Sunday, August 21, 2011

Celebrating the “Israel that is,” and dreaming of the “Israel that can be.”

by Arthur Slepian, 
Executive Director, A Wider Bridge
I returned about a week ago from an amazing two weeks spent in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I was there to meet with many of the people that will be part of the LGBTQ trip to Israel in November and also to develop opportunities for people and programs that A Wider Bridge could bring to the U.S. in 2012.

I met with LGBT political leaders and activists, three leading gay filmmakers, a lesbian comic strip artist, LGBT religious groups, and leaders of LGBT youth groups and LGBT social service organizations. I was there at an historic moment of people taking to the streets: for the marches and rallies that marked the second anniversary of the shootings at the Bar Noar, and to be part of the great masses of Israelis that are mobilizing across the country in a movement for social justice.

Throughout the trip, I found myself dividing my time between celebrating “the Israel that is”, especially its vibrant LGBT communities, and walking together with Israelis who dream of “the Israel that can be.” It is a tribute to the country and the people that one can find so much to love there and to be proud of, and yet find so many people dedicated to making it a better place, a more just place, and a safer place for all its people. And it is a remarkable time to visit, with history being made on the ground in so many ways.

Here are some highlights from both aspects of my time there.

Part One: Jerusalem
  • I began my stay by visiting the offices of Jerusalem Open House (JOH), where I participated in an “English-speaking” discussion with a group of young queer Jews from Israel and all over the world. We talked about the way queer struggles intersect with other struggles for human rights and social justice. And about all the different and complex experiences that people have as they “come out” about different parts of their identities: as LGBT, as Zionists, as Jews, as radicals. It was a fascinating conversation, and a great prelude to the next day’s Jerusalem Pride March.
  • The Jerusalem Pride March: Organized by JOH, this march drew about 5,000 people on a walk from Independence Park to a rally on the lawn outside the Knesset. A friend and I carried the banner for A Wider Bridge through the streets of Jerusalem. The theme of this year’s march was “our interconnected struggles,” ad the crowd was spirited and hopeful. Police protection for the march was strong, and signs of protest were few, though I did get my first experience of walking through an area that had been hit a few minutes before by a “stink bomb.”Ugh! You can see some photos of the march here.

  • I spent my first Shabbat at a prayer service and dinner organized by my friends in Havruta and The Pride Minyan, two of the LGBT Orthodox groups in Israel. We davened in the open courtyard of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and could see the sky fade from twilight to night as we welcomed Shabbat. These groups are strong and growing, and are providing an important place for religious LGBT Israelis who want to honor both their religious and LGBT identities.

  • Danny Savitch is a good friend and Executive Director of Kehilat Kol Haneshema (KKH), the leading Reform Synagogue in the Jerusalem, that recently had its second annual Pride Shabbat. KKH is a wonderful community to pray with when one is visiting Jerusalem. We will be welcoming their Rabbi, Levi Weiman-Kelman, to the San Francisco Bay Area early in November. I met with Danny and Noa Sattath, also a member of KKH, now a rabbinic student at HUC, and the former Executive Director of Jerusalem Open House. (Noa is in the photo with me at the top of the blog.)
Part Two: Tel Aviv
  • Israel produces more quality queer cinema than most countries of the world, and in one afternoon I met with three of its leading and award winning gay film directors: Yair Hochner, who also produces the Tel Aviv LGBT International Film Festival, Tomer Heymann, whose work was recently shown at both the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival and the SF Jewish Film Festival, and Yair Qedar, whose documentary “Gay Days” is a great history of the LGBT community in Tel Aviv. We hope to be part of bringing more of their work and those of other filmmakers as well, to the U.S. in 2012. And I met with Gilad Padva, a Ph.D. on the faculty of Tel Aviv University, who writes extensively about many aspects of queer Israeli cinema.

  • The municipality of Tel Aviv provides support to the LGBT community in many ways, including support for the remarkable LGBT center situated in the middle of Gan Me’ir, a beautiful park, and the funding and coordinating of the annual Tel Aviv Pride Parade, which this year drew an estimated 100,000 participants. I met with Adir Steiner, who works for the mayor of Tel Aviv, and is primarily responsible for the city’s ongoing efforts in support of the LGBT community. Adir is himself an important figure in the history of the struggle for LGBT rights in Israel. You can read more here.

  • I met with the leaders of the Alliance of Israeli LGBT Organizations (AILO), a newly formed Alliance of three important LGBT organizations: Israel Gay Youth, Hoshen and Tehila. These groups each deal with different aspects of supporting LGBT young people and their families. We are planning a 2012 speaking tour with the leaders of these organizations.

  • I met with Nitzan Horowitz, the one out gay member of the Knesset, and a champion not only of LGBT rights, but of an Israel that is pluralistic and providing equal rights and opportunity to all its citizens. Nitzan introduced me to Mickey Gitzin, the lead staff person of Be Free Israel, one of the organizations at the center of the current demonstrations for social justice. In their words: "We encourage religious pluralism, combat political inequalities and social discrimination, and defend democratic values." Among their initiatives, Be Free Israel has led the campaign for civil marriage in Israel, including same-sex marriage. Take at look at their creative campaign video.

