Last month, at an event called Tikkunfest I met a bright young man who told me about his cousin’s recent suicide. He explained, “Jeremy was a quiet, studious boy, who loved sushi and Italian food. He lived in a small conservative Jewish community in France, and followed Judaism traditionally. He was studying Law in University, and would often get into heated discussions regarding human rights, and Civil Union Rights Advocacy. Yet even with many options and possibilities available to him he jumped from the roof of his university committing suicide only a few months ago. His last Facebook status screamed of despair and lack of acceptance. He felt that life had become unbearable. He had come out to his family six months prior, admitting that he was gay. This had put him under intense pressure from his parents to keep his sexual orientation under wraps, as they didn’t want to suffer social rejection. He was also told multiple times, that he was just going through a phase, and his feelings and orientation were not valid. He found himself wishing he was normal like everyone else. He would say to me “I wish I could be attracted to women, but I am not. I am attracted to men.” I tried to support him as best I could, and even flew to Europe to visit him last year, but sadly the environment, and attitudes of those around him ended up being too much for him to deal with.” After hearing this man’s tragic story, I kept thinking about how about how incredibly important it is that the Jewish community acknowledges that LGBT issues are very real and strive to be pro-active about learning the tools which can help prevent tragedies like what happened with Jeremy. I told my new friend about JQ International, which is a wonderful organization that provides social and educational programming for the Jewish LGBT community. JQ does amazing work, like going to different synagogues to train their staff and clergy to help their community become more LGBT inclusive.
Last week I sat down with JQ International’s Executive Director, Asher Gellis, to ask him questions and hear about his experience of what is going on in the Jewish Community regarding LGBT issues, which I would like to share with you.
I asked Asher, “What is the biggest issue you come across when working with the Jewish community?” Asher explained “I hear from people that their community is inclusive, and I ask them a series of five or so questions like, what specific programs they have for the LGBT community? What educational opportunities have you offered your community about LGBT needs? Have you offered commitment ceremonies or gay and lesbian marriages at your congregation? Do you have role models that are “out” in your congregation? Usually they answer no to all of these questions despite the fact they say that they are an inclusive environment. I believe that they sometimes confuse what it means to be tolerant with what it means to be inclusive. A tolerant community is one where a gay person isn’t going to fear for their life or fear the humiliation of not being respected as a human being, and that’s a far cry from being inclusive. An inclusive community is one that takes proactive steps to demonstrate that LGBT’s are valued members of their community and provides for what their Jewish needs are. I strive to help educate people on what the needs of the LGBT community are, how LGBT’s identify, and how to promote themselves in a way that lets LGBT’s know that their Congregation is an inclusive environment.
I then asked Asher, “Do you see LGBT issues within every denomination in Judaism?” He replied, “Absolutely. I see it more as an opportunity that there’s great room for compassion and expansion of tolerance and understanding about LGBT issues but I also feel that every denomination of Judaism is struggling with the issue. I think the Reform movement has done a tremendous amount of work towards creating an inclusive environment, however it is still a reality that a gay, lesbian or transgendered Rabbi are going to face a lot of discrimination in a job interview. While the Jewish community as a whole may be very tolerant towards gay and lesbian people, there’s a lot of “homosexuality is fine as long as it’s not my child” and “as long as it’s somebody else’s problem and not mine.” There are a lot of opportunities for increasing education and knowledge, and I think a lot of people are more open to being exposed to LGBT needs and it’s just a matter of being able to reach those people.”
I asked Asher, “How would you do a training for an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform community?” Asher replied, “With every training I do, I sit down with the staff or clergy and find out if issues have come up in their community, what their experience has been, and try to determine their level of knowledge and experience in supporting LGBT community members. I try to find out exactly what their needs are and tailor a program directly to those needs. If an Orthodox community comes to me and asks how I can help them increase tolerance and create a healthier environment without actually condoning this lifestyle, I would create a program on how to be an ally, and why it is important to be supportive of people who are different. I help them address why it is valuable to have diversity within a community and why it is important for us as Jews to be supportive to all our community members regardless of their needs and lifestyle choice. I have also gone into communities and created programs with parents who want to ask me serious questions about gender identity and how they can be more supportive of what their children are going through. I also do trainings with clergy to help them learn about what resources are available in the greater community. What do they do when a parent comes to them with an issue? What Jewish texts are available for education, and how can they help someone who is gay or lesbian find an environment where they feel like a productive part of the community. Each community has different needs. It is essential to really listen to what they’ve gone through, what their experiences are, and what they want to do in the future. In each situation, I try to tailor a program to fit their specific needs.”
