Tag Archives: Inclusion

Celebrating and Welcoming Everyone

This article was originally published on June 26th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I received two phone calls in recent months, one from a good friend from college who is a lawyer and the other from my cousin who is a speech and language pathologist. Each had been asked to officiate at a wedding of a friend, so they called me, a rabbi who has officiated many weddings, for advice. They wanted to understand the different traditional Jewish rituals so that they could incorporate them into a meaningful wedding experience. They went online to get “ordained,” making sure that their weddings were legal in the states they took place, in addition to being legal “according to the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.” Neither of these weddings were interfaith weddings. In each case, the couple wanted someone to stand under the chuppah with them that they were deeply connected to, and also to have the ceremony be meaningful and sacred. These were also clearly conscious choices to not have a rabbi — or other clergy member for that matter — officiate. This was about the established institutions in the Jewish community failing to bring these families in.

To be honest, I am not interested in having a discussion about rabbinic officiation at weddings in this forum, mostly because writing an opinion piece on a website is not the appropriate format for such a conversation. As it is, I expect plenty who will comment in agreement and disagreement. But as we’ve seen over these past several weeks in recent articles and op-eds, this conversation is filled with a multitude of opinions. Some are from a halakhic perspective, and some from a sociological one, some from personal experiences of joy, and some from personal experiences of hurt and heartache. All needs to be a part of any conversation in guiding one’s understanding of this. This conversation should be had in a appropriate way with respectful dialogue, respectful of one’s beliefs, but most importantly, of one’s choices. This conversation is not about hypotheticals. This conversation is about actual individuals and their choices.

I appreciate colleagues Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieand Rabbi Roly Matalon for finding ways that they feel comfortable with to celebrate the wedding of members of their community, even if one of the partners in that couple does not identify as Jewish. However, I turn back to the experiences of these two friends who called me and are now officiating at weddings just as I am and realize that the problem is deeper, if rabbis aren’t being called to officiate at weddings, even when both partners identify as Jewish. Yes, if a rabbi officiates at a wedding and participates in a couple’s most meaningful and sacred moments, whether both members of a couple are Jewish or not, then it is much easier to help that couple become involved in the Jewish community and navigate Jewish experiences. As someone who understands the importance of halakha as a guide to Jewish living and Jewish ritual, I also understand the complexity of a halakhic framework at times. And I know that it is much more difficult and challenging, and arguably hypocritical, for a rabbi – including me – to say “I cannot officiate at your wedding, but the day after your wedding, I want you to be involved in our community.”

Rabbi Abby Treu reminded me this week of these calls from my friends. She wrote in the New York Jewish Week that:

It turns out that in 2017, very few Jews care what rabbis say. Just look at The New York Times’ wedding announcements, and count the number of weddings performed by friends rather than clergy. Or ask around to find out how many people ask a rabbi when they have a question of Jewish law, and how many more turn to Rav Google.

 

The question then is not “What should rabbis do? Officiate at interfaith weddings or not?” The question is: “What does it mean to be a rabbi at all?” And its corollary: “How can rabbis create connection and community for what I call “Jews and those who love us”?

Standing under the chuppah is one way to create connection and community. But it’s also only one way. My responsibility as rabbi and I believe the responsibility of every synagogue is to create connection and community for all who walk through the synagogue doors. As you enter our lobby at Congregation Beth El, it says exactly that:

We welcome people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to join us on our journey – learned and novice; born Jewish, Jew-by-choice, or non-Jewish living Jewishly; single or partnered; gay or straight. We hope that all who enter find a Makom Kadosh – a holy space – in which to seek God, connection, and community.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater, of which I am a proud alum, came out with a statement last week that I was particularly critical of. First I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say – simultaneously reaffirming their age-old stance which seemed to be exclusionary while also striving to be welcoming, and using language at best missed the point and at worst was offensive. Most importantly, statements like this only make it harder for those of us in our communities to build the welcoming and inclusive institutions we strive to build. I believe this conversation is not really a conversation solely about rabbinic officiation. It is about the language we use and the culture we create. It is about how we make sure to connect with all whho identify as Jewish and all who have cast their lot with the Jewish people. It is about how we make sure all who are raising Jewish children feel welcome, regardless of their own faiths. If we fail to help people connect and we fail to create multiple entry points for them to connect, then nothing else matters.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Abraham wrote in the Times of Israel this past week about his commitment to create inclusive communities. He concluded his writing with this analogy:

For years, educators have bemoaned the practice of teaching abstinence only in our school systems. To my knowledge, they did not disagree because it isn’t the best form of birth control, but because the facts on the ground tell us that our children are in relationships and they require more information than simply being told “wait till your married”.

