Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Pride Shabbat to Remember

As a congregational Rabbi, I don't have that many opportunities each year to visit at another congregation's services.  This year, after receiving an email from a friend who sings in the choir at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah - the LGBTQ congregation in New York City about their Pride Shabbat service, I found myself able to attend this year.  And what a year to be in New York City on the Friday night of Pride weekend.  To begin, the Shabbat service was quite wonderful.  The music is always something special at CBST, with the wonderful Joyce Rosenzweig (who also teaches at HUC) as music director.  The cantorial intern this past year was an incredible talent, Magda Fishman, who has just been invested as Cantor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Add to that the lovely, smart, funny, and passionate Cynthia Nixon, who was their Pride Speaker this year, and the Shabbat service itself was quite wonderfully crafted.

But of course, this year there was much more.  CBST adds in psalms of Hallel for their Pride Shabbat, recognizing the annual festive nature of the weekend.  This year the energy was one of anticipation and excitement that took the festivities to a whole new level.  It had become clear, just as services were beginning, that a vote on marriage equality in New York would take place in the NY Senate in Albany that night.  Toward the end of the service we'd received an update that the vote was likely to be approximately 30 minutes after the end of our service.

Outside the Stonewall Inn, waiting for the vote
And so, at its conclusion, many congregants gathered together to walk down to the Stonewall Inn.  We joined about 1000 people gathering in the street outside the bar, arriving just 10 minutes or so before the vote was taken.  Looking around, and speaking to the people around us, I was struck by the incredible diversity.  Many LGBTQ-identified people, but also heterosexual friends and allies who were there to share the moment.  And, the annual Drag Parade had finished just a short while earlier, so there was plenty of additional color and glamour added to the mix.

When the news came in, the crowd erupted in cheering and hugging and crying and laughing.  The celebratory atmosphere was incredible.  In the mix, the Jews who had walked down from CBST started dancing and singing 'Siman Tov u'mazel tov' and other Jewish wedding tunes.  A couple of Latino gay men came over to us, taken by the joyful sound and said, 'this is so wonderful - I wish we could be your friends'.  One of the CBST congregants took them by the hand and said, 'You are our friends' and they joined in the dance.

As one who wasn't even born at the time that the Stonewall Inn first came to fame in much darker times, it felt quite magical to be standing there at the moment that NY voted to give equal civil rights to homosexual couples.  Instead of police with batons, the police around the perimeter were friendly and smiling.  The feel-good on the streets and in the bars of Greenwich Village as people passed each other with smiles, cheers, and high-fives was a moment of feeling the community togetherness that can sometimes shine through in New York City.

The prophet, Isaiah (58:13) coined Shabbat as a time of oneg - pleasure, delight - a time to enjoy good food, to dress up, to enjoy each other's company, and to celebrate.  Last night was surely a pure and holy expression of Oneg Shabbat and it is one I will never forget.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why we eat cheesecake on Shavuot (funny)

As my erev Shavuot posting, I wanted to share with you something deep and meaningful, about the essence of our holy festival ... Cheesecake! (or, if you prefer, blintzes).  Last week I was invited to offer my thoughts on any number of Shavuot-related questions for the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, and I chose to address the 'Why do we eat dairy?' question.  I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to add my own spin on this question, partly because I've never been satisfied with any of the more 'traditional' answers and, partly, because I believe its possible to make something meaningful out of each and every moment and, therefore, each and every Jewish food, cheesecake being no exception.

So, what does a more traditional take on this question look like? Check out the short video answer provided by the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Orthodox):

To read my take on the background to eating dairy on Shavuot, the Ledger link is here (Scroll down for my answer on eating dairy).

But the best answer I've read this year was the one I received from my father.  Encouraged by what is clearly the Jewish tradition of having an endless number of answers to this vital question of Jewish practice, he decided to add a few more of his own.  Enjoy!

Qu:  Why do we eat cheesecake on Shavuot?

A: There are many answers, most , if not all, of them wrong. Perhaps the most credible answer, in the traditional Yiddish style, is "Why not?' Always answer a question with a question. This sharpens the mind and frays the nerves.

Another answer is that one day it was Shavuot and Rev Nachman was standing before his students wearing a white robe. With his pale skin he was barely identifiable against a pale background. One of his students was heard to remark: "Doesn't he look just like a bit of cheesecake" and this memory has been preserved ever since.

There is a lot more to Rev Nachman than a chair.

