From left: Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally star in “Will & Grace.” Photo courtesy of NBC Universal Media

Jewish gay activists applaud the return of ‘Will & Grace’

When “Will & Grace” first aired in September 1998, the sitcom broke new ground in broadcast television by becoming a hit series with openly gay principal characters — success achieved not only from subject matter never before introduced into America’s living rooms but also through writing and acting that gave those characters magical comedic chemistry.

Because the show’s co-creators, Max Mutchnik and David Kohan, and lead actress Debra Messing all are Jewish, and Mutchnik also is gay, gay Jews in particular felt the show spoke to them more directly than any sitcom ever had.

With the series about the lives of gay lawyer Will Truman, straight interior designer Grace Adler and their friends Jack and Karen slated to return on NBC in October, Jewish LGBTQ activists are enthusiastic, meeting the reboot with expectations that reflect the impact of the groundbreaking original.

Janelle Eagle-Robles, 34, a former fundraiser for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), remembered the show’s impact “normalizing our lives instead of being the comedic relief of it.”

“It was two characters living their best lives and having totally human moments that people were seeing on a weekly basis,” she said. “The portrayal wasn’t perfect, but it was the only thing we had, so it was held up as the Holy Grail of representation. We saw the importance of it and celebrated their achievements. They got every award from the queer community because they had done something that matters.”

Asher Gellis, 42, founder of JQ International, a West Hollywood-based Jewish LGBTQ organization, said “Will & Grace” premiered after he had been through a decade of experiencing “heartbreak and isolation” as he became aware he was gay. The show made him feel “visible” and “acknowledged” more than some gay-male-themed TV shows that would follow, like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

“I don’t fit that [‘Queer Eye’] stereotype, but it was displayed as if it was a universal,” he said. But “Will & Grace,” with its presentation of both gay and Jewish identities, made Gellis feel “a sense of pride” in both.

“The fact that neither Will nor Grace reflected the traditional archetype of their respective gay or Jewish identities was a further celebration that there isn’t just one type of gay person or one type of Jewish person,” Gellis said.

Film producer and Hebrew Helpers founder Todd Shotz, 43, who had come out only three years before “Will & Grace” first aired, said the show “felt like it charted the process of acceptance within the overall American culture [and] the process I was going through as I came out and became comfortable with being gay.”

“At the time of its premiere,” he said, “AIDS was still ever-present in the news — so much sorrow and pain had been associated with being gay. But this show gave everyone a chance to laugh and camp-up how fabulous it is to be gay.”

And although gay characters in movies often were one-dimensional, he said, a TV show like “Will & Grace” “gets time to breathe and live and evolve.”

Gellis considers shows like “Will & Grace” important because children and young adults who watch them can find stories similar to their own experiences in the small-screen narratives.

“It’s so vital for our sense of self to see ourselves reflected, especially in this current political climate,” Gellis said. Pop-culture storytelling, he added, “provides role models for our youth and is transformational for society.”

Arya Marvazy, 31, remembered watching “Will & Grace” in college with his two straight roommates. The show was “the only access to queer entertainment I had that wouldn’t be a dead giveaway about my own identity,” he said.

“Through comedy, ‘Will & Grace’ provided a safe mainstream outlet to better know and understand LGBTQ-plus identity when people were far less familiar, and other such examples simply did not exist,” said Marvazy, JQ International’s assistant director and director of its Persian programming. “Everything about it felt groundbreaking because there were so many firsts with relation to queer life on prime-time television.”

It was in 2003, during the show’s eight-season run, that Amanda Maddahi was figuring out how her sexual identity fit into her life as a Persian Jew in America. She never missed an episode, “no matter how closeted I was,” she said.

“Much of mainstream gay sentiments at the time, as far as what I knew and saw, were a cocktail of homophobia mixed with scorn and pity,” she said. But “Will & Grace” was “a turning point in American mainstream culture that proposed the gay community could be laughed with, celebrated and be given a chance at inclusion and equality.”

Maddahi, 31, a medical doctor and former director of operations at JQ International who is developing a health TV show for children, said that “without that world, I would have never had a window opened to see the beautiful and free world that I live in now.”

Shotz, who produced the LGBTQ festival hit and award-winning film “Lazy Eye,” said the revived “Will & Grace” is needed in America’s current political climate. Despite progress toward equality since the original show ended, including the U.S. Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in 2015, more protections for the LGBTQ community are needed, he said, because “the current administration seems to want to strip away so much of the progress by the previous administration.”

“People need to understand,” Marvazy said, “that our rights as queer people are being threatened daily, and that the greater impact of inequality will be of importance to everyone. Sometimes it takes characters we love in TV and film to help us recognize that that reality is quite possible.”

Eagle-Robles said that, while she is looking forward to the new “Will & Grace,” “I hope that they don’t start from where they ended, but start from where the country has gone since the show ended. The audience of 2017 is capable of connecting with queer characters that are more layered, imperfect and therefore more human.”

People cheering at the annual New York Gay Pride Parade, June 25, 2017. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

North Carolina Pride organizers alter event schedule to avoid Yom Kippur conflict

Organizers of North Carolina’s gay pride parade and festival have altered the event’s schedule in order to accommodate the Jewish community.

The N.C. Pride parade had been scheduled for Sept. 30, which this year is Yom Kippur.

Following the announcement of the date last month, organizers apologized for scheduling the parade for Yom Kippur and said they could not change the date. They said the parade has been held on the last Saturday of September for the past 17 years.