I asked Asher, “Do you think that it’s hard to get parents to come forward and talk about LGBT issues?” He replied “Parents will often imagine what they want for their children as opposed to really taking a look at what their children are going through. How well a parent directly responds to a child’s LGBT needs will have a direct impact on their healthy or unhealthy identity as an adult. The more they are rejected or not supported by their family, the more likely they are to be involved in at risk behaviors, like drugs or alcohol and are more at risk of committing suicide.”
I asked Asher, “Do you think that the recent “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” written by the Orthodox Clergy, scholars, educators and mental health professionals has helped?” He told me, “It’s a major step in the right direction, only ten years ago the Orthodox community would not even discuss this matter, and even the Conservative movement was very shy about the subject. Ten years later, there are now conversations around Shabbat dinner tables and conversations going on within the community. The Orthodox community is beginning to embrace the idea that the focus should not be on whether being gay is a choice or not, but rather on if someone is choosing to hide who they are ultimately causing themselves more harm. It is about reframing the questions. The Orthodox community is taking important steps towards treating LGBT Jews with respect and dignity and recognizing that they have Jewish souls and needs. Many gay Jews strive to feel like part of a community, and often feel disconnected, which has been misinterpreted by some as LGBT’s turning their backs on Judaism. Many Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews are very spiritually connected and committed to Orthodox Judaism, but there are many issues within the Orthodox community that conflict with Halecha and the traditional ideal Jewish family structure. It is comforting to see that the Orthodox community is taking steps towards respecting gay and lesbian individuals, and seeing them as members of their community.”
I asked Asher, “Which Jewish texts do you refer to when dealing with LGBT issues?” He replied, “There are a number of texts in the Torah and various scriptures in Judaism that talk about different types of gender identity and it’s not necessarily a binary. It is not black and white, it is about being able to step away from an easy yes or no, male or female, gay or straight reality, and recognizing that there are many levels of identity that are not binaries. A person’s existence is very complicated, but Tselem Elohim; We are all made in G-d’s image. G-d is a very complicated figure in Jewish life as are G-d’s creations. When people see in black and white, it minimizes the beauty of G-d’s creations and the complexities of what G-d has created. I also believe kol Israel aravim zeh ba zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another and I think that there’s an obligation to those individuals who have a harder course in life.”
Lastly, I wanted to know, “when kids witness their parents being judgmental and unsupportive of the LGBT community, what kind of a message do you believe it sends them? Asher responded, “It is a hard job to be a parent today and parents are constantly put in situations where they speak without realizing the affect it could have on their children. Parents must teach their children that it is not acceptable to discriminate against anyone. Parents should embrace the opportunity to speak to their children about the values we have as Jews, and the love we should feel for all people regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. Children inherit their parent’s beliefs, and love for another, and contempt for another are passed from generation to generation. I was very blessed to be raised by parents who would never say anything against gay or lesbian community members, and placed me in an environment where I had gay and lesbian role models. It was still hard for them when I came out, but I knew that they had never said anything negative, and they would be supportive and would love me no matter what. When I came out, I had the blessing of my loving parents who lived by very strong Jewish values. The question is, what do parents really want for their children? Would they rather their child be gay and healthy or do they want their child to be forced to lie about who they are?”
My interview with Asher made me feel hopeful with the change that is being experienced within the Jewish community. We must continue to stand strong, embrace each other and meet each other where we are. Let us honor my new friend’s cousin Jeremy and all the others who have taken their own lives by striving to be a little more tolerant, loving and accepting each day.
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