Another answer is that in olden times the harvest at Shavuot was celebrated by eating doughnuts. These doughnuts were the original kind, with a ring of dough sprinkled with sugar and a hole in the middle.Our sages and thymes tells us in an unconvincing, yet mystical, way that the ring represents all the Jews in the world and the hole ( which is not only in the middle but also occupies the surrounding space) is where God lives.

So no matter where you are, if you look, you will find God.

One day, around 1400 CE, a woman was buying doughnuts for Shavuot and said in a feigned middle-Eastern voice: "Ach, these fried doughnuts gives me heartburn; same with KFC. Haven't you anything else"

"How about a bit of cheesecake?" replied the baker. "Ok, I'll try a piece" said the lady.

And she never had heartburn again, dying peacefully the following day.

"A miracle" exclaimed the baker and Jews have been eating cheesecake on Shavuot ever since in the hope that they, too, might be delivered from heartburn.

Although this rarely happens, they have not stopped trying.
Simon Gurevitz
(Not a Rabbi)

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Weiner Saga - what it can teach us about ourselves

Anthony-Weiner-100x100.jpgThere's a lot of online chatter, blogging, tweeting, and more about Anthony Weiner's use of the social network to communicate with women via lewd photo.  If you need an update on the full story, here's a piece in the NYTimes, and another on The Huffington Post.

So, I want to get my 2 cents in? Well, yes and no.  I don't think I have much more to add to what has already been said about the unbecoming behavior, the lying, the damage to Weiner's family (and, particularly, his wife) and friendships, the analysis of his confession, etc. etc.

But I want to look at another aspect of the chatter online.  Because expressing our disgust, our disappointment, and our judgment, while appropriate, is the easy part.  Especially when it involves a public official or celebrity.  The much harder part is to look at our own lives and ask ourselves some of the really tough questions that emerge from stories like these.

Unless you happen to hang with a particularly angelic crowd, how many of us can say that we don't know someone among our friends, our congregation, or community, who has done something deceptive or foolish in their lives?  How many of us can look in the mirror without feeling embarrassment for a poor judgment of the past?  Whether it was behavior while drunk or high, a lie that had consequences that we've never owned up to, an email that should never have been sent, a touch or a kiss that betrayed the trust between committed couples, a full-blown affair or a criminal act ... Weiner can be a painful reminder of our own faux pas, or remind us of the pain caused by a friend or family member who did something to cross the line.

I remember that, as a very young child, perhaps no more than 6 or 7, I had a teacher who supervised a sewing activity with my class each week.  We had learned different stitch styles and were making a bookmark.  One week, I made a mistake.  I was so embarrassed by my mistake that, instead of going to the teacher for assistance, I tried to fix it myself and created a big knot in the middle of my fabric.  Then I panicked.  I thought she'd be furious with me if she saw the mess I'd made instead of getting help when the problem was still small.  So I started to feign sickness right before her class, and my grade teacher would allow me take some time out in the fresh air and miss her class.  After a couple of weeks of this, they caught on.  When the confrontation finally occurred, the teacher was mortified that I'd been too afraid to ask for her assistance;  with one snip of the scissors she removed my knot and helped me get back on track.  We had a great relationship from that point on.

Ok, so its a pretty innocuous example, but I offer it more for symbolic value.  What Weiner did was very human.  He messed up.  Yes, he should examine what created his desire to exhibit such behavior in the first place - that is different from my accidental stitching mistake.  But what followed is where the commonality lies, and is not at all uncommon.  Once we've messed up, we're embarrassed and ashamed. We're fearful of what people will think and say.  We're fearful of the consequences.  And so we do things in a vain attempt to try and control the situation.  This usually involves a lie.  Sometimes its a total cover-up lie (no, I didn't do that; my account must have been hacked), and sometimes its a lie disguised as a partial admission of a lesser crime to try and divert attention from anyone discovering the true depths of our deed.  When it looks like we've got ourselves into an almighty knot, we try a different strategy, perhaps feigning illness - 'I wasn't in my right mind'; 'I was under a great deal of stress at the time', 'I hadn't gotten over the death of my father' ...

