No apologies for accepting same-sex couples in the Jewish Community

by Halley Cohen, new director of the Stuart S. Kurlander Program for GLBT Outreach & Engagement (GLOE)

The New Jersey Jewish Standard released a statement on Monday apologizing for the “pain and consternation” caused by a same-sex couple’s wedding announcement they had published last week. They have promised not to run any more such same-sex announcements in the future, saying that, “The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart.” Well, all except the gays, of course. Apparently, this “community” they want to bring together does not include same-sex couples. Perhaps gay people individually, just as long as they aren’t too loud about it or want to draw any attention to themselves or their families or their lives.

This is why our children kill themselves.

In this ongoing spate of publicized suicides by young queer (or perceived queer) people, we grasp at any explanation to try to understand the tragedies. Is it because technology makes bullying and exploitation easier now? Maybe all of society is more polarized to the extremes in politics and actions. Or perhaps kids are just meaner to each other these days? I call “bullshit.” It’s too convenient to blame the kids. The kids aren’t without culpability, but if we’re going to trace the blame back to its source, then it has to rest on our own adult shoulders.

Every time we, as adults, decide that it’s fine to say something negative against people of different genders or sexualities, our children see that. They also see when we don’t speak up against other people who say anything to the effect of, “Gay isn’t okay.” And they see that everywhere – from politicians who win votes by preaching hate as a family value, to those who want LGBT teachers out of their schools. More broadly, every child has something within herself or himself or hirself that will separate that child from whatever is more common. If we don’t embrace big-D Difference, that child grows up fearing or hating her/his/hir own, both within and in others.

And we’re making it worse.

When papers like the New Jersey Jewish Standard cave to the interests of the “deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community,” they aren’t doing anyone any favors. Their actions fracture the Jewish community further because they make it seem like all traditional/Orthodox Jews are hostile to the LGBT community. Luckily, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. The DCJCC is proud to host DC Minyan, which identifies itself as, “fully traditional and fully egalitarian,” and invites people to celebrate the aufruf of two female members this coming Shabbat morning, among other inclusive events. Plus, there has been movement in national Orthodox groups, as well.

On October 20, GLOE will be welcoming Miryam Kabakov and her book, Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires, to the DCJCC through the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The element that struck me most was the sheer variety of experiences within an Orthodox or traditional setting:  women who are out of the closet and in; married, “married,” single, dating; in the happy aftermath and in the ongoing negotiations with family. Being queer is only incompatible with an Orthodox life if individuals decide it is. Often, they don’t.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I might have had a blind spot about the Orthodox because I figured, “I’m Jewish; I know what they believe.” It seems so many Jews have different rules for whoever they think of as “the Orthodox,” treat them differently (positively and negatively), even if only in their thoughts. The newspaper went so far as to change their editorial policies because a portion of that population was upset, even though the paper also mentioned letters of support for same-sex marriage announcements.

Keep Your Wives Away From Them gives images of lives that are often invisible or purposely ignored on multiple levels. It works against this trend that says to queer youth, you don’t exist here and are not welcome. By creating visible Jewish community, it says the opposite. The book says, “community” means same-sex couples, too.

More talk, more publicity, more ink in newspapers is what the issue needs. Not statements of apology for acknowledging the lives of queer Jews.

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