Tag Archives: LGBTQ

Why We Celebrate Pride

Last week, I marched through Maplewood Village to the steps of Town Hall with members of our community in the local South Orange-Maplewood Equality March. Waving a rainbow flag, children in our community would hold my hand as we marched together, teenagers – I’m sure slightly embarrassed that their rabbi was giving them high fives, because you know, their teenagers – leading the march, and adults proudly displaying signs that declared that “love is love is love.” But we all marched together.

Later that afternoon, someone asked me why we had the equality march in our town. I explained that it was a sister march with the Equality March in Washington DC that was taking place on the same day and at the same time. Many members of our community were at that march, and North Jersey Pride organized bussing from our synagogue to DC. For those who couldn’t travel to DC, they could march locally.

But this person clarified their question: “I understand marching in DC,” they said. “To show the government and the President and the administration the importance of Equality, marching to take a stand against any anti-LGBT discrimination or legislation. But why march in South Orange-Maplewood – in an area that is already known as welcoming to the LGBTQ community?” they asked.

TBethElPridehe act of coming out is an act of true bravery and courage. At Beth El, we celebrate this act every year at our National Coming Out Day Shabbat, where different members of our community share their coming out stories. But this act still remains an act of courage because of fears that people have: the fear of not being accepted by family, friends, religious institutions, and schools. And the fear of not being accepted by the law. For rabbis, ministers, and mayors, for parents, children, and siblings, for teachers and community leaders to march side-by-side means that one doesn’t have to hide or deny who they are. One doesn’t have to remain in the closet. One can truly just be. And this is the same reason that we, a congregation that fully embraces and celebrates our LGBTQ members, still pauses to celebrate them and acknowledge Pride.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, the biblical narrative involving twelve spies entering the land of Canaan to scout the land. God clearly tells Moses to find representatives from each tribe of Israel to scout the land. The Torah portion began with these words:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Send individuals into the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel. (Num 13:1-2).

God tells Moses and the Israelites that God is going to give this Promised Land to the Israelites, but is still requiring the Israelites to see it for themselves, and declare it as such for themselves. When ten of the twelve scouts come back with fearful and negative reports, the Israelites do not get to enter the land. This is not because it wasn’t the Promised Land. Some rabbinic commentators suggest the Israelites didn’t have faith in God to entrust that all would be okay. Others suggest that these Israelites still had a slave mentality.

I believe they could not enter the Promised Land because it was only the Promised Land if they made it the Promised Land. It was only the Promised Land when they made it so, when those who would inhabit the land could declare it as such. Ten scouts didn’t think there was a place for them there. As a result, because these representatives did not say this was a safe space for them, others did not believe it either. The community cried out in a loud voice and wept all night.

Ultimately, it was the people who made the place. The Promised Land only became the Promised Land when those who entered it declared it to be the Promised Land. It was not because God was to give it to the Israelites. The people had to claim it as such for themselves. Similarly, this community is not simply a welcome and inclusive institution that affirms that all are loved and celebrated here because of synagogue by-laws or mission statements. We are who we are because as we enter this space, we declare that this is a sacred and holy space for all, and that all in this space are holy, that this is a Promised Land for all. To be the Promised Land for all, we must constantly declare that we are; we must constantly reaffirm that we are; we must celebrate Pride! This way, no scout will enter with fear and trepidation. Rather, all who enter can do so comfortable, as their true and full selves, made in God’s Image. May we always march and always celebrate Pride, so that our community remains a Promised Land for LBGTQ members of the community and allies. And may we constantly push ourselves so that we can strive to be more inclusive to all who walk through our doors.

Happy Pride!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Transgender Bathrooms are a Human Rights Struggle – and a Jewish Imperative

This article was originally published on May 22, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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As Jews our responsibility is to embrace the gender identity of each individual not only in our communities but in society at large. That means repealing transphobic legislation like North Carolina’s HB2.

