When rabbis fail, they don’t just fail me or my family, they fail their community as a whole. This is my story, about how rabbis — and so many in my community who followed them — failed us too. All of us. You see, I am a frum (observant) Jew, a mother, a partner, a seeker of justice, and, oh yes, I happen to be gay. A frum gay Jew who suffered discrimination at the hands of rabbis. Rabbis, who we as Jews look to as leaders, purveyors of light, disseminators of Ahavat Yisrael, and ones who bring Jews together — not ones who tear us apart.
Almost four years ago, in August of 2012, I married my partner and hyphenated my name, adding her last name to mine. The sad reality is that I hyphenated to protect our family from estranged family members who had abandoned us because we were gay, but yet had greater legal right to make medical and legal decisions for each of us. We could not allow this to be, and so when gay marriage became legal in New York, we married in a civil ceremony, seeking equal protection under the law.
However, seeing what had happened in California, I looked at it as an attorney would, with concern that the law could be reversed (this was two years before DOMA), and so I added her name in an attempt to make sure that if questioned under the law about “the intent of the parties,” it would be clear that we were seeking equal protection. I also took the name out of respect for my father-in-law, who was very kind and accepting of me. As well, I hyphenated my name because I did not want to distance myself in name from my daughter, and so I chose this route.
Little did I know the discrimination I would face because of these choices; that I would be accused by the rabbis of my former shul of hyphenating my name only to make a statement, and that they would then use that to remove me from the shul’s membership.
And almost two years ago, during the summer of 2014, the rabbis did just that. My membership in my shul was taken away because my hyphenated name — which I was not allowed to use on any official shul letters, flyers, or announcements — was automatically and inadvertently uploaded to the shul cloud, as I updated my membership information. Although when the rabbis removed me, we were told me it was because of a party we had held in our home TWO years earlier, in 2012. A joint housewarming and L’chaim, ten days after our civil ceremony, as we were grateful to our friends who supported us and knew why we were seeking legal protections under the law. Not a Jewish marriage, not a halachic anything, just a legal union we sought as an umbrella for equal protection under the law – something to which most people don’t even have to give a second thought.
And yet, my partner, who had not hyphenated her name was allowed to remain a member, because as one rabbi said the most horrific thing I have ever heard a rabbi say – “I am the halachic arbiter of this shul and I can be inconsistent if I want to.” Really? How shameful! When is Halacha ever inconsistent? And when I questioned this, I was told it she could remain because of compassion. I remember us being called in to speak to the rabbis and my partner saying to them, “So the first time you call me in to speak to me, in nine years, is to tell me my partner can no longer be a member?” Needless to say, she withdrew her membership immediately and we were left without a shul; because those rabbis in fact had so little compassion for us.
What’s worse is that all of this came about exactly one year after I had called all 250 or so shul members to type up the printed directory. You see, I was that member – the one who gave the tzedaka I could – we could – as a family. The one who volunteered whenever I could, the one who was a chessed team captain. The one who spent 19 years building up our shul from this little shul – where everyone who walked in was invited to a meal at my home for years, until B”H it had gotten too big for me to do so, and then others stepped in. That was the shul I knew – the one that welcomed everyone.
Think about it. How many of you reading these words would attend a shul if your better half was not allowed to be a member? Is your love for your spouse greater than my love for her – even though it may be different for you – or hard for you to understand? And as for the collateral consequences of this removal, the daughter I am desperately trying to raise and maintain in a frum world says to me, when I urge her to attend shul with her father, despite what was been done to us, “Why would I want to daven in a shul that won’t have my mother as a member?”
A friend, amidst all of this, told me that there are times in history when we Jews are put to the test, and at times we fail. She told me that what happened to me and my partner in our community was such a test, and that our rabbis and community had failed. But I am ever hopeful, that my voice will be heard, that others will join me, and that wrongs will be made right. I am grateful to say that many did raise their voices, did put pen to paper and write letters of protest, but not enough and they fell on deaf ears. And the rabbis failed again. And yet, I continue to hope.