His point is that we need to do better than just saying ‘date someone who is Jewish’ and ‘marry someone who is Jewish” or ‘rabbis won’t officiate at your wedding.’ We need to give individuals meaningful spiritual experiences and connection so that they’ll want to make Judaism a core part of their identities and their lives. We need to realize that individuals are going to make the decisions that they are going to make, the decisions that are right from them, and we need to do better as communities to accept, and yes even celebrate, those decisions. We need to do a better job to celebrate those who want to be a part of our communities and make sure that they feel welcome. We can’t just open our doors wide and say “look how welcoming we are.” We need to show it with our actions. That won’t mean the same thing for everyone and every synagogue or Jewish communal institution, but that does mean that digging our heels in the ground does not do anything to make people feel welcome. It only turns people away.

I truly believe that creating a welcoming and inclusive community is what is most important. Everything follows from that. We cannot create meaningful spiritual, sacred, educational, communal, social, and social justice experiences if we do not first ensure that someone feels welcome here. We as a Jewish community often only get one chance at making sure someone feels welcome. And if we miss that chance, then we will not be able to help someone grow in their Jewish journeys. We will not be there to help them build their Jewish homes and grow their Jewish families. We as a Jewish community – and Jewish communal leaders – must do better, to not judge other people and their life decisions, but to. Instead, we must truly welcome each and every person who we interact with, and help them navigate their own Jewish journeys, even if their journeys, and ultimately their destinations, may look different from our own personal ones.

My father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the greatest of all my teachers, has been a leading voice in this work, and spent almost two decades as Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism. A number of years ago, he introduced me to their work with renowned Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University, who calculated population projections for American Jewry through the year 2080. That study suggested that based on the status quo, the Jewish community from now until 2080 would decrease by millions. But get this: if there was no intermarriage, the population would still decrease by millions. But if the Jewish community was more welcoming and celebrated every family and welcomed them into our institutions, and truly understood the importance of outreach, then the size of the Jewish community would actually increase! This has proven to be the case.image

 

This past Shabbat, the Jewish community read from Parashat Korachand of Korach’s rebellion. Rabbinic tradition concludes that Korach’s rebellion fails because his rebellion was more of a coup to overthrow Moses as leader. But the essence of his words still resonate.

You’ve gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the rest of God’s people? (Num. 16:3).

Rashi explains that when Korach says that all of the community is holy, he means that each person heard God’s voice at Sinai. Each individual is sacred. No person is anymore closer to God than anyone else, even Moses! Each individual is holy and we should not deny the holiness of anyone or of any decision they make, because of who they love, or because their Jewish family may look a little bit different than yours.

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face (Num. 16:4).

Rashbam suggests that Moses was praying and Ibn Ezra explains that Moses did so in a fit of prophecy. But I believe the Bekhor Shor is spot on: Moses fell on his face out of shame. Moses realized that there was a part of what Korach was saying that was true, that he was seeing some people as better than others, instead of seeing each individual as sacred.

It doesn’t matter if a rabbi will officiate at a couple’s wedding if we fail to help that couple find connection to a rabbi, a synagogue, or the organized Jewish community at all. We need to ensure that everyone feels like they belong in the community. So let us no longer simply fall on our faces. Instead, let us see, and celebrate, every person as holy and welcome them in.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Congregation Beth El Celebrates National Coming Out Day 2015

On October 11th, Congregation Beth El celebrated National Coming Out Day. Beth El Congregant and Executive Director of North Jersey Pride, CJ Prince, taught sixth and seventh graders of our Jewish Learning Center about inclusion, acceptance, and equality. 


