Jewish Journal

Speech I Delivered At Sinai Temple For High Holy Days

by Lia Mandelbaum

September 18, 2013 | 2:48 pm

Not too long ago, Rabbi David Wolpe, the head rabbi of Sinai Temple, came out stating that he would be willing to perform same-sex marriages at their conservative temple on Wilshire Boulevard.  There was a New York Times article published in July that was titled “Gay Marriage Stirs Rebellion at Synagogue,” about the backlash and uproar over his support.  For the New York Times article, Rabbi Wolpe said, “The Persian community is pretty heavily weighted against the idea of same-sex marriage.  There are some non-Persians who also oppose it, and have made their convictions clear to me.”   

Before the High Holy Days, Craig Taubman, a well-known Jewish musician and community organizer, who often helps Rabbi Wolpe lead Friday Night Live services at Sinai Temple, asked me if I would be willing to speak and share my experience as being a gay woman in the Jewish community.  I saw it as Rabbi Wolpe and Craig feeling that it would be good for someone from the LGBT community to bring their voice and a window into their humanity.  Although I knew it was a complete honor to be asked to speak on such a sensitive topic, I originally turned it down and said that I would find someone else to do it because I feared the backlash, and I’m also not 100% comfortable with being open about my sexuality.  Unfortunately (but fortunately) I couldn’t find anyone else to do it, and so I decided to step up to the challenge.  The services were led by Craig Taubman and Stockholm's Former Chief Rabbi, David Lazar.

I received wonderful feedback and feel very empowered by the experience.  

My speech

I stand before you as a woman about to begin graduate school to get a masters in social work.

I stand before you as a humanitarian who loves to help build bridges between different communities, and often blogs about it for the Jewish Journal.

I stand before you as the daughter and sister of an incredibly strong and loyal family.

I stand before you as a Jew, who grew up in a reform synagogue, and in the very sanctuary that my beloved grandfather was the architect for.  I had a bat mitzvah and the Torah portion Vayeshev, which is about Joseph being dehumanized by his family and sold into slavery.

I also stand before you as a gay woman.  But being gay is only one part of the many facets that make me Lia.

When I was 5 years old I came out to my mom.  I had told her that I had feelings for my pre-school teacher like a husband does for a wife.  My mom’s heart sank, not because she’s against being gay, but because she knew it would be a painful road.

My life has included a lot isolating, self-loathing, destructive behavior and pain.  But over time it has also included learning to embrace myself, having a sense of dignity and pride, and developing community. 

A great organization that has helped me is JQ International, that provides a warm and safe space for Jews to integrate their identities as being both Jewish and LGBT.  Asher Gellis, the executive director, has done an amazing job of going out into the Jewish community and leading trainings about what it means to be inclusive with the LGBT community rather then just tolerant. 

I recently completed the Jeremiah Fellowship with Bend the Arc: A Jewish partnership for Justice.  Although we immediately connected, and all the 15 fellows are absolute humanitarians, it still took me three months to gain the courage to come out to them.  It wasn’t because of anything that they did, but rather because of a fear that I’m just so used to.  Their response was beyond supportive.  I treasured this space, where I was loved, seen and heard.  I felt whole.

Another great experience was when speaking about being LGBT and Jewish at an event on relationships for NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.   The executive director, Rabbi Sarah Bassin, had wanted the Muslim community to know about the progress in the Jewish community towards being inclusive of LGBT Jews.  The feedback I received was amazing!!  Muslims contacted me afterwards to thank me for being so honest and encouraged me to keep telling my story.  I was offered help with my career from a fellow social worker, and one of them even let me interview them for a class project.  
So while I have struggled with homophobia over the years, when it comes down to it, I have absolutely been my biggest critic and oppressor.    And the truth is that I just can’t do it anymore.  (PAUSE) I’m exhausted from living for so many years in fear and shame.  I love myself today, and just don’t the time or energy for any more suffering.  And if I am to be a humanitarian, I must fully include myself in the mix.

These high holidays, may we ALL shed the barricades we have put up around us to protect ourselves from letting others in, and for our true selves to come out, WHATEVER that may be.  May those walls come tumbling down, and as they crack may our souls become illumined and come shining through.

I want to thank all of you for listening to me tonight, and opening your minds and hearts towards seeing my humanity.

I want to thank Craig Taubman, Rabbi Wolpe, and any other advocates for the LGBT community.  You have helped me to feel stronger and be able to breathe a little bit more easy.

And lastly, I want to thank my grandfather.  Although he is no longer alive, no matter what sanctuary I stand in, I still feel his gentle presence and profound soul.  Thank you Jacob Gottfried, for bringing me comfort in this moment.

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Lia Mandelbaum is currently at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles as their Director of Programming and Engagement.  She has a master’s and bachelor’s in social work from CSULA, and...

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