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A Place in Our Heart and Shul

Looking towards the future, as any Zionist would, I dream of making Aliyah. I tear up at any display of the Israeli blue and white, of Yom Ha’atzmaut events, at any singing of Hatikva, or any Facebook videos by Nefesh B’ Nefesh showing the throngs of Jews coming home and the joy and tumult surrounding their arrival. Basically, I am a crying mess by the end of any of those. But some of my tears are not ones of perfect joy. Some are tears of pain and fear mixed in. Let me explain.

My journey over the last four years of my exclusion from my old shul has been fraught with so much anger and pain. The unbelievable sense of rejection by my fellow Jews, most specifically those I called my Rabbis, is so devastating that I cannot even put those feelings into words. However, I am only thankful that this rejection happened while I was a grounded adult, and not a teenager, one who had already weathered many storms that life had sent my way. In fact, a recent study about the impact that such rejection has on our youth is the reason why I have always said that inclusion of us LGBTQ Jews is an act of pikuach nefesh (saving a life).

If anyone thinks that the impact is any different for us Jews, because the study interviewed only Christians, trust me, I have seen first hand the unbelievable emotional toll that such rejection has taken on our young people. In fact if you read through it, you will see that the article attached below, about the study, makes it clear just how universal it is  to all religions. Just take a moment to digest these two paragraphs from the article:

“The most devastating effect for children in non-affirming religious environments, in my opinion, is an identity distortion that teaches the child to feel valueless as a relational being,” Archuleta said. “When a child feels unwelcome, too damaged for relationships, we strip them of their very purpose and sense of worth.”

“For a religion to have such a capacity and the willingness to maintain that maladaptive power is, in my opinion, antithetical to the God of love.” Chilling Study Sums Up Link Between Religion And Suicide For Queer Youth.

Stripping someone of their sense of worth reminds me of the prohibition against embarrassing someone in public. In that moment of shame they no longer value their life, some even wishing for death. That moment caused by anyone, especially by those in power for others to see, is akin to murder according to our tradition. Taking away a person’s will to live is akin to the spilling of their blood. Seeing the connection between shaming those who are different, and the connection to the rate of suicide among our LGBTQ Jews is critical for understanding the challenges we face and the actions Rabbis take.

We are commanded to not stand idly by while our fellow Jew’s blood is being spilled. I beg each of you reading these words to not blindly follow those in power simply because they are in their positions, especially when they are doing harm to others. And know this, there are so many others in such positions who wield their power and do no harm, but rather run after mitzvot finding a place in their hearts and in their shuls. Make those your leaders. That is why I am inspired to write and that is why I found my Rav, and that is why I look out in the world for others just like him. I have tikvah (hope).

Since this chapter of hardship in life is not my first rodeo, as they say, I decided to get back up on the horse. I built a community of friends who became family, a Friday night minyan and about six months ago we founded a shul in the very town in which I was rejected, aptly named Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael; where everyone has a place in our heart and in our shul. I have watched people run to do mitzvot for this shul, donate, work towards getting our own Sefer Torah BE”H, set up luncheons, bake sales and offer their time and insights. I field calls from all over the world from people looking for a place in their own communities, or to speak with me about the reality that such a place exists, where they would be welcome as an LGBTQ Jew. Each of them are on their own difficult journey too, and I hear it in their voices.

What impacts me the most though is when I speak to young people and hear their faith restored, their hope grow, and their futures so bright. I am quickly learning that there are Rabbis, Rebbetzins, Rabbaniyot, educators and innovators who are finding a place for us. The future is so bright for all of us because I believe it is being filled with the next generation willing to include rather than exclude. And my tears, my tears of pain and fear are lessened with each person that picks up the phone to offer their assistance, kind words or simply to take a moment to give a fellow Jew chizzuk (strength) on their journey.

But most especially I am strengthened by the kind words that prompted this blog post. You see, fearing rejection and pain, which I and my family cannot go through again, I began to research different communities and Modern Orthodox shuls in Israel. We looked towards the future, towards Aliyah, with tikvah but also with trepidation; until now. Until I got an email responding to an inquiry I made of a very special Rebbetzin. Now there is only tikvah. I wanted to know if there was a place for us in their shul, where her husband is the Rav. And when I received her response, my tears were only tears of joy. “Of course there’s a place for you in our heart and shul.”

You see, she clearly practices what is preached in their shul, namely Ahavat Yisrael. Not only would we be welcome in their shul, but in one fell swoop she embraced our humanity, recognized our dignity, our person-hood as a tzelem Elokim (G-d’s image), our neshama (soul) as a nitzotz (spark) of Hashem, and did so with just three words, “in our heart.” I stopped crying tears of pain and fear and now only have tikvah. Not just for our journey home one day, but for the knowledge that less and less Rabbis will fail us. Change is coming – I can feel it in “my whole body and soul” – words Anne Frank A”H wrote to describe the arrival of spring.

Spring is coming for us LGBTQ Jews. There is tikvah – of that I am certain. “How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” (also Anne Frank A”H). Find a place in your heart for the LGBTQ Jew and in your shuls and you will do the greatest of mitzvot, instilling tikvah through tikkun olam (repairing the world). Wishing us all mechayil el chayil!

About the Author
Shlomit is a career prosecutor -- one who believes in seeking justice for others. She holds a degree in Judaic Studies from Brooklyn College and a law degree from Hofstra (1998). She is a yeshiva high school graduate (Central/YUHSG,1988). Shlomit recently spoke on a panel at the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) on the necessity for inclusion of the LGBT community in the Orthodox world and the impact that exclusion has caused to that community.
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