Categories
Books Inclusion LGBT

‘Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells’: A Project of Hope

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, was published by CCAR Press in the spring of 2020. In this post, Rabbi Eger shares how the book came to be.

Some rabbis collect their sermons and publish them. They are pearls of wisdom for the ages.

I may yet do that at some point.

But more urgently, I saw the need to center the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout my years of service as a rabbi, I had to create ceremonies and prayers for my community when there were no resources. I was ordained in the late 1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a time when our beloved HUC-JIR still wouldn’t ordain openly LGBTQ+ people as rabbis or cantors. We lived in fear and in the closet. Maybe that is hard to believe now for our many openly LGBTQ+ rabbis and seminarians, but it wasn’t that long ago when we gathered secretly at CCAR Conventions late at night in someone’s room to connect with other queer colleagues.

Over the years, I wrote prayers for Pride Month and National Coming Out Day. I would write invocations and blessings for interfaith gatherings affirming the worth and dignity

of LGBTQ+ people, their families, and people with HIV. I had to invent, create, and imagine an authentic queer Jewish life when there was little liturgy available.

Religion is so often used to shame and hurt LGBTQ+ people. Too much violence and hatred are directed at the LGBTQ+ community in the name of religion. I purposefully write from a different perspective.

I tried to create prayers in a genuine Jewish voice that uplifted, instilling hope and healing. I tried to combat homophobia through prayers and reflections that reinforced the theology that all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. I tried to convey what today we call audacious hospitality, writing naming ceremonies for those transitioning gender, wedding ceremonies before we had any templates, and rituals for coming out. I wrote my first ceremony to celebrate someone coming out as gay in 1986! It was centered around an aliyah to the Torah, as a riff on benching Gomel and a Mi Shebeirach for well-being.

But luckily, over these same three-plus decades, LGBTQ+ Jewish life has grown and blossomed. We have seen tectonic shifts in not just welcoming LGBTQ+ and non-binary Jews home, but embracing queer life and queer Jewish voices.

Often when Gay Pride Month would roll around, many of you, my colleagues, would call or email me to ask for materials for Pride Shabbat. I shared whatever I had created that year. Clearly there was a need for a collection of resources to help communities live out our commitment to be welcoming and embracing places of LGBTQ+ folx. Not one for sitting around, after my time in leadership of the Conference, I knew it was the right moment to collect not only some of own writings, but to invite others to share their poetry, prayer, and passion—centering the voices and experiences of our queer Jewish community.

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells was born out of this effort.

Mishkan Ga’avah represents some of the collected wisdom, voices, and experiences of Jewish LGBTQ+ people. It is a spiritual resource for both the individual and the community. I hope it inspires others to write creative liturgy and prayers using their own voices. And I hope it will offer comfort, solace, inspiration, and hope to LGBTQ+ people everywhere—a beautiful strand of pearls for all of our Jewish community to wear.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the editor of Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020) and a past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA.

Categories
Inclusion LGBT Social Justice

Transgender Day of Remembrance: An Opportunity for Safety and Visibility

Besides coronavirus, there is another epidemic raging in our communities: the ongoing scourge of violence targeting transgender people, particularly trans women of color. Transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people [ɪ] are more likely to be denied equal access to jobs, housing, and medical care, and they are frequent targets of violence—including murder. Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folx are afraid to go to the police for help; when they do seek out legal remedies or safe harbor, they often are further harassed by law enforcement, facing violence at the hands of the very people charged with protecting them.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), “In just seven months, the number of transgender people suspected of being murdered in 2020 has surpassed the total for all of 2019.” Black and Latinx transgender women have been particularly targeted. NCTE’s US Transgender Survey, which included more than 28,000 participants, found that nearly half (47 percent) of all Black respondents and 30 percent of all Latinx respondents reported being denied equal treatment, experiencing verbal harassment, or being physically attacked in the previous year due to their transgender identity. 

The Family Research Project has shown that nearly three out of four trans and gender-expansive youth have heard family members say negative remarks about LGBTQ people, and over half of transgender and gender-expansive youth have been openly mocked by their families for their identity.

These harrowing statistics don’t have to be the norm. There is an urgent need for education and awareness-raising about transgender issues, both in our Jewish communities and in the cities and towns in which we live. As rabbis, we can make our synagogues places of safe harbor and support for transgender and gender non-conforming people, whether they are Jewish or not! Just as we build coalitions with interfaith partners, our congregations can build important bridges, becoming advocates for our Jewish transgender and non-binary members while providing connection, safety, and partnership for the larger transgender and non-binary community. One way we might do so is by reaching out to local LGBTQ organizations to sponsor and host ceremonies for Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Every year, November 20 is designated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). The week prior is known as Transgender Awareness Week, with the goal of increasing visibility of transgender people and addressing the painful issues their community faces. TDOR was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered the previous year. The vigil commemorated all of the transgender people lost to violence since Hester’s death, beginning an important annual tradition.

