Marchers at the 48th annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade in Chicago, Il., on June 25. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

Reporter who broke Chicago Dyke March story removed from reporting duties


The journalist who first reported the ejection of three Jewish women from the Chicago Dyke March has been relieved of her reporting duties.

Gretchen Rachel Hammond, an award-winning reporter for the Windy City Times, a Chicago LGBT newspaper, has been moved full-time to the paper’s sales desk as of Monday. Hammond was the first to report that three women were kicked out of the Chicago Dyke March, an LGBT parade on June 24, for carrying rainbow flags emblazoned with Jewish stars.

Organizers of the march say the women were ejected because they were carrying flags reminiscent of the Israeli flag at an anti-Zionist event and had “repeatedly expressed support for Zionism during conversations” with other marchers. Jewish groups criticized the decision as anti-Semitic.

Hammond confirmed that she is no longer reporting for the paper, but declined to say whether she was moved because of her coverage of the Dyke March. She said the shift is not temporary, and that she is looking for editorial work elsewhere.

“Right now I’m in the sales department,” she told JTA Monday. “I’m still a part of the company, and it’s my only source of income. To keep what job I have, I can’t comment on it. As an employee of Windy City Times who has loved the company and loved her role in the company for the past four years, I have to respect my publisher’s decision.”

The paper’s publisher, Tracy Baim, confirmed that Hammond had been moved, but would not elaborate. Regarding the Windy City Times’ coverage of the Dyke March, Baim said the paper’s editors “stand by our reporting by Gretchen and our other reporters on that story.”

Organizers of the Dyke March were critical of Hammond’s reporting on the flags incident. “I thought Windy City Times failed in its journalistic mission [breaking the story] and not looking for a real response from the Collective before putting Laurel’s position out there,” Alexis Martinez, a core organizer with the Dyke March Collective, told Hammond in her last article as a member of the reporting staff.

Laurel Grauer, Midwest manager of programs and operations for the pro-Israel LGBT group A Wider Bridge, was one of the women asked to leave the march. In the first article on the incident, she told Hammond that she and her friends were “harassed” by a number of marchers for waving the star of David flag, which she said “celebrates my queer, Jewish identity.” She later denied assertions by members of the Dyke March Collective that she and the two other women asked to leave were chanting pro-Israel messages or button-holing other marchers.

But according to Martinez, Grauer had come to the march specifically to counter the organizers’ anti-Zionist message.

Martinez said she told Grauer, “Nobody’s got anything against your flag. Wave it proudly. I am asking you if you’re trying to present a pro-Palestinian, pro-Zionist point-of-view.” When Grauer said she intended to keep expressing such views, Martinez said she told her,”This isn’t the format to do that. Either you have to stop or you have to leave.”

Both Windy City Times and the Dyke March Collective received threats in the weeks after the incident.

Photo from Wikipedia

Ban on Jewish Pride flags at gay march called ‘unbridled hypocrisy’


Jewish groups denounced the banning of Jewish Pride flags at a lesbian march in Chicago and called for an apology.

Organizers of the 21st annual Chicago Dyke March told the three women asked to leave the march that the rainbow flags with a white Star of David in the center would be a “trigger,” or traumatic stimulus, for people who found them offensive.

A Dyke March collective member told the Windy City Times that the women were told to leave because the flags “made people feel unsafe,” and that Sunday’s march was “anti-Zionist” and “pro-Palestinian.”

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement Monday that march organizers should apologize to the women for what it described as an “outrageous” action.

“The community of LGBTQ supporters is diverse and that is part of its tremendous strength,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO. “Both the act and the explanation were anti-Semitic, plain and simple. We stand with A Wider Bridge and others in demanding an apology. We appreciate the Human Rights Campaign’s support and we call on other leaders from LGBTQ and progressive communities to join us in condemning this exclusion.”

The Human Rights Campaign, which calls itself the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization with 1.5 million members, tweeted its support for the women.

“Marches should be safe spaces to celebrate our diversity and our pride. This is not right,” the group wrote.

The Chicago Dyke march in a statement issued late Sunday said that Palestinian and Jewish anti-Zionist marchers approached the women and expressed concern about the flags since they are “visually reminiscent of the Israeli flag” due to the placement of the Star of David in the middle, and because such flags are widely used in “pinkwashing” — what some activists say is Israel’s attempt to promote its progressive gay rights as a screen for mistreatment of Palestinians.

The women were asked to leave, according to the statement, after they began “defending the state of Israel and Zionism as a whole.”  The statement continued: “It became clear that the political position of the marchers was at odds with the anti-racist and anti-Zionist ethos of Dyke march Chicago.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights NGO, also denounced the banning of the Jewish Pride flags, saying it “brings disgrace to a movement that is dedicated to equal rights for all.”

“Equal rights that is except for Jews who dare to celebrate their ties to their people and the Jewish homeland,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, said in a statement.

He added: “The unbridled hypocrisy and anti-Semitism of these campaigners degrades the cause for equality for all in our society and for LGBTQ rights around the world.”

The Chicago Jewish Voice for Peace, which backs the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, offered its support to march organizers, retweeting their statement and declaring, “We stand 100% w @DykeMarchChi.…”

Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2016. Photo by Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Jewish tech millionaire turned lawmaker could be first openly gay governor of Colorado


Jared Polis is already on to the next thing. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has looked at his resume.

By the age of 25, he had founded three companies, which would shortly make him a multimillionaire. He then turned his focus to education, establishing two charter school systems to cater to immigrant and homeless youth and serving on the Colorado State Board of Education.

At 33, he entered national politics, when he was elected to represent Colorado in Congress.

Less than 10 years after his Washington debut, Polis now has his sights set on a new goal: to serve as governor of Colorado.

The Jewish Democrat announced earlier this month that he was joining the already crowded race with an ambitious three-pronged platform: to ensure Colorado uses only renewable energy by 2040, provide free preschool and kindergarten across the state, and fight income inequality.

If he wins, the 42-year-old would make history in more ways than one — by becoming both the first Jewish governor in Colorado and its first openly gay person to serve in the post.

Polis’ candidacy has upset the gubernatorial race, where Rep. Ed Perlmutter, also a Democrat, was previously seen as the front-runner, said David Flaherty, a political consultant who runs the Colorado-based firm Magellan Strategies.

“Perlmutter was the odds-on favorite for the Dem primary, and I also think he was the odds-on favorite to win the general election, but that’s not the case now,” Flaherty told JTA. “And some discussions I’ve had with Democratic political insiders have really felt that Jared has a good shot of winning the primary — but the general is more of a debatable issue.”

Perlmutter, 64, a Christian with Jewish ancestry on his father’s side, served in the Colorado state Senate for eight years prior to being elected to Congress. He appeals to the “established Democrat crowd,” including those who voted for Hillary Clinton in November, said Flaherty.

Meanwhile, Flaherty said Polis, with his focus on renewable energy, appeals to younger voters and Bernie Sanders backers. Sanders won nearly 60 percent of the vote in Colorado’s Democratic caucuses last year.

“Right now it’s an even fight between Ed Perlmutter and Jared,” said Flaherty, adding that some of the other Democratic candidates also should not be discounted.

Polis was exposed to civic involvement from an early age, growing up in a Reform Jewish family in Boulder.

“My parents were active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, so I grew up with a tradition of civic activism around our dinner table and going to different marches for different causes,” such as civil rights and anti-nuclear proliferation, he told JTA.

His family moved to San Diego, where he attended La Jolla Country Day School. As a 19-year-old student at Princeton University, he founded his first company, the internet access provider American Information Systems, which he later sold for $23 million.

In 1996, Polis founded the online greeting card company Blue Mountain, a spinoff of a firm started by his parents. He later sold the dot-com startup for $780 million. In 1998, Polis launched the online flower retailer ProFlowers, which he later sold for $470 million.

Polis, who is among the top five wealthiest members of Congress — his net worth is estimated at $90 million to $390 million — sees his business background as an asset to his political career.

“One, voters trust somebody who has a background creating jobs instead of just talking about it, who knows how to balance a checkbook, who knows how to build a business,” he said. “And second of all, the experience has been very helpful to me in creating policies that allow businesses to grow and flourish in our state and country.”

Polis dismisses accusations that he used his wealth to buy his way into office. He spent $1 million on his campaign to serve on the State Board of Education compared to his opponent’s $100,000, and $6 million on his 2008 congressional campaign, defeating Democratic establishment candidate Joan Fitz-Gerald in the primary.

“When people run campaigns they have to raise a lot of money, and I’ve been one of the top fundraisers nationally for the Democrats, and people do appreciate it when you’re able to say no to special interests and PACs, like I have. I’ve never accepted any PAC money,” Polis said.

His Jewish background has a large influence on his political beliefs.

“I derive a lot of the values that I try to bring into the public sphere from my private faith,” Polis said. “Certainly for me I focus a lot on education, and I’m running for governor to bring [free] preschool and kindergarten to our state and improve our schools, and that’s an important Jewish value.”

Polis, whose great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Poland and Ukraine in the early 20th century, added: “And also being so close to the immigrant experience, I’m a strong defender of immigrant rights and refugees, of course with the experience that Jews had prior to World War II, that few countries wanted to accept Jewish refugees.”

Judaism also plays a big role at home for Polis, who with his partner Marlon Reis has two young children, 6-year-old son Caspian Julius and 2-year-old daughter Cora Barucha (named after Polis’ great-great-aunt Kasha Barucha). He is the first openly gay parent to serve in Congress.

The family attends three synagogues in Boulder: the Conservative Bonai Shalom, the Reform Har HaShem and the Renewal Nevei HaKodesh.

Polis, who defines himself as “in between Conservative and Reform,” won’t pick favorites.

“They’re all great. I like to support Jewish life in our community, and they’re all doing great things,” he said.

He also recently joined his cousin Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., for Shabbat dinner.

The lawmaker also has another way of connecting to the Jewish tradition — through food. When not cooking his way through his grandmother’s collection of recipes of traditional dishes, he and Reis, who also is Jewish, have been trying to re-create the cheese blintzes of Reis’ great-grandmother Dora.

Polis said they’ve tried “a few dozen times” but haven’t quite gotten it right yet. They aren’t giving up anytime soon.

“We’ll know when we get there if they taste the same as he remembers,” Polis said.

Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?


By eighth grade, Micha Thau knew he was gay. But he also knew that being gay was not acceptable in many of the Orthodox spaces he inhabited. So he buried that part of himself.

But it didn’t stay buried. He began to suffer headaches, vertigo and other physical symptoms he attributes to his feelings of intense isolation. He relished days when the symptoms would send him to the doctor, just because “I got to leave the hellhole that was my life.”

“There were times when it was just crushing,” said Thau, 18, who graduates from Shalhevet High School next month. “I thought it was over, like I really could see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Youth in Thau’s position face few options, none particularly rosy. They can quit Orthodoxy and live out gay lives, either as secular Jews or within another branch of Judaism. They can stay in Orthodoxy and renounce a part of themselves, living in celibacy or difficult relationships. Or they can do as Thau did and fight for openness and inclusion, and risk becoming poster children.

Still, as the secular world increasingly has embraced same-sex couples, the Orthodox has not been left totally behind. A number of congregations and communities, pulled by the conscience of some of their members, are taking a hard, wrenching look at their laws and traditions, and how they impact Orthodox youth.

When Thau came out during his sophomore year to Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, and Principal Rabbi Noam Weissman, he was literally shaking. The administrators were surprised by the toll it had taken just to talk to them.

“We thought we had done an amazing job” promoting inclusion, Segal told the Journal. “And it turned out he had waited to come out to us because he was scared — he didn’t know what the school’s position was.”

Shalhevet student Micha Thau last summer at the Jerusalem gay pride parade. Photo courtesy of Micha Thau

Segal has since emerged as an advocate for teens like Thau. In an opinion column in the Shalhevet school newspaper, he called the dilemma they face “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.”

Thau’s coming out has turned into something like a coming out for the entire Modern Orthodox community in Los Angeles: a highly visible test case for a virtually invisible issue. Thau has joined with Shalhevet’s administration to reshape perceptions of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in a religious community pulled in opposing directions — toward acceptance by its modernity and toward silence by its Orthodoxy.

The letter of the law

For the young people caught up in that struggle, the root of the problem lies in Leviticus, which labels gay sex a toevah, most often translated as an abomination, and, a couple of chapters later, prescribes the death penalty as punishment.

Strains of Judaism differ in how this law, like most laws, is applied. Reform Judaism suspends the prohibition, allowing clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. The two greater Los Angeles synagogues with outreach programs for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Mid-City Los Angeles, are aligned with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism openly grapples with the law. As of a 2006 Rabbinical Assembly decision, gays and lesbians have been welcomed into Conservative congregations and rabbinical posts, but sex between men remains prohibited — the 2006 ruling did not address sex between women — and deliberations continue on same-sex marriage.

Orthodoxy generally adheres to the letter of the law, and homosexuality is no exception. Though outright hostility toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals is less common in the United States than it was before legalized same-sex marriage, so too is unconditional acceptance. Orthodox teens struggling with their sexual orientation in this environment can’t be sure how their communities will react if they come out, or whether they will risk losing friends and family.

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

It’s impossible to know how many teens are caught between their Jewish faith and their sexual orientation. Within the general population, multiple studies have found that around 3.5 percent of respondents self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. But even those studies may not reflect an accurate count because not all respondents provide truthful answers, and many surveys, including the U.S. Census Bureau, do not ask about sexual orientation.

At Shalhevet alone, a school with an enrollment of slightly more than 200, general population estimates suggest there are something like eight lesbian, gay or bisexual students. Thau said he currently is the only out gay student at the school.

“For every Micha Thau at Shalhevet, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of gay, lesbian, transgender students at Orthodox institutions struggling, fearful, worried, self-destructive,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. and an activist for LGBT Jews.

Walking a fine line

For Modern Orthodox communities, the word of biblical law translates practically into a stance that neither embraces same-sex partnerships nor outright condemns those who choose to undertake them.

“On the one hand, we’re not going to support it,” Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, one of the major national Orthodox institutions in the United States, told the Journal. “But on the other hand, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that gay and lesbian members feel as much a part of the community as anyone else.”

Nonetheless, the model of an Orthodox marriage, without a doubt, is a husband and wife. Weil said, “Where there’s a little bit of pushback is where a couple wants to be discussed as ‘Mr. and Mr.’ or ‘Mrs. and Mrs.’ ”

For teens contemplating their romantic and religious futures, the range of answers they might receive from rabbis and school administrators is wide. For now, Shalhevet seems to represent the most progressive response they might receive in Los Angeles.

Valley Torah High School in Valley Village occupies a more conservative place on the spectrum. Reached by phone, Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, the head of school, was quick to note that intolerance against gays, lesbians and bisexuals is not welcome.

“With my students, I feel it’s important that they understand that this is not something that we look down upon,” he said. “This is not a choice that people make.”

However, he wouldn’t budge on the issue of Jewish law: The rules are clear, and a student who wanted to live an out gay or lesbian life at the Orthodox high school would run into trouble.

“This would be inconsistent with the atmosphere — for a kid to say, ‘I’m gay, I’m acting out on it and I want to be a member of Valley Torah in good standing,’ ” he said. “It’s inconsistent from a halachic viewpoint.”

Asked whether such a student could, for instance, lead prayer services or school activities, he answered, “In 31 years, it hasn’t happened. But honestly, let’s just sort of change the question. I’d have the same dilemma if a kid came to me and said, ‘Rabbi, I love Valley Torah but I’m just eating at McDonald’s every night. That’s who I am.’ ”

At YULA Girls High School, the policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual students is in flux.

“We’ve had internal discussions, but we haven’t yet formulated a policy,” said Head of School Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who plans to leave YULA Girls this summer after leading it since 2008. “It would obviously include the greatest amount of respect for the students and understanding of whatever they’re going through.”

He said the heads of the area’s Orthodox schools — including YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Valley Torah and Shalhevet — meet periodically to discuss important issues, including this one. As of now, they haven’t formulated a conclusion. But Lieberman expects that soon most local Orthodox schools will provide statements or policies on the matter.