  • Mike Hamel is the Chair of the Board of The Aguda, Israel’s oldest LGBT organization, and Anat Avissar is their new Development Director. The Agudah provides a broad range of social services to the LGBT community in a network of offices throughout the country. Mike will be visiting the U.S. before the end of 2011. The Aguda organized the memorial at the LGBT center on Saturday, August 6, marking the second anniversary of the shootings of the Bar Noar. The crowd of aobut 2,000 people was addressed by speakers that included Tzipi Livni, Nitzan Horowitz, the mayor and vice-mayor of Tel Aviv, Mike Hamel (chair of the Agudah), city council member Yoav Goldring, and Ayala Katz, the mother of Nir Katz, one of the youth counselors murdered in the shooting. Ayala came on stage along with one of the teenagers injured in the shooting, who spoke from his wheelchair. The theme for the event was "Going Forward with Pride, and the speakers addressed many issues, including the need for all of Israel, not just Tel Aviv, to be a safe place to be LGBT, and the failure of the government to address some of the most pressing needs of the community. Several well-known artists provided music for the event, including Yehuda Poliker.

  • In Tel Aviv, I had the privilege to spend time with lesbian comic strip and graphic artist and writer Ilana Zeffren. She has a weekly comic strip in “Achbar Hair,” a popular Tel Aviv magazine, and is often published in Ha’aretz. The main characters in her strip are she and her partner and their two cats. You can see some of her work here. And really, how many cities in the world have a well-known lesbian comic strip?
Part Three: Scenes from a Revolution? Rallying for Social Justice

  • A new spirit has been awakened in Israel, as hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change and social justice. On Saturday evening, August 6, I joined with close to 300,000 others at a rally on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv. You can see some photos here. The protests are, on the surface, about things like the high cost of housing and food, and the growing inequality of income in the country. But I came away with the view that something even more fundamental was at their root, a sense on the part of many that the country had lost its way, that the government has lost touch with some of the values that have been part of Israel and given it strength since its outset. Revolution is likely too strong a word to describe what is happening, but this is a massive peaceful movement bringing all segments of Israeli society out into the streets demanding change and social justice. It is not just the "left" out in the streets, but a broad spectrum of the Israeli middle class. It's too early to know where it is all heading, but I came away feeling very hopeful about the future of the country and with enormous respect for the people working to bring about change.

  • "A person gets up in the morning, and suddenly he feels like he's a nation, and he starts marching..." That's the song Shlomo Artzi picked as the first song in his performance at the end of the rally. It describe the sense of empowerment people feel here. (Thanks to my friend Eyal Liebermann for this.)


Since my return, the south of Israel has rocked by multiple terrorist attacks. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims and their families, and all those in Israel who put themselves in harm's way to keep the country safe. For the moment, social protest rallies have been transformed into vigils, but the leaders of this movement are determined to keep the momentum of their cause moving forward. Security and social justice can be pursued together.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Israeli, Orthodox and Gay" Speaking Tour

"Israeli, Orthodox and Gay" Speaking Tour Inspires Audiences in LA, SF, and NYC

This November, A Wider Bridge organized a speaking tour that brought leaders of the largest LGBT Orthodox organizations in Israel to audiences in three major US cities. All told, they spoke to or met with over 530 people! With the support of over a dozen co-sponsoring congregations and organizations, we brought these leaders’ inspiring stories and message to diverse audiences at venues as varied as Reform and Conservative congregations, Orthodox organizations, a Conservative seminary, and a Jewish high school.

The tour had a great start in Los Angeles, with a panel discussion at Temple Beth Am, a large Conservative synagogue near Pico-Robertson, attended by over 80 people. Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Cantor Juval Porat from Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim and Rabbi Denise Eger from Congregation Kol Ami also spoke at the event.

In San Francisco, the Israeli leaders spoke to more than 200 people over the course of several events, including more than 80 at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. They also spoke to a group of about 60 at a Shabbat lunch and shiur that they led at the Mission Minyan, to four classes of students at the Jewish Community High School, and at an event at Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom.

In New York City, 100 people attended our event at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (we ran out of chairs!), and 60 came a few nights later when the leaders spoke at a meeting of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth). The leaders also met with groups consisting of Orthodox community leaders, New York-based LGBTQ Orthodox leaders, and Jewish Theological Seminary students and staff. And the speakers were warmly welcomed for Friday night Shabbat services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

Here is a summary of what people who came to the events heard and experienced:

The leaders – Asaf Lebovitz, Zehorit Sorek and Eyal Liebermann, came to the U.S. as representatives of Havruta, an organization for Orthodox gay men, and Bat Kol, Israel’s organization for religious lesbians. They also spoke about the work of several other related projects: Shoval, an Orthodox LGBT speakers’ bureau and education project, and The Pride Minyan, a group that develops prayer services and holiday celebrations that are designed to be a welcoming place for religious LGBT Jews. They spoke as well about their work in helping to run support groups for Orthodox LGBT teens that are run in conjunction with Israeli Gay Youth. All of these groups work together as part of a broader collaboration known as Religious LGBT Community or Kehilah Datit Ga’ah.

