After Orlando, LGBTQ Jews seek more than ‘solidarity’

This piece by Idit Klein (alum of our Jewish Organizing Fellowship’s first class in 1999, and JOIN for Justice board member)  was originally published in Jewish Telegraph Agency.  (Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet.)

BOSTON (JTA) — In the wake of the Orlando shooting, statements of solidarity with the LGBTQ community quickly tumbled forth. Some expressions of support came from unlikely sources such as the Orthodox Union and the Catholic Church. But what does a statement of solidarity mean in response to a crisis when it is not expressed in ordinary times?

Surely there were LGBTQ Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and Muslims who were moved to hear their faith community leaders condemn the attack. For many of these faith leaders, it may have felt momentous and bold, risky even, to express empathy with the LGBTQ community.

I appreciate the progress represented by these expressions of support, but as a lesbian, I do not actually feel supported by them. The Orthodox Union issued a statement saying “it is clear that those people who were murdered … were targeted because of their identification with the LGBT community. … No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.” Yet this same group lobbied against marriage equality and supports religious exemption laws that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

An assurance of solidarity must move beyond compassion for loss of life to affirming the dignity of those who are alive. Without the resolve to support cultural change and policy reform, expressions of solidarity may provide immediate solace but, ultimately, they leave LGBTQ people standing alone.

In the aftermath of Orlando, this is especially true for LGBTQ Jews of color, particularly Latin queer Jews. I’ve noticed that most of the Jewish media’s coverage about the Orlando shooting has not acknowledged the experience of Latin LGBTQ Jews who may see themselves in the victims more acutely than Jews of other backgrounds. This erasure adds to their pain and sense of isolation in the wake of this tragedy. True solidarity means honoring the diversity of our community both in the media and in our communal discourse.

Solidarity also means reflective accountability. It means asking questions: What enables such hatred to flourish? How have I been a bystander in a culture of bigotry? How have I been complicit in a legal system that perpetuates second-class status for LGBTQ people? Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The challenge of Heschel’s observation is that words alone are not enough to right the wrongs all around us. Responsibility requires both words and action — not only in the aftermath of a crisis but all the time.

Unfortunately, after horrific acts motivated by ideology or committed in the name of religion, religious communities are often quick to disassociate from the perpetrator. When Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox ex-convict, stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last summer­ — murdering 16-year-old Shira Banki — Jewish community leaders, including many Orthodox voices, did not hesitate to condemn the attack. Yet many of these leaders asserted that Schlissel’s views do not represent Judaism or Torah. I disagree. As a committed Jew, I acknowledge with sadness that Schlissel’s views do represent certain aspects of our religious tradition. We have critical work to do to challenge these currents of bigotry rather than disregard them.

As a queer Jew, the solidarity I seek from other Jews is not simply ignoring the passages of Torah that are used to discriminate against LGBTQ people. I seek recognition that homophobia and transphobia actively exist in our modern Jewish community and are perversions within our interpretive tradition. I seek the acknowledgment that religion is too often used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. By acknowledging this painful reality, we have the opportunity to condemn the ugliness in our tradition and still hold up all that is beautiful.

As part of my work at Keshet, a national organization working for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, my colleagues and I host a series of Shabbatonim for LGBTQ and ally teens. Each time we host a Shabbaton, I am struck by how many of the teens share that they’ve never before felt so validated, seen and free.

“At the Shabbaton, I finally felt like there was no part of myself I needed to hide, and I was able to embrace myself in its entirety,” a gay teen recently wrote to me.

Nearly all the teens who participate in our Shabbatonim are part of Jewish communities that would describe themselves as inclusive. Most of them have very supportive parents. They attend high schools with gay-straight alliances. So how is it that kids who have so much support in their lives still feel so alone in the world as queer Jewish teens? Our leaders are clearly falling short. The sign posts for inclusion must be more visible. The language of support must be audible all year round, not only during Pride month or after a tragedy.

It shouldn’t take a crisis like the Orlando shooting to catalyze religious leaders’ support for LGBTQ people. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to see people in faith communities — and political leaders of many religious backgrounds — take a bold step toward equality for LGBTQ people beyond attending a vigil or producing a statement.

Just as we are hearing a growing chorus of voices reject the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and demand action for gun reform, I call on all who offer solidarity with the LGBTQ community to continue to stand with us as we move forward. Solidarity must outlast our mourning.

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Will Your Synagogue Be a Club or a Cause?