This year, TDOR is on a Friday. Perhaps at your Shabbat evening service, you will invite a transgender activist to speak and educate your community. Perhaps during the Kaddish, you will read aloud the names of transgender victims of murder from this past year. Or in the week before TDOR, perhaps you will schedule a program to help raise visibility and acceptance of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.

In my book, Mishkan Gaavah: Where Pride Dwells, published this year by CCAR Press, there are several powerful prayers and readings for TDOR. Here’s one to consider using:

A Prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance

Rabbi: We praise You, Holy One, for the gift of life, precious, stubborn, fragile and beautiful; we are grateful for the time we have to live upon the earth, to love, to grow, to be.

Congregation: We give thanks for the will to live and for our capacity to live fully all of the days that we are given;

Rabbi: And for those who have been taken by the devastation of violence used against them. We remember them and claim the opportunity to build lives of wholeness in their honor.

Congregation: We give you thanks for the partners, friends, allies and families who have been steadfast in their love; for the people who have devoted their lifes work to the prevention of violence, support and making transitioning from one gender to another possible with passion and commitment,

Rabbi: For the diligent science, brilliant ideas, and insights that have led to new life-giving procedures, for those in leadership who have acted to provide health care for people who are in transition.

Congregation: We give thanks for those whose prejudice and judgment have yielded to understanding, for those who have overcome fear, indifference, or burnout to embrace a life of caring compassion.

Rabbi: We praise You, Eternal One, for those who have loved enough that their hearts have broken, who cherish the memories of those we have lost, and for those who console the grieving.

Congregation: God, grant us the love, courage, tenacity, and will to continue to make a difference in a world even with the violence aimed towards our community;

Rabbi: Inspire us to challenge and stand strong against the forces that allow needless harm and violence to continue—prejudice, unjust laws, repression, stigma, and fear.

Congregation: Into Your care, we trust and lift up the hundreds of souls who have been tortured and murdered.

Rabbi: We lift up to You our dreams of a world where all are cared for,

Congregation: Our dreams of wholeness,

Rabbi: Our dreams of a world where all are accepted and respected,

Congregation: A dream we know You share.


[ɪ] The Human Rights Campaign has a useful glossary for anyone unfamiliar with these terms.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the editor of Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020) and a past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA.

Categories
Inclusion inclusivity

As Jews, We Cannot Leave the Task of Fighting Racism to the African-American Community Alone

In the wake of the racist killing of George Floyd, Rabbi Samuel Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, shares his call to action, based on Jewish values, to listen to African-American leaders to form bonds and alliances to help fight racial injustice and inequality.


I am struggling to articulate a path through the pain and worry I feel. I truly fear for our nation. Ever since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worried about our physical, psychological, and economic health. I have wondered how we would emerge from our quarantined homes and return to our shuttered offices, restaurants, schools, and public spaces. I have witnessed the trauma of over forty million Americans out of work, but I believed that there was some hope of a vaccine that might immunize us from this virus. There was a promise that eventually that vaccine would allow us to return to our normal life.

But now, I am far more fearful. There is a more insidious illness of racism and inequality that is deeply ingrained in American history and culture. There is no true cure on the horizon. Racism can destroy us. As The New York Times reported, August 1619 marked the beginning of African-American slavery in America, and sadly that moment of origin has defined our current world. I recognize that I am a privileged and truly fortunate white man. Yes, I am a Jew, but I am seen as white. When my children, especially my son, received his driver’s license, I did not have to warn him about the consequences of a broken tail light. I was not worried that he would be stopped for a minor traffic offense and then be subject to a police response that might end in his death. But my African-American friends, no matter how prominent, successful, or respected, have each had that talk with their 16-year-olds.

It is appropriate to condemn lawlessness, looting, and arson. Those acts will not achieve equality and justice. Indeed, those most harmed are often the people living in the marginal neighborhoods destroyed by the looters. But if we focus only on the issue of rioting, we ignore the legitimate sources of the rage. We must not ignore the legitimate cries of those who fear a knee upon their necks or other uses of power to keep them down.

Fifty years ago, President Johnson created the Kerner Commission to look at the causes of urban rioting and civil unrest. Its most famous phrase stated,”Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Fifty years later, far too little has changed. As I stated at the Chicago Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday breakfast, we are fortunate to live in a sparkling, vibrant Greater Chicago, but we know that much of the South Side and West Side have not shared in Chicago’s transformation and prosperity.

We are suffering the consequences of the great entrenched disparities of American society. As Langston Hughes asked: “What happens to a dream deferred?” We should not be shocked by the anger and frustration of an African-American community that has known far too many unjustified killings by police, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and too many more.

