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We Must Be Prophets

On Tuesday June 2nd of this past week, I intentionally wore orange. While orange is my favorite color, I donned such a hue with a specific purpose. I wore orange as part of the first annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Such a day of awareness was brought to the national level with the help of Everytown for Gun Safety, but it was not the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT or at the Movie Theater in Aurora, CO that sparked this day of awareness. It was not the systemic racist shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, or Michael Brown that launched such a day of awareness.

wear-orange-gun-violence-awareness-dayRather, the day was started by the friends of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was mistakenly shot by gang members in a Chicago Park in 2013. An honors student who only days earlier had performed in Washington DC at President Obama’s second inauguration, Pendleton and her friends were taking cover in a Chicago park during a rain storm when two men thought the group gathering together was a rival gang and began shooting. Her friends launched Project Orange Tree, asking people to wear orange on Tuesday because it would’ve been Hadiya’s 18th birthday. Everytown for Gun Safety brought such a day of awareness to the national level and elected officials and legislators, actors and actresses, athletes, and so many others, tweeted out just as I did, that they were wearing orange to raise awareness.

As my colleague and teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen pointed out, I’d rather than elected officials symbolically wearing orange, we need them to pass legislation to truly make this world a safer place. And so, a day after I attempted to raise awareness through pictures, tweets, and hashtags, I woke up and got dressed, this time putting on a white dress shirt instead of orange. That day, I followed the news closely as Maplewood Middle School was on a Code Red lockdown because a seventh grader brought a loaded 9mm Glock handgun to school at lunchtime.

A day later, I again got dressed, but instead of orange, I put on a blue dress shirt and followed the news closely that Columbia High School was on a Code Yellow lockdown because a student brought an air soft gun to school.

Thank God, no one was hurt. And yet, as the scare of gun violence and the realities of the world that we live in hit much closer to home, we must realize that raising awareness, wearing orange, only does so much and only takes us so far.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat B’haalotecha. In the Torah portion, we are introduced to Eldad and Medad, who remain in the camp and as God’s spirit rests upon them — v’tanach alehem heRuach — they acted as prophets. Yet, when Joshua hears of this, he is outraged. Next in line to take over as leader and serve as the mouthpiece for God, Joshua complains to Moses, but Moses responds in Numbers 11:29:

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put God’s Spirit on them!”

Moses’ hope is my hope: we must all see ourselves as God’s prophets, and thus, walk in God’s ways, striving to create a safer and more peaceful world, reflective of the world that God set out to create. As prophets, we all have a responsibility to build a safe community, to speak out and stand up, and assure that our children are safe. Just as v’tanach alehem haRuach, as God’s spirit rested upon Eldad and Medad, I pray that v’tanach aleinu haRuach, that God’s spirit will rest upon us as well. We must be prophets so that our children will not have to live in a world where they need to walk through metal detectors in order to take a math test or carry their books home from school in a bulletproof backpack. We must be prophets so that firearms and bullets aren’t sold at the same store that sells food, clothing, and video games.

Some of us may disagree on the solution, but we can all agree on the problem: more than 30,000 people killed every year in United States because of Gun Violence. May we join together, advocate together, and pray together, to ultimately force change together. May God’s spirit rest upon everyone. And may we one day see a day when we are all safe.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Congregation Beth El Celebrates National Coming Out Day

On October 11th, National Coming Out DayCongregation Beth El welcomed Luciana Arbus-Scandiffio, a student at Columbia High School, and a member of COLAGE: Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere to share with our community what NCOD means to her and her family.

NCODThat Shabbat morning, was also Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, the Intermediate Sabbath of the Sukkot Festival. The imagery of Sukkot also speaks to the importance of us as a congregation and as a Jewish community continuing to celebrate National Coming Out Day. The Sukkah, the temporary dwelling place, the hut, that we build and sit in during Sukkot, is reminiscent of God’s Shelter of Peace that we seek. It is represent of a Safe Space, a space where we can be who we are, to come as we are, and to acknowledge that keudsha – the sanctity – in each of us. But the Sukkah is also fragile. It only takes a hard rain to knock the s’chach, the branches uses as a roof, down. It only takes a strong wind to blow the sukkah over entirely. The sukkah reminds us that that sense of peace, safety, and security is fragile. We must constantly, as individuals and as a community, proclaim that we are a shelter of peace for all those seeking. We must constantly come out – be it as a member of the LGBTQ community or as in ally – to ensure that there is always a sukkah, a dwelling place here for all who seek. 

The following text are the words shared by Luciana on the morning of National Coming Out Day at Congregation Beth El:

National Coming Out Day 2014

Luciana Arbus-Scandiffio

            Hi I’m Luci, I’m a 16 year old junior at Columbia High School and I have 2 gay moms. 26 years ago, to commemorate the anniversary of the National March on Washington for Gay & Lesbian rights, National Coming Out Day was born. Today is that day, and it’s all about coming out and identifying yourself with pride. Coming out commonly refers to identifying as LGBTQ yourself, but as the daughter of 2 lesbian moms, I can attest that coming out is also about speaking openly about my family.

Living in Maplewood almost my entire life, I think of this as an incredibly unique place. Some of you may have saw it but there was actually a New York Times article about Maplewood the other day, saying that “If Brooklyn Were a Suburb…”, you guessed it, it would be Maplewood. I think this attests to the Maplewood/South Orange community as a whole. We take pride in our liberal politics, our cute, small town feel, our truly special environment.

And as I’m sure you’d agree, the Maplewood/South Orange community is a great place to live. I certainly consider myself lucky. Having gay parents isn’t particularly rare here and with gay marriage finally legal, a common misconception is that having gay parents, is no big deal. But even here, in this liberal, suburban utopia, having gay parents isn’t without its challenges.