This past Shabbat, the Shabbat following National Coming Out Day, CJ shared her story with our congregation and community. We read Parashat Noach, the story of Noah’s Ark that Shabbat and read of the rainbow, the Keshet, as a sign and symbol of God’s promise to protect all of God’s creatures. The rainbow is the symbol of the LGBTQ community as well, not just because it represents diversity, but also because it represents love and protection, the same love and protection that God promised all of us following the flood. We at Beth El also celebrate all, building a safe and inclusive community for all, exemplified by that very rainbow. 

The following are the words shared by CJ Prince at Congregation Beth El in honor of National Coming Out Day:

CJ PrinceThank you to Rabbi Olitzky for inviting me to speak today, on National Coming Out Day. For those not familiar with the origins of this special day, it started the year after the 1987 march on Washington. More than 250,000 people gathered on the mall in DC to demand equal rights for gays and lesbians. It was decided by the movement’s leaders that having a positive day celebrating revelation, honesty, wholeness would be a nice change from protesting negative stuff. And there was still plenty of negative stuff.  Just the year before, in 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, a ruling that upheld the state of Georgia’s right to arrest same-sex couples for being intimate in the privacy of their own homes. So although the American Psychiatric Association had removed “homosexuality” from the list of pathologies in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in in 1973, it was still essentially illegal to be gay at this time. So we weren’t crazy; we were just criminals.

Right around this time, ’86, ’87, I was a teenager in high school. I attended Yeshiva University High School for Girls. I had wanted to attend the co-ed Frisch School in New Jersey, also Orthodox, but my father insisted that I had to go to an all-girls school, so I could “concentrate on my studies.” Somewhere in ninth or tenth grade I became aware that something was different about me. My hair was permed like the other girls. I wore big belts and neon sweatshirts and long jeans skirts, like everyone else. But I didn’t have crushes on boys like the other girls. I had crushes on girls. That was a pretty big difference—and I was completely freaked out. Because being gay was bad. And invisible.

In the 1980s, the only gays on television or in movies were either asexual and alone or criminals and psychopaths. Very few celebrities were out. Melissa Etheridge hadn’t even come out yet, let alone Ellen Degeneres or Jodie Foster, who were deep in the closet with all the other gays. There was no Glee, no L-Word, no Queer As Folk, no Orange is the New Black, and certainly no Transparent. As far as anyone knew, there were absolutely no gay people in my hometown of Monsey, New York. For those who haven’t heard of Monsey, it’s a tiny Orthodox Jewish enclave in Rockland County, about an hour north of here, sometimes called Monsey-eer-hakodesh. My rabbi, Reb Moshe Tendler, was vocally, vehemently, anti-gay, although to be honest it didn’t come up much in his divrei torah. But if it had, it wouldn’t have been warm and fuzzy. The only time I heard a reference to gay was when my parents and their friends would call a man a faygele. I didn’t know exactly what it meant but I gathered it wasn’t a compliment.

So I worried a lot—quietly. When I was 17, I entered Stern College at Yeshiva University on an early admissions program. I was becoming increasingly concerned about what I saw as a huge impediment to my destiny, which was to marry a man and have children. Fortunately, engagement announcements were a daily event at Stern, which did a good job of reminding me of the time pressure I faced. I knew I had only a year or two until the clouds of suspicion would gather about my lack of a steady boyfriend. I had no choice but to work on changing it. I found a therapist through a friend. I went to her, explained the problem and told her I needed to fix it. I said, I have just two years until I have to be engaged. Tick-tock. She said, okay, we can try that. But you may have to accept just the smallest possibility that this isn’t something you can change. It may not be something you fix. I told her that that was all fine for her other patients, but for me, we’d have to change it. Deep inside, though, a part of me sighed with relief. She was the first human being I had ever told, and she didn’t expel me from the room. She even implied that I might be okay just as I was. Food for thought.