As attitudes about homosexuality have shifted, with gay rights and narratives becoming more mainstream, hard-line positions have become more difficult to maintain.

Thau recalled telling his grandfather that he was gay and getting a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘So?’ ” Thau recalled. “And he said, ‘If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have had a very different reaction.’ ”

Thau went on, “As much as the Orthodox community tries to isolate itself from the secular world, there are always cracks in the wall — no matter how high the wall is. Culture will always bleed through.”

Caught in the middle

But ensconced behind the walls of a Torah-observant lifestyle, many teens still face an awful choice between God and love.

“When you’re living in the Orthodox community, being gay and being religious — they’re not cohesive,” said Jeremy Borison, 25, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Los Angeles. “So me, if I had to choose one, I was gonna stay with the religious side of it.”

He said he’s now able to balance his faith and sexual orientation — but only because he found a welcoming community in B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, where Senior Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky has been outspoken in favor of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Others, like David, a gay man in his 20s who grew up in an Orthodox family in Los Angeles, no longer feel like they have a place in the Orthodox community.

Some of the gay and lesbian individuals interviewed for this story, including David, asked not to be identified by their real names or even the schools they attended, fearing they and their families would face sigma and untoward gossip. David still is wary about sharing his story publicly, for that reason.

At the Orthodox high school he attended in L.A., he knew he was attracted boys, but thought it was a phase, something all teenagers go through. There were no Orthodox Jews who were gay, as far as he knew; it simply wasn’t conceivable.

He had a good time during his high school years, though, enjoying his religious education and even getting close to some of the rabbis. But by the time he found himself in yeshiva in Israel, in a completely different environment, he realized his feelings weren’t going to go away. His first reaction was to treat them as something wrong with him that needed to be fixed.

A good deal of therapy later, David is leading an out gay life, but he finds that he’s uncomfortable in Orthodox spaces. His experience didn’t make him hate Judaism; he’s still finding his place in the religion. But he no longer considers himself Orthodox. How could he feel welcome in a community that considers who he is to be a great sin?

Every problem begs a solution

From time to time, students approach Stulberger, the head of school at Valley Torah, struggling with feelings of attraction to members of the same gender. Stulberger said he has “helped many students over the years in their struggle — but in a private way.”

His first reaction when students come to him with this issue is to assure them, “We are here to talk to; we are here to help you.” But after that he draws a line: “What I won’t do is give the indication that giving into your same-sex attraction is something that’s acceptable.”

To these students, he presents two options. One is celibacy. The other is to “get help, find the right professional who can help you to reorient.”

Stulberger alleges there are thousands of young men who have changed their sexual orientation with professional help. While the scientific and LGBT communities dispute its effectiveness, the internet is filled with testimonies from people who claim to lead happy, heterosexual lives as a result of “reparative therapy.” Stulberger even knows a handful of them, he said.

One of those is Naim, an Orthodox man in his early 30s who attended Valley Torah and who asked to be identified only by his middle name. For years, he struggled with his attraction to men but rejected the idea of living an out gay life.

“I didn’t want that lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted to get married. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to do what men do — period.”

Photo by Eitan Arom

By the time he was 28, he said, he’d been in and out of rehab for drug addiction and was addicted to gay porn. Then, he made an electrifying discovery on the internet.

“There’s a whole community out there — Jews and non-Jews alike — that don’t want to live that lifestyle and have struggled with it and gotten help, and now they’re married,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible, God is talking to me right now. Why did it take 28 years to tell me this?’ ”

He enrolled in reparative therapy designed around what he called a “gender wholeness model.” He identified factors such as a troubled relationship with his father and an unhealthy identification with traits he admired in other men as the cause of his same-sex attraction, which he referred to as SSA. He treated it like a condition that needed to be fixed, he said, and he began to heal.

“My attraction for men has diminished significantly,” he said. “Usually, my SSA, on a scale of 1 to 10, is at a 0.”

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

“There are still days when I struggle every once in a while,” he said. “Thank God it doesn’t happen very often.”

Taking a pledge

Told that a Los Angeles high school recommends reparative therapy, Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, a West Hollywood-based Jewish LGBT support and education organization, was horrified.

“What it does is, it encourages people to kill themselves,” she said. California law bans the practice for mental health providers.

David moved away from his Orthodox community after high school and hasn’t returned, but some of its stigmas and taboos lingered with him. He sought out reparative therapy while in college, and while he didn’t find it particularly traumatizing, he said it made him hate himself. Since then, he’s blocked much of it out in his mind.

Now, Segal and Thau at Shalhevet are asking other Jewish schools to affirm in a pledge, written jointly by Thau and the administration, that they “will not recommend, refer, or pressure students toward ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion therapy.’ ”

“We believe that’s damaging,” Segal said of the practice.

The pledge includes five other points — which Segal insisted schools can adopt altogether or individually — including an assurance that gay, lesbian and transgender students won’t be excluded from school activities and will be provided with support services. The full statement is available online at jewishschoolpledge.com. As of now, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it.

Asked about the pledge, Lieberman, the head of YULA Girls, said, “It’s very powerful,” adding that if YULA Girls were to issue a policy about LGBT students, “it would definitely gravitate toward that.”

The idea of the pledge has its origins in Thau’s coming out to Segal and Weissman.

“What could we do?” Segal said he asked the teen. “What could we have communicated to you, Micha, that would have helped?”

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The administrators realized that communicating anything at all would have been a good start. Even though both men assumed a gay student would be welcomed, Thau struggled through years of uncertainty because they had never said as much publicly.

“Schools and communities and shuls should have this conversation and decide what they believe, and then publish it,” Segal said — even if it is less progressive than what Shalhevet came up with.

Bat-Or said she hopes other schools will follow Shalhevet’s lead and take steps toward inclusiveness, for instance by circulating JQ’s helpline for LGBT Jews and advertising their counselor’s offices as safes spaces for students questioning their sexual orientation.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 150,” she said of Shalhevet’s efforts. “I really mean that. It took huge courage for [Segal] and for Micha to get together and to do this.”

A movement in the making

Cases like Micha’s make it increasingly difficult for Orthodox communities to ignore issues faced by their lesbian, gay and bisexual members.

“Centrist Orthodoxy is conflicted and not admitting the conflict,” said Greenberg, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who came out years later and co-founded Eshel, a Boston-based organization that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox communities. “They are pulled by much more traditional frames, and they are pulled by the human realities they’re facing.”

At least in some communities, that conflict has meant a long, slow drift toward acceptance.

Elissa Kaplan, a clinical psychologist who came out as lesbian 15 years ago while living in an Orthodox community in suburban New Jersey, has watched attitudes change before her eyes.

“The world has changed since then,” Kaplan, 55, said. “Gay marriage is legal now in the civil world. That’s enormous, and it has an impact. It matters. Even people who say they are not influenced in their attitudes by what happens in the secular world — it’s just not true.”

She’s felt the impact of those changes herself, she said.

“My wife and I would go into one of the kosher restaurants in the area and might get dirty looks from people,” she said. “That really doesn’t happen anymore.”

In Los Angeles, that change has played out in parlor meetings where community members get together to grapple with the issue of inclusiveness. In March, some two dozen Jewish teens and parents gathered in the dining room of a Beverlywood home, sitting on folding chairs and nibbling on cookies and cut fruit as they listened to Greenberg speak.

The parlor meeting was the work of Eshel L.A., a local group allied with the Boston-based organization. It first convened in June 2015, when Harry Nelson, a local health care attorney, invited community members to his home to meet Greenberg and Eshel’s other co-founder, Miryam Kabakov, the group’s executive director.

From there, they formed a steering committee. That December, they had the first of many parlor meetings on topics like how to curb homophobic comments at the Shabbat table and how to talk to their children about same-sex couples.

“The thing that struck me most with this issue is that the Orthodox tradition that I so value and the Orthodox lifestyle I so love were creating pain, intolerable pain, for people who are gay,” said Julie Gruenbaum Fax, one of Eshel L.A.’s principal organizers and a former Jewish Journal staff writer.

Fax and her peers are looking to create Orthodox spaces where lesbians, gays and bisexuals can exist openly and comfortably. Sometimes, that entails actually grappling with Jewish law. At the parlor meeting in March, Greenberg, 60, who has salt-and-pepper stubble and a professorial air, moved fluently through the halachah and commentary on the topic of homosexuality.

On the face of it, the law as it is appears in the Torah seems clear enough. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

But Greenberg pointed out to his Beverlywood audience that the rabbinate has created work-arounds for all kinds of mandates and prohibitions, such as those against carrying objects outside the home on Shabbat or farming during a jubilee year. The laws governing these exceptions are complex, but the point is, they are negotiable — unlike homosexuality, for most Orthodox rabbis.

During his presentations, Greenberg is careful to allow room for dissent and questions, and community members frequently take him up. One woman at the meeting, who wore a long black skirt and said she’d adopted Orthodoxy later in life, admitted that the concept of full acceptance for gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community makes her uncomfortable.

“I did this to bring boundaries to my life, to my kids,” she said of her decision to begin strictly observing Jewish law. “So when we start to open things up,  it scares me.”

She continued on the topic of boundaries: If you’re going to toss out the prohibition on gays and lesbians, she suggested, why not let women wear jeans instead of skirts?

Thau was sitting in the front row. As the woman went on, he turned around and began to cut her off, looking upset, but Greenberg gently put a hand on his shoulder, and Thau sat back in his chair. During an interview a week later, Thau said he was grateful to Greenberg for stopping him from saying something he might regret.

“I’m always in the hot seat as the poster boy for gay people, answering all the questions,” he said. “And it’s not a role I’m unwilling to take, but it is very difficult to be perfect all the time.”

Inching forward

Becoming a poster child is exactly what Nechama wants to avoid if she decides to come out.

A student at Shalhevet who asked that her real name not to be used, Nechama said she’s only questioning her sexual identity. But if she were to come out, she would be hesitant to speak about it with too many people at her school.

“I just feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being gay in a Modern Orthodox school,” she said.

While the school itself is progressive enough, some students come from more conservative backgrounds, she said.

She said she hopes to remain Orthodox, even though she struggles with some of the Jewish laws she’d be obligated to observe. To the community at large, her only plea was for empathy.

“We’re teenagers and we’re going through confusing times,” she said. She urged peers and parents “just to hear everything out, because it’s kind of hard to be alone in something like this.”

For his part, Greenberg is clear-eyed about the work in front of him: Creating a fully accepting Orthodox community will be neither quick nor easy. But he holds it as the responsibility of Orthodox leaders to sympathize with members of their communities who struggle with their identities.

“If you’re not willing to suffer with that kid who is caught in the crosshairs of this cultural and religious conflict,” he said, “if you’re not willing to be with that kid, then you don’t deserve the role of leadership.”

30 years and 30 big changes


In the Jewish Journal’s inaugural issue on Feb. 28, 1986, readers already could see it was not going to be their parents’ kind of Jewish newspaper. The Journal was different from its predecessor owned by the Jewish Federation, as well as the Orthodox-leaning B’nai B’rith Messenger and the crusading Jewish Heritage.

The new weekly, edited by Gene Lichtenstein, sent a message with its first cover story dedicated to anti-school busing and conservative Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member. It was going to step outside the well-worn path of covering the status quo of Westside and Beverly Hills liberal politics, and broaden coverage to include a Jewish grassroots, right-leaning firebrand.

In the three decades since that edition, this broader approach — including news, features, opinions and eventually blogs from all points of L.A.’s Jewish communal compass — has been the newspaper’s guiding rule. Turning through old, bound volumes, with pages browned and edges foxed, the paper’s coverage presents a portrait of 30 years of change, growth and evolution within the local Jewish community. Here are 30 noteworthy topics and events that touched L.A. over the past 30 years, as reflected in the Journal’s pages.

1. Embracing LGBT Jews

Although a cover in 1986 announced the continuing conflict within Judaism over gay Jews, by 1998 a news feature detailed increased acceptance — and plans for the celebration of more than 25 years of the world’s first LGBT synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim. Getting over the shandah, the embarrassment, denominational Judaism began a serious conversation over transgender acceptance and rights, as reflected in another stirring cover story, this time in 2015.

2. King Juan Carlos Comes to L.A.

Almost half a millennium after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia visited Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard to make peace on Oct. 1, 1987. “For the Sephardic Jews of Los Angeles, the gesture is one of historical dimension,” Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell wrote. The Journal went on to chart the growth of a large and vital Sephardic community in L.A.

3. Intermarriage: To Worry or Not to Worry?

Concerns about intermarriage go back all the way to the Torah. But when the 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey found the intermarriage rate among couples who were married in the five years ending in 1997 was 41 percent, well, it didn’t seem so bad to some people. That changed for many when the Pew Research Center reported in 2013 a rate of 58 percent nationwide — and 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.

4. The Rise of Iranian and Russian Jewish Immigrants

With the Iranian Jewish immigrant community at close to 17,000 by the late ’90s, we learned to love lavash, Persian cucumbers and late night simchas, while recognizing (if not understanding) Farsi in Pico Boulevard shop windows. As for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, more than 24,000 flocked to the area by the late ’80s. Apartment buildings in West Hollywood began to fill with Russian immigrant families, and Santa Monica Boulevard became dotted with Russian bakeries and storefront markets. Were they here to stay? Da.

5. A Growing Orthodoxy 

With all the new kosher restaurants on Pico and Ventura boulevards, it seemed clear by 2000 that the Orthodox community was booming. For the kosherly conscious, there was a clear increase in the availability of heckshered foods, as well as public displays of Yiddishkayt, such as Tu b’Shevat street fairs and car-mounted menorahs, and a massive influx of Orthodox families into previously WASP-y Hancock Park.

6. The New Israelis

Around town, we grew accustomed to hearing Ivrit spoken in restaurants, movie theater lines, folkdance spots like Café Danssa, and the Fairfax record store Hataklit (both now closed). By 2007, especially in the Valley, Israelis had “their own cafes, markets, dances and social and business networks,” according to a feature by Tom Tugend. Drawing that community together was the Israeli American Council, begun in 2006. The IAC fires up the largest L.A. Jewish gatherings of the year with the annual Celebrate Israel festival in Rancho Park.

7. Logging On for Love

The inaugural issue of the Journal chronicled the angst of making a Jewish match in a city expansive enough to be its own diaspora with “The Single Life” column. But that was old school. Jewish computer dating began here in the mid-1970s, and rebooted in 1997 with the founding of JDate by Joe and Nickie Shapira of Beverly Hills. Swiping right, in 2014, were Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, two of the Jewish founders of the dating app Tinder. But face-to-face love connections thrived at “Friday Night Live,” an innovative singles-oriented Sabbath service started in 1998 at Sinai Temple that drew up to 1,500 souls.

8. Oy, Did We Have Mail!

The first message on ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, was sent by a UCLA team led by a Jewish professor, Leonard Kleinrock, in 1969, altering forever the way we give and gain news about our lives. Joining that widening stream, the Journal first went online in 1996, allowing it to cover breaking news, and eventually providing a means for readers to instantly comment, kvetch and post blogs. Now L.A. is home to numerous virtual Jewish sites, and every congregation and organization is a click away.

9. Women of valor and power

With the newly appointed director of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Deborah Lipstadt, on the paper’s cover during its first year, the Journal set the tone for covering local Jewish women leaders making waves on a national scale. These have included rabbis such as Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the first woman to lead a major metropolitan congregation; Naomi Levy, author and founder of Nashuva, and Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR.

10. Higher Ratings for Jewish Identity in Hollywood

30 Something

30 Something

gellersTV shows with clearly drawn Jewish characters such as “Thirtysomething,” “Seinfeld” and “Northern Exposure” reflected a growing hipness and ease of being Jewish. Los Angeles, with a large contingent of Jewish writers, producers, and showrunners, filled the culture with characters such as Monica and Ross Geller (“Friends”), Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Ari Gold (“Entourage”) and Howard Wolowitz (“The Big Bang Theory”), as well as cartoon characters Kyle Broflovski (“South Park”) and Krusty the Clown (“The Simpsons”). More recently, Maura Pfefferman (born “Morton”) of Amazon Prime’s “Transparent” gave us a transgender take on Jewish life.