N.C. Pride organizers announced Friday that it had rebranded the event as N.C. Pride @ Night, a street fair that would start in downtown Durham and in downtown Raleigh at 4 p.m. on Sept. 30 and run until 4 a.m. on Oct. 1. The Pride Parade was cancelled for this year but is scheduled to return for 2018.

Several Jewish groups have marched in the parade in recent years.

Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill CEO Jill Madsen said that her agency is still planning to hold an alternative event planned for the Jewish community to celebrate LGBTQ pride set for Oct, 7, which falls during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, but is more manageable for the Jewish community.  Madsen told local media that she was “grateful” for the compromise from N.C. Pride.

“We appreciate them considering other options,” she told the Herald Sun.

The event will start with Havdallah to end the Jewish Sabbath, Madsen told the news paper. “It falls during the holiday of Sukkot, which is our fall harvest holiday, and one of the practices of Sukkot is inviting someone into your home for a meal. So we thought, what a wonderful opportunity to open up our building and show our support,” Madsen said.

Photo via Sarah Stierch/Wikimedia Commons

Time to call out activists’ anti-Semitic bigotry

A good litmus test for the strength of a society is how it perceives and treats its minorities. In the United States, there was no more effective a proponent of equal rights for all than the late Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s derived his moral power from a biblical vision of peace and justice, that in the American vernacular meant equal rights for Blacks and all minorities.

Today the struggle for that elusive level playing field in the Justice-For-All League extends to immigrant rights and especially the LGBTQ community.

In recent years, Gay Pride parades have become a fixture in major cities around the world. These events publicly promote and celebrate inclusion of all people whatever their sexual orientation and to push for maximum rights and inclusion.

In Istanbul, Turkey where 100,000 people marched in the 2014 Gay Pride parade, in 2017, police fired at the few dozen activists who tried to defy the ban imposed by President Erdogan as he continues his drive to Islamicize the once predominantly secular nation.

Tel Aviv, Israel hosted a huge parade a few weeks ago involving over 200,000 people. In the Jewish state, gays serve openly in the military and are a part of the mainstream of all aspects of society-from the arts to business, politics and diplomacy.

In Tehran, there aren’t be any Gay Pride parades. Gays who dare openly express their sexual identity in the tightly controlled society could find themselves thrown off of rooftops, hung or disappeared into prison.

And there are many other countries including Russia and Ukraine, where gays often fear for their lives.

So LGBTQ activists have their work cut out in pursuit of global rights, equality and acceptance.

But the LGBTQ movement has not been well-served by a recent ugly incident at the Chicago Dyke March. There, three Jewish women carrying the multicolored flag of the LGBTQ movement were told to leave the march because they had sewn in a Jewish Star of David. They were told that the presence of the core symbol of Jews and Judaism “made people unsafe” and that the march was “anti-Zionist” and “pro-Palestinian”.

These progressive bigots insisted they were not anti-Semitic.

Yet who else but an anti-Semite would feel threatened by the Star of David, an age-old symbol of a faith and a people? Who else would support an ideology that denies the legitimacy of the presence of over six million Jews, living in a modern Jewish state that stands on their 3,000-year-old homeland? Who else but an anti-Semite would hold collectively accountable three women in Chicago for alleged misdeeds-real and imagined- of other Jews residing thousands of miles away?

Two days after the incident, organizers of the Chicago Dyke March not only refused to apologize, they doubled down on their bigotry.

They justified throwing out the three participants displaying the Jewish symbols by declaring that “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology.”

That would be news to Israelis whose families hail from Morocco, India, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. And it would be a real shocker to Yityish Aynaw, the first black Miss Israel and the over 100,000 other Ethiopian Jews who have returned to the Land of Israel.

As for the White Supremacist canard, it came about 75 years too late for 6 million European Jews. They were isolated, dehumanized and mass murdered by a Nazis’ White Aryan racist, genocidal regime, who apparently unaware of the “whiteness” of their Jewish victims.

Far from being an aberration, such a wholesale demonization of Israel, Zionists, and Zionism, follows on the heels of Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American political activist and national co-chair of the Women’s March, who in an interview in The Nationannounced that there is no room in the feminist movement for those who identify with Zionism.

And there is more from Sarsour, who just after the 4th of July, told a major Muslim conference to in effect, wage ‘jihad’ against the President of the United States…

Apparently the vision of a society based on “equality for all” isn’t enough for these self-appointed gatekeepers of America’s progressive social agenda.

The embrace of history’s oldest hate-anti-Semitism in the name of Social justice is an abomination. It helps explain the roaring silence when Gays are executed in Iran or persecuted in Arab lands. In the final analysis, such unbridled hypocrisy diminishes and degrades the cause that claims ‘equality for all’ as its ultimate goal.

What would Martin Luther King Jr, a great admirer of the Jewish state say?

I believe he would issue a warning to bigots hiding beyond their progressive slogans:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that…

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.

Experiencing Israel within the tension of perceptions and politics

If you had asked me two years ago what was the likelihood of me traveling to Israel, I would have said 5 percent, simply because I always like to leave some room for the universe to surprise me.

My aversion to Israel was mostly due to negative feelings in my LGBTQ community. I know a lot of smart, queer Jewish folks who strongly support boycotting Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved. As these things do, it boiled down to a sound bite: Israel commits apartheid against the Palestinians, apartheid is bad and therefore Israel is bad. The politics of the situation were directly in conflict with my values. I believe that all human beings deserve food, water, joy and the ability to put their children to bed without fear for their safety. 

