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.”

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.

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.

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.

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

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. 

Index measures Jewish communal groups’ LGBT sensitivity


A new survey of Jewish communal organizations found that 50 percent of them have taken significant steps to welcome gays and lesbians and their families.

The Jewish Organization Equality Index provides benchmarks for gauging and improving policies regarding gay, lesbian bisexual and transgendered persons at North American Jewish communal organizations. The index was released Sunday by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights organization.

Some 204 Jewish communal organizations, or about 10 percent of the organizations invited to take part, participated in the survey.

The index found that 98 percent of participating membership-based organizations offer same-sex couples family memberships; 90 percent use inclusive terms in their publicity materials; and 73 percent have a written non-discrimination policy.

The index also found that 75 percent of participating organizations have not specifically recruited LGBT individuals to their lay leadership board in the past three years, and that 79 percent have not targeted the LGBT community in workplace recruitment efforts.

“We applaud the organizations that participated and are taking important steps to foster LGBT inclusion, but we still have a long way to go until LGBT Jews — indeed, all Jews — are embraced as full and vital members of the Jewish family in every aspect of communal life,” said Lynn Schusterman, a major Jewish philanthropist and one of the index's funders. “We have an opportunity to use these findings to truly commit ourselves to the vital but challenging work of forging a culture in which inclusivity, diversity and equality are paramount. The question is: will we?”

Other funders include the Morningstar Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor.

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.

Conservative day school cancels Boy Scout troops over exclusion of gay leaders


A Conservative Jewish day school will not renew its Boy Scouts charter because of the organization's policy excluding gay and lesbian adults as leaders.

The Golda Och Academy in West Orange, N.J., said in a letter to parents last week that the Scouts' policy presents a “problematic image for many families.

“To exclude same-sex families from membership and adult volunteerism is in direct contradiction of school policies, which place high value on inclusion,” reads the Oct. 17 letter signed by head of school Joyce Raynor, the New Jersey Jewish News reported.

The Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed its ban on gays and lesbians over the summer.

There has several same-sex families at Golda Och, according to Raynor.

The day school's scout and pack are now in search of another location in which to meet. Thirty of the school's families have children in Boy Scout Troop 118, which started in 1995, and Cub Scout Pack 118 for younger boys.

Since 2001, the Reform movement has recommended that member congregations withdraw sponsorship of packs or troops over the issue, according to the Jewish News.

LGBT Jews take pride in inclusiveness


Before he told members of his family, Nathan Looney told members of his synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), that he was transitioning from female to male. He says the encouragement he received is typical for members of this Pico Boulevard congregation.

“I see my family once in a while, but I see the people here once a week, sometimes more,” said Looney, who added that the synagogue gave him “perfect support.”

Looney was among more than 100 participants who attended Pride Shabbat at BCC, a Friday night kickoff to a weekend of activities celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a watershed moment in the LGBT rights movement, Pride festivities in Los Angeles included parties, a lesbian-led march, a festival and a Sunday afternoon parade along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. In a year that has seen the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and President Barack Obama becoming the first president to support same-sex marriage, the LGBT communities had much to celebrate.

The Jewish community participated in LGBT events throughout the weekend with a combination of philanthropy and prayer as well as celebration.

In addition to Pride, BCC’s Friday night service also marked the 40th anniversary of its first Shabbat service. Congregants were invited to prepare short speeches to read from the bimah throughout the service to share memories, describing their personal journeys to spirituality as well as coming out to themselves and their communities. The congregants’ stories started with the earliest members of the congregation and continued toward the more recent.

Davi Cheng, a computer graphics designer who helped create the biblically themed stained glass windows in the sanctuary, first came to BCC in 1996 when her partner, Bracha, began keeping a more Jewish household. Cheng, a former BCC president, recalled how she celebrated her 17th anniversary with her partner at the synagogue.

“[Bracha] arranged to have ‘The Song of Songs’ sung to me during Friday night services. We were invited to light the Shabbat candles. What a powerful night that was — to be able to be who we are and celebrating publicly our anniversary. Just this act of sharing our love with the community was very affirming,” she said.

At Congregation Kol Ami, a congregation in West Hollywood, Rabbi Denise L. Eger and Cantor Mark Saltzman led Pride Shabbat services. Congregants also took part in a professional clothing drive for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s Jeff Griffith Youth Center, which gives shelter and supplies to homeless LGBT youth as well as helping them obtain GEDs and vocational assistance.

“That is really what gay and lesbian pride is about,” said Eger, who served as a judge for the parade. “It is about creating an environment of total inclusion. Tolerance does not mean that anyone does anything. To really include means you go another step further.”

Celebration of diversity was also reflected in an interfaith service at the intersection of Santa Monica and La Cienega boulevards before the start of the Pride Parade on Sunday. The service included live music and was led by spiritual leaders from Kol Ami, BCC, Metropolitan Community Church Los Angeles (MCCLA), the International Buddhist Meditation Center and the Los Angeles Queer Interfaith Clergy Council.

