Secular. Reform. Conservative. Orthodox. Straight. Gay. American. Israeli.
On November 3rd, 2010, a diverse audience packed into a conference room to welcome a panel of LGBTQ-oriented Israeli leaders to Temple Beth Am, a Conservative shul in Los Angeles, CA. Spearheading the growing movement of awareness and support for LGBTQ Orthodox men and women in Israel, guest speakers Asaf Lebovitz, Eyal Liebermann, Zehorit Sorek and moderator, Arthur Slepian, made their first stop on a tour of the United States under the organization name, A Wider Bridge.
The success of this first stop came in many forms. Anyone who looked at the program alone would notice solidarity, as the event was co-sponsored by Los Angeles-based synagogues Temple Beth Am and IKAR (two progressive LA Conservative shuls that I belong to and frequent many times throughout the year), and Beth Chayim Chadashim “BCC” and Congregation Kol Ami (two LGBTQ shuls, with BCC founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue). The solidarity continued with the inclusion and co-sponsorship of the event by the Institute for Judaism & Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and JQ International, “a Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Transgender (GLBT) Jewish movement founded to serve as an infrastructure and community building space for GLBT Jews.” All of these Los Angeles-based communities were represented at the forum, either by way of congregants/members or clergy and staff with Rabbi Denise L. Eger of Kol Ami, Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Cantor Juval Porat of BCC and JQ International Executive Director, Asher Gellis in attendance. Fellow “Oy Gay” blogger, Janelle Eagle, was also a notable in the audience at this first-of-its-kind Forum.
Rabbi Lisa Edwards welcomed us and introduced Cantor Juval Porat, whom is the first German-trained cantor since World War II and whom opened the forum with a wonderful song that encouraged all of the attendees to join in, let go and open their hearts. Thereafter we were introduced to the guest speakers. Though each only had about ten minutes to tell their stories, we were able to learn more about the heartbeat of Israel as it pertains to the queer community, and especially how it pertains to the Orthodox LGBTQ community. I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Bat Kol activist and member, Talya Lev at a recent Jewlicious festival, so I was most-eager to hear Zehorit Sorek’s story when I first heard about this event. Sorek was the panelist who was representing Bat Kol, Israel’s organization for Orthodox lesbians and who is also the founder of the Pride Minyan, two of the four organizations that “work together as part of a broader collaboration collectively known as the Religious LGBT Community.” With her symbolism of pesky pop-up ads, Zehorit told us a tale of her realization of being a lesbian via little “flags” that kept waving at her psyche, or shall I say, that kept popping up until they could no longer be ignored (like the funny lil’ pop-up ads that we all know about). Being someone who wasn’t even familiar with the term gay - let alone “lesbian” - until her late-twenties, Zehorit found herself having feelings for a woman, though she did her best to close the pop-up windows that flashed “You’re gay” upon her psyche, because she was married with two children. It was not the easiest path for her in the beginning, but the future she painted for us was pop-up free - she now living happily with her wife and their children in Israel, their - our - homeland.
Both Mr. Lebovitz and Mr. Liebermann also had equally compelling stories, especially when in one story we found out that one of the two males ended up removing himself from the Orthodox community (I’ll not spoil the story for ya!). Though many would at first glance think of this decision to move away from Orthodoxy after helping to move it forward into modern-inclusiveness of the LGBTQ community a step back, it is best to note that a forum attendee posed the question regarding if anyone of the panelists would ever leave the Orthodox movement, and this is how we got the answer of one of the panelists becoming more involved in secular life: The reason to leave the Orthodox community was because one of the male panelists just could not come to agree with being Orthodox and gay; so, being gay won out (hooray!), though it was in the interest of respect for the Orthodox values of living (double hooray!). I honor that decision, even though I personally feel a person can be both spiritual and live within the queer spectrum, and I not only feel it, I live within that embodiment, as well, though I consider myself quite Conservative in my Judaic nature. All of the panelists stated they are intrinsically forever tied to the Orthodox community in their own way, even in the perceived absence of its practices. Contributing blogger, Janelle Eagle commented, “It was incredibly empowering to hear them say ‘I can’t NOT be Orthodox’ and how strongly that seemed to reinforce all of us who say ‘I Can’t NOT be gay’. They embodied so fully the parts of [themselves] that they recognize were how G-d made them”. I mean, sure many of us can find new ways to approach our spiritualness as it coincides with Queerness; but it is to be brought to light that some people may just have to take a step back from religious practices, short-term or otherwise, because of their spiritual-minded nature and their sincerity to be respectful of the religious practice(s) that may have reared them in the first place. Call it the opposite of “biting the hand that feeds you”.