Only when we find ourselves cornered and out of options might we finally come clean and confess.  And we tell people how truly sorry we are.  And its not a false confession.  It might look that way, because it looks like we've been lying and were hoping to get away with it.  Would we have confessed if we hadn't been found out?  Probably not.  But the lack of confession until there was no other choice does not necessarily indicate lack of authenticity.  We are ashamed, we are embarrassed, we hate ourselves for our poor judgment and the hurt we have caused to people we care about, the trust we have lost, and we are disgusted by our flaws and inadequacies that have caused so much harm.  It was all those feelings and emotions that led us to try and cover things up in the first place - out of our desire to nullify the harm and make it all go away.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say; we did not have the foresight to consider how much worse we were making the knot by our avoidance.

What is true of ourselves also plays out in our dealings with others.  When someone you love is guilty of an act of hurt, or poor judgment, how do you respond?  When they show true remorse and want to do whatever they can to bring some healing to the situation, do you push them away or do you try to make a path for them to do teshuvah - return/repentance?  There are no easy answers; sometimes we have to separate ourselves from an abusive or narcissist personality.  Sometimes we need time to mourn what has been lost - love, trust, friendship - before we can forgive.  But it is always worth taking a breath and a step back and asking ourselves if there is any room for compassion alongside our judgment of the sins of another.

Rabbis, as with all clergy, find ourselves engaging pastorally with people in every aspect of life's journey.  We seek to help those who have been hurt by another to find peace and to heal, and we seek to listen and help those who have sinned to do the inner work of true repentance, taking responsibility, but also the ability to heal and to move on rather than to carry the weight of their error forever.

So, yes, Anthony Weiner has messed up and, yes, he has more work to do.  But there's a spiritual lesson here, and its a lesson that requires deep contemplation ... for each and every one of us.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Clergy speak out for Gay Pride month

June is Pride month.  These days my attention is turned much more to highlighting and celebrating the diversity of all kinds within our Jewish communities.  In the past, some of our Jewish communities have specifically addressed the inclusion of interfaith families and GLBTQ Jews in their midst.  In recent months I've learned a great deal from my colleague and friend, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Rabbi-in-Residence for Be'chol Lashon, that recognizing and responding to diversity goes far beyond these categories, to the inclusion of Jews of every ethnic background.  Our worldwide Jewish community has always been diverse, but our US-based community is becoming increasingly more diverse from immigration, adoption, conversion and the coming together of more mixed-ethnicity couples in marriage.  A new video from B'chol Lashon, featuring Y-love (below) shares this message:

But one of the important aspects of being a welcoming and inclusive community is not simply to acknowledge, welcome and celebrate the diversity that makes up our Jewish communities today.  If we really care about inclusivity, we need to be responsive to the hurts, the needs, and the injustices that may be faced by one part of our community.  For just as we cannot claim to be an economically diverse community that welcomes everyone to belong regardless of financial means if we do not make it possible in reality and do not see it is as our duty to provide additional support to our families in times of struggle, so we cannot claim to be truly inclusive and welcoming of any group if we are not responsive to their needs.

I recently heard a story of a Rabbi who had delivered a sermon on a Pride Shabbat that highlighted some of the injustices and inequalities still faced by loving same-sex couples because they cannot get married or their marriages are not federally-recognized.  Couples who are still faced with crippling financial ramifications when one dies and their partner inherits; couples who cannot gain access to each other when one is in the emergency room, and cannot make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated partner; couples who struggle to find affordable health insurance that is available to them as a family unit.  And the list goes on.  While the overwhelming majority of the community responded with compassion, recognizing that the Reform movement has long stood behind civil rights equality for same-sex couples, and recognizing the holiness of being a community dedicated to that work, a small minority felt it inappropriate material for a Rabbinic sermon.  But the wonderful 'It Gets Better' campaign this past year has helped us all understand that silence on the pain and inequalities facing GLBTQ people is more than just an omission of words; by making the individuals and the issues invisible in our communities we are failing in our duties to literally save the lives of some of our youth who don't know who to turn to and what wonderful possibilities might lie ahead.  I spoke (and subsequently published in my blog here) about this specific issue some months back, and recently a colleague, Rabbi Andrea Myers, published an article on the Huffington Post entitled 'It Gets Beautiful', which I highly commend to you.

The seminary of the Union for Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, created their own 'It Gets Better' video, providing inspiring leadership.  More recently, the students at Yale Divinity School created a similar video project, reaching out to Christians who are looking for their spiritual home in a place that doesn't require them to leave a piece of their soul at the door.  Both videos are below.
Blessings for a Pride month filled with inspiration, affirmation, and action.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz