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New York’s Gay Pride Weekend Bigger — and Jewier — Than Ever

(Haaretz) — The most outrageous snapshots from any given Pride parade tend to be the most popular – six-foot drag queens (seven, if you count heels and hair,) chiseled go-go dancers in mini-Speedos, loads of glitter. It is an event that has come to be defined by party boys.

But ahead of New York Pride this weekend, many Jewish groups in the area are using the event to bring attention to political and social issues. They are doing so with the help of guests such as Bill De Blasio, the mayor of New York, and activists from Africa, which has been a region of particular concern in recent years as countries like Uganda and Nigeria pass sweeping anti-LGBT legislation.

De Blasio will deliver the keynote address on Friday night at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue and a pioneering Jewish presence in the New York Pride Parade. De Blasio, who will be introduced by the actress and congregation member Cynthia Nixon, joins a long line of cultural and political leaders who have addressed the Jewish LGBT community on the eve of Pride. Past speakers include the playwright Tony Kushner and nearly every mayor, except Rudy Giuliani.

“It’s kinda the place to be,” CBST head rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum told Haaretz. “Every politician wants to be there.”

Rabbi Kleinbaum, who invites the speakers, anticipated 600 attendees for the event, which will take place at Cooper Union College. She also noted that on every Friday night in June, there are Pride Shabbat services to be found somewhere in the city.

A spotlight on international injustice

Meanwhile, across the river in Livingston, New Jersey, Temple B’nai Avraham will begin Pride celebrations with a talk about the struggle for LGBT rights in Africa by a Kenyan LGBT activist who goes by the pseudonym “Ken” to protect his identity back home.

Ken’s stop in New Jersey comes complements of the American Jewish World Service, a human rights organization that has long championed LGBT rights – among other pressing issues – in the developing world. The event follows Ken’s meetings on Capital Hill with members of Congress, Shabbat services at a synagogue in Washington, D.C., and his appearance at events in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“Pride is a way to participate and take action against LGBT injustice in the world and advance their rights,” AJWS executive vice-president Robert Bank told Haaretz, while explaining his organization’s push to bring a global consciousness to Pride.

Though modern Pride parades have come to largely resemble moving fairgrounds, Bank, who has been marching in Pride parades for 25 years, points out that the history of such marches is one of political resistance, often in the face of public hostility. The roots reach to the Stonewall uprising in New York in 1969 and continue through the AIDS crisis, when the advocacy organization ACT UP took direct, sometimes aggressive action, to the current marriage equality campaigns. Now AJWS is trying to widen that lens.

“While we’ve had great success in the United States, there are countries where we couldn’t live,” Bank said, noting that the major achievements at home have led many in the LGBT community to turn their attention to LGBT issues abroad. AJWS is both fueling and capitalizing on this growing awareness. Last year, the organization brought an LGBT rights grantee from Uganda to join its delegation at Los Angeles Pride and this year has expanded its Pride month programming with Ken’s nationwide visits and by partnering with a number of local organizations.

One of them is the newly formed Mosaic of Westchester, located about an hour north of New York City, which is celebrating its first Pride after launching last July. Prior to Sunday’s parade, Mosaic will hold a Kick-Off Breakfast at 10 a.m. at the AJWS headquarters on 36th Street in Manhattan, where Ken will again be the guest of honor.

Asked whether talk of anti-LGBT violence and the alarming legal developments will damper the mood, Mosaic director Bina Raskin insisted that bringing awareness to these issues is in the spirit of Pride.

“It’s nice to hear from the reality of what’s going on in the world,” she said. “It’s an education for folks. So in the march, we want folks to take that to heart. It’s not all party and celebration.”

“This is who we are”

Of course, for some Jewish LGBT groups, it is exactly that: Hebro, a social organization that attracts primarily gay men and just hosted a trip to Israel around Tel Aviv Pride, will take over the Jewish Museum on the Upper West Side on Wednesday night for a pre-Pride gathering featuring an open wine and beer bar.

Yet even the decision to hold the event in a museum, surrounded by exhibitions of Diane Arbus’s photographs of the “Jewish giant” and the conceptual artist Mel Bochner, makes it anything but the typical Pride event.

Another organization participating in Pride weekend is Jewish Queer Youth, a group that supports and provides resources for LGBT Orthodox Jews. JQY has a Shabbat picnic planned for Saturday, as well as a Sunday pre-parade brunch.

“We have been doing this for the last eight years,” said JQY co-executive director Mordechai Levovitz, “and it has been a consistently transformative experience for our young members.”

Come Sunday, during the long March down 5th Avenue and into the West Village, CBST, AJWS, Mosaic of Westchester, JQY and other synagogues and organizations will be sporting a proud combination of the rainbow flag and the Star of David.

Just a few weeks ago, many did the same for the annual Israel Parade in New York. There, they were an LGBT presence at a Jewish event whereas this weekend they will be the Jewish presence at a LGBT event.

“It’s a normal thing for us,” said Rabbi Kleinbaum of the dichotomy. “We believe in being out, whether it’s the gay community or the Jewish community. That’s who we are and what our role is.”

With so many parades and marches, year after year, one’s legs are bound to get tired. But Rabbi Kleinbaum, who has been marching the parade route for decades, insisted it doesn’t get old. “I know so many people who have stopped going,” she admitted. “I have to say I’m moved every year by how joyous it feels.”

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