Not having a lot of financial access to international travel — I write a body liberation LGBTQ blog and work a lot of gigs to be able to do that — I never considered Israel as a possible destination. I’m not Jewish; it never felt like a big loss.

My partner’s father, Mel, passed away two years ago while she was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. Being Jewish was very important to him, but Dara had complicated feelings about Judaism, in part because in trying to make spaces where Jews feel safe, she feels they have fallen out of alignment with their values. For her, core values of repairing the world would not result in how the present-day politics are playing out in the West Bank.

Still, Dara wanted to honor him by going to Israel with Reality Global, a project of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. I was certain this almost entirely subsidized weeklong trip was a brainwashing expedition. When she returned with reports about all of the different perspectives about the Palestinian conflict and a desire to find more ways to connect with Judaism, I was shocked. I met people from her trip who are very smart and who care about repairing the world. They were not brainwashed.

One of her cohort encouraged me to apply to the inaugural Reality Storytellers trip, bringing together journalists, writers, movie producers, documentarians, actors, speechwriters and more. A descendent of the tribe of Levi, my grandfather is buried on the Mount of Olives, and I knew it would probably be my only chance to visit his grave. I was also moved by assurances from a lot of people I respect that the trip was balanced with a lot of nitty-gritty about the conflict. 

I like to base my decisions around my values and faith rather than on fear. I know that peace doesn’t come from avoiding conflict; it comes from looking at the things that challenge it and creating solutions. I was excited to learn about peace solutions from Israelis and Palestinians directly and not through the media. 

And it turns out Israel was nothing like what I expected. 

We learned from the most incredible tour guide, Michael Bauer, who had me feeling like I was earning a master’s degree in Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bible and modern-day Middle East conflict.

The pace of the trip was challenging —practically moving all day from 6:30 a.m. to midnight (at least). Absorption was difficult as we hurtled from experience to experience. Folks who have been to Israel before cannot believe how much we did.

We toured the radio station Galatz and learned how media in Israel both interact with and stem from the military. It was fascinating to learn about how mandated military service affects Israelis. The reality of your children having to risk their lives in that way changes how you interact with politics. I think that U.S. politics would be very different if we had compulsory military service.

Visiting the Western Wall was challenging to me as someone who believes gender is beyond binary. The fact that the Orthodox rules require men and women to pray separately is a barrier to participation for many folks I love, including genderqueer people and all the women rabbis I know. I was happy to visit the new mixed-gender area under construction, to get to touch the Wall and put my energy into an ancient site that is now a site of compromise reflecting the diversity of the modern Jewish experience. 

We had the fortune to sit with a survivor from Auschwitz while she told us her story in a room at Yad Vashem. She had the same accent as my grandfather — strongly Eastern European. I sobbed so hard in the bathroom for how horrific the Holocaust was and how grateful I was that my grandfather escaped.

The same day, during a precious two hours of free time, I took a taxi to the Mount of Olives. I didn’t have time or capacity to figure out how to get right to my grandfather’s actual gravesite, but I visited and traded rocks from my home in Los Angeles with the area beside the graveyard. It felt like the best possible day to honor my grandfather escaping the horror of the Holocaust, and what a sweet ending his story has, to have been married to my smart and beautiful grandmother for 35 years. 

Israel is a country that embodies contradictions. Holding multiple conflicting perspectives seems common — some people desire peace but also fear for the safety of their children. We took an ATV ride to a war-torn building on the Syrian border, where our guide taught us about the history of the conflict in Syria. We were looking over the gorgeous Golan Heights and heard bombs going off. I felt the beauty of the place and the heartbreak of the  millions who have had to flee the country because of the ceaseless war. I felt both hopeless to help, given the enormity of the conflicts in the Middle East, and the unavoidable urge to try. 

Returning home, I was broken open — I felt shifts in my perspective on myself and on the world. That was a common theme among the lifelong friends I made on that tour bus in Israel, which also included a pass through the West Bank. We talked a lot about the power of Storytellers to change the world. We keep people alive telling their stories; we open hearts and minds through sharing experiences. 

I started blogging about the trip when I got home. I had to say something; I had to describe to the people in my life and my readers what it was like. How Israel is so much more than conflict — it’s more about resilience and how hard it is in the modern world to accommodate all of the different people and values within it. 

It’s hard to “come out” in the LGBTQ community when you have an opinion that goes against radical politics. I believe boycotts are one solution to problems but only work when in concert with other modalities, something I believed before I took this trip. The problem with boycotts and sound bite activism is that it drowns out other solutions and the ways people can act to create change. I had to steel myself for criticism and lost friendships.

I’ve kept the focus of my writing on how the trip increased my capacity as a leader and a writer. How my work to make the world safe for people to love themselves is strengthened by the depth of the experience. My hope is that I help people understand more about the human side of the conflict, and understand that diversity is a human mandate. 

Our world is made up of so many different people who are further diversifying. We need to create safety and the ability to thrive for everyone.  I left with many more questions and greater curiosity, specifically about the LGBTQ community in Israel and the West Bank, how they navigate the tensions of diversity, values and politics, how they work for peace, and how they stay resilient. 

Two years ago, I never would have thought I would travel to Israel. Now, I know I must return.

