WRJ and LGBT Rights: A Brief History

By Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

From its founding in 1913, The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods has served as a powerful and effective vehicle for Reform Jewish women to share their commitment to and advocacy for increasing justice in the world. As such, the women of our movement have been long-standing advocates for the rights of those within the GLBT community, often being among the first to do so. Beginning in 1977, Sisterhood leaders have named and asserted their solidarity with other arms of the Reform movement in supporting, first, gay men and lesbian women, then, gay and lesbian Jews, and, most recently, the rights of transgender and bisexual individuals.

In 1977, NFTS passed a resolution calling for “civil, legal, social and political rights and guarantees for education, housing, employment, pursuit of self-fulfillment, the expression of cultural and ethnic identity and the absence of coercion or invasion of privacy [to] be guaranteed for all persons regardless of color, sex, sexual preference of consenting adults, national origin, religion and political point of view.” Both the UAHC and the CCAR passed similar resolutions that year.

Fourteen years later, in 1991, leaders called upon member Sisterhoods to both support civil legislation to protect and provide the rights of gay men and lesbian women, and to “advocate [for] the full integration of gay and lesbian Jews within our congregations and communities.” The resolution continued, “Accept gay and lesbian individuals and families into congregations and affirm their right to affiliate as individuals or as families with all the privileges thereof,” and “Educate their members that commitment to human rights includes that gay and lesbian Jews have the opportunities to fulfill their aspirations to serve as rabbis, cantors and other professional in any of our synagogue. Urge their religious schools to sensitize our youth to the diversity of families and life styles.”

The now outdated language of these resolutions reflects the accepted usage of the time, as well as the sincerity and commitment of the leaders who crafted these documents, reflecting resolutions passed by other arms of the Reform movement. Six years later, Women of Reform Judaism passed a new resolution that began with these words: “gay people, too, are made in God’s image.” This reference to the essential equality, in God’s eyes, of each of God’s creation, casts this and subsequent resolutions in a brighter and more inclusive light. Advocating for the rights of gay and lesbian folks was now articulated as a Jewish religious value, as a shared goal for those of us who take our Judaism seriously.

In 1999, the WRJ spoke against hate crimes. With good intention, the resolution begins by citing Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger resides in your land, you shall not harm him.” However, we see that “those of a different gender, sexual orientation or disability” are named strangers. Thankfully, in the subsequent decades, Sisterhoods became more welcoming and inclusive. Individual sisterhoods acknowledged their lesbian members and included them in leadership. The WRJ supported the formation of Sisterhood groups in synagogues that had been established by and for the LGBT community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) across the country. Sisterhoods began to reflect the diversity and richness of our Jewish communities, including many who had, previously, felt themselves to be “strangers.”

The most recent resolution was passed by the WRJ Board of Directors in 2003, calling for “civil rights protections from all forms of discrimination against bisexual and transgender individuals,” urging “legislation [that] allows transgender individuals to be seen under the law as the gender by which they identify,” and calling “upon sisterhoods to hold informative programs about the transgender and bisexual communities.” We hope that this resolution is being enacted in Sisterhoods and religious schools across our movement.

Marriage equality is one of the most immediate issues for many gay men and lesbians. The Supreme Court’s striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unfortunately does not legalize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples who reside in states that still have DOMA laws. Are Sisterhoods and Reform congregations in such states following the directive articulated in the 1997 WRJ resolution that calls upon Sisterhoods to “seek the enactment of legislation in all necessary jurisdictions that would legalize same sex civil marriage”? Pirkei Avot teaches: “It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (2:16)

With deep appreciation to the many Sisterhood women and others within the Reform Jewish community who have been and continue to be strong advocates for LGBT equality and inclusion, there is still much to be done. May WRJ’s second century be a time of renewed commitment to the inclusion of all of us who are created in God’s image.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD, is in her eighteenth year of service to the Union, where she currently serves as Rabbinic Director of the East Congregational Network. She editedThe Open Door Haggadah (2002), Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2002), and served as Poetry Editor of The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary (2008). She is co-editor of the new book, Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (2013).

The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund and by Sandi and Mike Firsel and Temple Chai Sisterhood.

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