North Carolina’s controversial “Bathroom Law”, which stipulates that in government buildings, individuals may only use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates, continues to make headlines. Proponents of the law, known officially as HB2 “The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” claim that it is about safety, preventing men from “claiming to be transgender” just so that they can enter a women’s bathroom and invade their privacy. But over 200 local, state, and national organizations that work with assault victims claim that there is nothing to support the fears of these lawmakers. And none of the 18 states that have nondiscrimination laws that protect transgender rights has seen an increase in public safety issues because of these laws.

HB2The fight over the law hit a tipping point when the Department of Justice determined that HB2 violates the Federal Civil Rights Act and gave North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory an ultimatum to ensure that the state would not comply with the law. North Carolina didn’t budge, and instead sued the government. The Justice Department responded with a lawsuit of their own, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch describing the battle over this law as the civil rights struggle of this era.

But the fight over HB2 is more than a civil rights struggle; it’s a human rights struggle. And as Jews, we have a particular imperative to treat it as such.

As Jews, we have an obligation to see each individual as made in God’s image. Each individual is unique and created differently. We are not God, and therefore, it is not for us to put parameters on the divine nature or image of another person. Rather, we should honor each individual as divine, regardless of one’s gender identity. Even the rabbis of the Talmud understood that we do not live in a gender binary system. We find six different gender identities in the Talmud. This Talmudic precedent suggests that we should not only acknowledge one’s gender identity, but also celebrate it.

Some Jewish institutions are starting to implement policies in line with this thinking. Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution that “affirms the right[s] of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals” and “urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression.” Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is in the process of voting on a resolution that affirms its commitment to fully welcoming, accepting and including people of all gender identities in Jewish life and general society. These statements understand our commitment as Jews to honor each individual. Last June, I wrote that ensuring that all can use the bathroom in our institutions “is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.”

These statements reflect an understanding of the importance of making sure that our sacred communities and sacred spaces are welcoming of everyone. But our obligation as Jews to embrace the gender identity of each individual does not end with our institutional buildings and programs. We have an obligation as Jews to build a society that is just as inclusive and accepting as the communities we set out to create.

Judaism teaches that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, supersedes everything else in Jewish law. A study by the Williams Institute think tank shows that 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have attempted suicide. This number is substantially greater than the overall suicide rate of 4.6 percent in the United States. The way society has treated transgender individuals makes them feel as if there is no place for them in this world. Denying them the basic human right of going to the bathroom, as North Carolina has attempted to do, only reinforces this feeling.

But embracing all and creating inclusive communities can have the opposite effect. A recent study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and accepted by family, friends, teachers, clergy, and society as a whole are no more anxious or depressed than other children their age.

HB2 supporters claim the law will keep individuals safe from bathroom predators. But this law doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety. Instead, it puts lives in danger. It endangers the lives of people in the transgender community by further denying them basic human rights, by suggesting that they don’t really exist, and by closing them off from society. If our responsibility as Jews is to do what we can to save every life, then we have an obligation to repeal HB2 and similar harmful and discriminatory legislation in other states.

We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that whoever saves a life, saves an entire world, but also that whoever destroys a life, destroys an entire world. We, as Jews, have an obligation to save lives and save worlds. May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. May we make a commitment every day to stopping all transphobic legislation that destroys far too many worlds.

-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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Acting on our Obligation to “Love the Stranger”

It is customary that throughout the summer at Congregation Beth El we have summer darshanim, different congregants who teach, share, and offer words of Torah about the Torah portion. Last Shabbat, for Parashat Eikev, we were privileged to have one of our congregants, MIke Finesilver, share his thoughts about the recent events in Israel. His words of Torah are below. We invite all who are interested to share their words of Torah with the community. If you are interested in giving a D’var Torah in the future, please contact me directly. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev

By Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

In this week’s Parasha, Eikev, Moshe continues to address the Jewish people.  These parashiot are his final words before he leaves them; his farewell TED talk if you will.

Last week, Moshe recounted in detail the journey from slavery to freedom.  A reminder that we need to learn from our past, to analyze our missteps in order to be able to move forward and to change.  It also contained the six verses which make up the first parasha of the Sh’ma (our central prayer).