Still, I still didn’t see a light at the end of my tunnel. I couldn’t see how it would all be alright. I did have passing thoughts about suicide, but I never acted on them. Instead, I went for a year in Israel and after spending a soul-searching and very chaste year in yeshiva—I decided I was so religious that I would be shomeret negiyah, a rule that meant I could not touch boys. Which was very convenient. I asked my father if I could stay in Israel for shanah bet, a second year of yeshiva. Israel felt safe, a haven from myself and my reality back home, and I wanted to stay. I knew if I went back I’d have to find out more about who I was and that seemed like it wouldn’t end well. I thought for sure my parents would be thrilled, but to my surprise, they denied my petition. My mother had dropped out of college to have my brother and never finished, and I think she was determined that I would be the first woman in the line to earn a degree. They said, come back and finish college and then if you want to go back, okay.

Fortunately, they let me transfer to Barnard because I was miserable at Stern—and because Barnard was all-girls, too. At Barnard, I found my people. And by the time I graduated I was pretty sure I knew who I was. And I was equally sure that my parents could not know what I knew about who I was. So I kept my life a secret for the next five years. During this time, I abandoned all yiddishkeit. I believed that there was no place for me in a Jewish context and no room for my Jewish identity if I was going to embrace my gay identity. And after 22 years of living as a good Jewish girl, I felt it was time to let my other identity have equal time. The truth is, I was angry and I was hurt, and I just jettisoned it all. It was just too painful to try to integrate these two halves of me, so I didn’t.

Then, in the mid-’90s, I found Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the LGBT synagogue in Manhattan. I was in awe of a Jewish house of worship that invited people not to check one identity at the door, but to bring all identities in to be welcomed, accepted, celebrated. There, I didn’t have to choose between being Jewish and being gay. I could just be.

Still, I always went home to Monsey for the High Holy Days. My father was one of the chazzanim at the shul and it was just assumed I would be there so long as I wasn’t married. But during those years, I was not observant at all in my life, and Yom Kippur behind a mechitzah became unbearable. So when I was 26, I attended my first Yom Kippur at CBST. It was an incredible experience to be asking for forgiveness, but not for who we were. When we said the al cheyts, we said the traditional ones, but then we added in a few. Al cheyt she-chatanu lefanecha…for the wrong we have done before you by rejecting a part of ourselves. For the wrong we have done before you by being ashamed of how you created us. For the wrong we have done before you by keeping ourselves hidden from the people we love.

By ne’ilah, I knew the time had come to tell my parents. I did a trial run with my older brother, Jay. It took me a couple of stiff drinks to get the words out, but when I finally said, “I’m gay,” he said, “Yeah…and?” So apparently I hadn’t been as good at hiding this as I thought. He didn’t know whether my parents had a clue, and I didn’t guess they did. But I was emboldened by this experience. Maybe it would all be okay.

So I made plans to go home to Monsey for a Shabbos and at some point over the day, I would tell them. It was only after we lit candles that I realized this might not have been the best plan. We didn’t drive on Shabbat or use phones and we were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, so if it didn’t go well, I was kind of up a creek. So I twisted and agonized about this for about…twenty-four and a half hours. I’ll tell them at dinner, I thought. Hmm, no, I’ll tell them at lunch, after my father’s had some bourbon for Kiddush. No maybe after he’s had a nap would be better.

Finally, it was evening. My father had gone to shul for maariv and my mother and I were playing card games together. I was trying to get up the nerve to tell her, but felt as though I might literally be sick. We finished our 20th game of gin rummy.

“What should we play next?” she asked.

“Well…how about we play truth or dare?” I said.

“How do we play that?” She looked worried.

I took a deep breath. “That’s the game…where I tell you the truth.”

Mind you, this was not part of a plan. I had not rehearsed what I would say and had no idea what I was talking about. But I had to start somewhere. After that opening, though, I just couldn’t get it out. The words wouldn’t come. It’s hard to explain what that moment is like unless you’ve long hidden a fundamental, unchangeable part of yourself—from the people closest to you—and then decide one day to suddenly reveal it. The best analogy I can make is that it’s akin to wearing a mask over your face for decades, believing that what’s underneath it will be hideous to everyone else. Then one day you decide to take off the mask, hoping people aren’t as horrified as you think they will be. The fear is  overwhelming, literally paralyzing. Long agonizing minutes passed. Tears streamed down my face but the words just wouldn’t come. Finally my mother took my hand.