BEVIN BRANLANDINGHAM is a Los Angeles-based blogger who writes about body liberation, travel, plus-size fashion, relationships and more at queerfatfemme.

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. 

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Twenty-five thousand march in largest Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Dana Raz and Tenshi Lerner are holding hands – Raz wears a gay pride flag tied around her waist, while Lerner wears hers around her shoulders and a cats ears headband. They kiss frequently and say they started dating about two weeks ago. Lerner says it’s her first gay pride parade and she’s excited.

Raz has been coming to the parade for years. One year ago, Raz was marching near Shira Banki, 16, when Yishai Schlissel fatally stabbed her, and wounded six others.

“All day I’ve been tense and nervous,” she told The Media Line, while waiting for a second police check to enter the gathering area for the parade. “But I had to come. Even if we have to wait two hours to get in, nobody is leaving here,” the 24-year-old biology student said as she leaned over to kiss her partner.

Schlissel is serving a life sentence for the murder, and he was questioned in prison this week and his brother detained on suspicion of planning another attack at the parade. Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri said 30 people were detained before the parade began, several of them carrying knives.

“The police will continue to use a firm harm and show zero tolerance toward anyone who tries to disrupt the parade in any way,” she added.

More than 2000 police were tasked with protecting the marchers, and they carried out strict security checks, resulting in long lines. Police closed streets near the parade route, snarling traffic in downtown Jerusalem. The marchers said they wanted to show the world that gays have as much a right to live in Jerusalem as anywhere else. There were even families among the marchers, like Rinat and Yakov Herman who brought their two young daughters.

“We want to show the bad guys that we won and they lost,” Yakov Herman told The Media Line. “They declared war on us and this is our response.”

Some of the marchers were angry that Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat chose to skip the parade, apparently after pressure from ultra-Orthodox members of the city council. Barkat went earlier in the day and laid flowers on the site where Shira Banki was murdered last year.

“He should have been here so I brought this sign instead,” Yuval Regev told The Media Line, as he carried a cut out of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “We have made a lot of progress in Tel Aviv but there is still a lot of work to be done in Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem has a large percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe the Biblical description of homosexuality as an “abomination.” Tel Aviv has been voted one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. But there is no gay marriage in Israel, just as there is no secular marriage in the state. All marriages must be performed by a religious cleric.

Partly as a protest, two Jerusalemites, Yochai Werman and Yotam Hacohen, began the parade with a wedding ceremony that will not be recognized by the state. The crowd cheered as they exchanged rings.

The parents of Shira Banki, the young woman murdered at the parade last year, urged the public to come to the march, which is dedicated to her memory.

“Shira symbolizes something that is very powerful in Israeli society,” Tom Canning, Associate Director of The Open House, Jerusalem’s largest LBGTQ organization. “She was an idealistic girl like any other girl her age who was there to support her friend.”

Many of the young people marching said they have friends who are gay.

“I came to support my friends who are gay,” Yona Huppert, 16, told The Media Line. “Everybody should be able to make their own choices.”

Liberal groups condemn religion bill as ‘government-sanctioned discrimination’

Some 22 liberal groups, most of them Jewish, condemned a bill that would protect individuals and nonprofits that oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds from government sanction.

The First Amendment Defense Act would prevent any federal agency from denying a tax exemption, grant, contract, license or certification to an individual, association or business based on their belief that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. For example, the bill would prohibit a federal contractor from losing its funding if it refused to serve same-sex couples.

The bill was introduced last month by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Ind.).


Hearings on the bill will take place Wednesday in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

In a letter to the committee about what they call the “unjust legislation,” the groups said that: “Although our beliefs and faith traditions hold different views about the nature of human sexuality and marriage, we all share a common teaching that all human beings deserve to live in dignity and with respect, and that we must treat all people fairly and equally. The ‘First Amendment Defense Act’ directly contradicts these principles and reflects a profoundly misguided understanding of religious freedom.”

“This bill falsely suggests that the protections of the First Amendment are certainly inadequate to ensure robust religious freedom,” the letter continued, saying that it “authorizes government-sanctioned discrimination against married same sex couples and persons having sexual relations outside of marriage.”

The legislation “violates the core constitutional principle that the federal government will not prefer a faith tradition or religious tenet over another by endorsing and privileging certain religious perspectives on marriage and sexuality,”according to the letter.

Among the groups that signed on to the letter are the Anti-Defamation League, Bend the Arc, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, Jewish Women International, Keshet, National Council of Jewish Women, and Union for Reform Judaism.

Attacks on LGBT people rarely prosecuted as hate crimes

Dionte Greene, a 22-year-old black gay male, was looking for a hook-up. He reached out to an 18-year-old stranger on Facebook.

“I'm not interested in smoking weed with you, Travone,” Greene wrote to the teenager, Travone Shaw, in their first exchange. “I just find you attractive and I want to have a sexual encounter with you.”

“I ain't gay,” Shaw replied, according to court documents. “Bro, stop in boxing me.”

But hours later, Shaw contacted Greene twice and invited him to get high on marijuana. “You going to come over tonight when you get off of work?” Shaw asked.

Just after midnight on Oct. 31, 2014, Greene drove to meet the younger man. Three and a half hours later, police discovered Greene's body in his idling gold Dodge Stratus, with a single bullet in the right side of his head.

Shaw was convicted last month of involuntary manslaughter and stealing in connection to Greene's death. He faces up to 29 years in prison. But in the view of this city's LGBT community, law enforcement should have prosecuted the killing as a hate crime.