What can we do? We cannot leave the task of fighting racism to the African-American community alone. At the same time, the Jewish community cannot respond with paternalism. When our community suffered the trauma of the Tree of Life massacre, our Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i friends and religious leaders stood beside us in our sanctuary. Reverend Jesse Jackson joined us in prayer that night. So too, Congregation Sukkat Shalom will hear from Reverend Janette Wilson, Esq., National Director of PUSH Excel. We want to hear directly from a leading voice in the Black community. We are honored that she is joining us. We must hear directly from Black leaders who speak with voices informed by the pain of inequality and discrimination.

We are taught in Pirkei Avot, 2:21 that, “It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to avoid its demands.” Racial inequality, discrimination, and violence are enormous problems deeply ingrained in American culture. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Indeed, some of the most violent protests have occurred in our most progressive cities in which too many Black lives have been taken in unjustified police killings. Chronic poverty, substandard education, gang violence, and other problems will not be easily solved by people of good intentions. We need to do more, and we cannot give up. Elsewhere we are taught: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” We must continue to struggle to bring about the promised fulfillment of an American dream built on justice and equality.

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon leads Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

Categories
CCAR Convention Convention Inclusion inclusivity

Jewish Community Outreach & Interconnectedness: Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus Reflects

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus reflects on the importance of community outreach to his rabbinate.

I think community outreach has been one of my most memorable accomplishments in my 50 years in the rabbinate.  With the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union in 1989, I organized the mentoring of some 100 immigrants who settled in Columbia, arranged to have English classes taught at my temple, and welcomed many of the adults and children as members of temple.  B’nai mitzvah and weddings among the newcomers were unique occasions celebrated by the entire Jewish community.

I had organized a Catholic-Jewish dialogue that resulted in numerous interfaith programs alternately held at temple and at Catholic churches. It included members of the Conservative congregation along with ours. This led to the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina speaking at my temple with over 400 Jews and Catholics attending. That was front page news here. The bishop invited me to be an observer at a diocese synod, which provided a unique insight into Catholic religious policy in the making. 

I also was a member of a steering committee which formed a statewide Partners in Dialogue with Christians of various denominations: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Native Americans. It sponsored occasions for sharing faith observances and ethnic foods. And with the co-sponsorship of the University of South Carolina Department of Religious Studies, the Dialogue brought to town internationally known religious leaders for an annual event. 

With the leadership of Dr. Selden Smith and South Carolina Holocaust survivors and their children, we formed the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust, designed to honor South Carolina survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, and the South Carolinians and their descendants who participated in the liberation of concentration camps. This led to the erection of a beautiful monument honoring their memory in downtown Columbia. 

Shortly after arriving in Columbia, I joined The Luncheon Club, a racially diverse group that promotes collegiality and is informative on current issues. It originated in 1962 when African Americans were unable to eat in white establishments. It continues to meet today. I became heavily involved in interracial relations and formed a Black-Jewish Coalition which held dialogues, pulpit exchanges, and a joint Passover Seder held at my temple.

All in all, I feel that I have grown in knowledge and discretion over the years of my rabbinate and have a greater understanding of how interdependent we Jews are with the rest of our population and how important good community relations are.


Sanford T. Marcus is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina. He served as the spiritual leader of the synagogue for twenty years prior to his retirement in 2006. Ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1970, he is a recipient of two master’s degrees, and was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree. 

Categories
Inclusion inclusivity Poetry Prayer

In Unity and Hope

This prayer was written by Alden Solovy and Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh at the 2019 URJ Biennial in response to the many conversations around politics, policy, and the many challenges facing Jews in America and beyond. As we enter into Shabbat during the largest gathering of Jews in North America, we come together physically and spiritually in unity and hope. 

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
When we stand together,
In unity and love,
In the the name of hope and harmony.

How fragile are our tents
When our fears divide us
When we allow outside winds
To blow within.

Who but You,
Ruach Elohim,
Can define who we are?
What keeps us strong.
What keeps us whole.

Who but us,
Klal Yisroael,
Can shield us,
Carrying each other
As one against the storm?

How fair are our tents, O Israel,
When we stand together,
In the name of unity,
In compassion, in strength,
For our children,
And for our children’s children.

Ken yihi ratzon.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet who has written five books including This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, both from CCAR Press. He is currently the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh is the rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock, Vermont and has been the recipient of the Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Leadership Fellowship, the Michael Chernick Prize in Rabbinic Literature, and the Weisman Memorial Prize in Homiletics, among others.

Categories
Books Holiday Inclusion

Sukkot Inclusion and Children’s Books

After the power drill is put away and all of the pointy parts of the s’chach that is just right for poking your brothers’ eyes out is finally on top of our little booth, Sukkot transforms into one of my favorite holidays to celebrate with my children. In the Moroccan Sephardic tradition, we leave a chair out for Elijah. This special chair is often laden with books for ushpizin. As the younger of my three year old twins still occasionally chews on the furniture, I prefer to leave more child-friendly books within reach (rather than, say, my favorite binding of Psalms I enjoy periodically weeping over). But which books to pile onto our special chair this year?