“Just say it,” she said.

“I’m gay.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

She cried a little. I cried a lot. We hugged. Then I asked her what she thought my father would say. She wasn’t sure. She asked me what I was most afraid of. I said that I thought he might not love me anymore if he knew. She said, “Why don’t you let me tell him and let him come to you.”

So I ran upstairs to my old room to hide while my mother sat down with my father when he came home from shul to tell him all that I’d said. It was only a few minutes later that I heard his footsteps running up the stairs. He found me and wrapped me in a big hug.

“How could you think I wouldn’t love my best girl because of that?” he said. Then he added that he wished I didn’t have such a difficult road ahead of me. But I left Monsey that night knowing that my road had just become a little bit easier to travel.  I was really, really lucky. Having heard many, many stories about rejection by parents, I know just how lucky I was, and am.

Of course, over the next few years, we had some steps forward, some back, some anger, some bargaining, some denial. Lessons were learned. For example, I learned if you let too much time lapse after coming out without talking about it, the coming out expires and you have to do it again.

But by 2001, they were almost there. Not ready to march in the parade, but they had almost accepted that this was who I was. Almost. And then in February of that year we found out my brother, Jay, had a very rare form of cancer and his prognosis was not good. It took nine months from start to finish. He was 41 years old. He left four children, the youngest was two. Tonight, coincidentally, I will light a candle for his 14th yarzheit.

His death crushed all of us. And of course, my parents were, quite literally, devastated. Things changed after that, between us. It was almost as if they knew, having lost a child, they would never risk losing another one.  Their children, however imperfect, however unexpected, were gifts from Hashem and they were going to cherish every minute they had with them. They not only came to my wedding in 2003, but they walked me down the aisle. My father gave a beautiful dvar torah during the dinner. My mother passed away the very next year from breast cancer—another devastating blow. But I was grateful that before she died, she knew me. My father has been nothing but one hundred percent supportive since. That’s a big deal considering how many times he has had to come out to other people he knows and meets, since I’ve had children. He loves his granddaughters to the moon.

When we moved out to New Jersey, I was sad to leave CBST. I thought I’d never find that sort of welcoming community again. But I was wrong. Beth El is a truly inclusive Conservative synagogue. It welcomes all to “come as you are.”  Worship here as yourself. Don’t check your identity at the door; bring it inside and we will not only accept it, but celebrate it. I can’t tell you what that means for me, what it would have meant to me as a young person, and what I know it means today to the teens and kids even younger who suspect they may be LGBT and are terrified of the consequences of revealing who they are.

When Rabbi Olitzky arrived at Beth El, he immediately reached out to me and to North Jersey Pride to see how we could partner and make Beth El an even safer and more inclusive space for LGBTQ members. Beth El was a proud 2015 Equality Sponsor of North Jersey Pride this past year and more nachas I could not have schepped.

Over the past two decades, the LGBTQ community has made tremendous strides. We can now marry in every state in the country—something I never imagined I would see in my lifetime. There are lots of out and proud celebrities, gay-themed shows on television, films, and so on. But it is still legal to fire someone for being gay in 28 states. We also have a ways to go on transgender rights. We are still fighting entrenched homophobia in our culture. And the biggest threat is to our youth. Young LGBT people are still at a much higher risk for depression and suicide. They are bullied at a much higher rate. They often feel isolated and feel unable to seek help. They don’t see the light at the end of their tunnel, just as I couldn’t see it, even though it really was there.

We deal with bullying in our schools, which of course we should, but that’s just one leg of the stool. If we don’t model that inclusiveness in our homes and in our houses of worship, how can we ask our youth to live it in school?

At Beth El, inclusiveness seems to be the norm. That’s what the quiet, closeted gay teen in the back of the shul sees. She sees it’s okay out there. The air is fine. She doesn’t have to live in fear or in silence. I, for one, have tremendous gratitude for that.