This piece by Rabbi Joshua Rabin (an alum of JOIN for Justice’s Seminary Leadership Project)  was originally published on eJewish Philantrhopy


(Photo source: pixabay)

I love going to the gym. Each day, I take an hour to get my heart pumping and my body sweaty to ensure that I approach my work with energy, focus, and zeal. And when I go to the gym, one of the things I am thankful for is that I always have a machine to use, primarily because the majority of the members at my gym never show up! This is not an isolated phenomenon. The marketing research firm Statistic Brain found that while the health club industry generates $21 billion in revenue each year, almost 67% of gym memberships in the United States are never used.

This is a brilliant business model, best captured in an episode of National Public Radio’s Planet Money called The Planet Money Workout. Stacey Vanek Smith states that most gym members are “customers who pay, but don’t cost the business a dime.” If a typical fitness center actually needed to accommodate the number of members who pay dues, there would be a line out the door to use any machine.

A typical synagogue uses a business model almost identical to a health club, where a large number of congregants who use little to no synagogue services pay the membership dues that make up the bulk of the operating budget. Of course, there is nothing wrong with paying membership dues to something that one does not use, as many people want a synagogue to be available to them in the limited moments when they need it. Furthermore, every professional and lay leader I know wants more people to walk into the synagogue and would bristle at the idea that synagogues intend to keep out minimally engaged members. However, as the Pew Forum’s Portrait of American Jews finds that only31% of American Jews belong to a synagogue, it is safe to say that the days of sustaining synagogues where people pay not to use them are numbered at best, and over at worst.

Yet underneath every challenge is an opportunity. I am far from the first person to compare synagogue membership to health club membership, yet this metaphor only matters if it can point us to new imagery that will guide synagogues on a journey toward thriving. The synagogue of the twentieth-century was designed to be a club, a place where membership itself was a form of participation. But at a time when all membership organizations face dwindling numbers, a thriving synagogue in the twenty-first century must be a cause, a place where people invest their time, energy and money because the purpose and mission of that synagogue compels them to engage. This distinction between club and cause manifests itself in three ways:

1. A Club is Owned by the Members, a Cause by the Mission

I visit countless synagogues, and I am waiting to visit the synagogue whose website says that the community is cold, unwelcoming, uncaring, and hostile to the needs of children and families. However, while most synagogues use similar aspirational words to describe their community, there is a tremendous gap between the synagogue as it is and the synagogue as it should be. If the synagogue wants to be a club, then the community as it is works fine, so long as people continue to join. Yet if synagogues want to be true to Dan Hotchkiss’ charge that the “owner” of the congregation is the mission, then a synagogue’s “bottom line” is “the degree to which its mission is achieved.” Clarifying what that mission should be, and thinking about a strategy to transform the ideal into a reality, is critical to ensuring that the synagogue focuses on a cause worth pursuing.

2. A Club Aims for Output, a Cause for Impact

Even struggling synagogues have a great deal of activity, including programs, classes, life cycle events, guest speakers, minyanim, social action projects, and so on. However, a great deal of output from a synagogue does not mean that the synagogue makes a great deal of impact. Consider prayer. All synagogues offer some type of prayer experience, yet Jeffrey Jones reminds us that, “The real issue is whether or not worship offers an encounter with the holy, an opportunity to be touched by the transforming power of God” (Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple Forming Congregations, 83). Unless prayer experiences are judged by the extent to which they help individuals grow their “passion created by an encounter with the holy” (Ibid.), then the prayer experience itself is simply a repetitive exercise of reciting words without meaning, promoting attendance without cultivating transcendence. By extension, a synagogue that wants to be a cause must think about the mark every aspect of synagogue life makes on individual Jews, the local community, and the world.

3. A Club Fills Roles, a Cause Uncovers a Person’s Gifts

Sefer Shemot tells us that every Israelite “who was moved and whose heart was willing” participated in the work of constructing the mishkan(Shemot 35:21), yet the Torah neglects to mention where a generation of previously enslaved Israelites learned how to perform these intricate and ornate tasks. In response, the Ramban argues that “none of the Israelites had ever learned these skills before … But each one discovered his natural talent or aptitude for the task” (Ramban on Shemot 35:21). Even though God commanded the Israelites to perform a seemingly impossible task, the sanctity of the task itself inspired the Israelites to uncover gifts they never knew they possessed.

