Posted on June 12th, 2012 No comments
This week we hear from Rabbi Ruth Adar who reminds us why we should all be proud this June. -ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder.
It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.
Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mother. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome. An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.
1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977. I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.
Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot from Ben Gurion and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really? How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.
I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, first of its kind in the Jewish world. There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.
I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.
To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories. And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.
Posted on January 10th, 2012 No comments
It seems like coincidence, but I don’t think it is.
On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, respectively, two distinct but very similar videos dominated my social media community. Both videos focused on the experience of teens proud to be Jewish and gay. In and of itself, this is not particularly notable, but the context for both was. Both teens focused on how the national synagogue youth movements in which they participate, USY and NFTY respectively are the places where they feel most able to be completely themselves.
The first video was a speech that the outgoing USY president, Daniel (D.J.) Kaplan gave at the national USY convention and was posted by David Levy and shared widely from his blog. Levy, himself a graduate of USY and now a professional in the Jewish community, wrote “When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be able to get up in front of my USY friends and make a speech like this, but I wasn’t able. Seeing a leader do so makes me incredibly hopeful for the future.” The second video, which was posted by many of Reform folk in my network (you may have been one of them). Often those who posted it wrote little more than “YOU MUST WATCH THIS!” or “Amazing.” Some like Rachel Gurevitz used it to write about how inspired by and proud they are of NFTY.
To my mind these videos are not just inspiring or hopeful, they are also instructive.
I thought of these videos sitting in shul on Shabbat morning. One of my husband’s students at the local day school was celebrating his bar mitzvah. The son of a Jewish Ashkenazi father and a Korean mother, he stood on the bimah wearing a colorful Hanbok, the traditional Southern Korean dress as well as a batik tallit. After beautiful Torah and Haftorah readings he shared insights about the parasha using wisdom gleaned from stories from both his Korean and Jewish ancestors. Brachot were offered in Korean on behalf of his grandparents who were unable to be there. Though few in the congregation understood, many people were moved to tears by the emotion that came through. Afterwards many of the adults spoke with reverence of the interweaving of Korean cultural elements into this traditional Conservative service. Since Shabbat I have checked in with a number of the kids who attended and asked them what they thought of the service. Not a one mentioned the Korean elements, and when I probed they simply took in stride, noting that there was nothing strange about it, it was just, as one girl said, “it is just who he is.”
There is no question that the videos that made the rounds last week owe a great deal to the LGBTQ rights movement in this country, but it seems to me that there is more. Young people today, more and more, are growing up with multiple identities. In earlier generations, people often felt compelled to choose sides, privileging one identity over another. But all of these young people are unwilling to choose. Their allegiance to the Jewish community comes because they are welcome to be fully themselves within the Jewish world. They are Jewish and…..
For the last two summers, I have worked at Camp Be’chol Lashon which stresses the global diversity of the Jewish community and serves a predominantly ethnically and racially diverse group of kids. This fall, I was invited by a local rabbi to speak about the camp and one of the campers, a member of the synagogue joined me. She explained that unlike any other place in her life the camp was the space where she could be Jewish and African without having to choose.
In an era of multiple identities, creating spaces that are just Jewish is not enough. It is not easy to create spaces where some but not all the values of the community are shared but where the differences are not just tolerated but celebrated. These teens suggest that we can and have created spaces where our young people feel comfortable being Jewish and… In contrast to a vision of Jewish life as parochial or internally focused, this accepting approach has the potential to make Jewish space not only attractive and engaging, but also a prime example of how to be fully human.
Posted on January 3rd, 2012 No comments
Often experience we have as students training for Jewish professional lives can leave strong impressions and mold our vision of our professional selves for years to come. This week, guest Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb a community rabbi based in Boulder, CO and working tikkun olam and tikkun atzmi writes about how a student internship shifted her perspective.
It was unexpected and I was unprepared. At Friday night services in front of a room of hundreds of congregants, I was “outed.” Yes, outed!*
I remember my heart beating fast and being afraid. I thought, “Why did this have to happen? What does my sexual orientation have to do with this job? Will these folks still like me? Will they still welcome me into their community? Will they now think of me as other?” I had hoped to pass (really) thinking that then I would be fully accepted and function more easily.
It was the beginning of my third year of rabbinical school and a rabbi at my internship at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest GLBT synagogue, introduced me to the community and “outed” me as a heterosexual!
Upon reflection some 7 years later, this moment was one of the most profound experiences of my year as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. I “approached” and more fully empathized with the experience that many of my CBST congregants (and GLBTQ Jews for that matter) live(d) through at home, school, synagogue and work. To my unexpected relief, the CBST community welcomed me with open arms and celebrated my rabbinic efforts. In many ways, the congregation was my rabbinic midwife. Unfortunately, not all GLBTQ Jews are fully welcomed or accepted for who they are as God created them.
And so, it was with eagerness, enthusiasm and excitement, I accepted the invitation to participate in a post chaggim retreat of the rabbinic interns who had served at CBST over the past 15 years. I looked forward to connecting with fellow travelers and rabbis (straight as well as GLBT) who courageously served and were transformed by this GLBT congregation and in turn have sought to transform the Jewish world, little by little. The world has changed dramatically in the past 15 – 20 years, in bold ways that I would neither anticipate nor imagine.
The history books will tell the big picture story of how the United States moved from exclusion and silence to more mainstream acceptance of GLBT right. But each of us interns had our own personal stories to share and on the retreat we did. For me awareness real began, in 1987, the year I graduated Harvard College, a small group of students shly organized Harvard’s first Gay and Lesbian meal table in a residential college dining hall. While it seemed odd to me at the time, I now see it as the start my understanding. Returning to college to work as a rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at the University of Chicago, I was aware of how much had changed. I spoke at the GLBT interfaith spirituality group, counseled queer Jewish students on applying to rabbinical school, and worked with reform, conservative and orthodox Jewish students –of all sexual orientations – to show Paper Dolls, a film about transgendered individuals who live and work in Israel.