11. The New Jewish Side of Town

In 2004, famed New York-based streetwear brand Supreme opened a large shop on Fairfax Avenue, just up the block from Canter’s deli, signaling a change to a traditionally Jewish neighborhood that was filling up with trendy skate clothing shops and galleries. As Fairfax turned full-hipster, younger observant Jews, especially those with families, were moving to Pico-Robertson, which was transforming into the Jewish side of town complete with new kosher restaurants, shuls and markets.

12. New museums to look forward — and back

The Torah commands Jews to “zachor,” to remember, and with the opening of the Museum of Tolerance in 1993, and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park in 2010, we had two new places to look deeply into our painful past as a way to navigate the present. Looking to the future, the Zimmer Children’s Museum opened, helping to transmit and create Jewish memories for children and families. And in 1996, the Skirball Cultural Center opened in the Sepulveda Pass, connecting art and culture with Jewish vision and values.

13. Mazel Tov, It’s Mitzvah Day!

First held in 1999 as a project of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Mitzvah Day was an expression of tikkun olam as volunteers painted, repaired and renewed their city. Begun by TV, theater and movie writer David Levinson, the idea flowered into a community-wide event that drew thousands of participants, changing its name in 2003 to Big Sunday, eventually evolving into a weekend, and then in 2016, into a month of events, attracting up to 50,000 volunteers of all faiths.

14. The Day Rabin Died

Shot by a right-wing extremist while leaving a peace rally on Nov. 5, 1995, the assassination of the Israeli prime minister who negotiated the Oslo Accords — for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize — reverberated throughout the community, sounding an ominous warning to leaders who wish not to learn war anymore. Some 10,000 people attended a massive memorial rally on a cordoned-off Wilshire Boulevard to mark the end of a man, and a dream.

15. ‘Fighting On’ at USC; Making UCLA Cool to Jews

usc-uclaIn the 1870s, Isaias W. Hellman, a German-Jewish businessman, banker and philanthropist was one of three men to donate the land for USC, which 100 years later was viewed as a home for WASP elitism. In 2002, a decade of increased inclusiveness at the school was reflected when Stanley Gold was appointed the university’s first Jewish chairman of the board of trustees. In 1972, UCLA was the first major American university to fund a Jewish newspaper, Ha’am, but by 2015 the school was getting headlines for a judicial board nominee being questioned over her Jewish background. In 2016, a student body president left the school alleging harassment by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. More hopefully, that same year, the school’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the Mapping Jewish L.A. project celebrated the history of Boyle Heights with an exhibition.

16. American Jewish University Goes Big

In 2007, the University of Judaism merged with the 1,500-acre Brandeis-Bardin Institute, marrying two 60-year-old L.A. Jewish institutions into the American Jewish University. And when big names came through town, from Bill Clinton to Bill Maher, a likely stop was a speaking engagement through the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, which drew thousands.

17. Got Kosher? Yup.

challah-gotkosherBeyond the opening of kosher Mexican and Thai restaurants, Los Angeles saw the rollout of multiple trucks selling kosher tacos and another truck selling kosher Montreal egg rolls. Add in Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory — now offering concessions at home Dodgers games — and the pretzel challah of Got Kosher? There was bad news in 2013, though, when the Journal reported a  scandal at Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat market after a private investigator videotaped the owner allegedly bringing unsupervised animal products into his store.

18. The Dodgers Go Blue and White

Long after Sandy Koufax and fellow Jewish Dodgers brothers Larry and Norm Sherry, who both attended Fairfax High, put on Dodger blue, fellow members of the tribe Stan Kasten (president and part-owner) and Andrew Friedman (president of baseball operations) joined the team. And in 2000, the year they got Jewish slugger Shawn Green, the team began heavily promoting Jewish Community Day.

19. Harold Schulweis z’l

The issue of Dec. 18, 2014, marked the passing of Valley Beth Shalom Senior Rabbi Harold Schulweis at age 89, calling him “the rabbi of rabbis.” Arriving at his Valley pulpit in 1970, Rabbi Schulweis went on to pioneer synagogue-based chavurah, counseling centers, and outreach to interfaith, gay and lesbian Jews and converts. A superb thinker and orator, he insisted upon connecting the Jewish world with the larger community worldwide through foundations and outreach organizations like Jewish World Watch.

“Harold Schulweis is a rabbi,” said Rabbi Uri Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center. “This is a little like saying a Rembrandt is a painting. Or a Stradivarius is a violin. … He has, as much as any rabbi in our time, given Judaism meaning, relevance and renewed purpose.”

20. The Rise of Mega-Synagogues AND Upstart Congregations

Large congregations such as Stephen Wise Temple, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Leo Baeck Temple and Sinai Temple all thrived by doubling down on the full-service synagogue model.

At the same time, a 1982 guide to Jewish Los Angeles listed a few independent congregations, mostly Orthodox. In comparison, the 2016 Jewish Journal “City Guide” showed 16 independent, mostly nontraditional congregations, including Metivta, Open Temple, IKAR, Nashuva, Valley Outreach and Movable Minyan, taken together serving thousands of families. L.A.’s plethora of rabbinical seminaries — the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordained its first class in 1999, and the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (founded in 2000) — helped fuel their growth.

21. A Jewish Approach to…

As social awareness of issues like disabilities and addiction grew, so too did unique Jewish communal responses.  Beit T’Shuva, an innovative addiction treatment center, started 30 years ago and has grown to treat thousands.  And services for special needs greatly expanded to dozens of programs and organzations.

22. The First Intifada, 1987-1991

intifadaBesides the fact that no one knew it would be the first, the Journal did not know what to call it. It settled on, in 1987, the “hostility between the Palestinian youth and Israelis.” By 1989, a piece about the fear and hopelessness many were feeling in Israel, titled “Feeling helpless in the Intifada,” captured the anxiety of many Jewish Angelenos. The continuing conflict has led to the L.A. birth of Israel advocacy organizations like  StandWithUs and many, many rallies, op-eds and arguments.

23.  The Winning Campaigns of Jewish Candidates

For more than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, there was nary a Jewish city councilmember. That changed in 1953 with the election of 22-year-old Rosalind Wyman to the Fifth District seat, which includes the Westside and the Fairfax district. Now held by Paul Koretz, the seat has been Jewish ever since, with several who held the seat rising to higher office: Zev Yaroslavsky and Edmund D. Edelman to L.A. County Supervisor, and Michael Feuer to the State Assembly and position of L.A. City Attorney. Among numerous Jewish electeds, the highest profile is current Mayor Eric Garcetti.

24. The Fall and Revival of Jewish Centers

Disclosures of financial troubles and fiscal mismanagement within the former Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in 2001 led to the closure of numerous centers, including Santa Monica’s Bay Cities JCC in 2002 and the Conejo Valley JCC in 2004. With pickets, posters and T-shirts, members of the Westside JCC rallied and eventually won independence, and the center in Silver Lake came back to booming life as well. A JCC continued in Long Beach and even though the JCC at Milken in West Hills closed in 2012 after Federation sold the property, the North Valley JCC was reborn as the Valley JCC in Woodland Hills.

25. Moving Westward and Beyond

The 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey was our statistical proof that we were moving westward, but the signs had long been there to read. New synagogues had opened in Simi Valley and the Conejo Valley, kosher markets and day schools too, and in 1997, Mount Sinai Memorial Park expanded to Simi Valley. By the new millennium, Jews were moving east as well — to Koreatown, Echo Park and downtown.

26. From Delis to Mainstream Dining

When Al Levy in 1886 first operated an Oyster Bar Pushcart, and later an Oyster House restaurant in downtown L.A., he was prying open the way for Jewish chefs and entrepreneurs to move into mainstream cuisine. Following in Levy’s footsteps, L.A. became home to the nation’s best family-owned delis, including Langer’s, Canter’s, Izzy’s, and Nate ’n Al.  Now, the city is home to chefs including Alma’s Ari Taymor, Mozza’s Nancy Silverton, Micah Wexler of Wexler’s Deli, and Jessica Koslow, owner of the always-hopping Sqirl, who made the cover of last year’s Passover issue.

27. A Local Legacy of “Schindler’s List”

A chance meeting in 1980 in a Beverly Hills leather shop between Australian author Thomas Keneally and the store’s owner, Leopold Page (Leopold Pfefferberg), who had survived the Holocaust due to Oskar Schindler, set in motion this movie, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1994. Steven Spielberg directed the film, and at the Academy Award ceremony, he credited Page as the “catalyst for the film.” In 1994, Spielberg founded the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, dedicated to recording the video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Shoah.

28. Federation: From Umbrella to Innovation

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles worked to transform itself from an umbrella group funding and coordinating Jewish social services and aid here and abroad to a social innovator in its own right. In 2010, the Journal covered the appointment of then-52-year-old Jay Sanderson as president, determined, he said, to “throw the doors open.” Since then, Federation has launched numerous projects aimed at drawing younger Jews, new leaders, the entertainment industry and unaffiliated Jews into communal life.

29. Saving Jewish Buildings

In a city that usually bulldozes and paves over its history, three acts serve as towering achievements in historical preservation. One was the rescue of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights by Stephen Sass and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California in 2000. Another was the purchase of the original home of Sinai Temple in the Pico Union neighborhood by singer-songwriter Craig Taubman in 2013. And a third was the $100 million restoration of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown. All serve not only the Jewish community, but local neighborhoods as well.

30. School Choice

In the early 1980s, if you wanted to attend a Los Angeles Jewish high school, there was only one choice: YULA, known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. By 1987, enrollment at the seven Jewish high schools in Los Angeles covered just 720 kids, about 100 of them in one non-Orthodox school, a predecessor to Milken Community High School. Today, more than 9,700 children attend 42 Jewish schools, with another 10,000 in supplementary Jewish schools, about 7,500 in early childhood programs, and thousands more in camps. Cost is still a concern, but online learning and other innovative programs offer opportunities to reach even more of the young generation — and keep Los Angeles Jewish life thriving for many, many years to come.

Women’s March D.C.: Here for one another


Sunday I boarded a plane back to LA after walking with my daughter Rebecca, 22, at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. 

We started Saturday morning among a bimah full of inspirational women leaders in the salmon pink walled sanctuary at the historic synagogue, Sixth & I. We walked on Shabbat, in a sea of marching Jewish home-made sign- and banner-carrying pilgrims, and prayed, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “ with our feet.”

And this is what I learned I pray to live in a world where we are here for each other.

I arrived on a plane to D.C. after a broken overhead bin resulted in a checked bag, which turned into a lost bag. Good-bye pink knitted pussy gear, good-bye warm coat and sundry staples. I spent most of the weekend feeling a bit un-equipped, and it put me at the mercy of those who were in a position to throw me a line.

I was grateful to find people who were kind and helpful, from strangers who shared phone chargers to friends who schlepped warm clothes on crowded metros across the city to make it possible for me to march.  I was reminded what a privilege, and indeed a critical feature of dignity and safety, it is to be warm and be surrounded by people sympathetic to my needs.

Over the course of the march weekend, I was privileged to meet, to witness and to hear from many people who converged on the city to share a vision for the world that is both bold protest and compassionate intervention. A vision that seeks to protect our planet for future generations, and that spins outward from a center that is rooted in care for the vulnerable. 

On this march that meant the people and institutions that have been the focus of attack —  people of color, Jews and Muslims, refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ, Americans who are poor, children seeking education in our public schools, disabled Americans and Veterans , those who rely on affordable health care and women who refuse to relinquish control-legally, morally or physically-over their own bodies.

I met a group of marchers who were the lionesses and change-makers of the women’s movement in the 1970’s, including civil rights lawyer Judith Lonnquist, and her daughter Victory Lonnquist who just completed a 6 month activist residency at Standing Rock , where she, a trained firefighter herself, was blasted with ice cold water in sub zero conditions by local firefighters. She said there was no way for her to really understand what was happening there without showing up, digging in and living there and hearing from members of the tribe, in intimate and meaningful ways that only standing side by side makes possible.

I met Mushe Tgaw, a taxi driver and an Ethiopian immigrant.

“You mean like Moshe?” I asked him.

“Yeah, like Moses,” he said.  “My mother named me after Moshe Dayan because my people are great admirers of Israe.”

He didn’t think much of the march until his daughters, Abegael 16, Egla 14, Sara 10, asked to go.

“They told  me, ‘Daddy we want to be a part of history.’”

He smiled. The proud immigrant father of two daughters born in Ethiopia and his youngest, born into the promise of America. He was able to become a citizen but he wonders if those who come after will be , “as lucky as me.”

I met Jerry and Wally, a gay couple who travelled from Massachusetts to D.C. to march for men and women walking the path toward marriage equality after them.  Wally is a Hispanic immigrant, and they were able to obtain good legal counsel and had the good luck of finding love during the Obama years in a state with progressive legislation. But they worry that a young gay immigrant who falls in love during the Trump administration will have not one but two obstacles against them in the fulfillment of their civil rights and dignity. They marched for all those young couples who may fall in love and wish to build a life together in this “new era.”

And I met Jane Plitt, the very first staffer ever for the National Organization of Women in Chicago in the 1970’s and an early championess of womens’ birthright to equal wages, equal rights and the dignity to preside over their own bodies. For her, the walk was magnificent because it represented the next wave of feminist leadership to finish the work that she and her sisters started. She said with a tear in her eye, that it was important to her, a relief, and something she was not sure she would see before she died. But here she was, seeing it, and I saw it, with deep appreciation for my daughter Rebecca and her generation, too.

And I witnessed our magnificent Rabbi, Rabbi Sharon Brous modeling humanity from the march stage in our nation’s capitol. Where she reminded us all that our hearts are capacious, and we can build a better world if we join hands with the compassion in one another, with each step, with each prayer, with each person, millions and millions of women and girls, and the men who love them, strong.


Samara Hutman is  the Director of Remember Us I The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah and Righteous Conversations Projects.

The challenge of our time


In the wake of last summer’s horrific massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, I wrote to the Shalhevet community about our responsibility to take active steps to create safer spaces for the LGBT community. Well, the moment has arrived. We can no longer sit on the sidelines. As individuals and as a community, we must tackle this issue head-on.

Haven’t we come far enough? Between tolerance and acceptance

I have heard many people assert that we already have turned the tide on this issue insofar as the observant community demonstrates more tolerance and less explicit homophobia than ever before. Although I agree, I fear that we may be slipping into a state of complacency on this issue. To put it plainly, “being nice” cannot serve as the end-goal. Basic kindness is but the starting point of human decency.

I certainly do not want to belittle the importance of our community’s increased sense of tolerance. But what’s next? Of course, halachic Jews will always be limited in the degree to which they accept homosexuality as normative. But we must find a place that goes beyond mere tolerance even as it may stop short of full-fledged acceptance. Our commitment to Torah and mitzvot not only allows, but requires, that effort. 

The challenge to emunah 

This may surprise many adults, but the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today. More young people are “coming out” than ever before, and that repeatedly puts a face to this theological challenge.

These weighty issues do not live in the abstract; they powerfully and emotionally impact genuine individuals living in our Orthodox community, with families and friends. What may seem like an interesting sociological debate in truth is creating crushing pain, anxiety and general turmoil for people about whom we care deeply.

[RELATED: The Pledge]

As they go off to college, students invariably face the painful moral dilemma created by the seemingly intractable conflict: believing in the primacy and validity of the Torah on the one hand, and following their hearts’ sense of morality with regard to loving and accepting their gay friends — or perhaps “coming out” themselves — on the other. All too often, this earnest challenge results in our children quietly losing faith in the Torah as a moral way of life.