I thank Rabbi Olitzky for the invitation to speak to you, and I encourage you all, if you are not LGB or T, to celebrate National Coming Out Day by coming out as an ally to someone you know, someone who you think might be a little uncomfortable with it or someone who you might feel a little uncomfortable talking to about the topic. The next time you hear a joke or a stereotype or a slur, even if the speaker didn’t mean any harm, say something. You just never know who’s listening.

Every time you stand up and speak out, you make this world just a little bit safer for all of us. You become a light unto others. And you become an active part in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world.  Shabbat Shalom.

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Seven Ways to Make Jewish Institutions LGBTQ-Friendly

This article was originally published on June 8, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

HaaretzPride Month is the perfect time to celebrate the sexual orientations and gender identities of all our community members.

prideparadeThe commencement of Pride Month is a fitting time to acknowledge the progress the United States has made toward LGBTQ inclusion. Same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia; television shows increasingly include gay, lesbian and transgender characters; and, just last week, Caitlyn Jenner introduced her new – post-gender transition – self on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Yet, with all this progress in secular America, the Jewish community here has a way to go until it can be considered truly inclusive.

Being inclusive is about more than just whether or not Judaism recognizes same-sex marriages, or “condones” LGBTQ individuals. It is about celebrating the divine nature of each person, keeping in mind that each of us was created in God’s divine image.

This month, the American Jewish community has an opportunity to stand against the discrimination, hatred and homophobia that too many religion- and faith-based institutions nurture. Here are seven ways we can make our institutions more inclusive:

  1. Values matter

Jewish institutions should have a values statement. This is different from a mission statement. The values statement focuses on what the institution stands for. If an institution is welcoming to the LGBTQ community, then this should be put in writing. My synagogue’s values statement, which hangs on the wall at the entrance to our synagogue states that we welcome all individuals, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.

  1. Language is critical

Truly inclusive institutions should not assume that each family unit is made up of a mother and a father (or that it comprises two-parents, for that matter.) We need to celebrate the diverse range of Jewish homes – whether they have two moms, two dads, one parent or multiple. The language on membership forms should reflect that the institution does not make heteronormative assumptions about the sexual orientation of its members. Furthermore, the language that institutional leaders and representatives speak should acknowledge this fact: When the rabbi talks about family units, does he or she say “mom and dad,” or use a more general term like “parents?”

  1. Teach inclusivity

Inclusivity begins with institutions’ youngest members. We need to recognize and respect that some children may already be questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others may have gay parents. Institutions must ensure these children feel equally included in the community. Some preschools celebrate Shabbat every Friday by having a Shabbat Ima (mother) and Shabbat Abba (father), but this reinforces a heteronormative culture. At my congregation’s Thelma K. Reisman preschool, we have Shabbat boys and girls; sometimes with two boys, and sometimes with two girls. Schools can also ensure teaching materials are LGBTQ inclusive. Preschool teachers should read children storybooks with LGBTQ characters, and high schools should have Gay-Straight Alliances.

  1. Provide inclusive facilities

Most communal institutions have public restrooms that revert back to a gender-binary system: a men’s room and a women’s room. While having multiple stalls and urinals in each room serves to accommodate more people at a time, making the choice of which restroom to enter can be unwelcoming for members that are transgender or gender nonconforming. Providing gender-neutral bathrooms is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.

  1. Build LGBTQ leadership

As the Jewish community builds inclusive congregations, they also want to make sure that there are role models for all congregants. While one should never be selected for a leadership position or hired for a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, an inclusive institution makes it clear that the LGBTQ community is warmly invited to be a part of its leadership team.

  1. Participate in pride programs

Participating in Pride Month and hosting pride events emphasizes and exhibits an institution’s commitment to inclusivity. Ways to mark the month can include hosting pride parties for the institution’s LGBTQ members and allies, holding educational programs, adding unique rituals and blessings to Shabbat prayer services, or joining the city-wide festivals and parades.

  1. Prohibit hate

Ultimately, being an inclusive congregation means not tolerating hate, discrimination and bigotry. Enforcing this can include formally stipulating that such views are not welcome, and, by contrast, reinforcing what is welcome, by hanging up signs throughout the institution – including on the doors of the rabbis’ offices – stating that this is an LGBTQ safe zone.

