On Being a Rabbi in Mississippi, Taking the Stand (Literally) Against Discrimination

When I began my position as Director of Rabbinic Services at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life just over two years ago, it felt a bit like the Exodus, but in reverse: I was leaving the Promised Land of West Los Angeles, bound for the wilderness of the Deep South.

There are almost certainly more Jews living on my old street (Shenandoah) than in all of Mississippi. For many, that may sound like a downgrade. But, for me, it was part of the appeal: I would be serving a community that can’t take rabbis for granted. Suddenly I found myself living in a state where not only can all the rabbis in town meet for lunch, but we can even take the same car to the restaurant.

Since becoming a rabbi in Mississippi, I’ve accepted many an offer to explain Judaism to my fellow Mississippians. Two weeks ago, I received one such request, on its face a request like many others: A rabbi was needed to explain basic Jewish religious beliefs, could I do it?

But this time, the request was different. It came not from a teacher or clergyperson, but from a lawyer. The audience was not going to be a classroom filled with students or pews packed with church members, but US District Judge Carlton Reeves.

I was asked to be a witness in a suit against the State of Mississippi over HB 1523.

HB 1523 lists three specific “sincerely held religious beliefs” and protects adherents against charges of discrimination. The bill, passed this Spring, allows Mississippians to discriminate against same-sex couples, transgendered individuals, and many others. Soon after it was passed, the ISJL issued a condemnation on behalf of our board and staff. Seeing that statement proudly on our website made me proud to be a Jew, and an employee of the ISJL.

I thought of that pride last week as I prepared for my testimony. I was sitting around a kitchen table meeting with the legal team practicing my testimony. I said limiting marriage to heterosexual couples went against my sincerely held religious beliefs. I said the Reform Movement of Judaism voted 5,000 – 0 to adopt a resolution in favor of transgender inclusion in their synagogues and camps. I said I was one of those 5,000. After I finished, a young member of the legal team from New York looked up from across the table and said “I’m so proud to be Jewish right now.”

I thought testifying in court would be like giving a sermon in synagogue. In many ways it is, except you’re not the one on the bimah. I was more nervous than I expected. Fortunately, after the first few questions I remembered how to breathe, and began to relax. I quoted Mishnah and I quoted Hillel, surely confusing the court reporter.

I knew what the final two questions would be, but I still wasn’t ready for them:

“Do you see [your] religious beliefs anywhere in HB 1523?”

“I cannot find [them] anywhere on these 13 pages,” I replied.

“How does that make you feel?”

Before I could answer I felt the tears in my eyes. The truth is, since the day this bill was first introduced, I’ve been formulating my response. I just never imagined anyone would ever ask me the question, let alone in federal court.

I spoke from my heart, sharing both my pain and anger, as a Jew and a Rabbi and a resident of Mississippi.

I walked off the stand, unsure of what I had accomplished, but proud I had been part of this fight. Day to day, I still prefer the classroom to the courtroom, but the outcome was similar: I was greeted by people—many of whom have faced state-sanctioned discrimination for years—who told me they never realized what Judaism was about until then. Several people said they wanted to become Jews, including a few wearing clerical collars.

HB 1523 is due to go into effect today, July 1, unless there is effective judicial intervention. I still don’t know what will happen, but I’m proud to be part of the fight against discrimination in Mississippi.

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