Coming Out in a Jewish Community: How Our Congregation Embraces LGBTQ Teenagers



On the bimah during his confirmation, twelfth grader Sean Cooper recounted his coming out experience:

When I came out as a homosexual, I posted a picture to Facebook with my father, with the caption “….”. While some may have previously inferred my sexual orientation, that post was my first official public coming out.

The next day, I came to my temple, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, for a meeting of our youth group. I was greeted at the door by Cantor Doug Cotler, the man I have known my whole life, with a warm hug and friendly “I’m proud of you,” and by Rabbi Julia Weisz with a smile and great warmth. Rabbi Paul Kipnes was even more accepting than anyone. His kind and heartfelt acceptance expressed not only his embracing personal views, but also the wide-open arms of the Jewish community.

I don’t need to compare Judaism to other, not-so-accepting religions, because theirs is not the standard for the people of our Jewish religion. We Jews hold ourselves to an expectation of ahavah rabba, unconditional love. It is this love that greets sexual minorities, racial minorities, and oppressed people whom others have turned away, with those same open arms that I felt at our synagogue doors.

I am fortunate enough to have an identity that does not conflict, but instead that bonds the pieces of two strong communities together. I am a homosexual, Jewish man, and I could not be more proud to be in this amazing Jewish community.

We at Congregation Or Ami are proud of Sean – a NFTY leader, URJ Camp Newman alum, and a passionate advocate for Israel – for his courage and honesty. We hope he found confidence to come out, in part, because we have worked tirelessly to convey the unequivocal message that our congregation welcomes with open arms all people of all genders and orientations.

Our clergy teach and blog about inclusiveness. We proudly display on our website’s homepage our openness to and embrace of LGBTQ individuals and couples. We have been vocal about our support for marriage equality. Our partnership forms for new congregants provide spaces for Adult 1 and, where appropriate, Adult 2, instead of the Male and Female. We invite gay and lesbian couples and individuals to participate fully on the bimah on High Holidays and at other services. In each of these ways, we convey our warm embrace.

We also actively speak out to counter the rejection of LGBTQ people that some individuals (and some religious groups) espouse, and we decry the violence that this engenders. Our message is clear and consistent. We say, “Torah teaches kedoshim Ttehiyu, that you are holy and valued (Leviticus 19). We accept you and want you to feel welcomed and valued and respected and loved.”

Back in 2010, when teenager Tyler Clementi took his life in the face of being bullied for being gay, Or Ami’s clergy team sent a letter to every young person in our congregation (and their parents). Inspired by a missive from rabbis Andy Bachman and Alan Cook, we wrote,

We want to speak to you, whoever you may be. Whether you are gay, straight, bi or transgender or just plain confused, Judaism teaches that each individual is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It does not matter what other people think about you as you struggle to figure out what you think about yourself. What does matter is that you feel comfortable being who you are – at Congregation Or Ami, at school, in your community, and in your home – and you learn how to deal with those who do not accept you….

…We have been blessed with friends and relatives, rabbinic and cantorial colleagues and other coworkers, and beloved and involved congregants who are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, or questioning. If we examine our relationships, we believe all of us would find the same to be true. Some come out easily; others struggle with their identity; still others remain “in the closet.” One day, perhaps we will be able to say, “Who cares what an individual’s sexual orientation is?” And until that day comes, so long as such prejudice and bigotry remain, we cannot remain silent. The Jewish tradition teaches that we are all responsible for one another….

Always remember that you have a rabbi and cantor and a community that care about you deeply and accept you for who you are. No matter what.

We celebrated Sean’s coming out as a shehecheyanu moment, a sacred holy blessed experience. May his experience be another illustration that Judaism and the Jewish community are changing, are open, and are warmly welcoming.

If your congregation is looking for ways to be more openly welcoming, I encourage you to learn more about Congregation Or Ami’s commitment to inclusivity and openness, especially with LGBTQ individuals and families, through what we say and what we do. You can also learn how Reform Judaism embraces LGBTQ individuals and families as a Jewish value, a matter of principle, and a blessed reality in our Jewish community.

Originally published at Or Am I?

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Rabbi Paul Kipnes

About Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Rabbi Paul Kipnes the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. He serves as rabbinic dean at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, and as vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights). He also co-edited a national CCAR Journal issue on New Visions for Jewish Community. Under his leadership, Congregation Or Ami has won national awards for social justice programming, for innovative worship programming, for outreach to interfaith families, and for engaging family education, and for best overall use of technology in a synagogue. Or Ami also wins the hearts of its families for its Henaynu caring community, which reaches out during times of need. He serves on the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education clinical faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His writings can be viewed on his blog, Or Am I? He tweets @RabbiKip.

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