The leaders spoke of the remarkable growth of these organizations, from only a handful of members when they were founded just a few years ago, to now representing many hundreds of Israelis. And the groups now have an online presence that gets many thousands of hits per month. When Eyal spoke about the broader history of this fledgling movement, he cited as a pivotal moment the screening in Israel of the American made film “Trembling Before God.” With this movie, many LGBT people in the Orthodox community saw that they were not alone, and that in fact it was possible to be Orthodox and gay, something which had not even been conceivable to many of them before.

These leaders shared their personal stories of self-realization and coming out in the Orthodox communities in which they were raised, and their vision for change in both the Orthodox world and in Israeli society as a whole. People were moved by the authentic and genuine way the speakers shared their experiences, which reflected so many of the challenges faced by LGBT Orthodox Israelis.

Asaf shared his difficult journey from realizing he was gay, through attempts to push him into “reparative therapy,” to finding more supportive voices among Orthodox rabbis, family members and friends, and ultimately to his decision to make a place for himself in the Orthodox world and to help others going through struggles similar to his.

Zehorit described years of denying or explaining away her feelings of attraction for other women, during which time she married a man and became the mother of two children. It was not until she met her now partner Limor that she chose to be honest with herself and ultimately with those close to her. Once she connected with other Orthodox lesbians through Bat Kol – which she described as “coming home” –she began a journey that led her to become one of the co-founders of the Pride Minyan. There, at their first services on Yom Kippur in 2009 at Tel Aviv’s LGBT Center, people were shocked to find not the 30 they knew they could count on, nor the 100 they hoped for, but some 300 LGBT Israelis – Orthodox and secular – coming together with the shared need for a place to pray that unequivocally welcomed them.

Eyal brought a somewhat different perspective to the panel, as he no longer observes many of the Orthodox practices of Judaism. Yet he remains identified with the Orthodox community and is committed to help make it a better place for LGBT people, a task by which he feels personally compelled. As he put it, “You can take the boy out of the Yeshiva, but you can’t take the Yeshiva out of the boy.”

What all their moving personal narratives have in common is that they represent those who have had the courage to come out, to be visible, to serve as role models for others, and to insist that they want both to be part of their religious communities and lead lives that express their LGBT identities. Their stories compellingly illustrated the remarkable change that has begun to alter Israeli Orthodox society in just the last few years, giving hope for LGBTQ Jews both there and here in the U.S., and for a more tolerant, inclusive Israel and Jewish world for everyone.

The response of people that heard our speakers in all of these places was overwhelming and enthusiastic. It gave hope to many of those in attendance to learn about this new movement that has grown exponentially in the last few years and transformed “Orthodox and gay” from an oxymoron that forced young Israelis to abandon one or the other integral part of themselves, to a real possibility. Many felt enriched by the unique ways in which the stories of these Israelis both resonate with and contrast with their own lives. It was also enriching to see some of the history of our Gay Rights Movement here in the US – and in the American Jewish community – reflected in the progression of these leaders’ movement, and to see ways in which they are forging new paths that we can learn from.

This visit helped to widen many bridges: between the LGBTQ communities in the U.S. and Israel; between Jews in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements; between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ Jews; and between the religious and secular Jewish communities.

The response to this tour and the connections it has already catalyzed show that there is an unmet need for people here to connect with Israeli society around LGBTQ issues and identity. This tour was just the beginning of A Wider Bridge’s efforts to meet this need. In the near future we will be launching programs including social and cultural gatherings, educational forums, campus outreach, connections to trips to Israel, and more speaking tours. With these efforts, we hope to help more LGBTQ Jews, along with families friends and allies, to get connected to Israel and to build stronger relationships between the LGBTQ communities in Israel and America. And through those connections and relationships, more of us can join in the work of making Israel a better place.

The amazing success of this tour would not have been possible without the help of many partner organizations. A Wider Bridge extends a heartfelt thanks to all our co-sponsors:
In Los Angeles: Temple Beth Am; Beth Chayim Chadashim; Congregation Kol Ami; IKAR; JQ International; and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, HUC-JIR
In San Francisco: Congregation Sha’ar Zahav; The LGBT Alliance of the Jewish Community Federation; Congregation Beth Sholom; Congregation Sherith Israel; Congregation Beth Am; and the Israel Education Initiative
In New York City: JQYouth; The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan; Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; Eshel; Nehirim; GLYDSA; and Tirtzah

The tour got great coverage in J. The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California (, LA’s Jewish Journal (, and the Orthodox blog Frum Satire (

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Drash - July 9, 2010 Congregation Sha'ar Zahav

Shabbat Shalom.
During the past month, I have had the opportunity to see my identity as an LGBT Jew through a remarkable number of lenses. I first spent two weeks in Israel, where I walked in the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade and met with numerous LGBT Leaders, political, social and religious. I came back here to the last few days of the LGBT Film Festival, that included a documentary on the history of gay pride in Tel Aviv. Then there was the amazing Pride Shabbat here at Sha’ar Zahav, and our own Pride celebration here in San Francisco. After that, I had the opportunity to participate in a remarkable three day conference in Berkeley with national and international LGBT Jewish leaders and several others from Sha’ar Zahav, including Rabbi Angel. So, for many weeks, it has felt as if I have been a gay Jew, 24/7. It is against that backdrop that I approached this week’s double parasha, Mattoth and Masey. We are at the end of the Book of numbers and our people have reached the border of the Promised Land. There is much to struggle with in these chapters, but tonight I want to focus specifically on some of the less challenging verses.
The Parasha Masey begins with a large section of text devoted to recounting the list of the specific places that constituted the journey through the wilderness. The section begins: These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.
In all 42 separate locations are recounted. Mostly, with the dry construction typified by the following:
• They set out from Rephidim and encamped in the wilderness of Sinai.
• They set out from the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Hazeroth.
• They set out from Hazeroth and encamped at Rithmah.
In just a few places, a bit of detail is provided. Rephidim is the place where the people did not have water to drink. Mount Hor is where Aaron died.
Why is it important that we know the 42 places where the Israelites set up camp? Or that there were 42 places? Perhaps it helps us understand the journey our people were on. The Torah doesn’t tell us exactly how long it took the Israelites to get from one place to another, but one can imagine that with 42 destinations in 40 years, they were spending almost as much time traveling from one place to another as they were settled down in their encampments.
And second, we can imagine that significant things happened in each of these locations. Children were born, people got married. And people died, as the generation that left Egypt diminished in numbers. So each of these places is a burial ground, a sacred place that needs to be remembered.
Perhaps most important, we can infer that 42 times they had to move and each time, the group moved together. Imagine what it takes to hold a group of Jews together for 40 years. Wasn’t there some faction that had a better idea, a different path to take? We are told that this was a group that included more than 600,000 adult males. Estimating women and children, we are likely talking about a group in excess of 2 million people. It is said that upwards of a half million people attended Woodstock, so this would be a group at least four times as large as that. And whether or not we have confidence in the Biblical estimates, let’s just say that this was a big group. And without Jimi Hendrix to entertain them.
This recounting of the journey the Israelites took reminded me of the times at various Sha’ar Zahav advances and other meetings that we have drawn the timeline of our congregation, from our founding in 1977 until the present day. What would be the markers that you would note on such a timeline? The first service, which we commemorate tonight, the first time we held classes for children, the installation of each of our our rabbis, our move into Danvers Street and then into this building, the memorial for Harvey Milk, the tragedy of the many memorials for members and friends lost to HIV/AIDS. The memorial for Phyllis Mintzer. And a host of celebrations might fill the timeline: Purim parties, b’nei mitzvah, kiddushin and welcoming of members into the covenant. And more recently, our annual transgender Shabbat, our 30th anniversary party a few years ago, our participation in the San Francisco Organizing Project. And of course, our new Siddur.
At the Berkeley convening, we took some time to create a timeline of the broader LGBT Jewish movement, from Stonewall to the present. It was fascinating to see Sha’ar Zahav as just one thread woven into this broader tapestry of events: other LGBT shuls being founded across the country, new community organizations being developed, the ordination of gay, lesbian, and now transgendered rabbis. Harvey Milk, and AIDS, also made it onto this timeline. And a few Israeli events made it in to the timeline as well. The founding of the Agudah in 1975, and of Jerusalem open House in 1992. And Dana International winning the 1998 Eurovision Song contest. In fact it was interesting to see Stonewall and Dana International as these two galvanizing moments of gay pride, continents apart, underlining the key role that trans and gender queer individuals have had in advancing the LGBT cause both at home and abroad.
At the convening in Berkeley, we began to imagine if the remarkable gathering of synagogues, organizations, spiritual groups, and social justice leaders could be transformed into a movement. We are a group known for our diversity across many dimensions; we have much in common, but also serious differences of opinion. Is there a vision broad enough to hold all of us together?
And for some of us, one question at the forefront of our minds , is Will this movement be big enough and strong enough to include and hold the 40% of the worlds LGBT Jews that live in Israel? As someone who has spent much of the past year looking for ways to build bridges between the U.S. and Israeli LGBT Communities, I hope the answer is yes.
There is so much that we can learn from one another, so many ways that we can grow together and make each other stronger.
Let me share with you a bit of what I learned and experienced on my most recent trip to Israel, as I worked to advance the work of A Wider Bridge.
First, I got a sense of the size of the LGBT community in ways I had not experienced before on my previous trips. Here is some perspective. Last year we were excited to get a contingent of about 700 Jews marching together in the San Francisco Pride parade. In Tel Aviv, estimates put the number of folks walking in the parade at about 40,000, with of course most of them Jewish. By the time we got to the beach, there were about 100,000 people out celebrating. By any measure, that is a lot of Jews celebrating Pride.
