On a recent Friday night, I wore a black T-shirt with “Proud Mom” in rainbow letters, and had a (temporary) glitter tattoo on my arm that read “Love is Kosher.” My 14-year-old son wore a rainbow T-shirt and had a rainbow sweatband on his wrist.
We weren’t participating at Pride festivities in downtown Pittsburgh; we were at synagogue for Temple Emanuel of South Hill’s first Pride Shabbat.
My son — who came out as gay in elementary school — said the service made him feel more welcome in the temple community. That feeling is one of the reasons why our synagogue created a LGBTQ+ Task force; the goal is to ensure that our community is truly welcoming and inclusive.
This same feeling is why I became active in youth group at the local and regional level when I was in high school. Organizers and peers ensured that my deafness didn’t preclude me from participating or feeling a part of the group. I wanted my son to experience this, too, so when I found out that Keshet — an organization that works for the full equality of all LGBTQ Jews and families in Jewish life — was hosting an East Coast Shabbaton for LGBTQ and ally Jewish teens, I encouraged him to go.
But what teenage boy listens to his mother?
Luckily mine does … sometimes!
I continued to bring up the Shabbaton occasionally, each time saying it would be good for him and to please think about it. Just before the deadline, he acquiesced, saying he knew he had to push himself.
Last March, he traveled to where it was held, knowing no one. The first day he was shy. The following morning, he tried to break out of his shell. Spoiler alert: He started having fun. In recounting the weekend afterward, he shared two meaningful experiences that included a friendship circle.
Throughout the weekend, the kids broke out into the same small groups to check in with each other and have a safe space to talk. Shy teenagers befriended outgoing ones, and people made sure others were included.
The true measure of success was when my son said he wants to go back next year. He’s also keeping in touch with Keshet friends on social media.
I knew this wouldn’t be enough. It shouldn’t be enough. No one should have to go somewhere else to find community.
A cursory check of local congregations finds LGBTQ+ inclusion woefully lacking. As Rabbi Ruti Regan said in a recent webinar on inclusion and pride, you can’t build a Jewish community without acknowledging LGBTQ+ Jews and Jews with disabilities. In valuing all our people as much as God does, our community needs to act like LGBTQ Jews, disabled Jews and LGBTQ Jews with disabilities are part of the Jewish people. We all bring something important to the conversation, she said.
In the year since the LGBTQ+ Task Force was created, Temple Emanuel has added a LGBTQ+ Safe Zone widget on its website, posted Safe Space stickers in the building, purchased Keshet posters like one that outlines seven Jewish values for an inclusive Jewish community (Respect, Love your neighbor as yourself, etc.) to hang on the walls, purchased LGBTQ+ books for the temple library, added Temple Emanuel to Keshet’s Equality Guide, converted a bathroom to be gender neutral, hosted a conversation with Evan Wolfson — founder and president of Freedom to Marry — on “Making More Progress for Gay & Transgender People in our Community, Pennsylvania, the US and the World: What Can We Do?” and held our first Pride Shabbat.
My son declared that Pride Shabbat, which had a great turnout, was “perfect.” The task force made rainbow Shabbat candles and put together a service that included kids and teenagers reading the seven Jewish values. We modified some prayers to make them more inclusive, like changing a word from “brothers” to kulanu, meaning all.
Task force members read material from various sources, and the Temple Emanuel Band performed songs like an adapted version of “If We Only Have Love” with the lyrics, “If we only have love/Then Jerusalem stands/And then death has no shadow/There are no foreign lands…”
Our work is far from done, but in just one year, we’ve made a lot of progress.
As Rabbi Regan said, the Jewish community has always been the only safe place from anti-Semitism.
“If we discriminate against LGBTQ+ and disabled Jews, they have no place to be safe and valued. If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?” she asked.
We must match our words and deeds as we demonstrate our faith. Words read during our Pride Shabbat were never more poignant: “Beneath our uniqueness we are all bound together by our common humanity.” pjc
Lisa A. Goldstein is a freelance journalist who lives in Pittsburgh.