I hope, because of rabbis like Rabbi Benny Lau. A few months ago I was privileged to hear Rabbi Lau speak at the foundational meeting of PORAT (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah). Rabbi Lau said that this is an issue of Pikuach Nefesh; because when we relegate people into darkness – in essence into obscurity – we relegate them to the closest thing to death. He rises above. He gets it; my hope is others will too — especially in the rabbinic world.
Can we as Jews, who claim we are frum stand idly by while our brother’s or sister’s blood is being spilled? When hundreds of frum LGBT youth are leaving frumkite because of the treatment they are receiving – because they too are relegated into darkness. Can we even afford to lose one?! We need rabbis to say “No!” To say “Not even one Jew should be pushed out from the fold!” We need rabbis that rise above, like the rabbi who told a friend of mine that the word for closet in Hebrew was “aron,” and that for coffin, it too was “aron.” That rabbi understood the dangers of exclusion and relegation into darkness. That rabbi understood the sanctity of human life and the fear of some of the highest suicide rates being found in the LGBT community and striking at young Jews. That rabbi understood the need for Kvod Habriyot and Ahavat Yisrael, despite the halachic issues with which he, as a rabbi, and we, as gay Jews, grapple.
But know this, Ahavat Yisrael, love for one’s fellow Jews, is a platitude – one that is easy to follow when the Jew is like you. The real test of Ahavat Yisrael is in loving those that are different from you. Embracing, the single person, the widow, the orphan, the aguna, the convert, and even me – the gay. That is Kvod Habriyot – a love for all of Hashem’s creations.
But two years have gone by, and I wanted others to get a glimpse into what our world has been like, so I took this opportunity to write about my journey. I wanted others to see through the pain into a world in which, while attempting to make sure our daughter was accepted into a yeshiva high school, I was beside myself. I had to sit in the principal’s office to share with the school why I no longer had a shul membership – as if being a gay mom was not enough that I had to discuss! Baruch Hashem, some rabbis did the right thing and realized that a frum Jewish child is deserving of a frum education, and she now attends an amazing religious high school! That has been the light of these two years. Those rabbis and educators rose above.
But the rest of the time we have lived with much darkness. The invites that have ebbed away, the “friends” I no longer see, the communal events we no longer get invited to, or feel welcomed at, or the shul dinner we received an empty envelope to, addressed only to my partner with nothing but another empty envelope inside; because someone out there felt the need to pour salt in the wounds. What kind of small, horrible person would do such a thing? And that is exactly how the rabbis have failed us and my community: they have fostered hatred, they have caused derision, when a few pulled their membership, or had family members refuse to ever enter the shul again. So sad.
They have failed me because I cannot stand in a shul with my daughter to hear the Torah being read and “Eitz Chaim Hee” being sung to the heavens; I, who am a deeply spiritual person with a deeply rooted connection to Hashem. I am emotionally destroyed by all of this. And the irony is that I seek justice every day for those who have so little power – I am a prosecutor who gives voice to the injured and oppressed. I fight the good fight. Yet, I have had to silently watch my partner – a ba’alat teshuva who finally found a shul to call her own – maintain her frumkite despite all of this. And I was silent, for two years, hoping that more would raise their voice for me, for us, for my family. That more in my community would tell the rabbis, “This cannot be!” rather than just go on with their lives, daven in a shul I was no longer welcome at as a member, and just simply ignore the elephant in the room when they see me.
And as to how this has impacted me, I can only say that not only have we suffered tremendous mental anguish, but I do believe that the stress of all of this has impacted my health. Less than a year after being removed from the membership, and trying to make sure my daughter was accepted into a frum high school, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. B”H, very early stage though, and I went through some surgeries and treatment and am thankfully doing well.
But, despite all the meals I had cooked for others or Tehillim I had said, I had no shul community to cook for me or to say Tehillim for me. That is the collateral damage of harmful rabbinic action. And although I am grateful to our friends, who did so much for us through that difficult time, and we feel truly blessed because of them, change has not come. Not one of these rabbis, learning of my diagnosis reached out, putting our differences aside, and offered their help in any way.