Second, I got a sense of the diversity of the community in ways I had not experienced before. I met with two of the leading transgender activists in Tel Aviv. Nora Grinberg told me about the progress the trans community has in made in Israel, but also stressed ongoing issues such as access to appropriate medical care, and the fact that Israel still requires evidence of gender reassignment surgery before they will change the gender on your ID card or passport. And I had a fascinating conversation with a young trans activist named Shuki Alexander, who began his conversation with me by saying, “You need to know that I am not a Zionist.” I assured him that I knew more than a few folks in San Francisco who shared his point of view. Shuki was one of the organizers of a demonstration that preceded the parade, where about 400 people gathered to insist of the need for the LGBT community to align in solidarity with other progressive and radical movements.
Third I had the opportunity to meet some of the leaders of Israel’s growing gay political class. I met with Nitzan Horowitz, the one out gay member of the Knesset, who is looking to build a new liberal coalition in Israel, dedicated to human rights, civil liberties and freedom for all of Israel’s citizens. On June 1, MK Horowitz invited many of the leaders of Israel’s LGBT organizations to the Knesset for a historic session on gay pride, where they were invited to share their concerns and their stories with leading members of the Israeli parliament. And in Tel Aviv, the gay community is stronger than in most cities of the U.S. The new LGBT center is funded by the municipality, and I had the opportunity to meet with the two out gay members of the Tel Aviv City council, Yaniv Waizman and Yoav Goldring.
On this trip I deepened and strengthened my relationship with the leaders of the LGBT orthodox groups in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I marched with their contingent in the Pride Parade. This was the first year the LGBT orthodox groups walked as an organized group in the parade. K’hilalah Datit Ga’ah the banner proclaimed. Proud Religious Community. The group had a car with a sound system on top, with the song Mashiach playing. All in all, this was a remarkable religious presence in an otherwise very secular event. And I attended their first ever Pride Shabbat services, held at the LGBT center in Tel Aviv. I felt truly honored to be part of this history making moment. A few nights later I had dinner with the leaders of Israeli Gay Youth. They brought with them to dinner an 18 year old Orthodox young man, Yosef. Yosef told me the story of his coming out, to himself, to his mother, to his community. He told me about the debate in his family about whether he should try the conversion therapy, and the ultimate decision that he would not. And he told me what a difference it had made in his life to be able to attend a support group with other gay orthodox young people. And about attending a recent Shabbaton put on by the LGBT orthodox community. A place where he could truly feel that both his gay identity and his Jewish identity could be freely expressed. I’ll mention that Yosef, having just turned 18, was about to head off to join one of the fighting brigades of the Israeli Defense forces.
I am convinced that when the timeline for the next decade is recorded for LGBT Jews, some of the most significant moments will relate to the progress and growth of the LGBT movement within Orthodox Judaism, both in Israel and in the United States. And to this end, I will mention that A Wider Bridge will be bringing four of the Israeli LGBT orthodox leaders to the U.S. in November. One of their stops will be San Francisco, so mark your calendar for the weekend of November 5 thru 7.
And last, I learned something about determination in the face of tragedy. I told this story on Pride Shabbat, but I think it bears repeating. I met with Ayala Katz. She is now the Chair of Tehilla, the Israeli organization for parents of LGBT children. And she is the mother of Nir Katz, one of the two people murdered in the shooting at Bar Noa, when a masked gunman entered a meeting of a Tel Aviv LGBT youth group and began firing. Ayala is only recently an activist. This is a part of what she said to me. : I loved my son…I accepted him… I welcomed his friends into my home…And I thought that was enough…But when he was murdered I realized it was not nearly enough. So now I want to help other parents, and make Israel a better place for all the children who are like my son.
To my mind, the people I met,the trans activists, the out politicians, the gay orthodox, the parents, these are all stories of courage… And it is their work that enables Israel to be, while far from perfect, one of the better places in the world to be LGBT.
One last note: At the end of this month the Gay Pride March will take place in Jerusalem. The march was moved from its usual June date so that it would be close to the one year anniversary of the shooting at the Bar Noa in Tel Aviv.
And the march will have a new route this year, ending at the Knesset. A few weeks ago the Jerusalem police refused to give permission for this new route, insisting that the march follow the same path down King David street that it had in prior years. But just a few days ago, we learned that the police have relented, and approved the route to the Knesset. My friend Yonatan Gher, Jerusalem Open House Executive Director said, "The parade route to the Knesset, on the anniversary of the murder, is the proper route to symbolize what the parade is demanding – full equal rights for the gay community in Israel.
He added "On this day, the message that will be sent from Jerusalem to Israel and the world will be a message of accepting the other, of celebrating the human diversity that makes up this unique city, the capital city that is holy to all of us.
And Ayala Katz will be marching. She said "The message sent today to all of Israel's citizens is that threats of violence are not rewarded. The parade on the eve of the murder's anniversary is granted full legitimacy today, and we, as parents, will march for the benefit and the future of our children,"
And I hope that in spirit, all of us here, and all of the members of this burgeoning LGBT Jewish movement, will be marching with them. We as LGBT Jews are in so many ways still wandering in the wilderness. Yet I hope, like our ancestors of old, as we struggle to find our way toward the Promised Land, that we can find a way to wander together.
Ken y’hi ratzon

