexuality, which could be summed up as, “We don’t hate you, but we’re going to leave it up to individual synagogues as to whether we treat you like members or allow you to do anything.” And despite being one of two openly gay educators at this synagogue, I found myself inching back into the closet at work due to an environment that made it clear that while it might be okay to be gay on my own time, no one wanted to hear about it on the clock.

Imagine my surprise when one day I received a survey in my mailbox at the temple office full of questions about gay people in Jewish settings. I excitedly filled it out, despite my confusion as to how to answer questions such as, “Do you know any gay people?” (I mean, sure I do, but that’s a weird question to ask someone who is himself gay – which there was no opportunity to reveal in the survey proper.) At the end of the survey, I checked off the box indicating I would like to learn more about the organization sponsoring this study and maybe even get involved.

And that is how I subscribed to the Keshet mailing list.

The following fall, a colleague of mine stood up at a regional meeting of synagogue youth educators and told us that he had become involved with Keshet and now sat on their Safe Schools Committee, working with other volunteers to help make Hebrew schools better for LGBT kids. He invited any of us who were interested to join him at the next meeting. My inner sense of gay pride kicked in – if this straight colleague of mine could give his time for this cause, surely I could – and soon I was sitting around a folding table strategizing.

We were a small but uniquely qualified group of volunteers. I remember four full-time Jewish educators, a retired rabbi and his wife (whose daughter is a lesbian), and Keshet’s administrator (then the only staff person other than our executive director), splitting our time between designing lessons and strategizing around how to get in the door at synagogue schools.

Back then, it was a triumph when any Hebrew school principal would even take our calls. Actually presenting workshops for teachers felt like a pipe dream, but one we believed in so we persevered.

There was one other regular member of our committee: a filmmaker who was working on a project with Keshet that we thought might be useful in our workshops. What had originally been envisioned as a 10-minute short was developing into a full-length documentary about a local, pluralistic Jewish high school that engaged in a community-wide process of reflection when one student came out of the closet and asked to start a Gay-Straight Alliance.

We were all excited to see the Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School, but none of us were prepared for how its release would transform our ability to do the important work we set out to do.

By the time Hineini premiered at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival the following November, it had already transformed my life. I had moved on to a new job at a pluralistic community Hebrew high school, and inspired by the film, I wrote an essay for the school’s newsletter in which I came out to the entire 800+ member student body (while encouraging them to see the movie as a model for the kind of community I hoped we could be as well).

And as soon as members of the community experience Hineini, requests started trickling in – and then pouring in – for screenings in Jewish communities near and far.

The Keshet leadership made a critical decision early on: we wouldn’t simply show the film. Screenings would be accompanied by workshops and discussions to help these communities connect the dots between what happened to the school in the film and what they could do in their own synagogues, schools, and community centers. Although we initially worried that stipulation might be a deal-breaker, it turned out to be an incredible bonus for which rabbis and educators repeatedly expressed their gratitude.

Beyond the trainings and screenings, the success of the film enabled Keshet to grow in other ways. We required additional infrastructure to support our runaway film, and the staff soon grew to include an education professional and someone to coordinate the marketing and scheduling of the film. The film raised the profile of Keshet in Boston, and we saw attendance at our local community events blossom and diversify. And Keshet began to receive national attention, creating connections with leaders of other organizations who would eventually become clients of our inclusion work and valuable partners in the Jewish community.

It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in 10 years. We are excited to take some time this month on the blog to reflect on where Hineini has taken us, what impact it’s had, and what challenges we look forward to tackling in the ten years to come.

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