Rabbi's Message

Setel3Rabbi Setel

Dear Emanu-El Membesr and Friends

As Jews we know how important it is to feel part of a community. A minyan, the ten adults traditionally required for a prayer service, represents the circle of relationship and acknowledgment we all need. Many of us are also aware of what it feels like to be invisible, and even rejected, by the larger society in which we live. For most of human history, LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, [Gender] Queer, and Intersex) people have been unable to publicly associate with and support one another as a visible community. We are blessed to be living in a time when that is changing.

When I first participated in Gay Pride marches in the late 1970s it was with a feeling of both excitement and anxiety. There was a wonderful sense of amazement at being part of such a large public group celebrating our previously hidden identities. But at the same time there was also an experience of dangerous exposure— the possibility of losing custody for the lesbian mother with whom I marched; the risk that others could lose their jobs or be shunned by their families. We were heckled and booed by groups along the route, denounced as perverts and sinners as much as cheered by others who represented both allies and those unable to yet join us in the streets.

Much has changed in forty years. In 1986 Debbie Friedman and I organized the first gathering of gay and lesbian Jewish clergy. It was held in secret and nearly all of the participants were fearful of being fired if their congregations knew they were there. Now there are openly LGBTQI rabbis and cantors in every movement and the Immediate Past President of the CCAR (Central Conference of Reform Rabbis), Rabbi Denise Eger, was the first openly gay or lesbian person to hold that position. Rabbi Deborah Waxman of the Reconstructionist movement is the first woman and the first openly gay or lesbian person to head both a rabbinic seminary and a Jewish denomination. The ordination of LGBTQI rabbis is no longer controversial within the liberal movements which represent the vast majority of world Jewry and the Jewish community today is generally more concerned with whether LGBTQI couples raise Jewish children than with whether they should be parents.

Contemporary scholarship has also expanded our understanding and appreciation of LGBTQI Jewish lives and the complexity of even the most traditional rabbinic perceptions of sex and gender. National organizations provide educational and support resources for young people and the growth of LGBTQI synagogues has provided new ritual and organizational models for inclusion.

For all these reasons and more what were originally Gay Pride marches—for visibility, for civil rights, for freedom—have become Gay Pride parades, more celebration than defiance. This is certainly a positive thing and LGBTQI people in the United States have much to celebrate but we remain far from equal citizens, both in the courts and in the synagogue. We may support the boycott of North Carolina for its regressive laws but how many our of our congregations have intentionally created non-gendered bathrooms? Looking at the images in our synagogues, at the books in our libraries, and the education materials in our schools, how many reflect LGBTQI Jewish experience?

When I march in this year’s Gay Pride parade on July 15th it will be with both joyful celebration and the determination to keep working for LGBTQI equality. Last year we had a wonderful group represent Temple Emanu-El and this year I hope as many of you as are able will join with us. Even though I’ve been doing this for forty years, I still tear up at the wonder of the experience and the amazement of what has changed in my lifetime. And we can all be part of continuing that transformation.

Rabbi Drorah Setel