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Wider Bridge: An Open Letter of Support from MK Nitzan Horowitz


April 2010

A Wider Bridge initiative: Open Letter of support by Member of the Knesset Nitzan Horowitz

Member of the Knesset (MK) Nitzan Horowitz is delighted to publicize his support of "A Wider Bridge" initiative.

This enterprise, aside from encouraging Jews to become more involved in Israeli public life, will serve as a bridge to enhance pluralism, encourage the exchange of ideas and advance LGBTQ rights in both the Jewish world and Israel.

"A Wider Bridge" will promote discussion about how we would like to see the Jewish world in the upcoming decades, with the focus on supporting Israel as a democratic Jewish nation, as stated in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Both these components – Jewish and democratic – are the essential building blocks of the state of Israel; one cannot be separated from the other. Democracy guarantees freedom, justice, equality and political and civil rights to all inhabitants, whether Jewish or Arab, religious or secular, gay or straight. Being a Jewish state, the national homeland of the Jewish people, should never exclude or discriminate the non-Jewish groups living in Israel.

A Jewish state must be tolerant, enlightened and humanistic. This is, in my eyes, the true definition of being Jewish. As a Jewish nation, Israel must become the beacon of human solidarity and social justice. Unfortunately this is not the current shape of things.

I am convinced that "A Wider Bridge" will help Jews around the world to better understand where Israel stands in the fight for strengthening human rights for all, and how we strive to eradicate bigotry and hatred. We need the help of progressive minded people all over the world, and especially within the American Jewish community, in order to make our beloved Israel a true "or la'goyim" (light unto the nations), in the form of strong social solidarity for Tikkun Olam, not only for Jews but for everybody, for a better and sustainable world.

Steps such as expanding the relationship between the Jewish world and Israel and efforts to eliminate apathy or indifference by education, travel and social programs, are more than welcome and have my full support.

MK Nitzan Horowitz

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Drash - March 19 2010 at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav

Shabbat Shalom,

I have been thinking a lot about hiding lately, and what it means to come out of hiding, because it seems that our tradition and our calendar want us to think about that at this time of year. We are here in this period between Purim and Passover, two holidays that are rich with imagery of things hidden and things revealed. At Purim, we read the story of Esther, who is first in hiding and then reveals her true identity to those around her. And we celebrate the holiday with a revelry of masks and costumes, briefly hiding ourselves from each other, with the joy that comes from knowing that the masks are of our choosing and not forced upon us.

And then we come soon to Passover, where it is not one person, but literally the story of an entire nation that comes out of hiding, reawakening to their identity and to their relationship with God. In our Sha’ar Zahav Haggadah we read: “When we had almost forgotten ourselves, God remembered us, and we too began to remember.” The second half of the Passover Seder begins with Tzafun, which means “hidden”. At that moment of Tzafun, we eat the Afikomen, the matzo that had previously been hidden and then recovered, and we say that it is “a timeless symbol of our own thanksgiving and the promise of a future time when all hiding will end.” I am coming to believe that perhaps one definition of history is that history is what happens when people come out of hiding.

And this week, between these holidays, we read Parasha Vayikra, the first portion of the book of Leviticus. This parasha deals almost exclusively with describing how the rituals of sacrifice should be conducted in the temple. The word “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning to make something holy. In Hebrew, we say “Korbanot”, meaning something brought near to the altar. And so, while we no longer perform these rituals, we have the opportunity this week to read the instructions for what our ancestors understood as some of the holiest moments of their lives. In the early part of Vayikra, we read the description of how the animal is to be laid out for the burnt offering and how the fire is to be prepared. And we find this instruction: It shall be slaughtered before God on the North side of the altar.

וְשָׁחַט אֹתוֹ עַל יֶרֶךְ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, צָפֹנָה--לִפְנֵי יְהוָה

V’shachate oto al yerech hamizbayach, tzafonah lif’nei Adonai

Literally, it shall be slaughtered standing North before God. Why North?