In my experience, many, if not most, 20- to 40-year-olds in the modern Orthodox world struggle with the issue of homosexuality and the divinity of the Torah. They believe in a kind and just God and they want to believe in the divinity of the Torah. But at the same time, they feel fairly certain that being gay is not a matter of choice. In the apparent conflict of these ideas, the first two premises seem to be losing ground. Students today do not find solace in the argument that the issue mirrors other questions of theodicy — children born with severe disabilities, tsunamis or other natural disasters, or the proliferation of cancer, for example. This generation by-and-large views this particular challenge to faith as irreconcilable.

Steering away from the issue might feel safe, but that avoidance is detrimental and dangerous. Rather than avoid, we must actively and thoughtfully engage. Even just taking those initial steps, I believe, will alleviate the burden of this theological struggle, and will help prevent those tempted to throw in the theological towel to circumvent the tension altogether. In other words, I believe that putting this issue front and center will, in the long run, bring our young people closer to Torah and halachah — not further away. 

I’m just an educator

I imagine that many of you also struggle with the question of why God would seemingly create (or allow for a situation in which there exist) people who are gay but then forbid them from acting on it. But that is up to G-d and I think we should stop discussing the “why” of it and leave that to God. The more we try to understand this, the more harm we do. Simply stated, my shoulders are not broad enough to reconcile the totality of this issue.I will leave the discussion of this massive theological question to the Gedolim of our generation. But I beg the Yeshiva University Roshei Yeshiva and the Gedolim of our community to take up the discussion now. Please do not wait for other groups to address this issue and then lambast them. Our Gedolim rightly claim the mantle of Torah leadership for our community but they must assert themselves. They must fill the vacuum that exists right now. If not, the difficult and vital issue will be addressed by those to their right and left.

I also will leave the specifics about what side of the mechitzah someone occupies and the structure of shul membership to the poskim and rabbis of shuls. But again, I beg our community leaders to address the matter in a timely and forthright manner. If the specific conflict has not yet arrived in your community (which I believe it certainly has), it will be there shortly.

Finally, I will leave discussion about nature and nurture to psychologists and sociologists. Although I have read many articles on the topic, and feel strongly that there exists a genetic component to this issue, I know that others disagree and cite social and cultural factors as a cause or at least predictor. I think that this discussion only distracts from the more significant point: Many, many gay, lesbian and transgender people today have no control over their sexual orientation.

Whatever your stance on “causation,” I believe we would have a hard time denying that many gay people do not choose to be gay. And to address another common refrain, while in the past most people have suffered silently while attempting to sublimate their inclina-tions … our teens generally view that approach as, at best, an exercise in avoidance (and, at worst, a recipe for torment and self-hatred). People today do not feel the need to sublimate those urges and desires to live meaningful and fulfilled lives. In fact, they see it as inhumane and offensive to suggest such self-denial or self-abnegation. But again, this is for the Gedolim and Poskim and mental health professionals to discuss. 

The children are suffering — an educator’s view

The Shalhevet High School student body, like every other Orthodox school, includes gay students, and we have worked hard to create a loving and supportive environment for them. Still, we must do more. Young people in the LGBT community have told me that they feel invisible when we counsel them in private; they feel somewhat loved, but only unofficially, “tolerated,” but not embraced. This state of limbo cannot persist. We will lose our children — emotionally, religiously, and even physically — if we continue, even with the best of intentions, to make them feel ostracized and invisible. If we persist in these mistakes, we will only water down the ideal that each and every one of us is created “b’tselem Elokim” (in God’s image). 

So what can we do? Talking some tachlis

So what concrete steps might we take? Here are some initial thoughts:

Allow, or even sponsor, a support group for our LGBT students.

Find ways to celebrate those individuals choosing to live an Orthodox life while struggling with their sexuality. These brave students are responding to this powerful test of their emunah. Let us not relegate them to second-class status.

Encourage — and indeed expect — that our straight students support their gay peers in our school. Gay students deserve the same friendship and solidarity as anyone else, especially as Jews trying under the most challenging of circumstances to navigate the Torah and observe its commandments.

Implement anti-discrimination human resources policies and create a safe working environment for all employees.

Modify our educational plans and curricula to focus on discrimination against LGBT communities.

Provide our teachers with professional development in this area through organizations such as Eshel.

Find a way to assure our LGBT students that they belong and have a place at school and in our community. We’ve already set this process in motion at Shalhevet.

Ultimately, we will not succeed in satisfying the full range of expectations of every LGBT advocate. Even as we move the ball forward, some will claim that we’ve still fallen short. We can push and tinker around the edges, but as an Orthodox community, we cannot simply change Orthodoxy. Our attempts in the margins will invariably paint us “not Orthodox enough” on the one hand and “not pro-gay enough” on the other. As so often is the case, we find ourselves stuck in the middle. But we cannot allow that purgatory-like status to stop us from making the changes that we feel are appropriate. 

Why now?

Read the news. People are being shot and killed because they are gay. As Jews, we have always stood up against hate. People — our children — are in pain. They feel invisible. They are crying themselves to sleep after someone uses the word “homo.” Many of them hurt themselves when someone calls them a slur on social media. Jews have always stood up to protect the weak. We know better than anyone what it is to be hated and persecuted for something that is essentially beyond one’s control. We have a moral imperative to stand up and do what we can on this issue.

To those who want change — a challenge

For those who want faster pace for acceptance on this issue, here is another challenge. We dilute the efficacy of the argument when we choose to circumvent or dispose of the halachic process. When we do so, we diminish our credibility and enable naysayers to sidestep our arguments. When we fail to daven three times day or learn Torah regularly, when we aren’t makpid about kashrut, how can we expect to engage in this halachic discussion? To paraphrase the great Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the credibility of this message can emanate only from a halachichally committed messenger.

For those who disagree with me and believe we should tell our young people, however painful, to sublimate their homosexual feelings and live a life of celibacy, I ask you the following question: What would you say if your child came out to you? Would you tell him or her to sublimate those feelings? Would you suggest he or she live a celibate and lonely life?


Rabbi Ari Segal is head of school at Shalhevet High School. This op-ed first appeared in The Boiling Point, the school’s student news source, at shalhevetboilingpoint.com, and is reprinted with its permission.

The Pledge


I am a gay Orthodox Jewish teen. That in and of itself may be one of the most controversial sentences in modern Jewish history, but it’s also simply my life. I daven, or pray in com-munity, and I am part of the honors Judaic program at my school. I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, keep all the fasts, and I celebrate the holidays. However, I also spent my summer in Israel interning for the LGBT wing of the political party Yesh Atid, attended the gay pride parade and am an intern for an organization called Eshel, a group that specializes in Orthodox inclusion for LGBT Jews.

This spring, as an intern for Eshel, which is funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, I was privileged to take part in an informative course on community organizing through a Jewish lens titled Join for Justice (www.joinforjustice.org). When the course ended, each participant was encouraged to take on a summer project and, using the information gained in the course, make a difference in whatever way we could in the world.

Although I knew my project would have an LGBT focus, I couldn’t seem to figure out in what direction I would take my project until I was inspired by Gandhi’s famous adage, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is when it became clear to me that I was that change I wished to see in the world, not in a self-righteous sense, but in that I am far luckier than other LGBT members of Orthodox communities. I have been blessed with loving and supportive family, friends, teachers, rabbis, and a community that has allowed me to find myself Jewishly as a gay man in a healthy manner. 

Unfortunately, I am the exception.

Homosexual Jewish teenagers across America remain fearful that they will be shunned by their community and expelled from their homes or schools. In extreme situations, some have taken their own lives in a state of perpetual hopelessness.

Being a closeted gay person proved to be the most difficult challenge I have faced in my life. High school workload, SATs, peer pressure and the many other issues high schoolers are subject to, all paled in comparison to being in the closet. I kept a part of myself under lock and key, hidden in the darkest and deepest depths of my psyche, because I believed that opening that Pandora’s box would rob me of everything I cared for and loved. My religion, my family, my friends, my presence at my school, would, in my mind, all be in serious jeopardy if I dared to reveal the truth to anyone.

However, it came at a terrible price. My frustration with keeping my sexuality a secret eventually spread into other areas of my life like an infectious disease. It poisoned my relationship with my parents and friends and forced me into a constant state of fear, sensi-tive to anything that could in theory “give me away.” I was mentally unstable. I finally reached my breaking point at the end of my 10th-grade year. I realized that nothing could be any worse than staying in the closet, and I took a leap of faith. One by one I told my friends, community leaders, rabbis, teachers, the principal, the head of school, and, of course, my family. Surprisingly, each and every one of them was supportive and loving. At that moment, when I was finally “out,” I instantly felt free, as if a weight I had been carrying for so long that it had become part of my everyday life, had been lifted off my shoulders.

However, at the realization that those who mattered to me did not at all care about my sexual orientation, and in fact, were there every step of the way on my coming out journey, I felt I had wasted years of my life suffering the burden of carrying this secret when I could very well have been what I am now: happy. I loved my school, I loved my friends and my family, and I sacrificed my own sanity in a bid to protect those pillars of my existence. Had I known from the beginning that my friends, school and everyone I loved would support my coming out, I would not have had to endure the unbearable struggle of staying in the closet.

Gay students exist in the Orthodox Jewish School system, and I guarantee you that your local school is no exception. They stay hidden, like I did, out of fear. It was a fear that proved inaccurate, but it feels valid and very well may be for others like me. I am not alone. We are among you.

Will my school be OK with my sexuality? This was a question that haunted me for years, and yet there is a very simple solution that would have addressed this burning question. If students were to know that their school supported them, it would ease many of their anxieties and bring them one step closer to being freed from the life-sucking prison known as the closet.

This is why, when Eshel asked that its interns create a project, I sat with the leadership of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where I am currently a senior, to create a Pledge. The Pledge is an à la carte series of promises that Jewish schools can sign in order to protect their students. With the support of my parents, I worked together with the leadership of Shalhevet High School and authored the Pledge, available online (www.jewishschoolpledge.com), which will be shared with the entire Shalhevet family, to let every student who is like me know that he or she is not alone. Some examples of our Pledge include a promise that no student will be expelled for his or her sexual orientation, that harassment or bullying of any student by another student, teacher, or administrative member will not be tolerated, and that no one will be pushed toward “conversion” therapy. Additionally, the Pledge warrants that the school will strive to connect gay and lesbian students with a support network that is either on- or off-campus, and will provide religious guidance to students throughout the coming out process with trained staff.

As the Pledge was adopted, Rabbi Ari Segal, the Head of School at Shalhevet High School, published an article in our student newspaper where he shared his perspective on how he, as an Orthodox rabbi and the Head of School at Shalhevet, finds a way to support LGBT students at Shalhevet. Rabbi Segal’s beautiful words truly hit home for me, and I pray that every school looks to him as an example of what it means to be a halachically committed and sensitive rabbi.

Every child and teen (and adult) deserves to know that his or her school is a safe environment. Shalhevet turned out to be an incredibly welcoming and supportive place but, for a long time, I did not know that would be the case.

The Pledge takes a necessary and mean-ingful step in bettering the lives of all Jewish students. Furthermore, we wrote the Pledge with the express purpose of creating the perfect balance of protecting gay Jewish teens while not threatening Jewish law, and I firmly believe we have accomplished that. This is not about being politically correct, progressive, or even “LGBT friendly” — the Pledge is about the health and safety of our students.

I am gay. I am Orthodox. I am not seeking to change the halacha and I am not seeking to subvert Jewish values. Quite the contrary: I am seeking to make it possible to be an observant Jew in the Orthodox community regardless of one’s sexual orientation. I invite you to join me on this quest. I invite you to make sure gay students feel as cared for and appreciated as their heterosexual counter-parts. The longer we sweep this issue under the rug, we as a community become com-plicit in the sufferings of our LGBT members. The Torah tells us we are all created, b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we therefore all deserve a fair chance to be a contributing part of God’s nation. So, won’t you join me in making this happen? Won’t you join me in protecting Orthodox observance among all our students? Won’t you join me in making Judaism accessible to everyone? I urge you to reach out to me via this newspaper at editor@jewishjournal.com if you would like your school to sign this Pledge or to find out more about the project. Together we can make a difference, stand hand in hand and show what it truly means to be a light unto the nations.


Micha Thau is a senior at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, and student author of The Pledge.

Workshop aims to change Orthodox LGBTQ conversation


If you type “Orthodox Judaism” into the Google search engine, the first suggestion that comes up is “Orthodox Judaism food” (nothing like Mom’s matzo ball soup!), the second is “Orthodox Judaism rules” (we certainly have a lot of them) and the third is “Orthodox Judaism homosexuality.”

What is the place within the Orthodox community for people who identify as LGBTQ? If Google doesn’t clarify the issue, Jewish law, or halachah, provides more questions than answers, as well. The topic was uncomfortably brushed aside by rabbinic authorities until the gay rights movement gained traction across the United States. Now, the Modern Orthodox community is beginning to openly discuss how to reckon with its LGBTQ members. Indeed, Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, in an op-ed on his school’s student news website, called the issue “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.” 

In Los Angeles, following last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Eshel, a national support and advocacy organization for Orthodox LGBTQ Jews that offers programming in Los Angeles, convened a group of Orthodox community members in the Pico-Robertson living room of Harry and Dorit Nelson to address the changing landscape, and an official LGBTQ Allies steering committee emerged from a subsequent meeting. The committee then teamed up with JQ International, a non-denominational, West Hollywood-based organization, to organize an Allies workshop event that took place on Sept. 18 at the law offices of Nelson Hardiman.

Some 45 people participated in the program, including mental health professionals, Jewish educators and members from multiple Los Angeles congregations, as well as Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a co-director of Eshel and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Steering committee member Julie Gruenbaum Fax (a former staff writer for the Journal) said she was pleased but not surprised by the turnout. 

“What was so clear to me from putting this event together is that people are thinking about this,” she said. “We tapped into something that already existed.” 

Even as LGBTQ rights have expanded within the secular community, the Orthodox community has relied on biblical and rabbinic ordinances that appeared to leave little room for interpretation within the framework of traditional halachah. As a result, many Orthodox LGBTQ Jews have felt there is no place for them within their communities.

For Fax, this was a major motivating factor for getting involved. “It hurts me that the community that I love, the Orthodox community, would be causing such despair,” she said.

At the workshop, Greenberg painted the broad strokes of the halachich issues plaguing Modern Orthodox poschim (legal scholars), then shifted the conversation in another direction.

“OK, that’s the halachah,” he acknowledged, recounting a conversation with a fellow rabbi. “But have you heard the stories?”

Greenberg offered his own story about coming out publicly in 1999 after struggling with his conflicting identities for 15 years. Other personal stories cropped up over the course of the workshop. One man told of his sister coming out to their parents an hour before Shabbat, and how their Charedi brother refused to accept her until his own son came out many years later. Joseph Harounian, a gay Persian Jew from West Hollywood, said how difficult it was for him to come out to his community 17 years ago and spoke of his hopes that his visibility will make it easier for the youth of today.

Micha Thau, an out senior at Shalhevet and an intern at Eshel, said he hopes more LGBTQ Orthodox people will begin to open up about their experiences. “Everyone has a different story,” he said. “My story is different than everyone else’s, and everyone has their own points of tension. My story doesn’t connect to everybody, but someone else’s story may.”

After Greenberg’s presentation, the group divided up to role-play three potentially difficult scenarios: engaging rabbis and other community leaders over coffee, talking with kids during a car ride home from school and navigating a dinner conversation that turns homophobic. The goal was to learn to assert oneself as an ally, to open lines of communication and promote a culture that is welcoming to LGBTQ congregants. 

In addition to promoting personal stories, the steering committee also emphasized the importance of initiating change at the grass-roots level as a means of spurring rabbinic authorities into action. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea recently hosted a panel at the synagogue titled “Coming Out and Opening Up,” but his work in this area has been at the forefront among Orthodox religious leaders.

“We all know that a grass-roots, lay-led movement is much more effective than waiting for the rabbis to change their perspective,” said Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, a Conservative rabbi and JQ International’s helpline director. “And I say this as a rabbi,” she said, smiling.

Eshel founder and co-director Miryam Kabakov singled out parents of LGBTQ youth as “catalysts for change.” While alienated kids coming out often seek out more accepting communities, their parents often will want to remain in their own communities, and this can stimulate change from within.

