Serving the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the world, as two straight rabbis, makes us a little queer. Not because our jobs place us deep in the LGBTQ community, but because here, we are the exception; and being different, in this sense, makes us…queer.
As we prepare for NYC Pride on Sunday, June 24, we wanted to share with you — for those of you who maybe like us are straight, gender conforming, cis rabbis, with the privileges each of these adjectives provides — a few of our thoughts on creating scaffolding that better supports and celebrates, with pride, the opportunities we have to make Jewish communal life both a little more “queer” and a little more “average” for the LGBTQ members of our communities.
When we look at the Jewish calendar, arguably the most festive and outwardly celebratory holiday is Purim. Costumes, masks, parties and performances frame the festivities. It has been observed that the holiest day of the year — Yom Hakippurim — alludes with its name that it is only a day “like” Purim. One interpretation is that it’s very easy to feel exceptionally holy on a day that is focused exclusively on spiritual pursuits and individual introspection. But, on a day when we are eating, drinking and hiding behind our masks in a crowd, it requires more attention to feel truly holy and seen.
The Purim story of Esther’s plight is one of concealed identity and the struggle to publicly acknowledge who she really is. Her name itself means “hidden” and embodies that tension. She was reluctant to reveal her innermost self, until the pain of being quiet outweighed the fear of coming out. She finds herself in circumstances of unparalleled responsibility and opportunity to save the Jewish people — and she delivers. Shockingly, one of the rabbis of the Talmud also interprets her name, “Hadassah,” as meaning “average.”
We find this template of combining both the exceptional and the average in the story of Chana, who is struggling with infertility. When she prays for this most wanted soul, the Talmud (Brachot 31b) recontextualizes her request for “zera anoshim,” typically translated as “male offspring,” as offspring “inconspicuous among people” — in other words, “average.”
Of all the blessings that Chana could wish for her child, why on earth would she choose for them to become average? For those of us who live our lives with our daily choices being comfortably “non-exceptional,” we often don’t realize what a blessing just being “inconspicuous” can be. In fact, having that level of privilege and the many blessings that come with our definition of “average” is quite exceptional.
The midrash teaches that in future times, Purim will continue to be celebrated while other holidays will become unnecessary. Perhaps, it will still resonate due to our spiritual evolution - we will embrace a new baseline of radical equality and a commonality of individuality.
So what can we do to better hold space for the unique needs of LGBTQ folks, while also advancing the progress of inclusivity and acceptance?
Listen, and then listen some more.
No one’s life is ever hypothetical! Allyship is an applied spiritual practice. As people’s needs change, so must the resources, and we need to hear it from them.
Know with certainty that in your community, whatever size or description, recognition of LGBTQ experiences matters.
Even if you can name LGBTQ individuals in your communities, it is still likely that someone, who you don’t know, is struggling with being closeted, trying to support a family member, and looking to you as a spiritual example for support and understanding.
There can be a large space between inviting folks and making them feel welcomed.
It’s very easy to say that services are “open to all”, but exceedly difficult to make a synagogue feel like a true sanctuary from the hate, discrimination, and anxiety of the outside world. What are specific, concrete ways your community could hold conversations about specialized needs?
When asking questions about someone’s experience or relationship, check internally for the source of your curiosity.
Verbalizing the intention of being helpful and wanting to understand how can go a long way. People are more forgiving of mistakes when they see that the effort to get it right is real.
Normalize speech as an act of progressive inclusivity.
Don’t distinguish marriage by the heteronormativity of it; for example calling out “same-sex marriage.” There is just marriage. Use person first language in describing anyone from a marginalized segment of society. Invite them to share how they most appreciate being referred to. Please don’t minimize it by asking for a “preference.” We don’t “prefer” that folks use the pronouns that we expect.
Consider positive framing to your language of inclusivity
How does it feel different to say “gender neutral bathroom” vs “all gender bathroom?” What about “you are welcome here no matter your gender identity/sexual orientation,” vs. “you are welcome here because of who you are,” not in spite of it?
Like the mezuzah on a doorpost shows a recognition of Jewish occupancy, Keshet’s “Trans Jews Belong Here” initiative acknowledges the space as safe for folk who are trans. Bathroom access is no different. Any gendered space or ritual provides an opportunity to affirm or invalidate the identity of those present and requires a deliberate sensitivity.
Every society is a creation of inclusion and exclusion. Identifying a shared mission and community can help define who we are. In a world that increasingly orients by reaction and rejection of any other identity, let us elevate the most important one — we are all children of the same God. May we, in our regularity, embrace and honor that experience which is exceptional, and in our exceptionality, appreciate our opportunity to elevate the average.