Several interpretations have been offered, but the ones that intrigue me most relate to the fact that the word for North, Tzafonah, is from the same root as “Tzafun” which means hidden. And so it is suggested that before one can be holy, one must stand before God with all of oneself, the visible and the hidden, and make oneself known in a complete and whole way. The Sfat Emet, one of the leading Hassidic scholars of the 19th century, taught that what is important about the Korbanot, the sacrifice, was not the technical ritual, but bringing one’s inner self before God. When a person stands “North before God” he stands whole and complete, his outer self and his hidden self all visible before God. And so coming out of hiding creates not only history, but also holiness.

Recently Marc Lipschutz and I went to Israel with a goal of looking for ways to strengthen the ties between the LGBT communities there and in the U.S. We call this project building A Wider Bridge. During our trip, we had the opportunity to meet with just about every LGBT organization and leader in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Over and over again, I felt was meeting people who were working at this juncture of history and holiness. You know, sometimes people say “we should support Israel because it is a good place to be LGBT.” I think that statement misses the mark a bit. What we saw on this trip is that Israel is both a good and challenging place to be LGBT. But to the extent that it is a good place, it is because there are remarkable people working tirelessly to make it so. And I believe that we have a unique role and a unique stake in the outcome of that work. Let me begin with just a few brief highlights:

· We met the founder of a group called Rainbow Families. Last month in Tel Aviv they had a four day conference for LGBT families attended by more than 2000 people. They discussed issues like parenting, adoption, surrogacy. For the first time in Israel, large groups of children of LGBT parents got to meet and talk to each other.

· We met with the Leaders of Hoshen, a group that has trained more than 300 LGBT people to tell their stories, with teachers, to the military, social workers, high school students. As here, there is still widespread homophobia in Israel, especially in the schools.

· We met with the leaders of Israel Gay Youth, a group that works with thousands of teenagers and college age kids all over the country. Their ranks have grown exponentially since the shootings that killed two and wounded many others at the youth group meeting in Tel Aviv last August. And Noa and Avner, along with four of the teens in the group, will be here at Sha’ar Zahav for Pesach, joining us for our Congregational second night seder.

· We spent an evening meeting with the LGBT Chavurah of Kol Haneshema, Jerusalem’s wonderful Reform Congregation that many of us have visited. This Chavurah is one that a group of us at Sha’ar Zahav are now studying with on Facebook. Rabbi Levi and his wife Paula joined us for the meeting, and we talked about their plans to have their first Pride Shabbat service this July.

· We met with Hagai ElAd, the leader of ACRI, Israel’s largest human rights organization, and our last Saturday in Jerusalem we joined his group and thousands of other people at a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem to protest the ongoing and unfair evictions of Palestinians from their homes in that area.

Yet I think it is safe to say that nothing inspired us more, and perhaps surprised us more, than what we learned about the LGBT people and organizations that have developed from within Israel’s Orthodox community. Havruta is the men’s group. It started with 10 members just two and a half years ago as a part of Jerusalem Open House, and now has more than 300 members. Bat Kol is the orthodox lesbian group, now with more than 200 members. Shoval is a religious LGBT speakers’ bureau that also staffs a hotline one day a week at the gay center. And many of the calls they get come from within the Haredi community. The Havruta website now gets more than 10,000 hits per month. There is also a youth group and a prayer minyan. These numbers are now too large for the orthodox leaders to continue to claim that homosexuality does not exist in their communities, or that it is just a tiny number of “deviants.” The leaders and some of the members of these groups are “out” within their larger communities, but many others are not, or are in various stages of that process. Coming out as an orthodox LGBT Jew in Israel is not easy. But wherever they are in the coming out process, these are people who are saying: We will no longer hide from God. We will stand before God as our whole selves, including our gay selves. And they are writing history right now in Israel. Let me share a bit of this story with you.

On our next to last evening in Israel, we met with all the key founders and leaders of these groups. Ten of us sat in Avigail’s living room in Neve Tzedek, and talked for more than three hours. I’ll begin with the story of my friend Zehorit. Zehorit was a member of an orthodox congregation in Tel Aviv. She has a female partner, Limor, and two beautiful young children. Zehorit and Limor were married last summer, and she went to her rabbi and asked if she and her partner could sponsor the Kiddush at the shul one Shabat in honor of their marriage. The rabbi said no. “How about if we hold the Kiddush in the garden outside, and not in the shul itself?” Once again, the rabbi said no. Zehorit’s friends went ahead in any event, and held a Kiddush for her and her partner in the gardens of the shul. When the rabbi learned of this, he told Zehorit that she was no longer welcome as a member of the congregation.

The High Holidays were only a couple of months away. Zehorit called her friend Benny, who leads Havruta, the gay men’s orthodox group, and said. “Benny, the High holidays are coming, and I have no place to pray.” And Benny said, “well, we are resourceful, let’s create a place to pray.” And so they organized a minyan for Kol Nidre at the new Gay Center in Tel Aviv. They knew 30 to 40 people who were likely to come, and they began to spread the word in their communities. The night of Kol Nidre they optimistically set out chairs for 100. By the time the services began, there were more than 250 people packed in to the room. The following evening, more than 300 people came for Neilah, and the crowd spilled out into the park that surrounds the Gay Center.