“The kids go away and don’t come back, and the parents are deeply disturbed by that,” Kabakov explained. “So they’re the ones who are pushing the rabbis.”

According to Kabakov, seeds have already been planted for future action. Eshel, which is in the midst of a multi-year cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Commmunity Foundation, Los Angeles, has held one-on-one meetings with many Orthodox rabbis around the Los Angeles community and led training sessions with educators at Shalhevet, a co-ed Modern Orthodox high school, and Pressman Academy, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth-grade day school that employs several Orthodox teachers. Also, a committee was recently formed to organize social gatherings for LGBTQ members in the Pico-Robertson area. 

For resources online, go to eshelonline.org or jqinternational.org.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, ‘Rabbi of Rabbis’ and world-renowned Jewish leader, dies at 89


Rabbi Harold Schulweis, regarded as the most influential synagogue leader of his generation, died at his home after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 89.

Schulweis led the Conservative “>Jewish World Watch

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“Harold Schulweis was  a public intellectual who redefined what it is to be a Jew, an author and passionate orator who met injustices and suffering with action,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his friend and successor as senior rabbi at VBS.

“He transformed his synagogue into a living laboratory of social activism and creative spiritual life, introducing innovations that became staples for Jewish congregations across North America,” Feinstein said.

Schulweis recognized the power of congregations to shape the lives of a generation of Jews isolated from community and alienated from their traditions. In 1970, he took the pulpit of VBS in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. Under his leadership, the synagogue grew to become the largest Conservative congregation in the Western United States.

Responding to the loneliness and isolation of suburban life, Schulweis introduced synagogue-based “Chavurot” in 1971, gathering small groups of families to share religious life and family celebrations. His “para-rabbinic” initiative offered a revolutionary model of lay-professional synagogue leadership. Schulweis also launched a para-professional Counseling Center within VBS, offering psychological and family support to the synagogue members and the wider communities. Each of these innovations has been replicated in congregations nationwide.

[MORE: “>Mazon.org), in 1985 as a Jewish community response to hunger and poverty in America. Mazon asks Jewish families celebrating life cycle moments to dedicate 3 percent of the cost to the hungry who live among us.

In 2004, Schulweis delivered a sermon at VBS on the Jewish high holidays calling for a Jewish response to genocide. He challenged the congregation: 

“We took an oath, “Never again!” Was this vow to protect only Jews from the curse of genocide? God forbid that our children and grandchildren ask of us, ‘Where was the synagogue during Rwanda, when genocide took place and eight hundred thousand people were slaughtered in one hundred days?’”

Among those moved to answer the rabbi’s challenge was attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who assumed the role of founding president of the Jewish World Watch (JewishWorldWatch.org), now a coalition of Jewish organizations dedicated to raising awareness and mobilizing resources in response to the on-going genocide in Darfur, Congo, and around the world. JWW has grown into the largest anti-genocide grassroots organization in the world, a coalition of some 70 synagogues, churches, schools and other groups with some 30,000 to 40,000 donors.  Schulweis’ challenge, and Kamenir-Reznik’s friendship with the rabbi, “has transformed my life and has changed my philosophy of what it means to be a Jew,” she said. “Nothing I have done in my life has been more meaningful and has had a larger impact.”

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Sidney Orel from Valley Beth Shalom at a Jewish World Watch march.

Schulweis’ concern for genocide around the world, led him to reach out to the large Armenian population in his San Fernando Valley neighborhood. In 2005, the rabbi officiated with Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Church of North America at the first joint commemoration of the Jewish and Armenian Holocausts. He joined band members of the rock band, System of a Down, all of them children of survivors of the Armenian Holocaust, in an educational program affirming the common responsibilities of Jewish and Armenian youth to remember their collective experiences of genocide, and to act to prevent its reoccurrence.

Harold M. Schulweis was born in the Bronx in 1925, the son of a ferociously anti-religious editor of the Yiddish daily “Forverts.” As a child, Schulweis never set foot in a synagogue, but he grew up surrounded by Yiddish poets, nationalists, revolutionaries, and artists. At the age of 12, he happened upon a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Attracted by the music he heard from the street, he slipped in and was enraptured. He began studying Talmud with his pious, Chasidic grandfather, eventually enrolling at Yeshiva College, from which he graduated in 1945. An ardent student of philosophy, he became a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1950. At the same time he studied philosophy under Sidney Hook at New York University, receiving a masters degree in 1950 with the first English language thesis on Martin Buber’s philosophy. He subsequently completed a doctorate in theology at the Pacific School of Religion. Schulweis taught philosophy at City College of New York, and served pulpits in Parkchester, New York, and Oakland, California, before coming to Valley Beth Shalom.

Schulweis authored nine books and hundreds of articles in which he offered a unique interpretation of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Schulweis’ “Theological humanism” is rooted in the Biblical conviction that the human being bears the divine image, and in philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of God revealed in deep human relationships. Schulweis imagined God not above us, but within and between human beings. Prayer and religious observance, Schulweis instructed, are not directed above as a plea for supernatural intervention, but within — as an inspiration to individual and communal reflection, commitment and moral action. Building on the theology developed in his doctoral writing, Schulweis advocated “predicate theology,” identifying those aspects of human activity which are “Godly.” “God,” he frequently argued, “is not believed, but behaved.” Conscience is the living nexus between the divine and the human in everyday life. The cultivation of conscience is the central function of religious life and religious education.

Diverse members of the Los Angeles Jewish community spoke of their deep sense of loss at the passing of Harold Schulweis.

Retired Los Angeles County Supervisor and longtime political heavyweight Zev Yaroslavsky remembered how, as a college student, he became the Los Angeles co-founder of the movement to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing refuseniks and other Jews to leave for Israel and other countries.

At the time, most Jewish establishment organizations looked askance at the efforts and tactics of the young protesters, but Schulweis backed them from the beginning.

The rabbi decided to talk to his congregation about the plight of Soviet Jewry, and Yaroslavsky went to hear him.

“It was like no other sermon I had heard before,” Yaroslavsky recalled. “Rabbi Schulweis didn’t preach at the congregation, but opened up a dialogue, a question-and-answer session with 700 people. I was blown away.”

When non-Jews ask Yaroslavsky about Schulweis, the former answers, “If the Jews had a pope, Rabbi Schulweis would be in the running.” Adding to the encomium, basketball fan Yaroslavsky continues, “He’s the John Wooden of rabbis. When he speaks, the most powerful, the most successful people hang on his words.

“His death is an incredible loss and he is leaving us a legacy that no one is likely to eclipse. We, who were touched by him, are the blessed ones,” Yaroslavsky said.

Scholar and peace activist Gerald Bubis knew Schulweis for more than six decades and stressed his enormous influence, through his writings and ideas, on the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as on rabbis and synagogues across the country.

Schulweis could spin out an idea and “through a process of osmotic absorption,” rabbis and laymen not only accepted the idea, but went about implementing it in their synagogues and institutions, Bubis said.

John Fishel, former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, sought out Schulweis for advice when he arrived in this city in 1992 and, in turn, Schulweis drafted Fishel to serve on the board of Jewish World Watch.

“Harold always took on causes and projects others didn’t want to wade into,” Fishel said. “His knack was to recruit people of stature and then keep them focused on the job.”

Among the numerous awards and honors Schulweis was bestowed are the Israel Prime Minister’s Medal, United Synagogue Social Action Award, and Los Angeles County’s John Allen Buggs Humanitarian Award, as well as honorary doctorate degrees from the Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Schulweis is survived by his wife of 64 years, Malkah, his children Seth Schulweis of West Los Angeles, Ethan Schulweis of Beit Hashita, Israel, and Alisa (Peter) Reich of West Los Angeles, and 11 grandchildren.

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (“>Valley Beth Shalom“>Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

 

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' sermons:

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (collections is a living repository for over 750 audio, video and document copies of Rabbi Schulweis' writings, sermons and teachings. 

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' columns for the Jewish Journal:

Jewish Journal stories on Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis:

Aboard Amsterdam’s Jewish gay boat, activists warn against tolerating hate


Its passengers included celebrities, a rabbi and revelers in biblically themed costumes, but the Jewish boat at Amsterdam’s gay pride parade stood out for more than just its riders.

Following a west-to-east course along the Dutch capital’s Prinsengracht canal on Saturday along with dozens of similarly flamboyant vessels, the Jewish boat was the only one in the parade isolated by police. Two boats with three officers each escorted the ship, while two additional agents sailed aboard the Jewish boat itself.

With increased violence aimed of late at Jews in the Netherlands and across Europe, authorities weren’t taking any chances.

“We’d planned this just to show that we [gay Jews] exist as a community but with all that’s happened, I’m now here to stand up for our rights also as Jews to live as equals without threats by those who want to see Jews or gays silent or dead,” said Gideon Querido van Frank, the Jewish boat’s chief organizer, who boarded the boat wearing a Bronze Age soldier outfit laced with glitter.

As Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has unfolded over the past month, acts of violence and intimidation have risen in Holland, threatening the country’s reputation for tolerance.

In addition to repeated acts of vandalism at the home of a Dutch chief rabbi, police last week confirmed reports that in two separate incidents, a Jewish woman was assaulted for displaying an Israeli flag on her home. One was beaten on the street, while the other had a firebomb and stones hurled at her window.

In The Hague, Muslim extremists twice chanted slogans about killing Jews at demonstrations that featured jihadist symbols, sparking a national debate about limiting freedom of expression because police failed to intervene.

But none of that deterred the 50 people who registered to sail aboard the Jewish boat at the 19th Amsterdam Pride Canal Parade, a world-famous aquatic procession that attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators from across Holland and beyond. If anything, the attacks led passengers to broaden their message of tolerance for gays to include rejection of anti-Semitism and a demand that authorities crack down on hate speech.

The people intimidating Jews are also responsible for “a reversal in the level of acceptance of gay people in the Netherlands,” said Marianne van Praag, a Reform rabbi from The Hague who boarded the boat even though it sailed on Shabbat because she believes that speaking out against hatred of Jews and gays has become “a matter of life and death.”

In some areas of the city, van Praag told JTA, “gay people no longer dare hold hands on the street because they don’t find it safe.”

“I find it imperative that a statement on this be made also from the religious circles,” she said.

Throughout the parade, participants flew a rainbow flag emblazoned with a Star of David and cheered at spectators waving Israeli flags in solidarity. Organizers referred to Israel over the loudspeaker, not least in introducing the boat’s main attraction: The transgender pop idol Dana International, who led Israel to victory at the 1998 Eurovision song contest with her hit “Diva.”

“I don’t believe in any religion, so I’m here as an Israeli, not as a Jew,” Dana International told JTA. “But it’s time to end the persecution over religion or national reasons. Just cut out all that s***. That’s my message.”

Dressed in a tight black dress and golden leggings on the boat’s main platform, Dana International shouted into the microphone, “Thank you Amsterdam for being so tolerant of gay rights and all minorities. Thank you Holland for being the most tolerant place on earth. Don’t ever change.”

While many Dutchmen are proud of the liberal policies and values for which their country is renowned, some fear it is changing. In particular, the spate of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks has prompted concern that not enough is being done to defend Dutch freedoms from people bent on abusing them.

“Tolerance is important but needs to have limits,” said Ken Gould, a gay Jewish cantor who runs KunstenIsrael, the Netherlands Foundation for Israeli Culture. “Clearly those limits have been breached. I am here also to draw attention to that.”

In the wake of the anti-Semitic demonstrations in The Hague, a petition with 17,000 signatures was sent to the Dutch Senate asking for the resignation of Mayor Jozias van Aartsen because city police denied hearing incitement at the demonstration despite footage that seemed to prove it.

“We can’t close our eyes and pretend there are no problems any longer,” said Louise Fokkens, who with her twin sister, Martine, rode the boat in matching white costumes. “It’s time to fight back and make a stand, and that’s why we are aboard.”

The Fokkens twins, who are in their 70s, are famous in the Netherlands for having worked 50 years as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District before their retirement earlier this year. The fact that they are Jewish isn’t very well known, yet someone painted a swastika near their apartment during Israel’s previous military campaign in Gaza, Louise Fokkens said.

“Last time they targeted the Jews and the gays, nobody said anything,” said Martine Fokkens, referring to the Holocaust. “Well, this is us saying something.”

Jewish group condemns new Ugandan anti-gay law


After Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday signed into law a bill assigning a life sentence to some forms of homosexual activity, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has made LGBT rights its foremost issue, swiftly responded.

“By signing this draconian bill into law, President Museveni has demonstrated his disregard for the fundamental human rights of Ugandan citizens and has sanctioned hate and discrimination toward LGBT Ugandans,” AJWS president Ruth Messinger said in a Feb. 24 press release.

Under the law, someone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” could face life imprisonment, and the law defines “aggravated homosexuality” as sexual activity with a person who is disabled, or under 18-years-old, or instances in which the offender is HIV positive, according to the New York Times report.

New York-based AJWS leader Messinger called Ugandan leader’s signing of the bill a “cynical maneuver…[designed] to consolidate his political power at the expense of the lives and dignity of LGBT Ugandans.”

AJWS, an international development and human rights organization, has been pushing back against the legislation for several years. On Feb. 10, believing that the Ugandan president would be susceptible to United States pressure and in attempt to cultivate support from American officials, representatives of AJWS and allied groups convened at Congresswoman Karen Bass’ (D-37th district) Los Angeles headquarters at Wilshire boulevard and Highland avenue, to voice their disapproval of the legislation.

The group represented the intersection of Jewish L.A.’s social justice and LGBT communities; participants carried signs that read, “We Believe Love is Not a Crime. Stand with LGBT Ugandans” as they marched into Bass’ L.A. office that afternoon.


On Feb. 10, an AJWS-led delegation expresses solidarity with the LGBT community of Uganda. Photo by Ryan Torok.

They met with Jacqueline Hamilton, the L.A.-based field representative of Congresswoman Bass, and they presented a letter that called on the Ugandan president to veto the law. AJWS had gathered the signatures of more than 300 rabbis for the letter.

Bass’ Web site illustrates her interest in the law, through a statement from December:  “I am deeply concerned regarding the harassment, discrimination and violence that Uganda’s LGBT community will certainly face should this legislation become law,” the congresswoman said in December.

Bass could not be immediately reached for comment on Feb. 24.

The bill is a revised version of a 2010 bill, which included a provision for the death penalty in connection to acts of “aggravated homosexuality.” The version that was signed into law this week does not include the death penalty provision.

Social justice organizations inside of Uganda plan to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in court, according to the AJWS press release.

Watch: Bar Refaeli speaks out on civil unions


Grab a Hebrew or Russian-speaking friend and check out this sweet video released Sunday by Israeli political party Yesh Atid, promoting their proposed civil unions bill.

You might not be familiar with many of the 20 Israeli celebs who appear on screen answering the question, “Why do I support civil unions?” But surely the face of a certain blonde supermodel will ring a bell.

“Because a loving family is the most important thing,” Bar Refaeli responded.

Other answers, per our translators over at The Times of Israel:

“Because it doesn’t make sense to fly out of the country to get married,” TV personality Yaron Brovinsky stated.

“Because I’m a married man and it’s time the state registered that,” Gal Uchovsky, an openly gay journalist, producer, and screenplay writer replied.

The proposed law, now before the Knesset, would bestow recognition on marriages performed outside the official rabbinate.

Is the Civil Rights movement over?


Ask any schoolchild when the civil rights movement took place and she will likely tell you it was in the 1960s. Recent events have made us wonder what we can do to re-create a similar sense of urgency about the civil rights at issue today. Although the challenges we are facing today differ greatly from those of yesteryear, how do we get people to think about civil rights in the 21st century? There are so many areas where we still have work to do — challenges facing the LGBT communities, immigrant rights, human trafficking — not to mention ingrained and ongoing racism and other bigotry. And there are new ways in which we are challenged by new technology — the anonymity of hate on the Internet, how much more ubiquitous (and permanent) cyberbullying is than real-time bullying ever was. 

