“May That Bullet Destroy Every Closet Door”
Two weekends ago, a gunman attacked the Agudah LGBT community center in Tel Aviv, murdering two young, gay Israelis. When I first heard this news, I was shocked, horrified, angry, embarrassed, sad and instantaneously compelled to act. I was reacting not only to yet another hate crime perpetrated against the LGBT community but, more personally, I was reacting to a hate crime perpetrated in “my” Jewish community, as well. I was ashamed that Jewish teachings, culture and society played a role, likely a significant one (I say “likely” because the shooter has not yet been apprehended) in providing a motive for this atrocity.
In DC, a handful of young professional Jewish and LGBT community activists rallied to organize a vigil in remembrance of the victims and in solidarity with Israel to combat homophobia wherever it exists. Similar vigils also took place in the major cities across the country. Unfortunately, meaningful and well-meaning vigils alone do not affect the sustainable transformation in attitudes, beliefs, and actions that are needed in the Jewish community. The cadre of organizers I worked with to plan the DC vigil uniformly agreed that follow-up work was essential in combating homophobia, transphobia, ignorance, apathy and broad-ranging heteronormativity as they manifest themselves in our temples, community centers, camps, youth groups, political organizations, and other Jewish spaces.
But what exactly does that change look like?
One particularly important place to focus our energies is in Sunday schools. Children perceive acceptance of their LGBT identity or family based on the clues given by the congregational role models with whom they interact. For this reason, creating actively affirming educational environments for our youth must be a top priority for the Jewish community – there should be no reason LGBT and questioning youth should fear rejection or isolation from their faith community, an emotional toll that is too often physically and spiritually damaging.
Imagine: As a second grader studying the stories of Adam and Eve, you’re asked to draw your family tree. What if, instead of the teacher’s example of male and female parental figures, you draw a family with two moms or a divorced family that includes four parents? How do you feel when a classmate teases you or your teacher doesn’t consider your drawing appropriate to share with the class?
Imagine: Your fifth grade classmate groans and calls today’s lesson “so gay;” your teacher says nothing in response. As a child who identifies with the term “gay” (even if you don’t know what it means yet), how exposed do you feel? As a teacher, how guilty do you feel for lacking the knowledge to respond to this offensive remark in a constructive, age-appropriate manner?
These situations are real – and more common than you might guess. Though I work in the LGBT community and have long been involved with Jewish education, I only recently realized how marginalizing it must be for kids to participate in heteronormative Jewish educational systems that cultivate prejudices or, at best, fail to address them. Though secular schools are rarely any more committed to inclusivity, we owe it to our youth to embody a community of justice where all are valued as equals, created with the stamp of the divine.
My eye-opening experience occurred while attending a Keshet Training Institute for Jewish educators this summer. Keshet, a national Jewish organization committed to achieving full inclusion for LGBT Jews, hosts workshops for Jewish professionals to provide the tools necessary to create an educational environment that honors all families and identities – a learning community that promotes the healthy emotional, physical, and spiritual development of all young people. The workshops help educators relate to the feelings of marginalization experienced by LGBT youth (in even the most welcoming Jewish communities), then supplies educators with resources necessary to unhinge the classroom’s closet doors of both subtle and overt homophobia and transphobia. From wrestling with the Levitical passages to learning Jewish responses to “that’s so gay,” from developing LGBT-aware lesson plans to practicing conversations about inclusion with temple leaders, the Keshet workshop and accompanying educational resources offer a blueprint for building Jewish communities that consciously foster inclusion of all.
With the Sunday school year fast approaching and the world Jewish community painfully awakening to bigotry in our midst, nothing would seem a more appropriate tribute to the Agudah victims than to create a reality where no LGBT young person ever questions their unequivocal acceptance in the Jewish community.
If you saw Milk last holiday season – the award-winning movie documenting the life of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official (who also happened to be Jewish) – you’ll recognize this famous quote: “If [in my work] a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
May the bullets fired at youth meeting in the Agudah center be the catalyst our Jewish community needs to destroy every closet door of prejudice and apathy we harbor toward our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters.
For an excellent guide to creating safe and affirming spaces for LGBT Jews in all aspects of community life, invest in the URJ’s “Kulanu” congregational resource.
For a safe spaces curriculum to introduce into a secular school system, consider HRC’s“Welcoming Schools” model, which empowers teachers with the cultural competence to create classrooms respectful of all aspects of family and student diversity.