Last night, I went to see a high school production of The Laramie Project—the play that portrays the people of Laramie, Wyoming in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay college student. A class of high school juniors and seniors at an exclusive, private school here in Chicago put on the production. I went to support one of our synagogue’s high school students who played a few roles in the play. Fighting tears through much of the second act, I was heartened by the portrayal of brave priest who organized vigils and preached compassion and healing.
I find myself increasingly using every opportunity I have to carefully teach Biblical texts that have been used to perpetuate a close-mindedness that has too often led to violence and oppression of the spirit. Midrashim (ancient and modern) abound illustrating creative and compassionate ways to interpret our Torah, while giving kavod to the text. Owing much to brilliant colleagues and other thinkers including Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and her son Rabbi Amitai Adler—to name a very few—I have found new ways to understand ancient texts, adding new blessings and rituals to fit current situations.
I love bringing these values home to my two sons Eli (6) and Ben (4). In the fall, I took Eli and Ben to Springfield, Illinois for a rally and lobby day on Marriage Equality. My sons already had experience with the Pride Parade literally strolling aside Temple Sholom’s float. I thought this would be another fun, memorable, and meaningful experience—especially when we found out that my parents would meet us there. The only problem… I didn’t read the weather report. In Springfield, we stood outside in a downpour, barely shielded by the boys’ kid-size umbrellas. Finally, we found some space underneath an overhang near the steps of the capitol building. By this point, our oldest son was crying—loudly—“I want to go home!” I bent down so that we could make eye-contact. I said, “Look around. Many of the people who are here did not have such an easy time growing up, falling in love and marrying the person whom they love. When they see you, they have hope that the future might be different for your generation.” Eli, who is an old soul, met my eyes and said, “I know, mommy. I know. But this is NOT FUN!”
So, the day was memorable and meaningful, but as Eli said, not fun. Yet, it made an impact. The next day, Eli shared his experience with classmates during circle time at Chicago Jewish Day School. Ben, along with his friend who has two daddies, has become known in his Gan Shalom classroom as an “expert” on Marriage Equality. When we heard the news that Marriage Equality passed the House in Illinois, we sat in the boys’ bedroom making celebratory phone calls to my parents and my grandmother. It felt like we all could share some small part in this collective victory. After the phone calls, when my husband arrived home, we all sang the Shehechiyanu thanking God for bringing us to this sacred time.
Toward the end of the Laramie Project, a character shares how moved he was during the first Homecoming Parade following Matthew Shephard’s attack. He said:
As the parade came down the street … the number of people walking
for Matthew Shepard had grown 5 times. There were at least 500 people
marching for Matthew. 500 people. Can you imagine? The tag at the end
was larger than the entire parade. And people kept joining in.
I feel like I am joining in this long parade of our history—following those who have attempted to bring more compassion into this world. For this, I am grateful.
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.