In a time when Jewish days of study are canceled in Los Angeles and many Jews and non-Jews alike still turn to “de-gaying retreats”, especially the more spiritual or religious-minded the person is (Snippet, ABC Nightline, Nov 8, 2010), it is critical for Forums like these to exist so that our community continues to tell and hear of our stories and learn about each other and about our ever changing face of inclusive and progressive Judaism, regardless - and especially if - life “happens” (as it continually will) and people evolve into different aspects of themselves during the process of their growth and/or learning. As Jewish Journal’s Staff Writer, David Suissa, related in his article “Man in the Middle” (Jewish Journal, October 22-28, 2010), it is even more important to have these Forums, discussions and dialogue, so that we don’t perpetuate hate, but instead foster “respect for the fellow Jew” (which Suissa retold from an article by Gary Rosenblatt; “Turning Hatred Into Love”, Jewish Week, 1993). I can’t help but insert the fact that the value of these forums is even more important for the youth, even if many forums of this nature are not usually attended by anyone under their 20s (at least this was the case at our forum on November 3rd). Because I missed seeing some younger faces in the crowd on Nov. 3rd, I asked JQ International executive, Asher Gellis, to help me get a clearer picture of A Wider Bridge‘s youth involvement and more specifically, within Los Angeles:
How do you feel about the tour being more geared for the east coast as far as involving our youth? It seemed like [the panelists/moderator] mentioned JQ Youth and a slew of other East Coast based organizations, but I don’t recall them mentioning but one organization in the west coast involved in their evolvement, [namely] JQ International… Correct me if I was mistaken.
Their tour is primarily west coast oriented, actually, with the most amount of community support [being generated] in LA. NY uniquely has a strong Orthodox GLBT presence which gives [A Wider Bridge] a unique opportunity to connect with a thriving GLBT Orthodox community. In California, most organizations they worked with were Reform, with one Conservative Institution [hosting the conference], Temple Beth Am, and one transdenominational Jewish organization, JQ International.
What role will JQ Intl play in A Wider Bridge’s mission?
JQ is proud to support and promote the work and mission of A Wider Bridge. Our mission, like theirs, seeks to strengthen our global Jewish community by empowering inclusion advocates and GLBT individuals, regardless of religious affiliation.
How did you feel about the forum as a whole?
The speakers were remarkably passionate, engaging and their stories were provocative but always optimistic and full of great tolerance, love and reverence for the Israeli Orthodox community that has for so long failed to recognize them and their commitment.
Youth or no youth in the audience, the progress we want to see as a collective of proponents of change, befalls upon the adults who are seeking to pave the way for our younger generations. It is up to us adults to be examples of positive light and to be seen as respectful human beings in society and within our Jewish Peoplehood. No matter where we end up in the spiritual realm of practice through our varying degrees of gayness, if we get it right, the youth of tomorrow will have less to struggle with, Hashem willing. As stated by the panelists, just look at the dramatic change over the last ten years of LGBTQ inclusiveness within the Jewish community, in the Diaspora and within Israel… Even within the non-Jewish world, as well, I’d dare to add. I just recently turned into my 27th year of Awesomesauce, and I think back to ten years ago, when I was a 17 year old of the United States and traveling in Costa Rica by myself during the USA’s historic “Nine-Eleven”, and how then, I was already Out, but still had so much to deal with. I could only imagine the further burden of not having anyone who related or “been there before” during a time of youth, discovery and stark confusion - try as I might have to display my intrinsic “adultness”, especially after having grown up in an adult world of thought and personality since my youth.
This was a successful forum simply because we who attended, chose to show up, regardless of our religiosity or lack there of, and regardless of how we choose to pursuit our Jewishness.
...Now to get myself over to Israel for Purim ‘71 so I can deejay a party for the Pride Minyan. That would be the ultimate connection of the Wider Bridge between Israel and the USA, personally speaking, of course. I mean, what better way to be Gay, Orthodox, Israel, Queer, American, Woman, et cetera, et cetera, than to be all of the above whilst dancing and booing our Oppressors? Brilliant.
From their webpage, A Wider Bridge is “a new organization, working to create more opportunities for LGBTQ Jews in the U.S. and around the world, along with friends and allies, to engage and connect with Israel”; and on November 3, 2010, we did indeed, engage and connect with Israel by way of this wonderful forum.