Greene's family and friends say Shaw and an accomplice lured, robbed and killed Greene because he was gay. Shaw posted anti-homosexual slurs on his Facebook profile nine times in the eight months before the killing.

Law enforcement officials said they did investigate the killing as a hate crime. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office in Kansas City said, “The investigation did not turn out sufficient evidence to support (hate crimes) charges.” The FBI declined to comment on its investigation.

Local officials said they too would struggle to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that anti-gay bias was the motive at the moment of Greene's murder. They also said a hate crimes murder conviction does not bring additional jail time in Missouri.

State prosecutors charged Shaw with murder, but no hate crime.

A woman holds a sign advocating for gun control while marching with the Moms Demand Action against gun violence contingent at the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade in San Francisco, California, U.S. June 26, 2016. Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

“After sitting at the trial, I don't think those two people were just there to steal his phone,” said Melissa Brown, a local LBGT advocate. She cited Shaw's use of the prospect of sex to lure Greene to the meeting and his anti-gay slurs on Facebook.

Shaw's lawyer, Paige Bremer, did not respond to a request to comment.

The handling of Greene's death is one of three killings of LGBT people in Kansas City since 2010 that, advocates say, should have been pursued much more vigorously as hate crimes. They say there are unresolved questions about whether the three – all of whom were black or Latino – were attacked because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or race.

The massacre of 49 people in an Orlando, Florida, gay bar by a self-professed jihadist has put a spotlight on hate crimes against LGBT people. As the murder cases in Kansas City show, America's system for punishing bias crimes is filled with limits and inconsistencies.

Seven years after landmark federal legislation recognized attacks on LGBT people as hate crimes, no comprehensive nationwide system exists for tracking bias crimes. And while 30 stateshave enacted similar laws, criminologists say many of them are poorly written and make convictions difficult.

No comprehensive, nationwide programs exist to train police and prosecutors in how to properly investigate hate crimes. And members of the LGBT community said police frequently react with indifference or hostility when hate crimes are reported.

Prosecutors say proving a hate crime can be difficult and can weaken their overall argument to a jury. But some criminologists say prosecutors have a duty to pursue hate crimes convictions nevertheless, because bias attacks terrorize entire communities, not just individuals.

“It is important to charge, even if you're not going to get a few more years, because you're telling the community you will not tolerate this,” said Jack McDevitt, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, who studies hate crimes. “But many prosecutors will not take that risk.”

LGBT activists say violence against the community is increasing, particularly against transgender women of color. Twenty-four LGBT or HIV-positive people were murdered in the United States in 2015 because of their sexual orientation, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an LGBT advocacy group.

Legal scholars said many state statutes were written quickly when politicians were under pressure to act on the issue. The result is a hodgepodge of standards of proof and sentences that confuse juries and judges.

In Delaware, the minimum sentence for defendants convicted of committing a bias-motivated murder is doubled, but many other states provide no such enhancement. In Iowa, meanwhile, attacking someone because of their “political affiliation” is a hate crime. In Louisiana, attacking a police officer is a hate crime. Last year, New Jersey's State Supreme Court threw out part of its hate crimes law because the standard of proof was too vague.

“The criminal codes vary the same way vegetable soup does from region to region,” said Peter Joy, head of Washington University's Criminal Justice Clinic in St. Louis, Missouri. “Everyone throws in their own ingredients and comes up with their own recipe.”

Created by the 1968 Civil Rights Act and expanded by Congress in 1994 and 2009, hate crimes laws are designed to add additional punishments to crimes motivated by bias against the victim's race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

The Obama administration has doubled federal hate crimes prosecutions since taking office, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. But the number of cases is still small.

All told, over the last seven years, the Obama Justice Department has brought 33 federal hate crimes cases, the spokesman said. Eleven involved discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nine of the 13 defendants in those cases were convicted, with one case pending.

On a state and local level, there is no system that reliably tracks the number of hate crimes reported or prosecuted. An FBI hate crimes database, derived from voluntary reporting by police departments, lists 1,178 reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation in 2014.

But a Justice Department survey of crime victims that same year found 50 times that number – 59,000 people – who said they were victims of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. About half of all the victims surveyed said they did not report the attack to police.

“We don't believe in police,” said Arianna Lint, a Peruvian transgender woman who runs TransLatina, a support group for transgender women of color in South Florida. “In small towns, they call us 'freaks' and 'it.' “


In interviews in the Miami area after the Orlando killings, 10 transgender women told Reuters that they and others in their community are reluctant to report bias crimes because of a mistrust of the police.

Among them is Payton Hale, 26. Hale, who is transgender, said she was leaving a bar in Hollywood, Florida, with a friend in the early hours one night in July 2015 when a group of people started to yell slurs at her – “faggot,” “queer” and “tranny.”

As Hale got into her car, a woman from the group ran across the street and began hitting and scratching her, Hale said. A male joined the assault, punching Hale several times in the face.

Hale blacked out. When she regained consciousness, she was covered in blood. The attack left Hale with a fractured nose and three damaged front teeth, hospital and dental records reviewed by Reuters show.

Hale and her friend said the two police officers who responded to the crime failed to pursue the attackers. The perpetrators, they said, were still across the street when police arrived minutes after the attack. Hale's friend, Pettus “Karma” Deerman, videotaped the interaction with the police.