As we look back, we are struck by the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Certainly we didn’t have better race relations or communications systems in place 50 years ago. Yet enormous strides have been made — the Civil Rights Acts, case law against discrimination and, more recently, hate-crimes legislation — even when public opinion was not there. What were the keys to the success of the movement then, and how can we regain that type of momentum now? One factor was a sense that there was a coalition among diverse groups all working toward the same goal. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” There is no escaping the fact that civil rights groups and community organizations must work together to combat lingering racial and social injustice. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles has reopened the civil rights division. The Anti-Defamation League, celebrating its centennial this year, has launched a campaign,o “Imagine a World Without Hate.” The Urban League of Greater Los Angeles works with schools and nonprofit organizations to reduce dropout rates in area schools. While these and more are certainly good examples of this happening, there are too many cases in which polarization — of our communities, our politics and our media — has led us away from rather than toward each other. 

The Zimmerman case gave rise to discussions about racial disparity and stereotyping of African-American males. According to a Pew Research Center poll on the racial divide over the George Zimmerman verdict, 86 percent of African-Americans that were surveyed felt dissatisfied with the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, while only 30 percent of whites reported feeling dissatisfied with the verdict. Many commentators remarked on race relations during and after the Zimmerman case, but sadly some turned inward to fight the battle instead of building bridges.

Some groups and self-appointed leaders organizing in the wake of the tragedy employed rhetoric that demonized and marginalized other communities rather than uniting and mobilizing them. The New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 bounty for the capture of Zimmerman and called for the mobilization of 10,000 black men to capture him. When one of its leaders, Mikhail Muhammad, was asked if he was inciting violence, he simply said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Their Florida representative called Zimmerman “a wicked white beast” and claimed “his father is a Jew; he’s a no-good Jew.”

In Lancaster, there was a community prayer and call to action. One of the speakers, Stan Muhammad, spoke as a community leader and city commissioner in calling for the creation of the Antelope Valley Youth Ambassadors for Peace. In his speech, he made a reference to certain rap artists being “faggots” who “have sold their soul to the devil [and are] being paid by the Synagogue of Satan to keep our people deaf, dumb and blind.” Granted, he apologized when people reacted immediately and with outrage, but only for his use of the term “faggots.” In trying to explain, he clarified that he was referring to rap artists who “have made a deal with the Synagogue of Satan and the deal is this: You put out what I tell you to put out because I do not want your people conscious.” The “Synagogue of Satan” is a reference to a Nation of Islam conspiracy theory that assumes that the world is being manipulated and corrupted by Satanic powers led by Jewish elites.

It is not only members of the African-American community who have jumped to bigoted conclusions in the very context of addressing civil rights and other matters affecting the community. Pamela Geller, co-founder of American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, has utilized Islamophobic vitriol in the name of coming to Israel’s defense. Her 2012 campaign of bus advertisements included one that read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” More recently, Geller’s group promoted an 18-point platform about stopping Muslim immigration into countries that do not have Muslim majorities.

Perhaps our 24-hour news cycle and the multitude of information options have contributed to a system that rewards brevity, not mindfulness. Sound bites prevail over dialogue. In some cases, self-interest trumps altruism.

But if we are successful in couching our 21st century challenges in a comparable framework of the civil rights movement, we must take our time, choose our words, and join forces to foster inclusiveness and mutual respect among communities of all kinds. 

Our communities are facing difficult, tense and painful experiences, and we are not wrong for feeling prey to ongoing racism and bigotry. However, in order to productively and effectively respond to these persistent civil rights issues, as leaders we must denounce radical hate-mongering rhetoric and reach across racial and religious lines to unite in the fight against bigotry. The Urban League must stand up to anti-Semitism in radicalized African-American leaders just as the Anti-Defamation League stands up to Islamophobia in Jewish leaders. We must not forget the lessons learned from the 20th century civil rights movement as we forge our way in these complicated, polarized, high-speed times.


Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Region. Nolan Rollins is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Los Angeles.

West Hollywood’s tzedakah mayor


In any town across the country, a city council meeting can feel a lot like ground zero for American democracy: One by one, residents approach the podium and address the decision-makers with suggestions or grievances. With a few changes, a similar scene could have played out in a medieval English shire or a 19th century Polish shtetl.

At the July 15 session of the West Hollywood (WeHo) City Council, with more than 100 men and women of all ages in the audience, Mayor Abbe Land and the councilmembers sat behind a curved dais and listened to their constituents’ concerns: One speaker requested “more fiscal responsibility”; another, a business owner, complained about rising costs for leased parking spaces; still another, a homeowner, worried about a rehab clinic (“sober living center”) on her street.

There were also comments particular to WeHo, a city of 35,000 people with a large LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) population. These included a request for the rainbow flag to be flown next to the state banner and applause for the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.

Land — who is Jewish, 57, slim, with short black hair and glasses — was the only woman at the dais, flanked by several councilmen, all of whom take yearly turns being mayor. An old hand at this — it’s her fifth time as mayor — Land ran the meeting with good-natured efficiency, listening and responding to everyone.

Some WeHo residents heaped praise on their city’s governance. Land mentioned, with evident satisfaction, a recent survey that shows 90 percent of WeHo residents who responded said their quality of life is either good or excellent, a clear sign the city’s government is successful — in sharp contrast to several other L.A. County cities plagued by poor management and corruption. 

But in an interview, Land said that, for her, WeHo’s success also poses one of the city’s biggest challenges as it moves forward. 

Land, who is married to artist Martin Gantman, has lived in West Hollywood since 1979 and, according to her official bio, was “part of the successful campaign to make West Hollywood an independent city in 1984.” Since then, she has been involved in one leadership position or another in the community, which has thrived in recent decades.

Throughout her tenure, Land has kept her eye focused on progressive causes (single-payer health care, affordable housing, diversity issues), on economic growth (promoting small business, absorbing immigrant populations), on safety and health (gun/ammo control, women’s issues, the environment, preventing domestic violence) and on improving the quality of life (increasing resources for children, ensuring seniors’ needs).

Over the years, she has received many awards, including being named “Woman of the Year” in 2005 by the L.A. County Commission for Women, and, notably, the “Remarkable Woman” award from the National Council of Jewish Women’s L.A. chapter.

“I’m not a particularly religious person,” Land said. “I wasn’t raised in a religious household. I’m not a temple-goer, though I observe Jewish holidays and love the traditions. … But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about the Jewish religion, and to the degree that it’s about giving back, it’s certainly influenced me. … My grandmother used to tell me that you always have to give back. I can’t tell you for sure that she called it tzedakah, that she used that word, but she was all about giving back to others. 

“I hate the fact that equality isn’t for everybody,” Land added. “I just don’t like the fact that inequality seems to be rampant, and it’s all really the luck of the draw. I believe that everyone should have housing, everyone should have food, everyone should have health care, and everyone should be able to marry the person they love. Those are the things that drive me.”

Beyond her work for WeHo’s constituents, for which she gets paid $825 monthly, plus standard public employee benefits, Land also serves as executive director and chief executive officer of The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth, whom Land refers to as “LGBTQ.”

“The Q stands for ‘questioning,’ ” she said. “Many young people aren’t sure what their sexual orientation is. … It’s a time of discovery, and we want people to feel free to come to talk with us about that. We want any young person who’s feeling that they don’t have an option, we want them to reach out to us. We want them to know they have an option.”

Pointing to the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, she said, “We want all young people to know that they’re perfect just the way they are, and they deserve a chance to achieve their dreams. … They need to know there’s a safe place to go.” 

Land said that what’s most rewarding for her is that “when [government] works, you actually get to make things better for people.”

But even in West Hollywood, where the city is “thriving,” she admitted, “There are challenges: 17 percent of our people live below the poverty level; we have seniors fighting to find housing options that meet their needs as they’ve grown older.”

Nevertheless, she added, the city has focused on “providing lots of resources for public safety, for social services; we’ve spent a lot over the years on infrastructure. We just built a brand new library, we’re redoing our parks, we’re always investing, so the work that we do, and the work that the private sector has done, has really helped to raise land values. And that’s great.”

Great, yes, but the mayor acknowledged that rising property values come with a price: WeHo’s diversity is in jeopardy, because it’s harder and harder to afford to live there. She pointed to two new affordable-housing projects opening in the course of the next year. “One we refer to as ‘the Witkin Project,’ for older people, and one at La Brea near Santa Monica, for transitional-age youths as well as people of all ages. So we’re not only working on affordable housing, but also working on programs to maintain the quality of housing that’s already here.” 

“We want to make sure we continue to have a diverse community, that we continue to have young people in our community so they can thrive and eventually remain here and become the older people in our community,” she said.

“Our biggest challenge is to manage our success, so that we continue to hold on to our values.”

Opposing gay marriage is opposing love


One comes to understand many things after 97 years of life. Here’s one: Sex may fade, but love … that’s forever.

So says Issur Danielovitch, the man better known to the world as the nonagenarian actor Kirk Douglas. In an item this week on the Huffington Post, Douglas comes to the defense of his “friend” David Wolpe, the influential Los Angeles rabbi recently the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times describing the blowback in his congregation to his decision to perform gay marriage ceremonies.

Opposing gay marriage, Douglas writes, is opposing love. And who could be against love? Douglas even includes a poem to demonstrate how love can persevere into old age. Here’s the first few stanzas:

    Romance Begins at 80
    And I ought to know.
    I live with a girl
    Who will tell you so.

    I sit by her bath
    As she soaks in the tub.
    Then help her out
    For a strong towel rub.

    She likes that a lot
    But before I tire.
    It’s time to pour the wine
    And start lighting the fire.

    As the fire crackles,
    We talk of the past
    We met over 50 years ago
    Did you think it would last?

West Hollywood rally celebrates same-sex marriage ruling


Thousands of people came to West Hollywood on June 26 to celebrate expanded rights for the LGBT community.

They came in groups, and they came pushing baby carriages. They came wearing button-down shirts, and they came in rainbow tutus. Some wore wedding rings and stood quietly with their arms around each other, while others roller-skated through the spectators.

What they all had in common: happiness, at least for the moment.

The 5:30 p.m. rally co-sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami at the intersection of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards featured L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, among other speakers, and heralded the Supreme Court ruling granting married same-sex couples the same federal benefits as married heterosexual couples, including filing joint tax returns and Social Security benefits for surviving spouses. The courts also upheld the ruling by a lower court deeming Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban, unconstitutional.

“I had a lot of anticipation when I woke up,” said Tanya Sussman, who attended the Wednesday night rally.

“Tax season was always a reminder of how much farther we had to go,” she said. “You are always reminded that the law does not see you as the same.”

Still, Sussman said the battle is only partly won when it comes to complete equality for the LGBT community.

“We’re lucky to be in California,” said Sussman, adding that she was “completely overwhelmed” by the ruling.

States that still do not acknowledge same-sex marriage do not have to offer her relationship equal status, even after yesterday’s ruling. Her ultimate goal is equality for the entire United States.

When asked what this has to do with Jewish values, she said, “This is what it’s all about. The Jewish struggle to make things right for everyone, not just Jews.”

Tracy Moore, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, said she felt a combination of joy and somber recognition of how much further the country had to go for true equality.

“I felt absolutely ebullient this morning, but the whole thing was mixed, with the way the [Voting Rights Act] was kicked into the rubbish bin yesterday,” Moore said.

“Ebullient” certainly described the scene behind her, where hundreds of Human Rights Campaign flags — sporting pink or yellow equal signs on a red or blue background, respectively — waved as if heralding an army.

“It’s young people whose responsibility it is [now],” Moore said, looking around at the effervescent millennials cheering on the speakers.

“Marriage is not just symbolic, but it is a symbol,” she said, worrying that other urgent causes might not be lucky enough to get the publicity as the marriage equality movement. “There are no catchwords for Social Security or healthcare.”

For one of the younger members in the crowd, Jocelyn Berger, the next step is clear.

“Organize,” she said. “Organize, organize, organize.”

Noting the many organizations that work on marriage equality, such as Courage Campaign, Marriage Equality USA and Truth Wins Out, she emphasized even total marriage equality is not the ultimate goal.

“Beyond marriage, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act is one that is very important,” she said. “This is a symbolic and real victory but [the fight for equality] goes way beyond marriage.”

AJWS president Ruth Messinger applauds Supreme Court ruling on DOMA & Prop 8


American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger released the following statement today after the Supreme Court ruled in two cases related to marriage equality.

“We applaud today’s historic decisions by the Supreme Court to strike down discriminatory laws as a major victory for equal rights for LGBTI people in the United States,” said Messinger. “We believe that this is one of the necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of people of all sexual orientations are respected everywhere in the world.

“Too many people in too many countries are ostracized, threatened and assaulted just for living their lives and loving others of the same gender. In 76 countries, people can be arrested for having sex with someone of the same gender and in five countries the punishment is the death penalty.

“As the Jewish voice for LBGTI rights worldwide, we are proud to support LGBTI activists in Cambodia, El Salvador, Haiti, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Uganda and elsewhere. These defenders of human rights stand up for the dignity and rights of every person, and they put their lives on the line to defend the human rights of the LGBTI people,” said Messinger.

AJWS is the eighth largest funder of LGBTI rights worldwide. AJWS has granted nearly $5 million to support advocates for LGBTI rights and currently funds 50 organizations promoting the rights of LGBTI people in 18 countries.  


About American Jewish World Service:

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights and end poverty in the developing world. We support more than 400 grassroots organizations in Africa, Asia and the Americas that promote the rights of women, girls and LGBT people; rebuild societies torn apart by war and natural disasters; and seek to secure access to food, land and water. In the United States, we mobilize our supporters to advocate for U.S. policies that help create a just and equitable world. We are inspired by Judaism’s commitment to pursue justice and repair the world, and we believe that Jewish history teaches us to respect and fight for the rights of others.

Edgar M. Bronfman: Jewish values dictate protecting gay marriage


In the early 1970s, while I was CEO of the Seagram Company, public dialogue about gay rights was largely nonexistent in corporate America. Social discourse had not yet even evolved into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos that dominated the following decades. Homosexuality was simply not discussed and therefore, by implication, was shameful.

During that time, as the head of a company with thousands of employees, personnel issues often came across my desk. One day, the director of human resources came into my office with a recommendation to terminate one of my brightest executives. I found myself puzzled that anyone would want to fire such a promising young man until the director leaned in and confided in a hushed tone, “Well, you know, he’s a homosexual.”

The declaration did persuade me — but not in the way he had hoped.

The promising young executive continued on to a distinguished career at Seagram, and the HR director was soon let go. Although my choice was shocking to the director, the decision was obvious to me: to fire a person because of their sexual orientation was not only wrong, it was bad business. It was discrimination, plain and simple, and would not be tolerated in the company I ran.

More than 40 years later, I still feel such discrimination to be unequivocally wrong, but my views on the subject of gay rights have evolved. Particularly today, as we celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the legality of gay marriage, I now see marriage equality as a moral imperative because of my Jewish roots.

Just as the high court has shown moral bravery in its recognition of gay marriage, the Jewish community should follow its example in our myriad communities. As Jews, we should remember that our tradition upholds the bond between two loving people and the families they create as a source of strength and commitment to the betterment of the world.

“Justice” is a word we are taught early in life, and we are reminded constantly that it is a principle we should uphold and promote. In Hebrew, the word tzedek is used to promote acts of loving kindness and righteousness. Its diminutive, tzedakah, is translated as charity, but it is much more. We are taught in the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” In Hebrew, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdorf.”

It is a vital, active imperative for the Jewish people to be on the front lines of issues protecting and promoting the rights of any group being treated unfairly. To take approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population and tell them they are second-class citizens is clearly unjust. As Jews we are instructed to seek justice for the stranger, the widow and the orphan because too often society discriminates against and takes advantage of those without advocates.

I have come to see the protection of gay marriage as a manifestation of the Jewish value of seeking justice for those who are enslaved. To those who cover their prejudice with reference to biblical injunctions against homosexuality, I ask if they are willing to live by every other law listed in the Torah. For such literalists, I submit that the very Torah portion of Leviticus that they so often quote also enjoins us to harbor no hatred against our brother and our neighbor.