While many current synagogue leaders are dying to know who will chair next year’s Purim Carnival, New Members Dinner, or Annual Campaign, unengaged and under-engaged Jews seeking a spiritual home do not want to be another name in an organization’s bureaucracy; the volunteer work needs to emerge from a person’s spiritual gifts. Every task performed in the synagogue, from serving as gabbai to stuffing envelopes, has the chance to be endowed with holiness. Yet if the tasks are framed as a to-do list that someone must perform, synagogues will continue to lose people who see that work as completely disconnected from the formation of a meaningful Jewish life.

When I speak with synagogue leaders in my position at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), I am oftentimes asked about what synagogues can do to ensure that next-generation Jews will one day join synagogues. While the question itself is far too complex for casual conversation, my answer on one foot is that twenty-first century Jews demand that the synagogue serve a cause, but the synagogue’smere existence is not a cause. This subtle difference in purpose is a tectonic shift in the criteria by which synagogues are judged, yet this shift has the power to the sow the seeds of a new synagogue renaissance. May it happen soon, and speedily in our days.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings

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Creating Resources for Queer Jews of Color

Through her work at Keshet, in partnership with the Jewish Multiracial Network, Kat Macias (Jewish Organizing Fellowship Alum Class of 2015) created a Queer Jews of Color Resource List.

This clip is from a blog piece by Kat Macias about the project, originally published on the Keshet Blog hosted on My Jewish Learning.

keshet(Pictured: Kat Macias)

It is powerful to see yourself reflected in history, in a story, or even in a room. That power is a profound sense of comfort, knowing that you are not alone, there are others like you. It is a feeling of belonging.

Too often as a queer Jew of color I have felt alone: my people absent from Hebrew school lessons, traditions, and communal practice. I have grown to expect that I will be the only queer Jew of color at services or at any other Jewish social gathering. And, despite being welcomed in word time and time again, I have struggled to feel like I belong. What I needed was to know that I was not the only one. I longed to feel at home in a Jewish community I so desperately wanted to call mine.

I turned to the Internet, Googling to find pieces of myself reflected in others. I found it easy to find LGBT Jews or to find Jews of color, there were even whole organizations working to support these identities.

But, finding people at the cross-section, both queer and of color proved to be a challenging task. Eventually, I found a few. My search led me to Raffi Freedman-GurspanMichael TwittyY-Love and more. It took hours of Googling to feel like maybe just maybe Judaism could hold me. I had finally found my nugget of hope… (continued here)

More resources:
You can access the Queer Jews of Color Resource List here.
You can read an article about the project in The Forward here.
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Wendy’s Serves the Bread of Affliction

This piece by rabbinical students Mimi Micner (Jewish Organizing Fellowship 2011 alum) and Salem Pearce (Don’t Kvetch, Organize! 2016 alum) was originally published on the Huffington Post.


Photo featuring Salem Pearce from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website.

This week Jews all over the world will celebrate Passover with seders, the ritual meals that retell the Biblical story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. At the beginning of this retelling in the seder, the leader takes up the matzah, the unleavened bread, and says, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt.” In this moment, the matzah recalls the oppression of slavery. Later in the seder, though, we are told that the matzah commemorates the hasty way in which we left Egypt, with no time for the dough to rise as usual. In this moment, the matzah represents redemption from slavery.

How does the matzah symbolize both oppression and freedom? A clue is given in the ritual that happens just before the leader declares, “This is the bread of affliction”: The matzah is broken in half. Dividing the matzah is a concrete demonstration of the dual themes of slavery and liberation that it symbolizes. And between the transformation of the matzah from the bread of affliction to the bread of redemption is the retelling of the story of Passover. We remember our march out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom.

Throughout history, since that epic march out of Egypt, there have been many marches towards freedom. In that tradition, last month we joined the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) at a march in New York City. The CIW is a worker-based human rights organization, built on a foundation of farmworker community organizing. We have both visited Immokalee, home of the CIW, with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which brings together rabbis and cantors to act on the Jewish imperative to respect and advance the human rights of all people. For several years T’ruah rabbis and rabbinical students been inspired to work in solidarity with the courageous, committed farmworkers of the CIW.