“This is the cops standing here not doing any fucking thing,” Deerman says in the footage. “They wanted to go ahead and sit here and question us because we're transgendered. They weren't worried about the people who victimized my friend right here.”

The police report describing the incident paints a different picture. The officers wrote that Hale was “extremely uncooperative.” They also said she did not give a clear description of the assailants.

In the footage, Deerman describes the female attacker as wearing “a white and black dress” and having “dark hair” and mentions a male attacker. Hale also tells the officers she was attacked because she was transgender.

In the section of the report that requires police to say whether the officer suspects the crime was “hate / bias motivated,” the officer wrote “unknown.”

A spokesperson for the Hollywood Police Department cited the police report, which says the officers checked the area for “a male suspect in a white dress,” a different description than the one Deerman gives them in the video. The spokesperson said the officers needed more evidence to declare the case a suspected hate crime.

McDevitt, the Northeastern University professor who studies hate crimes, said he has found bias among police officers toward transgender people.

“The transgender community is probably where the gay community was in the 1980s,” he said, referring to police bias. “Police are not in many cases receptive. They blame the victim for being transgender and somehow deserving of being attacked.”

Hale said her encounter made her lose faith in the police.

“I'm afraid that I could be murdered and the police would literally just kind of brush me away from them,” Hale said in an interview, “like it'd be no big deal.”


In Kansas City, the handling of the recent string of murders has unsettled many LGBT people interviewed by Reuters.

On the night he died, Greene told a friend he was going to meet someone to have sex. Before leaving his house, Greene traded texts with Shaw, or his accomplice, that police later said “were in reference to performing sexual acts.”

As Greene drove to meet the men who would kill him, he called his best friend and kept him on the phone. Greene thought the 18-year-old was cute, but was nervous about encountering two strangers.

Greene parked on a deserted street and wondered if it was the right address when two men approached the car. Greene kept his cell phone on, so his friend could listen. It was 12:45 a.m.

Greene's voice grew tense, the friend later testified, as Greene, Shaw and Shaw's friend drove off looking for marijuana. At 1:05 a.m., Greene's phone cut off.

Law enforcement officials said Kansas City police deemed the killing “a robbery gone bad” because Greene's cell phone was missing.

During Shaw's trial, prosecutors argued that Shaw and his friend used Greene's homosexuality to lure him to the meeting where he was killed. Shaw's lawyer argued that he was an unwitting accomplice who had no idea his friend planned to rob Greene at gunpoint.

Shaw was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and robbery in May but acquitted of murder. He faces anywhere from probation to 29 years in prison when he is sentenced next month. His friend, who has pleaded not guilty, will be tried for murder in October.

Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the state prosecutor's office in Kansas City, said he could not comment on a pending case. But he said the office took hate crime allegations very seriously.

“We do look to see whether evidence supports filing a hate crime,” he said in an email.

Another case that members of the LGBT community in Kansas City say should have been prosecuted as a hate crime is the Christmas Eve 2011 murder of Darnell “Dee Dee” Pearson, a transgender woman. Pearson's killer, Kenyan Jones, shot Pearson after paying her for sex and then learning Pearson was transgender, according to court records.

Jones obtained a gun, hunted down Pearson and shot her at point blank range, the court records said. Convicted of murder but not a hate crime, Jones was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Law enforcement officials said the evidence in the case did not merit a hate crimes prosecution. Friends of Pearson, however, believe she was targeted because she was transgender.

Police are also investigating whether a third killing in Kansas City is a hate crime, as members of the LGBT community contend. Last August, a transgender woman named Tamara Dominguez was run over twice by a truck in a parking lot.

Kansas City law enforcement officials say the safety of the LGBT community is a top priority. After the killings in Orlando, the rainbow flag flew at half staff above the Kansas City state courthouse.

The city, whose population is 69 percent white and 30 percent black, has its first African American police chief. The force includes a diversity unit and a liaison to the LBGT community.

On crime reports, police are required to check a box to indicate whether they believe bias may have played a role. The Kansas City Anti-Violence Program, a local LGBT advocacy group, conducts sensitivity training for local police.

In an interview, Kansas City Police Department spokeswoman Kari Thompson said police comprehensively investigate all attacks against the LGBT community.

“We approach it according to the law. That's how you are able to convict: by the law and based on facts, not assumptions,” she said. “We have to make sure we are doing everything the right way.”

Star Palmer, a friend of Greene and local LGBT advocate, sees it differently.

“Why is it so hard to prove a hate crime is a hate crime?” she asked.

Jerusalem gay pride parade attacker sentenced to life in prison

Yishai Schlissel, who stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, including a 16-year-old girl fatally, was sentenced to life in prison.

On Sunday, the Jerusalem District Court also ordered Schlissel to pay compensation to the family of Shira Banki, the teen who was killed, and to those injured in the July 2015 attack. Schlissel, 40, was convicted in August.

The haredi Orthodox man had been released from prison several weeks before the parade after serving 10 years for a similar attack at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in 2005. In the days leading up to the 2015 parade, Schlissel expressed his opposition to the march in interviews and in ads in haredi synagogues in Jerusalem and Kiryat Sefer.

Police initially turned away Schlissel at an entrance point to the parade, but he found a way in later in the route.

The three judges in their sentencing said: “A person who sees himself as a killer or giver of life cannot walk around the streets of Jerusalem or anywhere else. In the few days of vacation between imprisonment and detention, he ended the life of a girl with a passion for life. He didn’t see her as a human being, and didn’t care at all who will meet [his] knife.”