The Rev. Neil Thomas of MCCLA worries that young people are leaving the church “because they are equating religion with bigotry and hatred.” He believes the interfaith service is important for dispelling the idea that God does not love gay people.

Victor Bumbalo of the Buddhist Meditation Center agreed. “Young people coming out think people of faith have turned their backs on them. Being LGBT should not stop someone from being spiritual,” he said.

While the mood throughout the weekend was supportive and optimistic, it was also acknowledged that there is still work to be done in obtaining civil rights for the LGBT community.

Eger stressed that the LGBT community will continue to exist in a state of second-class citizenship until the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of BCC agreed.

“It was great to see that the president came out in support of gay marriage, but that same week, North Carolina passed the law banning it. … Minuses always come with pluses. It’s two steps forward and one step back, to put it in parade terms. But we’re still moving forward.”

From shul to the mikvah, transgender Jews seek place in Jewish life


Noach Dzmura has a master’s degree in Jewish studies, publishes widely on Jewish topics and is the communications director at his synagogue. In 2006, he received an award from the San Francisco Jewish Federation that funded a year’s study in Israel.

He also was born a female.

Dzmura, 48, is one of a growing number of transgender Jews who are open about their status, taking leadership roles in the synagogue and trying to carve out a place in the Jewish community for those who fall outside the standard definitions of male and female.

It’s not easy, he acknowledges.

“Transgender people have tended historically to ‘go stealth’ [blend in as a nontransgender person] or opt out of Jewish communal life altogether,” he wrote in “Balancing on the Mechitza,” a collection of essays about transgender Jews in the Jewish community that Dzmura edited in 2009. It won this year’s Lambda Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Transgender individuals do not identify with the gender into which they were born. Some undergo sex reassignment surgery so their external genitalia correspond to their inner sense of who they are, but most do not. Some take hormones to encourage secondary sexual characteristics. Others simply live as the opposite sex, changing their dress, hairstyle and other outward details. Still others do not identify as male or female.

There are no hard statistics on the number of transgender Jews.

Rabbi Reuben Zellman, 32, who transitioned from female to male before his acceptance to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and who is now the assistant rabbi at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, says hundreds of transgender Jews from all over the country have contacted him for advice.

Zellman, who graduated from HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, says he has worked with more than 150 people who wanted to change their Hebrew names to reflect a different gender status.

“I’ve heard people combine ‘ben’ and ‘bat’ to get ‘ban,’ ” he said, referring to the custom of calling Jews the “son of” or “daughter of” their parents. Other variations are “mibet,” meaning “from the house of,” or “mimishpachat,” meaning “from the family of.”

Zellman changed his Hebrew name from Hannah Yoninah to the masculine Hananya Yona when he began living as a man 22 years ago. But he is still “bat Herschel v’Gitel.” There are no set rules, he says; the business of living openly as a transgender Jew is still too new.

Jewish tradition does not look kindly upon those who cross accepted gender boundaries. Although the Mishnah and the Talmud discuss the legal status of individuals who are not fully male or female — hermaphrodites, eunuchs and others with questionable gender identities — the observant community does not accept transgenderism as distinguished from intersex individuals, those born with indistinct sexual status.

“Halachically and theologically, from the perspective of the Jewish religious tradition, a person’s sexual identity is dependent on the sex he or she is born as, assuming that the person’s genitals are unambiguous,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said.

The Conservative movement also regards genitals as the final determinant. Although the movement has not said whether sex reassignment surgery is allowed, a 2003 responsum by its committee on law and standards holds that individuals who complete surgery and whose new gender is accepted by state authorities should be so recognized by Jewish law.

There are a variety of Reform responsa on the topic.

Dzmura, Zellman and their colleagues in the trans-Jewish activist community want to encourage the next generation of transgender Jews to join the Jewish community instead of avoiding it.

The goals they have set range from the mundane to issues of ritual and worship. They want to get Jewish institutions to provide nongendered bathrooms, which a few now do. They also want to be able to determine for themselves which side of the mechitzah to choose in an Orthodox shul and how to marry or convert in more liberal congregations.

“Liberal Judaism says come on in, but when it comes to changing our schools, how we bless our children, our rites of passage to adulthood, how we bury people, we really stick to a gender binary,” Dzmura said.

As more transgender Jews come forward looking for inclusion in Jewish life, there are a growing number of trans-friendly Jewish resource and advocacy organizations nationwide. At least two are in the San Francisco area: jewishtraditions.org,  run by Dzmura, and transtorah.org, run by a collective of local rabbis and scholars, including Zellman.

These resources can be accessed anonymously, which is particularly important for the more observant users, they say.

“Many trans people are not ‘out,’ especially those living in Orthodox or Chasidic communities where no one knows they’re transgender,” said Zellman.

“I work with trans people who have suffered tremendous exclusion from Jewish life,” he said. “Sometimes people get overwhelmed or intimated by the idea of expanding Jewish rituals. But it’s really not that hard.”