The article below is longer than my usual moment in time. Today (October 11) is National Coming Out Day, and I wanted to share my story (from an article I wrote a few years ago). I am reminded that while coming out can often be pinpointed to an event, in reality coming out is an ongoing process occurs in any given moment in time. (Think about daily interactions with people who don’t know you. They see a ring, for example, and ask, “What is your wife’s name?” Or making travel arrangements, etc.)
My hope is that you read my story and think about the stories of so many others. We ALL know someone who has a story. Each one deepens the soul of humanity,
With love and shalom,
Rabbi Zach Shapiro
June, 1997, Cincinnati, Ohio
It was the end of a journey. It was the beginning of a transition. I had spent five intense years of study, learning, mistakes, and growth at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Those years had transformed me from a college prep to a religious leader. (Well, a potential religious leader). The following day, I would be ordained “Rabbi.” The journey had been difficult, and it was just short of a miracle that I completed all my academic requirements in time for Ordination. I had secured a job as Assistant Rabbi of University Synagogue in Los Angeles. I was exuberant. And I was terrified.
Jews love to mark transition with ritual ceremony. So on this “Erev-S’micha (day before Ordination),” three soon-to-be rabbis joined me on a pilgrimage to the Cincinnati Mikvah. We had decided to prepare texts for group study after individual immersions.
Now the Cincinnati Mikvah is not your glamorous health spa! The space was dark and even a bit moldy at the time. But we had it to ourselves, and we created holy space. I showered, carefully cleaning my body and mind in preparation for immersion. I was nervous and even admittedly embarrassed at the thought of removing my clothes before my colleagues. I waited my turn, and then entered the Mikvah chamber.
Standing at the top of the steps, I wanted to enter the mayim-chaim (living waters) slowly and deliberately. I stepped down. The water was lukewarm. Another step. I got goose bumps. Finally, I descended all the way and carefully lifted my feet allowing the river of transformation to fully acknowledge me. And as I recited the She-he-chi-anu, I closed my eyes. Tranquility embraced me.
Soon after, the four of us sat clad in towels, studying Pirkei Avot, Midrash, and Commentaries. After discussing the voices of our people, we then shared the texts of our souls. What a beautiful moment it was. We had all come so far. Soon it was my turn.
“You know, “I began, “I was about to say that this was my first time to the Mikvah. But I’ve actually immersed once before …”
I continued to relate the story about the day I “came out.”
August, 1994, Great Barrington, Massachusetts
It was the summer of 1994, and I was working as an Educator at the UAHC Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I kept myself busy, and I dreaded being alone. For whenever I was alone, I would ask myself, as I had every day of my life since I was sixteen, “Am I gay?” I hated asking that question, and I constantly pushed the answer deep into the canyons of my heart. I could not bear denying the truth any longer. Too many nights without sleep had already tortured my soul. Something had to change. I needed to take a stand. So I arranged a day off with two close friends. I had it all planned out. We would stay up late and engage in a deep conversation.
And I would come out to them.
But things never seem to happen the way we plan.
The three of us left camp in the evening and soon arrived at a country hotel. As they relaxed, my heart began to pound harder and harder. How was I supposed to do this? I wanted so very much for them to ask the question of revelation, as God asked Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Aye-ka (where are you)?” And I wanted to respond with the strength of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah when they shouted, “Hineini! (Here I am!).”
But they never asked. And I never answered. Another sleepless night.
The next day, the three of us drove up through the Berkshires to Pittsfield where we saw a movie. “OK,” I thought, “after the movie we’ll talk.” But after the movie we ate. “OK, after we eat, we’ll talk.” But after that came more excuses. My friends didn’t understand why I was so reclusive. We then drove over to a small lake nestled in the rolling hills of Southwest Massachusetts.
My friends fell asleep in the car. They were bonded. I was apart. And I was jealous. So I got out of the car and walked into the serenity of an August afternoon.
I was alone. And I was a nervous wreck.
But I took a deep breath, and for the first time in my life, as I saw my reflection in the lake, I got myself to say out loud, “I might be a gay man.” I think I said it twice. And as the words lingered on my tongue, an incredible emotion enveloped me.
Just allowing for the possibility that I might be gay released me from those chains of years of denial. I was alone, yet I was no longer afraid of being alone. I undressed, and I entered that lake. And as soon as my head slid beneath her surface, I transformed the lake into a Mikvah.
And that Mikvah transformed me. It was glorious!
When I finished, I dried myself off, dressed, and got back into the car. I woke up my friends, but didn’t tell them a thing. I didn’t need to anymore. I came out to myself, and that was a big step. Later, in the appropriate time, I would come out to them.
That was my first trip to the Mikvah.
June, 1997, Cincinnati
As I finished my story, my colleagues looked on. I had never before shared that experience. I had never before even thought to share it. Sure, they knew I was gay. But my account put into perspective that Jewish ritual can sanctify all of life’s passages.
The following day we marched into the historic Plum Street Temple to the call of the Shofar. As HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Shelly Zimmerman, reached out to ordain me with the title of “Rav b’Yisrael,” I said to myself, “Hineini/I am here, and I am ready!”
Los Angeles, 2001 (When I originally wrote this memoir)
While my first trip to the Mikvah released me, my second trip to the Mikvah transformed me. I haven’t yet immersed a third time. I am waiting for my next life-cycle, which will occur when my life-partner and I stand beneath a chuppa in the near future. And yet I am at the Mikvah throughout the year, accompanying others who make time to nurture life transitions through Jewish ceremony. Each of them has a story. Each of them has a journey. And each of them has answered the question, “Aye-ka?”
Epilogue: 2015, Culver City, CA
Two days before Ron Galperin and I were married in 2002, we immersed as one in the mikveh.
A change in perspective can shift the focus of our day – and even our lives. We have an opportunity to harness “a moment in time,” allowing our souls to be both grounded and lifted. This blog shows how the simplest of daily experiences can become the most meaningful of life’s blessings. All it takes is a moment in time.
Rabbi Zach Shapiro is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Akiba, a Reform Jewish Congregation in Culver City, CA. He earned his B.A. in Spanish from Colby College in 1992, and his M.A.H.L. from HUC-JIR in 1996. He was ordained from HUC-JIR – Cincinnati, in 1997.