Who came? The Orthodox, the ex-Orthodox, the Secular. Some people who had not been to a synagogue in many years. For religious LGBT Jews, this minyan is a new source of hope. And for the secular LGBT Jews, many who left Judaism early in their lives, many who are fearful of Judaism, this minyan has been a way back in. Literally and metaphorically, these young orthodox Jews are bringing Judaism back to the heart of the LGBT community in Tel Aviv.

But why is this happening now? My friend, Eyal Liebermann, one of the leaders of Shoval, the speakers bureau, wrote to me this week, and he said:

“The Minyan is the tip of the iceberg. The part of the community which is revealed. Yet iceberg tips do not exist in a void. They float because great forces support them, and push them to the surface.” I think he meant that all the work of these organizations, in creating support groups, counseling sessions, speaking engagements back in to the orthodox and Haredi communities, the hotline, all of this has provided the foundation for the most visible public manifestation of this effort, an LGBT prayer minyan in the heart of Tel Aviv at the gay center.

And for Purim, they sponsored a Megillah reading at the Gay Center, and Marc and I had the good fortune to be there. More than 270 people came that night, young, old, many from the orthodox community, and many secular folks, lots of little kids, fabulous costumes. Men and women alternated reading chapters of the Megillah, and the ruach in the room was amazing.

After the reading, a form was distributed. [Visual aids.] All in Hebrew, and I could tell that at the bottom there was a place for you to write your name. So I imagined it was similar to the forms we might use to capture the names and e-mails of visitors to Sha’ar Zahav. But I learned this was a bit different. It asks: What yeshiva did you go to? Who was the rabbi you studied with? Are you willing to make a phone call back to him? They told me that if an LGBT leader calls a rabbi and tries to begin a conversation about gay issues, most likely the conversation ends. But they have learned that they have more success when someone calls and says: I was your student three years ago. I want to tell you about who I am. So one phone call at a time, one conversation at a time, they are slowly making Israel a better place and safer place for all of us.

Let me return to the night we all met together at Avigail’s. With my proud Reform hat on, I asked Zehorit, “when you said ‘I have no place to pray,’ help me understand that? Surely there are Reform synagogues in Israel that would have gladly welcomed you in.” And she said, “Yes, but that is not who I am. For me, that would be like admitting defeat. For me, being orthodox is as much a part of my DNA as my sexuality. You can’t take it out of me.” And everyone around the room agreed with her. “We keep the mitzvoth”, they said. And yet to be with them, and to see how they grapple with issues of egalitarianism, mechitzahs, liturgy, is also to understand that they are both reclaiming orthodoxy and reinventing it. We did present the group with a copy of Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, a gift for which they were very grateful.

Thirty three years ago history and holiness were created here in San Francisco when a group of courageous people created Sha’ar Zahav, and said we are going to reclaim our heritage and stand before God as our whole true selves. A few weeks ago in Israel, I felt like I was standing at a similar intersection of history and holiness. We witnessed events that could not have taken place even a year ago. History is being written by a new generation of LGBT Jews, as committed to their religious traditions as we are to ours. And it is a story that is not well known. I believe that their story is intertwined with our story, that their struggle is part of our struggle, and that the entire Jewish community will be stronger because of the courage and determination that they are bringing to their cause.

I want to conclude with two last points:

First, as our conversation ended that night, Benny said to us, “we know that this is not just about us. We are going back to our rabbis and saying ‘we are the strangers that you must welcome back into our community. But we know that there are other strangers. Along with us, the women in our communities are also in some ways the stranger. Many want a chance to play a different role than the ones they have today. And they must be welcomed.’” And then he turned to me and said something I was not expecting. He said: “And we know that the last strangers that our communities need to welcome in are the Palestinians. They cannot continue to be strangers and outcasts here among us.” I went to Israel in part with the idea that there might be a unique role that LGBT Jews could play in the effort for peace. And while there is much to despair about in Israel right now, this evening gave me a renewed sense of hopefulness.

And lastly, these LGBT religious groups are now planning their first ever Pride Shabbat in June of this year, to coincide with Gay pride in Tel Aviv. Shabat Ga’avah. I asked them, with my Sha’ar Zahav smugness, if they are going to treat Pride Shabbat like a holiday, a chag, as we do, and say Hallel. They smiled and replied very gently to me: “This is our first one. We won’t be saying Hallel. But we will say the Shehechiyanu.”

I plan to be back in Israel in June to join in that Shehechiyanu. I hope some of you will join me. And I hope we say one here for them as well, recognizing the history and the holiness of that moment. May we give our love and strength and support to these Israeli brothers and sisters of ours, who are finding the courage to not hide who they are, and to stand before God as their true whole selves. And may each of us find our own path to stand North, before God. Ken y’hi ratzon
(With thanks to my study partners in Israel, especially Avigail Sperber and Eyal Liebermann, and to all my friends there who allowed me to tell their stories)