I am proud to be a congressional rabbi of an LGBTQ-inclusive community. My experience as a leader of such an institution has taught me that welcoming everyone requires welcoming change. In order to be inclusive, communities must first and foremost be committed to shifting the way they operate.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Instead of Spin, Celebrate Inclusion

This article was originally published on January 4, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The conversation is still unfolding about the vote by the International Officers and Regional Presidents at the recent USY International Convention in Atlanta, passing an amendment that changed the language of expected standards for these youth leaders.

Most of the articles, as well as statements by USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, explain this amendment as a change in language, from “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating” to “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Many of the statements offer the explanation that this is simply about language:  not a change in policy, but just a change in rhetoric, from a “thou shall not” command to a more positive statement on relationships. Much of the spin suggests that there is a difference between “welcoming” and “condoning.” But we miss an important lesson when we suggest that the message is the same, and only the wording is different.

The fact is that the message is not the same — and that is a good thing.

This new language celebrates the inclusive movement that we strive to create, and our youth are leading the way. USYers have embraced a position that will lead our institutions to become more inclusive, as these youth leaders assume leadership of the synagogues and Jewish institutions they will inherit. We do not need to spin this amendment that USYers passed. Instead, we should strive to learn from their example.

Those concerned with the amendment claim that while we can be welcoming, there is a danger in being too welcoming. In fact, “welcoming” has become a hackneyed adjective among Jewish institutions. It is easy to say you are welcoming. But, welcoming isn’t about what you say. Welcoming is about what you do. USYers chose to be inclusive of all, regardless of the faith of a parent or significant other, demonstrating welcoming through action.

Statistics show that Jews in America marry later than other ethnic groups, which raises questions about the true impact of high school dating on future marriage choices. The faith of a partner or spouse is not a rejection of one’s own faith. The faith (or lack thereof) of a spouse or partner (or teenage boyfriend or girlfriend) does not speak to one’s own Jewish commitment, the commitment to raising his or her children as Jewish, or building a Jewish home. The reason someone marries a person of another faith is for the same reason we all get married: love. We should celebrate that love and a family’s commitment to building a Jewish home.

The fear about this amendment is misplaced: who our USYers date,or marry will not determine their future Jewish identity. USY does give our teens the tools they need to build Jewish lives as adults. However, how we welcome, educate, and help them find their place in the community will impact how many of them actually stay connected to Judaism. By insisting on inclusion and creating more welcoming communities, we have the opportunity to embrace the diverse Jewish families that walk through our doors. We can celebrate each of them, regardless of the faith of a spouse or parent. because every Jewish family looks different.

As a former USY International President and rabbi in the Conservative movement, I am proud that USY is leading the way in doing the same.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Lighting a Spark for Human Rights and Inclusion

onesparkIf you live in the Jacksonville area and haven’t yet checked out the One Spark Festival, the world’s largest crowdfunding festival, then I encourage you to check it out. I spent time there on Thursday and Friday and it was a great experience. I went not only to check out the creators and amazing innovators and ideas. I went because of my work with the We are Straight Allies campaign, an ad campaign that brings together clergy, city business leaders, political leaders, community leaders, philanthropists, and “faces” of Jacksonville to encourage the city council to pass the Human Rights’ Ordinance, ensuring that it would no longer be legal for landlords to evict tenants or employers to fire employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The city council disgracefully failed to do so in June 2012! Some suggest that this ad campaign is just stirring the pot, that it is making something out of nothing, just trying to create controversy. Some believe that there is no discrimination in our city and this campaign is just trying to make something out of nothing. Unfortunately, recent events have suggested otherwise.