Banki had been marching in the parade in support of her gay and lesbian friends.

Shira Banki, 16, was killed in a stabbing rampage at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in July 2015. Photo from Facebook

Schlissel had eschewed legal counsel, saying the court does not recognize Jewish law, and he did not cooperate with the investigation. He was found fit to stand trial after two psychological assessments and was represented by a public defender.

Summer camps open bunks to transgender Jews

Bathrooms accessible for transgender children and staff are old news at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement’s summer camp in South Sterling, Pennsylvania. Five years ago the camp posted signs on bathroom doors stating “This bathroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.”

From its founding in 2002, Camp JRF set a similarly inclusive tone, according to director Isaac Saposnik. Among its accommodations, the overnight facility decided not to divide into a boys’ side and a girls’ side or to have boys’ activities and girls’ activities.

“Boys and girls are always together,” Saposnik said. “We don’t have a lot of gendered programming. All the campers play sports together all day.”


As attention has shifted in recent years to the needs of transgender and gender-fluid kids, other Jewish camps have been catching up. Among the leaders in making such children (and staff) feel welcome are Camp Towanga in Northern California; Union of Reform Judaism Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pennsylvania, and Ramah in the Rockies in Sedalia, Colorado, where a transgender man — the director of camper care at its Ramah Outdoor Adventure — madeheadlines earlier this year when he gave birth to a daughter.

“These are issues that will confront everyone; it’s a new reality,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which serves as the umbrella organization for 300 day and overnight Jewish camps.

There is no reliable data on how many transgender kids attend Jewish camp, according to Daniel Bahner, national manager of education and training for Keshet, a national Jewish LGBTQ advocacy organization headquartered in Boston. But, he said, “It is becoming an increasingly visible conversation.”

Camp JRF’s first out transgender camper arrived “a few years ago,” according to Saposnik, and he estimated that about a dozen of the approximately 430 campers enrolled each summer have gender identity issues.

Earlier this year, 50 camps participated in a webinar on transgender issues arranged by FJC and provided by Keshet. FJC also provided a forum for camps to share best practices at its 2016 Leaders Assembly in March in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Such practices include offering changing areas that allow individual privacy, with curtains and shower stall doors; housing policies that allow transgender or “gender non-conforming youth” to bunk where they feel most comfortable, and banning hurtful language.

In 2014, Eisner Camp polled campers’ parents after a family asked if the camp could accommodate a 12-year-old transgender girl. Not one of the 65 families polled objected, and the girl was welcomed and placed in a bunk with the rest of the girls. The first year she used a counselor’s private bathroom to shower; the next year she used the girls’ restroom and showers.

Last year at Camp Towanga, which serves the San Francisco Jewish community, a 13-year-old camper came out as a transgender boy to female bunkmates. The girls decided to change their cabin label from G5 (Girls 5) to EG5 (Every Gender 5). Other cabins adopted the designation, according to J. Weekly.

At many Jewish summer camps that have decades of traditions, however, change can be difficult.

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in Wingdale, New York, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, director Rabbi Paul Resnick has spent the last year confronting what he called the “painful” reality that the Ramah culture he loved first as a camper and ultimately as a professional can be an “uncomfortable” space for some. In particular, he said, the binary gender culture of Camp Ramah, where activities are separate for boys (“banim”) or girls (banot”), is coming under fire.

“People have challenged the idea that we need to do” separate evening activities for boys and girls, he said.

A constant motivator for him is the recollection of the camper who left early in the summer of 2013 because “he felt uncomfortable because really, she was transgender,” Resnick said, switching pronouns mid-sentence to match the reality the camper felt. “I said to the mom, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘Just educate yourself.’”

Resnick accepted the challenge and has been delving into the subject and seeking solutions by reading literature, attending conferences and speaking with other camp directors as well as Ramah alumni.

This year, Resnick brought in Keshet to train his staff. And he’s making a conscious effort to change his language. He now uses “chevra” (group of friends) instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls.” Not only is the Hebrew phrase more appropriate for a Jewish camp, he said, but “it does not assume anything about anyone on the gender spectrum.”

Parents, it seems, know which camps are ahead of the curve. Saposnik said Camp JRF gets at least one call every month relating to approaches to gender identity issues at camp.

The family bathroom at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement camp in Sterling, Pennsylvania, was easily converted with a sign to make everyone feel comfortable. Photo from Camp JRF

Two years ago he sent a letter to Camp JRF families about diversity at the camp that included a specific discussion of transgender issues; an updated version went out last week. Following a definition of terms that distinguishes among sex (“the biology you were born with”), gender (“your emotional or intellectual identity”), sexual orientation (“who you are attracted to”) and gender expression (“how you present yourself in the world”), it includes a brief discussion of each and then provides basic guidelines for campers who may have questions.

Most of these fall into the “It’s never okay” category: “It’s never okay to ask another person about which body parts they have — that’s always private” or “It’s never okay to ask someone who identifies as transgender what their name ‘used to be.’”

On the other hand, “It’s always okay to ask someone what pronouns (‘he/him,’ ‘she/her,’ ‘they/them’) they prefer to use. If you aren’t sure and can’t ask, just use the person’s name.”

But even the camps that are proactive face challenges. For starters, some of the necessary changes to provide privacy for transgender and cisgender kids — those whose self-identity conforms with the biological gender they were at birth — can be expensive.