This week’s parasha contains nine verses which make up the second parasha of the Sh’ma.

Both of them command us to Love Adonai “Bechol L’vavecha oo’vchol nafshecha.  With all your heart and all your soul.  Last week addressed this to the individual and this week to the community.

Moshe, knows that he will not be around to go into the promise land and therefore it is important that he leaves behind a clear and concise directive.  He stresses to the people that if they/we follow the commandments, they/we will be rewarded and if not, then not.  I include “we”, because when we read the Torah, Moshe is also addressing us.

If we take care to follow the commandments, God will take care of the rest.

We are told that even though odds are not always in our favor, we will prevail over all diversity and go forth to prosper with land, with children and with wealth.  However, we are warned not to be led astray by our rewards (not to feel we have earned them), lest we be corrupted by them.

We are also reminded of our missteps in order that we do not repeat or forget them and we are also commanded to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” So my heart has been heavy from recent events in Israel and I need to ask the question “For people who say that they follow the Torah (word for word and letter for letter), how does the command to “love the stranger” translate to some of the atrocities that took place in and around Jerusalem, perpetrated by a few extremist Jews only a week ago?

I know that Rabbi Olitzky addressed this last week, but as a Jew and a Gay Man I cannot explain the pain I experienced over the attack on the people peacefully marching in the Gay Pride rally in Jerusalem by an ultra-orthodox man wielding a knife, resulting in five marchers being seriously wounded and the death this week of a 16 year old girl, Shira Banki.  The attacker was just released from prison three weeks before for doing the same thing in 2005.  I marched in the Jerusalem Pride rally in 2007 for world pride and there were bomb threats and demonstrations that stopped the parade.  Just to be clear, this is not a loud, brightly colored, saucy parade like in Tel Aviv or New York. The Jerusalem march is a respectful rally for LGBTQ people of all ethnicities and religions who live in Jerusalem.

As if that wasn’t enough, the day after we learned of the fire bomb attack on the Palestinian settlement in the West Bank by extremist Jewish settlers, resulting in the death of 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabsha and serious injury to his four year old brother and parents.

And it makes me ask, Did we as a people not go through the holocaust where hate resulted in the destruction of six million Jews and countless LGTB people?  “Love the Stranger”

It could be very easy for us to say these are the actions of a few extremists and dismiss these acts of terrorism as not being our responsibility.  We are commanded this week to love the stranger, but the people who committed these acts were grown out of communities of hate for the stranger/the other.

Last Saturday night there was a Rally in Jerusalem with Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau.  Lau, is the nephew of a former Israeli chief rabbi (and cousin of a current one). He addressed thousands of people who turned out to condemn these attacks.

He said “It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,’” Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

“All the worshippers in all the synagogues in Israel,” Lau continued, “all of them heard today, this very day, heard for themselves the Ten Commandments [in the weekly Torah portion]. And in them, at the top, they stood and heard, ‘Do not murder.’”

“In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?”

In this week’s haftarah from Isaiah we are reminded that the persecutors will be punished.

It says “Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from my hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.”Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie downBehold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  I also say Love the hated, for we were hated.

This parasha talks about the gift of a land that is perfect, in return for doing the work every day to follow G-d’s ordinances.  The message is clear “Do the work and reap the benefits.”  It is not about taking the law into one’s own hands to control the outcome.  This week addresses the community obligation to work every day to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah.

We also enter the month of Elul, which begins next Shabbat and these parashiot remind us to reflect on our past actions and to make amends.  We are commanded to strive each day to surround ourselves with good deeds and mindful speech.  As a community it is important what we say, what we teach our children.   Are we teaching them to do the right thing?  Are we mindful of how we talk about others?

I feel truly blessed to have a community like ours, to see young parents bringing their children to Shacharit services.  To feel the true acceptance in this community and be surrounded by truly selfless giving and love.

May we continue to Love the Stranger and to expand a community that is built on inclusion and mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom!