There was an article in Friday’s edition of the Florida Times-Union explaining that some were unhappy with the We Are Straight Allies campaign being a part of One Spark, and specifically being housed in the Wells Fargo building, alongside other vendors committed to “Building a Better City.” Housed in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Building, the building’s management company, Parkway Properties, informed the We Are Straight Allies campaign that some of the “key stakeholders” of the building were uncomfortable with the pro-LGBT agenda of the campaign. They were concerned that they – and I – were pushing our agenda on others. While this was in the Wells Fargo building, this was not a complaint from Wells Fargo, for they are an ally and big supporter of LGBT rights and equality. However, other unidentified companies in the building were uncomfortable with the signage and window displays, even wanting to know if the musical performances associated with this creator were going to be “controversial.” The whole point of the campaign – pushing the city council to pass the HRO – is about inclusion, not controversy. The actions of these so-called key stakeholders only reinforced the need to pass the HRO. If this is how companies treat such an organization that focuses on inclusion and human rights, I can’t even imagine how they treat their LGBTQ employees.

we are straight allies

I share this not just because it happened only days ago, but also, because this past Shabbat’s Torah reading, Parashat Acharei Mot, is arguably the root cause of such hate, homophobia, and exclusion. In Leviticus chapter 18, we find the beginning of the so-called “holiness code,” a text in which focuses on a lot of “Thou Shalt Not’s.” In that list we find the infamous verse, Lev. 18:22:

V’et zahar lo tishkav mishk’vei isha – to’eivah hi.

Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination.

As Conservative Jews, we are part of a movement and a community that does not believe that Torah is set in stone, is min hashamayim, directly from God, without human influence. We also recognize that our own interpretation of Torah evolves through time as society continues to evolve.

When Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in this country, was a scholar-in-residence at the Jacksonville Jewish Center this past winter, he explained how he reinterpreted the verse. This is an interpretation that I have heard before by many of my own teachers, that suggests that if we truly look at the Hebrew, the text isn’t focusing on homosexual relations, but rather forced sexual relations. Thus, according to the Torah a man can force himself unto a woman, but because the text is a patriarchal scripture, you couldn’t do that do another man. So to clarify, according to this understanding, a man can have sexual relations with another man, but it must be consensual. Yet, according to the Torah, a man can rape another woman, can force himself on her. We may not like this interpretation because it is just as problematic, idenitifying the misogyny of scripture.

In all honesty, I am not concerned with how we translate the Hebrew. This is a problematic verse. I am not saying we just get rid of the verse, erase it from Torah, because it is problematic to us. As Conservative Jews, we struggle with text, even when we are uncomfortable with it. But also as Conservative Jews, we cannot accept it as Divine truth because, in 2014, this sole verse has been used to condemn, criticize, delegitimize, and even criminalize same-sex relationships.

We can look at problematic verses in the Torah and see them for what they are – simply a human interpretation from thousands of years ago of the Divine word, be it by Moses or another author. It is then possible for us, in 2014, based on religion’s influence on society and society’s influence on religion, to also interpret the Divine word. And when we interpret the Divine word, at least when I interpret the Divine word, I choose to focus on the holiness of loving my neighbor as myself, of remembering that we are all made in God’s image, and I refuse to believe in a God or accept as Divine word a single verse that delegitimizes a human being.

This past Friday, April 11th, 2014, was the National Day of Silence, an initiative started in 1996 by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which is now the largest student-run action towards creating safer school environments. Gay-Straight Alliances, common in Middle School and High Schools vowed to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. It is clear that if we do not put an end to such bullying in our schools, then it only continues as adults, no example greater than these key stakeholders trying to bully the We Are Straight Allies campaign out of One Spark, trying to bully human rights and inclusion.

If that bullying is a result of this verse, if the discrimination, bigotry, and hate, is a result of Leviticus 18:22, then we in the Jewish community as a wholerainbow-flag2-thumb-300x170-4984 have a moral obligation and imperative to say that this verse does not define us, does not speak for us, and is not how we understand, interpret, or translate God’s Divine word.

I prefer to focus on the begin words of the next Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim, often linked and read as a double portion with Acharei Mot.If we look at these begin words, we truly understand how to act. For it begins with:

Kedoshim Ti’h’yu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai.

Be Holy, for I, the Lord Your God, Am Holy.

There is nothing holy about bullying, hate, bigotry, homophobia, discrimination, or exclusion. In fact, it is the opposite of holiness: an abomination. Let us then focus on that which is truly holy: each and every one of us, made in God’s image, and let us work to ensure that the holiness and sanctity of each individual is recognized and embraced.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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