Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
Rabbi Toba Spitzer became the first openly LGBTQ person chosen to head a rabbinical association in the United States in 2007 when she was elected president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. In another historic moment, she was recently elected president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. We interviewed her about her vision for her new role as well as the journey that brought her to this position.
When did you know that you wanted to become a rabbi? What was going on in the world at the time, and how might that have influenced your activism?
I started thinking about going to rabbinical school in my late 20s — around 1991. I was working at the Jewish Peace Lobby, organizing rabbis to support Israeli-Palestinian peace, and I thought about the voice rabbis might have in the world. I had been in D.C. for five years working for various community-based organizations on a variety of issues, and was thinking about how to have an impact on the world. Being at the Jewish Peace Lobby after being in the secular left in D.C., I realized that I wanted to do my work from a Jewish, moral place. I was very interested in economic justice issues and figuring out a Jewish voice around that; there wasn’t really that much out there at the time. This was before the whole “Jewish Justice Industrial Complex” had come into being; it was before Bend the Arc, JOI, Avodah or Keshet. Becoming part of the staff of a Jewish justice organization wasn’t really an option yet.
What was it like being in rabbinical school as an out lesbian in the early ’90s?
First of all, being out influenced where I went to school. At the time, if you were out, the only two options were the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. When I got to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, there was actually some visibility of gay and especially lesbian students. It just turned out that my incoming class had a lot of lesbians and one gay man. That wasn’t a trend, but it ended up being very comfortable. I entered in 1992, and in 1993 the movement put out a historic statement about inclusion of gays and lesbians, including the movement’s position on same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, trans issues weren’t really on the radar at that time.
Also at that time, I met with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who had graduated a few years before and had been unable to get a pulpit job. She told me to go into rabbinical school not expecting to get a job, so I did that. As far as I know, there were no out rabbis in any places that weren’t explicitly LGBT synagogues. And then when my class graduated, there were three of us who were out–two lesbians and one gay man–who were hired as congregational rabbis. I think we were the first. When we were graduating, there were three Reconstructionist congregations that had gone through a workshop series created by the movement which was designed to help congregations be welcoming to gay and lesbian rabbis. I only applied to congregations that had been through that process. I knew that it would be enough of an issue–just me being there–that I didn’t want to have to fight it from the ground up.
How have you seen inclusion in the Jewish community grow since you became a rabbi?
I think that back then, people were well-meaning, but there was a lack of visibility and awareness. At my synagogue, Dorshei Tzedek, everyone was straight. They very much wanted to be inclusive, and they did hire me. Yet there were little things, like the Hebrew school forms said “Mother’s Name, Father’s Name.” These were the progressive folks; if this was happening in the progressive places, what was happening everywhere else? As far as I know, I was the only out rabbi in Boston when I arrived in 1997. The Mass Board of Rabbis was mostly male. Having women there was a big deal, let alone any LGBT folks. What I found at Dorshei is that people who came by and didn’t see themselves represented in the congregation wouldn’t come back. We had to figure out how to get queer people into the community so that when other people came, they would be able to see themselves in the congregation. That took a little while, but once we had that happening, it became a lot easier to do outreach.
What growth is still needed? In your own congregation?
It depends on which corner of the Jewish community and which congregation. I think that for places like Dorshei, which are gay and lesbian friendly, there’s still a bit of a learning curve around trans issues. I think that there are communities where gay and lesbian issues are still more of an issue. The Conservative movement in New England is very progressive, but the entire movement has only recently officially embraced same-sex marriage, etc. And the Orthodox movement is in a different place. My general feeling is that people want to do the right thing, but they need information and help. I’ve personally never encountered any active hostility; it’s a matter of people being aware and educated. That’s my sense. Maybe there’s a bit of a bubble in Massachusetts, but now that Keshet is working nationally, I feel that there’s an awareness that’s spreading across the country.
What does it mean to be an out lesbian leader in this new role at this particular time, and what are your goals for this position?
It’s amazing to me that in 20 years, I’ve gone from being the only out rabbi in Boston to being a lesbian who is president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and having that fact not actually be a big deal in the communities that MBR represents. I’m happy that we’ve gotten to a place where it’s not a huge point of focus. The Jewish community has been committed to LGBT issues for a long time, beginning with the Jewish Community Relations Council helping to pass the same-sex marriage amendment. There still is positive forward motion. Under Rabbi David Lerner’s leadership as MBR president, we released a transgender inclusion statement that was a great step forward. We’re working a lot on Muslim/Jewish relationships in our communities. As the Jewish community gets more involved in sanctuary work, maybe the MBR can get more rabbis involved. People really look to the Mass Board of Rabbis as one of the important voices in the community.
What role can the Jewish community in Massachusetts play in promoting a world where we can overcome social inequality?
We start by asking, “What’s my role? What can we do?” I think a lot of people are stepping up– whether it’s by housing refugees, becoming part of the sanctuary movement, or being in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors. The Jewish community in Boston is–certainly with exceptions–disproportionately well-off. I think that real change is going to require that we give up some of that economic privilege. The growing economic inequality which many of us–myself included–have benefited from, means that a lot of people are struggling more, including members of the Jewish community. It’s in our self-interest to make the situation more equitable. In Massachusetts, that means passing the millionaire tax. I hope that the Jewish community is solidly and powerfully behind that in 2018. It’s one concrete way to get wealth redistributed.
What Jewish values can be used to heal aspects of the world that are broken?
The value of tzedek (justice) has to do with a vision of how society should be. It involves distributing wealth equitably. Chesed (loving-kindness) is about how we care for one another and how we are connected to each other. To me, those two values always are at the center. Then there are other Jewish values that apply more specifically–like honoring the elderly, caring for the poor, and every person being created in G-d’s image. B’tzelem Elohim, a sense of the dignity of every human being, echoes a human rights approach. What does it mean to treat every person as if there is a spark of the G-dly in them? I think that’s a very powerful value.
What gives you hope and keeps you inspired during challenging times?
What has been giving me hope are the people who are willing to think in really new ways. I find that there’s a growing commitment to very deep principles of nonviolence that’s really transforming our relationships with other people. What gives me hope is the ability to be very clear about oppression and what leads to oppression, while at the same time refusing to divide people up into categories of “good” and “bad.” The other thing that gives me hope is the energy that has come out of the November election. A lot of people have woken up to a lot of horrible things that were going on before the election, but people weren’t energized or paying attention. Now there’s energy! There is not only energy, but there is also a lot of leadership trying to channel that energy in different ways–including participating in the political arena, being a part of the sanctuary movement, standing in solidarity with Muslims, and people seeking to make their little corner of the world better. I find that all very, very hopeful.