“Why are you so famous in this shul?” asked my best friend’s six year old granddaughter, who joined us for shabbos davening and our first fundraiser luncheon at Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael. I looked into her eyes and responded, “I am not famous. I just know most of the people here because I have an important job in this shul. I am the President, and in this shul women can be President.” Her eyes widened at the realization that girls can do anything, and she replied “Cool!”
Yes it is cool! This shul of ours in this small town on Long Island has become so much for so many. People came for shabbos from the Five Towns, Brooklyn, Washington Heights and from all four corners of our town.This past Shabbos Mevorchim we were zoche to hear a Rav, Rabbi David Kalb, who joined us as our scholar in residence, speak openly and honestly about Agunot, Gerut and LGBTQ Jews and their place in the observant world. We davened together, ate together and learned together. Jews stood side by side with their fellow Jews, gay or straight, nobody cared and no one asked. Of course there was the guy with the beautiful flowered jacket, and maybe people knew or assumed, but he got an aliyah anyway. And he stood there and made a misheberach for an ill friend of a fellow davener he did not even know – simply because he was asked to do so. Each Jew in the room, that turned to greet the person next to them, before we began to read from the Torah, knew that each one of us mattered and we each had to care for one another. We each belonged there. We each had a place.
And for those who are angered by this inclusion at the bima, I simply say, you give the benefit of the doubt to every other man who comes up for an aliyah, that he did not drive to shul, eat at Burger King the day before, or that his wife went to the mikvah. Right? Rabbi Kalb who was willing to address this, who was willing to take a stand, is correct in saying that some Rabbis today are simply not “nuanced” to deal with these issues. But you know what I say, they simply do not want to be nuanced. They bury their heads in the sand and say nothing, or worse yet, lambaste the gay community causing irreparable harm, or put forth dangerous arguments such as “if people can abstain from eating treif, they can abstain from being an LGBTQ person.” “Well you know what,” said Rabbi Kalb, “no one ever threw themselves off of a building because they could not eat a bacon double cheese burger!” Let that sink in for a moment dear reader. Think about your fellow Jew taking his or her own life as if they were your parent, sister, brother, or child. Let that sink in; simply because there are those who would not be emissaries of inclusion; emissaries of Ahavat Yisrael.
In this shul, we cannot bear that thought. In this shul we are dan lechaf schut – we give the benefit of the doubt to each and every man who comes before our Torah and Holy Ark, that they do not violate halacha. We practice not only Ahavat Yisrael, but even more importantly, acts of Pikuach Nefesh. For the young man in our town who normally does not go to shul, because he does not feel welcome, well he came, and found a welcoming place. He came with his parents and sat there listening, wearing a beautiful multi-colored tallis, reminiscent of Yosef’s coat, as we heard Rabbi Kalb speak about Yosef. A man, thrown into a pit by not only his fellow Israelites, but by his very own brothers; who hoped for his death. How horrified we all are by those actions, and how awed we are at how much Yosef rose above, when they stood before him in Egypt. More of us need to be like Yosef, more of us need to rise above.
We LGBTQ Jews, or women seeking a voice, or converts, or people seeking to convert but being denied inclusion by politically driven and power hungry Rabbis; or Agunot seeking to be unchained by Rabbis who can find a heter and 100 Rabbis for a man to be remarried, but cannot find a way to save a woman’s life so that she too may continue to live it and find true love; or people who simply are different in some way, and simply want to be embraced, treated with dignity and respect, and included in observant communal life; all of us, have had enough. Enough of the failure of some Rabbis to become nuanced, enough of their failure to find solutions, to find paths towards inclusion, to practice Ahavat Yisrael, and their failure to value human life enough to do acts of Pikuach Nefesh!
And when I say, all of us, who do I mean? Not just everyone listed above, but the modern Jew of faith who cannot stand idly by and watch their fellow Jew’s blood being spilled; who cannot stand idly by while others throw another Jew into a pit – excluding them from the only Judaism they know. And I mean this in a spiritual way, not just physical. The neshama of each Jewish child, teenager or young adult, not only their physical well being, must matter to Klal Yisrael, for they are our future. And their future has got to be “Cool!” Their future has to include a place in observant Judaism for them. A place where a brilliant young woman, with a learning disability, who cannot easily follow along in the Hebrew, previously turned off by a non-inclusive shul environment, memorized the prayer for the IDF and said it beautifully, out loud and with such confidence last shabbos, for all in our shul to hear; because we simply looked to include her and found a way to do so. She told me, “I love your shul. I love going there.” That, I thought, was so cool!
Or for the young boy with Autism who will become a bar mitzva in our shul in a few months, because our Rabbi, our Modern Orthodox Rabbi, found a way to make that happen. Just like he found a way to bring the Torah to us on the women’s side, and a place for us women to speak divrei Torah before the entire congregation. He, like Yosef, rose above, he like Yosef was worried about the sanctity of human life – “Is your aged father… is he still alive?” The concern for the living – for the life of his father Jacob – was greater than Yosef’s ego or anger at his brothers. Life, above all, both physical and spiritual must be paramount to all of us, to all of Klal Yisrael. As we are commanded, in Vayikrah, “Observe my ordinances and laws, that man shall do them and live; I am Hashem.”
The doing of mitzvot, binds us to life, binds us to each other, but most importantly, binds us to Hashem. Ahavat Yisrael is the glue. Giving each of us a place, giving each of us a role, giving each of us a voice, making us visible rather than invisible, giving us the opportunity to be seen and heard, well that is the coolest thing of all! B”H some Rabbis and the next generation get it, so should you.