Upon reflection, I realize that some of the lessons I learned at CBST are particular to GLBTQ communities, but many more apply broadly to the Jewish community and inform my rabbinate. I learned these lessons viscerally and not just intellectually.
Creating a truly welcoming community takes a lot of work. A “welcoming” community looks into itself to better understand its prejudices, assumptions and fears. And then, a welcoming community reaches out to, makes visible, intentionally plans for and hopefully celebrates the uniqueness of its members. I’ve made and continue to make lots of mistakes along the way. I try to learn from the experts— unique Jews themselves- be they gay, straight, single, married, parents, childless, adoptive/adopted, working class, affluent, ethnically and racially diverse, blended, or interfaith. To quote the Grammy winning band Coldplay, “No one said it was easy, but no one said it would ever be this hard!” Well, that’s the leadership task I and we’ve accepted for ourselves. It is hard work & holy work!
*Outing = The act of disclosing one’s true sexual orientation without a person’s consent.
Note: HUC-JIR alumni in attendance at the interns retreat in addition to Ruth Gelfarb were Rabbi Melissa Simon and Cantor Jason Kaufman.
Posted on June 13th, 2011 No comments
This is LGBT Pride month. HUC-JIR is proud of all of our LGBT alumni. As a tribute, this week we are reposting a piece by Rabbi Victor Appell the Specialist for Marketing, Outreach & New Communities for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group. His story, while highly personal, speaks to both traditional and contemporary visions of Jewish family. This post originally appeared on the URJ blog and is reposted here with permission.
They Needed Parents, We Needed Children
When my partner and I were adopting our first child, the adoption agency required that all families it worked with take a class. The class was about becoming a multi-racial family. At one session, the presenter, an adoptive parent herself, prepared us for some of the questions we would be asked, often by perfect strangers. As two white men planning on adopting an African-American child, we knew we were in for it. We have gotten just about every sort of reaction. At my pulpit, one congregant actually asked if we were going to raise our son as a Jew. Did she think that because Avi was black, we would raise him as a Baptist? I didn’t ask. Sometimes we get strange looks and sometimes on Sundays, black women, still in their church finery, stop and give us tearful hugs while we are shopping in Target.
Sometimes, people ask me if my children are adopted. These people usually answer their own question before I have to. But my favorite question is, “So, did you want to have children?” I am tempted to respond that we adopted by accident, or that we woke up one day and found we had a child, or that the condom broke. Last time I checked it was pretty difficult to adopt a child “by accident.” Fortunately, the inner rabbi wins out over the snarky gay man and I politely reply that yes, Colin and I have always wanted children.
In fact, on our first date we talked about our desire to one day become parents. When people ask me why we adopted our sons I say because they needed parents and we needed children. As Jews, we knew we wanted a family in which we could pass on thousands of year’s worth of traditions and values. We dreamed of raising Jewish children, of blessing them at the Shabbat table, of them chanting the Four Questions, of raising children who would become menschen.
It was not so easy to become a family. At first, we assumed that like so many other Jewish couples, we would bring home a baby girl from China. We soon learned that no foreign country allows openly gay people to adopt internationally. The only way to do it was for one of us to adopt as an individual and work with a social worker who was willing to go along with the ruse when working with a foreign adoption agency. Plenty of gay and lesbian couples do this but this was not how we wanted to begin our family. Turning our attention to domestic adoption, we were turned down by a large adoption agency in Chicago, where we lived at the time. They had no experience in working with gay couples and did not want to get our hopes up. The next agency was willing to work with us though they had only worked with one lesbian couple before and did not seem prepared to work with a male couple. At an information session, they handed out a price list. White baby boys were out of our price range, as were white girls. Hispanic children seemed to be on sale and African-American children on clearance. Welcome to the world of domestic adoption.
Eventually we found our way to a wonderful agency that placed African-American and bi-racial children. Here, everyone was the same price. We knew we had found the agency that would help our family of two become three. Remarkably, nine months after completing the paperwork, we brought our three day old son home. At the time, Illinois would not allow two people of the same gender to adopt a child simultaneously. But they could consecutively. Yes, I know, this makes about as much sense as asking me if I planned on raising my son a Jew! So, I adopted Avi first, and then six months later, Colin also adopted him. Though this “minor” indignity cost us twice as much in legal fees as heterosexual couples, we have a birth certificate with both of our names on it.
When I was looking for my next pulpit, our search was limited to states which not only allowed but were receptive to gay adoption. We wanted a little brother for Avi. Florida, which prohibits LGBT people from adopting, was out of the question. Our search led us to New Jersey. Though New Jersey has yet to pass marriage equality, it has some of the gay family friendliest laws in the nation. Here, we pursued a public adoption. Despite the beurocratic frustrations of working with a public agency to create a family, our being gay was never an issue. In fact, the social workers used to vie over who would do the home visits. They all told us how much they loved we way we had decorated our home. Hey, I’m happy to wear a stereotype when it serves my purposes! Again, in just nine months from beginning the process Lev completed our family.
I cannot imagine being told that because Colin and I are gay that we would not be fit to be parents. Just like any other parents, our days are filled with getting the boys off to school in the morning, checking homework in the afternoon, and reading bedtime stories in the evening. And our weekends are filled with taking our boys from one sporting event to another. Our sons have never met a sport they did not like! And Colin is the coach of Lev’s t-ball team. What do you think of that, Florida?