And at 45 years old I should not think of dying, but I recently sat through a levaya for my friend and looked around the room in the shul. Next to me was someone who does not speak to me; across the room I saw the person who mailed my partner that empty envelope; because the rabbis had allowed hate to be promulgated. And as I listened to the hespedim for my friend, about how we as Jews should care for one another, come together as a community, and be kind to one another like my friend was, I realized — I don’t want to die here! I went home and later wrote that to the Moreh De’asra of the community.
I have no Chevra Kaddisha now. Who will say a hesped for me? Who will have kavod for my gufah? Who will comfort my child? Who will comfort my partner? My family? Cancer has made that all very real for me.
I ask myself, why me? Why us? Why when families lose their home to a fire, the community runs to help – but not for another gay family in my community who lost so much in a fire – so few stepped forward. Why has my former shul, and every other shul (besides Chabad) in my community become gay-rein? Each one taking the position that I cannot be a member. Why does no one who steals, or testifies against a fellow Jew in court, or violates Shabbat, or kashrut suffer the same fate? Why does every male who gets up for an aliya not get asked about his wife’s mikvah status? Does Taharat Hamishpacha not matter to these rabbis? Why is everyone so focused on us, as gay Jews, and not on all the other issues that we as imperfect beings are challenged with in life? Why do rabbis and community leaders look away when it comes to the challenges or failings of others?
Why were we repeatedly marginalized by our rabbis and shul? We could not put our names on the same line of a round-robin Purim, and until someone asked the rabbi we were not allowed to be billed as a single household. We were soon told that could no longer be, and so we said, “No problem,” we would just pay $50 more as two single memberships. We just wanted to be members. When I hyphenated my name, I was told by the rabbi that I could not put it on anything official in the shul and so we gave tzedaka or sponsored things in my partner’s name or in my daughter’s name. I was also told it could not appear on the member directory and so, while actually updating the printed directory for the entire shul, I did not put my name in it.
I need to be clear here — I am not looking for halachic validation of my legal partnership. I personally see no place in Halacha for gay marriage. On June 1st we finished Masechet Kiddushin in the Daf Yomi cycle. I looked, check it out — it is not in there! That is not to say that we cannot have our own ceremonies that afford us legal protection. But what I am seeking is close self-examination of what more can be done to include us, rather than exclude us, to be advocates and practitioners of Ahavat Yisrael. To be seekers of justice. To be a light onto the world that finds a place for every Jew. Rabbis who lead a community to light don’t fail. Rabbis who lead their community into darkness do. I ask communities and rabbis out there — which one do you want to be a part of?
Know this, I am strengthened by those who do want to rise above, who choose to find a place for us – and they exist and sustain us. I see it every Friday night in our home where we have an Orthodox minyan, where I listen to Mincha, a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat and daven Ma’ariv; a minyan built from a mix of knitted kippas, velvet kippas, those in suits, those in casual clothes and even a Carlebach-influenced chassid. We are all Am Echad. This minyan started about two years ago when my friend broke his leg and could not make it to shul. I offered to have a minyan for him, and while all of this began happening in the shul, the minyan stayed, even after my friend healed. It is the only place I can really daven now, and my daughter sees that. And she sees that despite all of this, my partner continues to daven every morning. She is a true role model for my daughter; and she too has hope. We all do.
I ask of each of you reading these words to remember that we look to our rabbis to protect us, strengthen us and not harm us. I ask each of you to rise above and make your voices heard to rabbis out there who do not – to change their course. It can happen. Maybe these final thoughts would help them understand. Judaism, as you know, has three protected classes, the Ger (the convert), the Yetom (the orphan) and the Almana (the widow); ones most in need of protection, inclusion and compassion. We in the LGBT community are like all of them: we are the “stranger” among you, even if we are from within you, we are the “orphan” as we are often orphaned by our families who abandon us, and we are the “widow,” who is the epitome of loneliness, when rabbis and members of the community exclude us. I ask each of you reading this to protect us, include us and have compassion for us. Spread the word. Be our light.