The CIW has been fighting against farmworker abuse since 1993, first calling on growers to end abuses and raise pay. In the early 2000s, CIW changed their strategy, realizing that corporate buyers of the tomatoes they picked had a unique power over the agricultural industry, and could demand that their suppliers uphold human rights for farmworkers. CIW then reached out to consumers across the country to build a national network to call on these buyers to join what would become the Fair Food Program. Up to today, 14 participating retail buyers (including Subway, Whole Foods and Walmart) and the vast majority of the Florida tomato growers have joined the Fair Food Program to work with CIW to ensure workers are treated with dignity and have better wages and working conditions.

While all of Wendy’s major competitors in the fast-food industry — McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Chipotle — have already joined the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s has refused, choosing their public image over supporting human rights. Instead of joining the Fair Food Program and its widely-acclaimed, uniquely successful worker-driven model of social responsibility, Wendy’s released their own code of conduct this past January. It contains no serious mechanisms for worker participation or enforcement, effectively guaranteeing that it will fail to protect workers from the indignity they experience. But they have gone even further in their refusal to ensure human dignity for workers: Wendy’s has shifted its purchases from Florida to Mexico. Rather than support U.S. growers, setting new standards for human rights in the agricultural industry, Wendy’s took its tomato purchases to a country with a horrible human rights record.

Despite being the target of a three-year consumer campaign and a year-long national student boycott, Wendy’s has steadfastly refused to join the Fair Food Program, continuing instead to benefit from worker poverty. The CIW was left with no choice but to launch a national boycott of Wendy’s and continue the fight for human dignity. T’ruah was one of the first national faith groups to endorse the boycott, and, as members of T’ruah, we both were proud to march with the CIW last month as it announced the boycott and continued to pressure the board chair of Wendy’s, Nelson Peltz, to bring the company onto the Fair Food Program.

At our seders this year, we will have before us two pieces of one broken matzah. One represents the bread of our affliction in Egypt; the other represents the bread of our freedom as we leave our enslavement. As long as Wendy’s continues to serve the bread of affliction, join us in refusing to eat it.

Mimi Micner, Rabbinical Student
Salem Pearce, Rabbinical Student and T’ruah Board Member
Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Mass.

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Spirit, History, and Community: Reflections on the JOIN Fellowship

This blog post is written by Jewish Organizing Fellow Danny Blinderman.  


In 1963 Joachim Prinz, a Rabbi and President of the American Jewish Congress, addressed the March on Washington. He spoke, in his words, both as an American and as a Jew. As an American, he joined many others in protesting the chasm between American ideals and the reality of Jim Crowe segregation. Yet he devoted the bulk of his speech to how his Jewish identity and experience, both its spiritual and historical elements, moved him to action.

I first listened to this speech several years ago, and it instantly captivated me. Rather than enunciate progressive values and then claim that they were the same as Jewish ideals, he articulated a deep and powerful understanding of Judaism out of which progressive principles emerged. As someone who feels that my Jewish identity is the base upon which I build my story of why I care about working towards a just society, I wanted a similar grounding. I wanted to root myself in the Jewish tradition, and in Jewish community, so that I could hold fast to ideals of justice and liberation.

I came to the JOIN fellowship because of these questions, and my experience in it has only redoubled how powerful, important and necessary the learning we do together is. We’ve explored humanistic anti-capitalist understandings of Shabbat, challenged Ashkenazi-centrism that is often the resting pulse of our community, and worked to understand the contemporary justice lessons the Jewish diasporic experience hands down to us. We moved beyond the assumption that Judaism is progressive to the discernment of what strands of Judaism could serve as building blocks for a just world. Rather than trade in competing assertions of what lessons Judaism does or does not offer, we have constructed a justice-based understanding of Judaism that is not easily dismissed. For me, historical and spiritual questions have intermingled to create something beautiful and durable.

As powerful as it is to be grounded in these understandings of history and text, the crux of the Fellowship for me is the community we have built together. Jewish tradition teaches us that learning is not an individual enterprise. We live in a society that often seeks to isolate each of us and convince us to downplay critical parts of our own humanity. Community is essential to hold onto our complete selves and our vision of the world as we want it to be. We are meant to explore ourselves and our relationship to the world in communities that can hold us accountable with love. The work we are engaged in is difficult, and we often ask each other to dig into parts of ourselves long left undisturbed. I feel that the learning and community intertwine to create a space that feels, in its own way, sacred. Our shared experience has seeped into the space to create something more than just a place to hold weekly sessions. It is a place of study, of spirituality, of friendship and community. The curriculum is eye opening, but the community is soul enriching. I am grateful beyond words for both.

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