To freeze Judaism in time because of ancient biblical edicts is to deny that Judaism is a mighty river that moves forward through time, a living entity that changes course and becomes renewed through what it meets on the banks. Like a river, it retains its essential character although it is constantly renewed and evolving.

Today, the Jewish pursuit of justice must channel itself against the denial of marriage equality. For Jews, who have suffered so much throughout history at the hands of prejudice, to stand idly by while any group is treated so unfairly is unequivocally wrong.

I have been inspired in my thinking on gay rights and marriage equality by a woman I have known since she was a teenager. She is now the leader of Keshet, a group that promotes equality for the LGBT community in the Jewish world.

Idit Klein first came to my attention when she was in high school. She was a student on a program I founded called the Bronfman Youth Fellowship that targets Jewish teens of exceptional promise from an array of backgrounds. In my conversations with her over the years, I have learned that the issues facing LGBT Jews are ones on which all Jews need to speak out.

Within the Jewish community we must endeavor to include and celebrate the diversity of families and couples within all aspects of religious, communal and institutional life. When our communities continue to open their tents as our forefather Abraham did, to include all who wish to participate in Jewish life, our people’s possibilities expand and gain strength.


Edgar M. Bronfman, the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd., is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the author of “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli Press) created in conjunction with his wife, artist Jan Aronson.

Los Angeles rabbis respond to Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8


The Jewish Journal invited rabbis from throughout Los Angeles to contribute their thoughts and reactions to the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage. The following is a sampling of what we have received and we will be adding more as we receive more responses.


Rabbi Ken Chasen, Leo Baeck Temple

I will always remember where I was on the day that marriage equality won its defining victories in the Supreme Court.

The news flashed across the screen on my phone as my congregants and I were ascending toward Jerusalem.  I took the microphone on our tour bus, announced the rulings, and was overcome with chills as the exhilarating sound of joyful cheers erupted spontaneously.  Very suddenly, the 7500 miles that separated us from Los Angeles seemed to disappear… just as a new layer of meaning in our pilgrimage to the Holy City was born.

To be sure, there is so much more work to be done.  There are so many states in the U.S. where same gender marriage remains under legal assault.  There are so many persistent forms of discrimination that continue to diminish the character of our nation.  But today, we can celebrate this reminder of the power found in the relentless yearning to affirm all of humanity as creatures fashioned in God’s image.  Could there be a more redemptive message to find its way to a group of Jewish travelers headed into Jerusalem?

I have made the uphill trek into this golden city many times in my life, but this was an arrival that I will never forget.  May this renewal of hope that the longest battles for justice can ultimately be won lift us ever higher – both at home in America and in our people’s long-treasured home.


Rabbi Laura Geller, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Close to fifteen years ago I officiated at the Jewish wedding of two lesbian friends. Though legal marriage was not an option, they wanted their relationship to be blessed by our tradition. Both of them, thoughtful and serious students of Judaism,  wanted to create a ritual that was both authentically Jewish and at the same time acknowledged the difference between a heterosexual  and a lesbian ceremony. They carefully reflected on each part of the traditional wedding ceremony, determining what should be included, what needed to be changed and what should be added. Years later they reaffirmed their vows in another ceremony when gay marriage was legal in California. It was in their second ceremony that I first truly understood the significance of the words: “By the power vested in me by the State of California.”

Just last month I officiated at the Jewish  wedding of other lesbian friends, also serious and thoughtful students of Judaism.  Though legal marriage was again not an option because of Prop 8, planning their wedding with them was a very different experience from my first.  They chose to have a ceremony that  was exactly like every other wedding ceremony:  same words, same blessings, same symbols. The only change was that the references to “ bride and groom” were changed to “bride and bride.” I asked them why they were not more concerned about adapting the ceremony and their answer was clear:  “ours is a Jewish wedding pure and simple.  We don’t have to jump through any hoops or make any significant changes. This ceremony is our inheritance.  We want to claim it as ours without apology.”

Because I couldn’t say:” By the power vested in me by the State of California” they went to Washington State to sign a legal marriage license. Now, in response the  Supreme Court’s decision on Prop 8, I can invoke the power vested in me by the State of California and declare them married in accordance with the laws of the State of California and our Jewish faith. Now we are so much closer to the truth of their experience:  a gay or lesbian Jewish wedding, like a Jewish heterosexual wedding, is a Jewish wedding pure and simple. It is the inheritance of every loving Jewish couple.  


Rabbi Jocee Hudson, Temple Israel of Hollywood

A few months ago, I sat alongside two same-sex couples from my congregation, presenting to a room filled with 7th graders.  The couples, both legally married in the months preceding Proposition 8 and parents of young children in our schools, were talking with the students about their lives and experiences of being gay and Jewish.

When it came time to discuss the right to marry, I used my own life as on object lesson.  “I am engaged,” I told them.  They clapped and smiled.  “I am getting married in a Jewish ceremony and all my friends and family are coming.  But, I can’t get legally married, because I am a woman marrying a woman.  I don’t have the right to do that.  I can sign a marriage license as an officiating rabbi, but I can’t sign it as a bride.” 

The students’ looks of confusion, alarm, and outrage told me everything I needed to know about the next generation’s commitment to equality.  What a healing moment it was for me when their eyes met mine.  They are used to seeing me give directions, lead services, teach, speak, and direct.  In that moment, as in so many others, I felt the fullness of the humiliation, indignity, and inequality that yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions now reverse in the state of California.

Next year’s 7th grade lesson is going to be a very different conversation!


On this side of history
by Rabbi Heather Miller

Rabbi Heather Miller, right, and her wife Melissa de la Rama on their wedding, July 21.

What does it feel like
when a human-made law
tells you your relationship isn't worth as much as that of others
even when you've been together 10 years, 20 years, 60 years?
What does it feel like for your religious marriage ceremony to not be backed by your government?

Before today, I couldn't tell you, because I had nothing to compare it to.

But today, on this side of history, I can say
that it feels like sunshine breaking through the clouds.
That the Creator is shining down
renewing the covenantal promise
that we are indeed created in the Divine image.
It feels like a heavy rush hour traffic suddenly clearing
and all road blocks have been taken away.
It feels like we are 10,000 feet up and now free to move about the cabin.
It feels like news that a disease has gone into remission.

One of life's major obstacles have been removed
and instead of our government working against our family unit,
it is supporting it, rooting for us.

It feels like we are marching through the parted waters of the Red Sea,
on our way to freedom.

It feels like people have confidence in our ability to make the world a beautiful place,
instead of begrudgingly tolerating us.

It feels like justice.
It feels like intentional, sincere hugs and cheers.
It feels joyous, empowering and deeply affirming.

It feels like we are a true part of the community and that we are blessed.

Rabbi Heather Miller serves several congregational communities in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2008, she majored in Peace and Justice Studies and Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. She and her wife, Melissa de la Rama, were named the 2013 Liberty Hill Foundation “Leaders to Watch.” Learn more at www.rabbiheathermiller.com.


Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

Today the chupah is up and reservations are once again being accepted!

I remember like it was yesterday — how blessed I felt and how busy I was — during the short window of time ( 4½ months) in 2008  when same gender marriage was legal in California.  And I well remember too how it all came to an abrupt and teary halt in November 2008 when Prop. 8 passed in California. 

Of course not all has been resolved with today’s interesting U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  Much remains to be done (including work to overcome some of the Court’s other decisions earlier this week).  But we can stop for a moment anyway from the ongoing struggle — stop to say a shehekhiyanu and celebrate this step forward.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, 5 sisters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — boldly step forward to plead their case for justice, and in so doing help change their society (Numbers 27:1-11).   How many plaintiffs, how many attorneys, how many brave souls through the generations followed in their footsteps, stepping up to make a case for justice?  We are their descendants and beneficiaries — and today we as a nation grow stronger because of them.  Mazel tov to us all!  Let the weddings begin!


Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami of West Hollywood

Today is a true historic day! A moment when you can feel the chains of bondage breaking. The Supreme Court has ruled that DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act is dead.  The Gay and Lesbian married couples cannot be denied federal rights and benefits. And Proposition 8, the hateful ballot proposition in California that went into affect in November 2008 taking away the right to marry is also history.  The court ruled that the people who sponsored Prop 8,who took the case to court when the State of California Governor and Attorney General refused to sponsor the court case, had no standing to do so.  Thus Prop 8 is dead.

While the Supreme Court avoided ruling on a sweeping marriage equality platform across the United States, the ruling means that now in 13 states (including CA) and the District of Columbia where marriage is legal, the Feds must recognize that marriage in the over 1138 rights and benefits and privileges at the Federal level. 

These include according to the Williams Institute at UCLA, the opportunity to sponsor a foreign born spouse for permanent resident status the same as heterosexual couples.  There are over 24,700 bi-national same-sex couples who can finally get out of limbo.

The Death of DOMA means that gay and lesbian couples no longer have to pay higher federal taxes on health care provided by an employer in the private sector.  Straight married couples do not pay income tax when the husband or wife is enrolled in their spouse health plan.  Gay couples have paid over $1000 in taxes previously.  The Death of DOMA means that surviving widows will be able to access survivor benefits through Social Security.  At present no gay and lesbian married couple could.  The Death of DOMA means  that couples will be married no matter where they go as the full faith and credit clause stands! 

The marriage equality fight isn't over in the United States. There are many places where gay men and lesbians cannot legally wed.  And there are 33 states in the US where you can still be fired for being gay!  That is why it is time for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to pass the House and Senate.  The marriage equality and adoption rights must still be fought state by state.

We aren't full citizens yet. But today for sure… a little more.  My congregants are celebrating tonight even as we understand that full equality is not yet here for everyone.  The gutting of the Voting Rights Act still puts our country at great risk. We must live up to the promise of liberty and justice for all.  Even as we celebrate today, the state of Texas is moving to make it more difficult for people of color to vote and only yesterday tried to take away women's reproductive freedom. Until all are free-no one is free. 

But for today I will rejoice a little even as there is still work to be done.

I am grateful to God for this day.  A day of blessing for sure. A day where we feel God's justice showering down upon us and encouraging each of to continue the work of Tikkun Olam-repairing a broken world.


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B'nai David

With today’s decision, America becomes truer to itself and to its founding values. In order for this nation to truly be a sweet land of liberty, it must bestow the protections and privileges of citizenship upon all citizens, without regard for creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. President Washington promised the Jews of the United States of America that they would live in a land which “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”.  And as Jews, we can appreciate the Supreme Court’s affirmation of this principle today.

Significantly, today’s decision does nothing to infringe upon the right of each religious community to practice according to its own beliefs. This too is an expression of the protections and privileges of citizenship being bestowed equally upon all. Within the Orthodox Jewish community, religious marriage will continue to be only between a man and a woman, for this is the sole definition of marriage that our religious tradition gives us. And at the same time, our community will continue the sacred work of balancing our dual commitments – our commitment to read the entirety of the Torah as God’s word, and our commitment to embrace as deepest theological truth, that God created all people in His image.


Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro, Temple Akiba of Culver City

Many years ago, a couple arrived about a half hour late for their wedding appointment.  The bride to be said, “Would you believe we had to wait an hour in line to get our wedding application?”  The groom to be said, “It's insane having to go through that to get married.”

At once, they both looked at me and blushed.

For some it takes an hour.  For others it has taken years.  Today, however, we move forward as equals.


Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood

I could not be happier to learn of the Supreme Court decision today ruling unconstitutional a 1996 law denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples and clearing the way for California to legalize same-sex marriage. This decision enfranchises all loving couples who want nothing more than to enjoy the full benefits of committed marriage relationships that heterosexual married couples enjoy in California. As a Rabbi who believes in the sacred character of love between committed partners regardless of whether they be same gender or heterosexual, I consider this to be an affirmation of all that is truly important for the perpetuation of Jewish family in today's world.

Jewish groups ride roller-coaster week of Supreme Court rulings


A slight bump up on affirmative action, a plunge on voting rights, and on gay marriage, the mountaintop: federal legitimacy.

It’s been a week of roller-coaster highs and lows at the Supreme Court for liberal Jewish groups. Their collective pledge: Stick it out.

“These are critical decisions and it’s going to be a fight” on voting rights, said Sammie Moshenberg, the director of the National Council of Jewish Women, one of several groups that had weighed in on the recent cases with friend-of-the-court briefs.

The same tone — vigilance on voting rights, gratitude on affirmative action and gay marriage — informed statements from other groups.

On Monday, the court ordered lower courts to more stringently scrutinize the University of Texas’ affirmative action practices but did not otherwise reverse its earlier decision upholding the right of universities to make race a factor in accepting students.

Jewish groups praised the decision, with the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center celebrating it for upholding “the use of affirmative action, the principle of diversity, and the understanding that race conscious remedies may be necessary to ensure diversity, even as we are aware that the decision’s wording indicates the Court may welcome future opportunities to review and potentially restrict affirmative action.”

Tuesday’s decision on voting rights, a 5-4 call that split the court along its conservative-liberal lines, shocked Jewish groups. The decision kept in place the shell of the 1965 Voting Rights Act but gutted its key provision, which had mandated federal review of any changes in voting laws in areas and states — mostly in the South — where racial discrimination had been pervasive.

All three Jewish justices dissented from the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, which found that the 1965 rules were outdated. In a withering dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that Congress had overwhelmingly reaffirmed the 1965 rules as recently as 2006 and said the court was overstepping its bounds.

The decision drew strong condemnation from Jewish groups and vows to bring the case to Congress, although the likelihood is that current political realities — a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate — will preclude a review of the 1965 law anytime soon.

On Wednesday morning, the court issued two rulings on gay rights. One overturned a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as between a man and woman. In the second ruling, the court said that individuals who sought to overturn a California Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage had no standing to sue.

The first case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who also was Jewish, although their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the State of New York, where they resided.

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by the four liberal judges, including the three Jewish justices: Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, as well as Sonia Sotomayor. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”

The marriage equality cases had Jewish groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides, with liberal groups defending the rights of gay couples and Orthodox groups seeking to push back against the California Supreme Court decision.

“Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist,” the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said in a statement. “One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman. Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court today, but that sanctity remains untouched.”

Liberal Jewish groups were elated.

“Having faced prejudice and bigotry throughout our history, the Jewish community does not tolerate unjust discrimination against others,” Alan van Capelle, the director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that advocates on social issues and that had joined friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases, said in a statement. “Personally, as a gay Jewish man who has long been fighting for LGBT rights, it means so much to see our highest court rule that my family has as much right to happiness and protection under the law as any other.”

Thousands attend Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade


Tens of thousands of people joined in Tel Aviv’s annual Gay Pride Parade, the first after arrests were made in the 2009 double murder at a gay community center.

Israeli media reported that the parade on Friday was the first time in four years that police did not send undercover detectives to mingle with the crowd.

Police sources told Army Radio that the removal of the detectives was connected to arrests made this week in the unsolved murder of two people at a gay community center in Tel Aviv in 2009. A court in Tel Aviv remanded three of the four suspects for 11 days on Thursday.

In the past, detectives attended Gay Pride Parades in an attempt to spot suspects and glean information leading to suspects.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the 16th Gay Pride procession through Tel Aviv kicked off at Gan Meir park with musical performances, celebrity appearances and speeches by public figures such as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat and opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich.

Organizers were expecting over 20,000 foreign tourists to arrive for the pride events, which will carry on throughout June.

The parade was scheduled to end with a beach party at Gordon Beach hosted by supermodel Bar Refaeli with live performances by musician Michal Amdursky, FFF, DRECK and Arisa, among others. Last year, an estimated 100,000 people took part in the parade, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Jewish scouts say lifting of ban on gays is ‘momentous’


Jewish scouting leaders say they are “overjoyed” after the Boy Scouts of America passed a resolution lifting a ban on gay youth.

A.J. Kreimer, the outgoing chairman of the Nation Jewish Committee on Scouting, said Friday the decision reached at the BSA’s national convention in Dallas on Thursday was “momentous.”