As an awkward and shy 4th grader at Clinton Elementary school, I had the assignment to draw a picture of my family. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but upon realizing that my poster would be hanging in the hall for everyone to see, it dawned on me that this project was much bigger than it seemed. It was, by definition, an announcement of my gay family. At that point I was already pretty open about my moms- all my friends knew,  it was no shock when they came over to play at my house, no surprise when my moms picked me up from school, but still, not everyone knew. And okay, so maybe not everyone would even see my poster, but it felt like something I could never go back from once I put it out in the world.

That weekend I sucked up my courage and made my poster- with me, my 2 moms, my cats, and my frog (who I had actually grown as a tadpole in the 2nd grade, and who is still alive today, much to everyone’s surprise). The act of making the poster wasn’t so bad, but presenting it in front of the class was less than ideal. I got some strange reactions: I could see it on people’s faces that they were confused and uncomfortable. Not everyone of course gave me those funky, raised eyebrows, I had a good amount of friends in that class, but it was still uncomfortable and scary. I had never looked face to face with someone who thought my family was “weird” before-this was my first encounter with homophobia. Never before had I felt isolated from my peers in such a unique, untalked about way.

I was also increasingly aware that my teacher, when talking about families, never mentioned a family that looked like mine. It was all about moms and dads.

In the days that followed, my parents had a conversation with my teacher about my concerns- it proved helpful. My memory of elementary school continues along essentially tension free in regards to my family, but just because this was over didn’t mean I ever lost that feeling of being “different”. I still feel different. Having gay parents will always make me different, but when accompanied by a sense of courage and community, it feels a lot less lonely.

What’s really helped me has been my involvement with an organization called COLAGE- an organization for kids with one or more gay parents. COLAGE is run by young adults who have LGBTQ parents. As their mission statement reads, “COLAGE unites people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer parents into a network of peers and supports them as they nurture and empower each other to be skilled, self-confident, and just leaders in our collective communities.” They have done nothing short of this for me, being part of COLAGE has solidified my identity as a daughter of 2 moms, and made me an ally for the LGBTQ community as a whole.

Here, in the Maplewood/South Orange community in particular, I hear a lot of “oh, it’s not an issue” when it comes to gay parents explaining why their kids don’t need something like COLAGE. What people don’t understand is that it doesn’t have to be a problem for someone to benefit from a supportive community of people just like them. And there is something unparalleled in COLAGE’s mission to empower the kids of LGBTQ families- no other organization like this exists. There is nothing like that sense of community that arises from meeting other kids with LGBTQ parents. It’s such a legitimizing experience- it’s like “oh, everything I’ve ever thought and felt has happened to someone else too”- it’s automatically validating. You never see kids like us gathered together, it creates a true sense of unity, it creates a safe space for people to share their stories in a way that exists no where else.

Feeling proud about having gay parents isn’t always easy. It takes time to embrace something society has taught you to be ashamed of. It’s a process. If you’re a queer parent and you’re wondering about your kid’s experience, here’s my advice:

Let them come to you. Forcing someone to share what they’re not comfortable with is counter productive, especially with something this sensitive.  But if you feel like there really is a problem- some issue of bullying- try to prompt your kid into opening up, gently. Always ask how their day is, everyday, if maybe you don’t do so already. I like to think that if there is an issue, that it will come out sooner than later. But sometimes, your kid might not want to talk you about it. As long as your child can open up to someone- a friend, a relative, a teacher, a, guidance counselor, talking when comfortable is really the only way. For me, talking to older COLAGErs was invaluable. They were older, therefore infinitely cooler, and they had gone through the same thing I was going though.

And like most things, acceptance comes from within. You can’t be taught to be proud of your family, that sense of spirit comes with time.

Being an ally of the LGBTQ community is incredibly important. All great movements need support from people who are ready to take action, and as an ally, it’s your job to stand up and support the rights of LGBTQ people.

We all need to see images of ourselves in the world. Often, gay families are not reflected back at us- they are underrepresented in the media and our attitudes. As a child, always hearing “have your mom or dad sign this permission slip”, and reading books about kids with straight parents, it furthered my feeling of being different.

I think schools in our district have been slow to make changes. As allies, it’s our duty to work for the inclusion of LGBTQ people and families into the school environment. We need to advocate for teachers teaching with a language that is inclusive of our families- we need to rally for more books in the library about kids with gay parents, and books about kids who identify as LGBTQ themselves. We need to reverse our heteronormative curriculum and makes schools a safer space.

With gay marriage legal in New Jersey- people are often believe that homophobia is no longer a problem here. We need to continue our struggle for equality with passion and determination.

I am so happy to no longer be complaining that my parents can’t get married. My parents have been together long before gay marriage was legal anywhere in America- long before gay marriage seemed like a possibility. They were even at the original march on Washington 26 years ago. We’re loosely, planning a wedding (the date has yet to be announced, for we are a family of procrastinators), but my moms have chosen to call it something I find incredibly appropriate, as it speaks to their long, committed relationship : “A Wedding to Celebrate 30 Years of Marriage”.

Thank you so much for having me, thank you so much for listening, thank you so much for supporting the LGBTQ community and thank you for being our allies. Please feel free to contact me, if you have any questions, I’m a member of COLAGE’s Youth Advisory Board. I hope to start a chapter in this community soon. Have a happy coming out day, and thanks again.

_____

I feel blessed to be a part of such a warm and inclusive community at Congregation Beth El. Feel free to contact me for more information.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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