To me, the value of inclusion is deeply related to the concept of hachnasat orchim (the welcoming of guests). After all, hachnasat orchim, treating each other with empathy and kindness, is the first step into true inclusion. We particularly celebrate these values at Sukkot, as we welcome both real and spiritual guests into the sukkah. In honor of a holiday in which we greet and happily receive others into our dwellings, here are eight non-traditional children’s stories about welcoming others into our hearts. I included several about narwhals; narwhals are so hot right now.

You could read one a night with the ushpizin who come to your sukkah!

Wendell the Narwhal How do we invite in though who want to be included, but don’t know how and feel overwhelmed?

Not Quite Narwhal How many communities do you belong to? How does belonging to a variety of communities enrich our identity?

Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea Sometimes it is hard to make friends with someone from a different background; but these friendships can be some of the most important. (This is set up in semi-graphic novel style and is the beginning of a series about Narwhal and Jelly’s adventures together.)

Something Else Have you ever felt excluded? What does that feel like? How can you use that experience to prevent someone else from feeling the same way?

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed  Authority figures setting the standard to create a culture of inclusion

Can I Play Too? Learning how to find a way to play together might take some creativity, but means that everyone can have fun!

Ada Twist, Scientist Sometimes even the people who we love most (and who love us the most) aren’t quite sure how to acknowledge who we are, celebrate our differences, and include us. Inside a family, how can we figure this out?

Winnie the Pooh Written in a time before many of the diagnoses we now use today, Winnie the Pooh’s friend circle as an example of inclusion of individuals with a variety of dispositions and procivities. No matter which story you choose, note how this community of toys consistently and naturally includes one another, without ever asking anyone to “just get over it.”

Do you have any other books you love to use when talking about inclusion? How do you practice including your Sukkot guests?

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Categories
Inclusion

Each of Us is a Letter

Three years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I knew very little about disabilities and disability inclusion. I certainly valued the idea that the doors of our synagogues be wide enough for all to enter, but didn’t realize that unless the bathrooms were accessible, the print in our prayer books large enough or the hallway width 48 inches, none of our welcoming words would matter.

Very quickly, my family started our journey not only to support our child, but to educate ourselves about the practical realities of inclusion within the Jewish community. We met amazing individuals along the way – members of our synagogues, our professionals and lay leaders deeply enmeshed in this work and with immeasurable knowledge to share.

However, at the same time (let’s be honest!) the practical, everyday reality of building welcoming, inclusive community is hugely challenging. What can we do when our bema is not accessible and it is not practical or affordable to change our prayer space? Our synagogue community, Temple Shalom of Newton is able staff our education program with an inclusion coordinator and other special education professionals. What happens to children in communities unable to locate or hire this type of staff? And these are only two small examples.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, “[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters.” This month, we celebrate Shavuot and during these days, we stand at Sinai, each of us adding a letter to the story of the Jewish people. This true moment of power – when our identity as a people is established is also a moment of perfect inclusion. We all stood at Sinai, distinct and separate but joined one to the other, holding an individual letter adding up to a whole. Clearly at Sinai, the hallways were wide enough, the print just the right size and the bathrooms easy to access.

When we do not explore the difficult questions, when we do not challenge ourselves to expand our reach, our staffing, our spaces and ultimately our vision for sacred, inclusive community we lose people who hold letters, words and sentences vital to the integrity of our Sefer Torah. We lose people who stood with us at Sinai.HeadshotwZach

How can we practically begin this work in even the smallest of communities? Meet with members of your organization who experience disability in their life. Have coffee with disability professionals, the parents, caregivers and partners who have abundant knowledge and can help brainstorm, educate and dream. Listen to their stories – no matter how difficult they are to hear. Share your challenges with Jewish communal partners, create strategic plans (I will happily share ours!), think outside the box, share a SPED professional with another synagogue, ask a member of your community with professional experience to consult, start small and set goals you can attain. Achieving one small goal opens the door and hallway just a little wider than before.

Three years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn. I take incredible pride in each of his accomplishments, struggle to discern when to advocate and when to step back, and remind myself to cherish each infinitely beautiful and messy moment. Inspired by those already engaged in this sacred work of inclusion, I am grateful I am not alone on this journey.

May our celebration of Shavuot be a reminder that each of us is a letter in the scroll of the Jewish People. As Jewish professionals, we have the power to add letters to that scroll by striving to create that moment of perfect inclusion embodied at Sinai. It is not too late to begin the work. The story is not yet finished.

Rabbi Allison Berry serves Temple Shalom in West Newton, MA