“Anything we can do to get more young people, especially Jewish youth, involved is a great day for Judaism and for scouting,” he said.

Members of the Boy Scouts of America’s national council passed the contested resolution by a majority vote of 61 percent.

NJCOS and other Jewish groups had been vocal in their support for lifting the ban.

Jewish Scouting leaders vocal on gay inclusion


Jewish Scouting leaders are taking a vocal role in efforts to pass a historic resolution that would partially lift a ban on gays in the Boy Scouts of America.

In a meeting of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting in February, members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution lifting the BSA's longstanding ban on gay members. Now the Jewish Scouting group is working to shore up support for a resolution to be voted on at the Boy Scouts of America's annual convention in Dallas later this month that would prevent the Scouts from denying membership to anyone younger than 18 on the basis of sexual orientation. The resolution would not change the BSA's ban on gay adult leaders.

“I am advocating for complete change and inclusiveness,” NJCOS Chairman A.J. Kreimer told JTA this week. “I'm speaking with other people and as an area president, one of 26 in the country, I have advocated for fellow Scouters to do the same.”

The struggle over the BSA's position on gays has divided the national youth organization at a time when public opinion has grown markedly more accepting of homosexuality. Most recent public opinion polls show a majority of Americans supporting the right of gays to marry — a right the U.S. Supreme Court could grant as early as this summer. Meanwhile, the number of states recognizing such unions has grown to 11 — Delaware became the most recent on Tuesday — along with the District of Columbia.

As in the wider debate, BSA religious groups, which make up about 70 percent of Scouting units, are bitterly divided. Southern Baptist and evangelical churches are adamantly opposed to changing the organization's policy, while Presbyterian, Lutheran and Jewish Scouting leaders have come out in support of gay inclusion.

The Mormon and Catholic churches both officially denounce homosexuality, yet their Scouting branches — the largest and third largest within the BSA, respectively — have signaled a willingness to endorse the current proposal lifting the ban on gay youths only.

Kreimer said the proposed compromise is a deeply flawed one. The notion that a gay Scout would be expelled upon turning 18, or that a gay rabbi might be barred from hosting a Scouting unit at his synagogue, is “untenable,” he said. Still, Kreimer said most Jewish delegates will back the resolution as a temporary compromise.

“We are going to hold our nose and vote for it because it's the best we can do today,” said John Lenrow, BSA's Northeast Region executive vice president and a former chairman of the NJCOS. “But it doesn't mean the fighting is over.”

Jews have a long history in American Scouting. One of the group's first vice presidents was Mortimer Schiff, a German-Jewish financier who joined with Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller to help found the BSA in 1910.

With 7,000 teen Scouts meeting at synagogues, Jewish community centers and B'nai B'rith lodges across the country, NJCOS is tiny compared to other religious Scouting groups. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, the BSA's largest chartered organization, counts 420,000 Scouts under its aegis. NJCOS does not even represent a majority of Jewish Scouts.

“Most are not registered with Jewish organizations and belong to units that are public, nonreligious or are organized by churches,” Kreimer said.

Still, as one of the oldest BSA charters and the sole representative of a major religion, the NJCOS, which was founded in 1926, has been forced to rebuff opponents of gay inclusion who try to sway the Jewish Scouts by quoting biblical passages.

“I respond by saying until you tell me you keep kosher, don't try to tell me you read the Bible in its entirety and do everything it says,” Lenrow said.

Kreimer said the vote on gay inclusion was too tight to call. But whichever way it goes, he said it will certainly have a long-term impact on the Boy Scouts of America.

“It's a defining moment for Scouting,” Kreimer said, “and a test for the character and future of the movement.”

Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association elects gay rabbi to lead group


The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association has elected an openly gay rabbi to lead the national rabbinic organization.

Rabbi Jason Klein, the executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, since 2006, was elected to lead the RRA during its 39th annual convention in New Orleans, which ended on Wednesday. It is the first national rabbinic association of one of the major Jewish denominations in the United States to be led by a gay man, according to the group.

Klein was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Council in 2002 and graduated from Columbia University in 1997. He grew up in Montclair, N.J. Klein spent four years as a congregational rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth on the South Shore of Long Island, N.Y.

“Coming out and growing into my adult Jewish identity would not be the same were it not for affirming teachers, rabbis and other mentors along the way,” Klein said after his election, j. weekly reported. “I am honored to be able to give back by supporting colleagues who are creating welcoming communities in hundreds of settings across North America and beyond.”

The rabbinical association also honored Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who in 1974 became the first woman to be ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Sasso was honored in advance of her stepping down after 36 years as rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.

Congress passes more expansive Violence Against Women Act


Congress approved the more expansive version of an extension of the Violence Against Women Act that an array of Jewish groups had backed.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved the Senate version of the bill after it had rejected a Republican rewrite that omitted the Senate's new protections for undocumented immigrants, the LGBT community and Native American women.

In both Houses, the bill was passed with the assistance of some Republicans who defected from the party line, and in the House, it was facilitated by the decision of Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to allow the Democratic-led Senate's version to reach the floor after the Republican version was defeated 257-166.

The House passed the Senate version 286-138, with 89 Republicans joining the majority.

Of the chambers' Jewish members, only Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, voted against it.

Among the Jewish groups backing the more expansive version were the Jewish Federations of North America, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hadassah, B'nai B'rith International, Bend the Arc, the Reform movement and Jewish Women International.

President Obama said he would sign the act, which authorizes $660 million in funding over the next five years.

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage


Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.


Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

The Mensch List: Bearing witness at UCLA


When author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was recently asked if he feared future generations might forget the Holocaust once the last surviving witnesses had perished, he answered that he had quelled his anxiety over this problem with a simple dictum: “To listen to a witness,” he said, “is to become one.” 

UCLA junior, Ashton Rosin is a living embodiment of that ideal. Quite literally, she is the director of UCLA Hillel’s Bearing Witness program, a two-month weekly workshop pairing students with Holocaust survivors for intimate discussion and reflection. Through her first workshop last year, Rosin found a friend in survivor Eva Brettler. But Rosin also wanted to go further and decided to bring the searing stories and historical significance illuminated in the workshop to a broader UCLA audience. The following spring, she inaugurated the university’s first-ever Yom HaShoah Week with a series of events addressing the Holocaust. She organized a film screening, panel discussion and a mid-campus Holocaust vigil to make the work more visible to the university’s non-Jewish population, and she personally reached out to disability-advocacy groups, the LGBT community and other organizations on campus for whom the notion of struggle and suffering would resonate.

“We really wanted to break out of the Jewish bubble,” Rosin said. “The Holocaust is not only about a specific group being targeted. It’s about the human condition.”

Story continues after the video.

Just 20, Rosin already has a history of delving into some of the most profound and complicated problems a human being can face. In high school, she was among 10 students selected by the Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI) to spend a summer traveling through Israel with 10 Israeli Jews and 20 Israeli Arabs on what she described as a “peace program focused on dialogue.” The program had such an impact on her that the following year she became a JITLI counselor, helping to lead other, younger participants through the intense and sometimes thorny experience of meeting neighbors they might also consider adversaries. All the dialogue made a difference, she said.

“It is some form of progress, putting a face to that ‘other’ we like to talk about,” Rosin said. “At the end of the day, I am Jewish, but the widening of my perspective kind of puts me in the devil’s advocate position nowadays. In political discussions, I’m the one who tends to bring up this notion that you can’t just displace people on the other side, that they’re real people with real lives.”

The depth of Rosin’s empathy may be tied to the fact that she has endured considerable suffering herself. At 10, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an incurable gastrointestinal autoimmune disease that forced her out of school for a year. Today, she still lives with chronic pain, goes to the doctor “all the time,” visits the hospital at least once or twice a week and maintains a strict gluten-free, fiber-free diet. 

“It’s something that’s a part of my life every day,” she said. “Pain is a constant thing; my sense of normal. But if you looked at me from the outside, you’d never know something was going on on the inside. So I gained a greater understanding for human struggle, and what’s behind closed doors. And I’ve always thought to tap into what people are really going through because, for me, people don’t really understand unless they delve in.”

“Everybody has a story,” Rosin said. She is their witness. 

Illinois lawmakers begin considering approval of same-sex marriage


Illinois lawmakers began considering a measure on Wednesday that would make President Barack Obama's home state the 10th in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

Supporters and opponents furiously lobbied lawmakers as a leading sponsor of the proposal pressed for a quick vote in the state Senate. The “lame duck” session is the final meeting before a newly elected legislature takes office later in January.

Buoyed by November election referendum victories in Maryland, Maine and Washington state, supporters of gay marriage want to make Illinois the first Midwestern legislature to approve it. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized it in 2009.

If approved, Illinois would be the second most populous state to allow gay marriage after New York.

Democrats hold a majority in both chambers of the Illinois legislature. But as in Maryland, Washington state and New York, a few Republican votes may be needed to pass a bill in Illinois.

State Republican party chairman Pat Brady was making calls to Republican lawmakers in support of gay marriage, legislative sources said, which could help win some votes for the measure.

Obama, a former Illinois state senator, publicly endorsed gay marriage in Illinois over the weekend, a rare occasion when he has weighed in on a state matter.

On the other side of the issue, Chicago Cardinal Francis George sent a letter to Catholic parishes saying same sex marriage undermined the “natural family” between a man and a woman.

“The state has no power to create something that nature itself tells us is impossible,” he wrote. The letter, signed by George and six auxiliary bishops, urges Catholics to reach out to their state legislators.

Last week, Senate President John Cullerton's said through a spokeswoman that he was confident of the votes to pass gay marriage.

CIVIL UNIONS ALREADY LEGAL

But a move on Wednesday to speed consideration of the proposal in the Senate narrowly failed, 28 to 24.

It was not clear if the procedural vote was an indication that the proposal was short of the votes needed to pass or if some lawmakers simply wanted to take more time for debate. The Illinois House will convene later in the week.

Even if Illinois lawmakers fail to approve gay marriage before a new legislature takes office, there is a reasonable chance of passage later in the year because Democrats gained seats in the November election and will have super-majorities in both chambers.

In June, 2011, Illinois legalized civil unions, which grant some of the rights of marriage to same-sex partners. But gay rights activists said that did not go far enough.

All prominent Democrats in Illinois have endorsed gay marriage, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn.

A key issue to be resolved is whether Illinois should allow religious groups the option of declining to perform same-sex marriages. New York granted such an exception in 2011 in order to secure the votes to legalize gay marriage there.

A bill introduced in the Illinois House offers such a religious exemption.

Last week, at least 260 Illinois Jewish and Protestant leaders published a letter supporting same-sex marriage.

“There can be no justification for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the letter said.

A survey of Illinois voters by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling late last year found 47 percent would allow gay marriage, 42 percent opposed and 11 percent not sure.

The poll of 500 Illinois voters from Nov. 26 to 28 had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

In addition to the three states which voted in November to legalize gay marriage, six others allow it – Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire, plus the District of Columbia.

Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Todd Eastham

On the morning after, Jewish Republicans advise the party


Think immigration through — again. Forget about gay marriage. And for heaven’s sake, when it comes to rape, shut up!

The Republican Party as a whole is having the morning-afters, reconsidering how it might have done better in an election that saw the party fail to win the White House and suffer modest losses in Congress, and Jewish Republicans and conservatives are coming forward with their own insights.

“There will be a lot of very frank conversations between our organization and its leadership and the leadership within the party,” Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said last week in a conference call that otherwise addressed gains that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared to have made among Jewish voters.

A number of Romney’s financial backers — including Fred Zeidman of Texas, Mel Sembler of Florida and Sheldon Adelson — are among the RJC’s leadership, and Brooks made clear that their voices would be heard.

“A lot of the major financial support the candidates received was from the members of this organization,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of weight behind their message on that.”

William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America and a former deputy to Brooks at the RJC, said Republican Jews would likely advise the party to moderate.

“The conventional wisdom is that the election will result in the shift of the Republican Party to the center, particularly on issues of immigration,” Daroff said. “To the extent that the party does shift, it would make Republican candidates more appealing to Jewish voters who may be inclined to vote Republican on foreign policy and homeland security issues but who have been turned off by conservative Republicans rigidity on social issues.

Some of the leading voices counseling moderation of hard-line Republican policies have been Jewish conservatives. One of the first post-election posts from Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Right Turn blog for the Washington Post, said it was time to stop opposing gay marriage in the political arena.

“Republicans for national office would do well to recognize reality,” Rubin said. “The American people have changed their minds on the issue and fighting this one is political flat-earthism. As with divorce, one need not favor it, but to run against it is folly, especially for national politicians who need to appeal to a diverse electorate.”

Charles Krauthammer, the syndicated columnist, noted sharp Democratic gains among Hispanic voters and counseled a change in immigration policy, making clear that the current GOP emphasis on securing the borders should be followed by amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Romney had advocated disincentives, including making it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get jobs and educations, that would push them to leave, or “self deport.”

“Many Hispanics fear that there will be nothing beyond enforcement. So, promise amnesty right up front,” Krauthammer wrote in his Nov. 9 column.  “Secure the border with guaranteed legalization to follow on the day the four border-state governors affirm that illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle.”

Zeidman, the fundraiser, said Jewish Republicans had a special role in making the case for immigration reform.

“The rest of the party has to understand what we as Jews have always understood — that this is a nation of immigrants and to ignore them is to end up losing,” he said.

A number of conservatives have lashed back against calls for policy changes, saying that the party was missing the ideas revolution underpinning the 2010 Tea Party insurgency that propelled Republicans to the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“There's no point in two Democratic parties,” said Jeff Ballabon, a Republican activist from New York. “Any such victory would be pyrrhic.”

Singling out gay marriage or immigration was self-defeating, said Ballabon.

“All the postmortems focus on demographics — that's playing the Democrats' game, that's a loss right there,” he said.

Recalling the drawing power of a figure like Ronald Reagan, Ballabon said positions on hot-button issues matter less than a party leader who can appeal across demographic lines.

“The only chance we have is there's another bold visionary who can attract people not based on divide and conquer, but who can inspire people to core American ideals — liberty, freedom, personal responsibility,” Ballabon said.

Tevi Troy, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, said the problem was not with policies but with how they were presented.

“There are messaging challenges,” he said. ”I don't think any of our candidates should talk about rape.”

GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana — states that otherwise went solidly for Romney — both lost their seats after making controversial marks about rape that were widely reported and derided. Their losses facilitated a net Democratic gain in the body from 53 to 55.

Troy said the Republican Party could learn from its Jewish supporters how to frame its vision of an America of opportunity in ways that would appeal to minorities and immigrants.

“You do have a place in America to succeed,” he said. “Jews are a paradigmatic example of a minority that came to the U.S. and did very well in the American system.”

Troy said also that the party should consider gradual and not radical changes in some areas. For instance, reversing “Obamacare,” the president’s health care reforms mandating universal coverage, was likely no longer an option.

“Repealing Obamacare is not viable right now,” said Troy, an assistant health secretary under President George W. Bush. “I still think the law needs significant reforms, and now is the time to talk about it.”

Noam Neusner, a domestic policy adviser and speechwriter for the George W. Bush administration, said that Jewish Republicans were not necessarily more moderate than other Republicans. Instead, he suggested, the party’s Jews represented a bridge to other communities that tended to perceive Romney as remote.

Neusner noted a secretly recorded fundraiser at which Romney referred to hard-core Obama voters as the 47 percent of the country who saw themselves as victims. The Obama campaign hammered Romney with the remarks, replaying the video in ads in swing states.

“The biggest problem with that 47 percent video is that he portrayed people who don't have wealth as victims,” Neusner said of Romney. “Most Jewish Republicans come from families with no wealth and have seen in America a wonderful place to create wealth, and they want to preserve that for others, especially immigrants.”

Similarly, Neusner said, Jews were well placed to convey the freedoms offered by American religious liberties. He referred specifically to an Obama order this year mandating contraceptives coverage for women who work at religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and orphanages.

“Jewish Republicans need to stand with our Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Hindu friends that there's a place in public life for religious institutions, and the government should not impose itself on those institutions,” he said.