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…And this is the Law

Zot Chukat HaTorah. This is the law of the Torah. These insignificant words mean little in the continuing narrative of our Torah. In fact, these initial words from last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, introduce the ritual laws of the red heifer, laws that we struggle to understand, laws that we certainly no longer practice.

Yet, as we reflect on the historic events of this past week, we also come to understand the power and significance that the words Zot Chukat HaTorah, this is the law of the Torah, have. We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the teaching of Ben Bag-Bag:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

Ben Bag-Bag taught that every time we read from the Torah, it offers insight into our lives, and the monumental moments in history shed light on our understanding of Torah. In witnessing this historic decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, a decision that legally guarantees marriage equality in all fifty states, we witnessed the power of law as well as the power of the evolution of law and legal interpretation. We should be blessed that we live at a time and in a society in which the highest court in the land interprets our constitution to understand that all of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has the right to marry. I am proud to be rabbi of a community in which we can also celebrate such a decision, in which we can declare that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that such a decision is also the law of the Torah. We celebrate the kedusha, the sacred nature of this ruling.

SCOTUS Marriage EqualityAs we celebrate such a historic decision, we cannot forget the many steps that led to such a historic decision. Beginning with the initial Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969 that launched the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in this country, continuing to the SCOTUS decision of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 which ensured that same-sex sexual activity was not an illegal act, to the groundbreaking passage of marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2004, to the rapid pace of state after state allowing marriage equality in recent years and the SCOTUS decision defeating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, each step led to this historic decision.

Every action causes a reaction. Every event causes another resulting event. We read in Parashat Chukat about Moses’ actions which led to him not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Yet, we ignore the steps that took place that ultimately led to this turning point in our narrative. The Israelites are thirsty. Moses strikes a rock to give them water. Miriam provides a well for them. Miriam dies. The well dries up. The people are thirsty again and complain to Moses. Moses again strikes a rock, but ignores God’s command to speak to the rock instead. As a result, the Torah tells us that Moses and Aaron will not enter the land of Israel. This wasn’t just about the striking of a rock. This was about every step along the way, every moment in the Israelites’ journey, that led to this turning point.

So too, as we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday June 26th, we must also pause to celebrate, honor, and remember, the many steps that were taken, the many events in our history, and the many leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for equality, that led to this moment. We also know that we have a long way to go for true equality. We know that even though marriage equality is legal in all fifty states, in many states individuals can still be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fight for true equality is far from over.

Still, we need to pause and celebrate the many steps that have led to this moment, that allow us to celebrate marriage equality and say that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that this legal decision which emphasizes that each individual is equal, and made in God’s image, is also the law of our Torah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride Is…

Last week, my congregation participated in the annual North Jersey Pride week, hosting a “Progress in the Pulpit” conversation on Monday night, speaking about Pride and equality on Shabbat from the bimah, celebrating with a Pride ice cream social on Shabbat afternoon, and being present at last Sunday’s Pride Festival. Pride week, and Pride month, is observed in June because of the Stonewall riots that took place in late June of 1969, which was arguably the turning point event leading up to the modern fight for LGBT rights.

PrideFest1Last Shabbat, during Pride week, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, and read the narrative of the twelve scouts being sent to the Promised Land to scout the land and the nations that inhabit the land. This narrative though is about more than scouting the land. This story is really a story of how we see ourselves and not a story about how we are seen by others.

In Numbers 13:33, ten scouts report back:

We saw Giants there and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

More than anything else, this is a statement about self-esteem and self-confidence. Who we are as a people and who we are as a community is determined by how we make people feel. We fail if there are those in our community that have low self-esteem, doubt who they are, who they love, and how they identify because of statements we make.

PrideFest2According to the Trevor Project, while suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Yet, as Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, explains, if they are shown that they are loved and excepted by their teachers, families, and faith communities, then the statistics even out.

So Pride is to be like Joshua and Caleb. We do not just condone; we celebrate each individual. We must teach each
individual to be like Joshua and Caleb, to believe that they are good enough, brave enough, and strong enough, to be themselves. Anything else is unacceptable.  That is what Pride is.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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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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