“Certain buildings will take more time, with more design issues and require more money,” Saposnik said.

But other changes are “not that hard”: offering a family restroom and adding stall doors to showers fall into this category.

“It’s not different from the changes a parent would ask us to make for almost any other issue, like a ramp on the cabin or plugging in a sleep machine,” he said. “When we say we’re serious, we mean it.”

As for parents who think it’s great as long as it’s “not their kids’ bunk,” Saposnik said, by the end of the summer, for most campers, it’s a non-issue, “just an interesting backstory.”

Sometimes Saposnik  encounters families for whom Camp JRF is too progressive. In that case, he said, he suggests a camp that might be a better fit.

“Our commitment is to send Jewish kids to Jewish camp,” he said. “We cannot serve everyone. No one can do that.”

Fingerman, of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said, “We’re hopeful that the broad tapestry of Jewish camp will have options for every Jewish kid and every Jewish family.” But, he pointed out, what they do “has got to fit within the culture of that camp.”

While Resnick would like to reach a point where embracing transgender campers is a non-issue, he knows his Camp Ramah isn’t there yet. He wants to be able to embrace as many kids from as many backgrounds as he can.

While the options “are not limitless,” Resnick said, “I want parents with a gay child or with a trans child to feel comfortable. I don’t want a reactive model. I want a proactive model.”

JQ helpline responds to Orlando

“When the first responders arrived at Pulse, they called out: ‘If you’re alive, raise your hand.’ ”

Such was the scene described by Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, when she took to a podium at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) in West L.A. during a candlelight vigil June 13, one night after a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was the scene of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

It was a brutal rampage that lasted hours and continued until early morning. At the crack of dawn, the street was littered with broken glass, ambulances and stretchers.

As the director of a helpline run by the nonprofit that serves the Jewish LGBTQ community, a national tragedy like this immediately propelled Bat-Or to action. 

“I went into high-work mode,” she told the Journal. “I was so focused on doing something.”

At BCC, Bat-Or spoke with candor, urging the audience to be more proactive within their communities: to write letters — not only to politicians, but to friends and family; to volunteer; to help organize inclusion trainings.

On average, JQ International’s Helpline receives eight to 10 calls a week — each of which is forwarded to Bat-Or’s cellphone, where she’s on call six days a week — but just days after Orlando, the number of calls tripled, she said. 

“Most wanted to talk about their fears and have someone listen and understand,” Bat-Or said.

One ominous issue about the Orlando shooting is that it took place in a nightclub, she told the Journal.

“The fact that it happened at a bar made it that much worse,” Bat-Or later said. “We have come to see bars as safe zones for us, and they clearly aren’t.” 

JQ International’s own offices are located above a bar, and the organization’s security concerns currently are being addressed by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Safety Initiative.

In the wake of recent events, Bat-Or said the Helpline is focusing on how to better serve the community. “Two things that are very important to us right now are gathering resources for callers and, just in general, getting the word out,” she explained over the phone. 

“Getting the word out” for Bat-Or means focusing attention on LGBTQ inclusion training sessions for places of education, business and worship. Soon, she’ll host a workshop about LGBTQ awareness at the Southern California Board of Rabbis’ annual pre-High Holy Day conference. She hopes that this workshop will inspire rabbis to discuss LGBTQ issues in their sermons when they take to the bimah this upcoming holiday season. 

The idea for the Helpline was conceived in 2012, when JQ’s founder Asher Gellis and JQ board member Janelle Eagle realized there was a need within the community for people searching for resource referrals and LGBTQ information. It was officially launched two years later thanks to seed funding from Federation’s Caring for Jews in Need Initiative and a $250,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

JQ’s Helpline is still in the early stages of development. Since March of last year, about eight volunteers have been attending training sessions each week during which they do role-playing, resource research, and team-building exercises. The backgrounds of these volunteers are diverse — they hail from Orthodox to Reform upbringings, LGBTQ and ally, ages 28 to 67. And yet they are unified by a singular purpose.

Although JQ Helpline is a Jewish-funded program, its scope goes beyond religious affiliation. The type of call JQ typically gets ranges from parents looking for gender-fluid Jewish day schools to individuals searching for LGBTQ-friendly recovery centers. 

One recent caller, a 46-year-old lesbian mother of three originally from Tehran, Iran, now living in Orange County, called the Helpline to receive legal counsel after her ex-husband threatened her custody of their children. 

“We are Muslim,” she said about herself and her newfound life partner, also a Muslim woman. “JQ is there to help everybody. We are proud to be part of the JQ community.”

As JQ Helpline continues to expand, Bat-Or mentioned it continues to search for extra funding, expanding staff and volunteers. After all, it’s the only resource and social service referral line specifically designed to serve LGBTQ Jews, their families and allies in the United States. By summer 2017, the Helpline hopes to have 20 trained volunteers answering calls in shifts.

The Helpline is accessible by email at and by phone at (855) JQI-HLPS. 

After Orlando, LGBTQ Jews seek more than ‘solidarity’

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, statements of solidarity with the LGBTQ community quickly tumbled forth. Some expressions of support came from unlikely sources such as the Orthodox Union and the Catholic Church. But what does a statement of solidarity mean in response to a crisis when it is not expressed in ordinary times?

Surely there were LGBTQ Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and Muslims who were moved to hear their faith community leaders condemn the attack. For many of these faith leaders, it may have felt momentous and bold, risky even, to express empathy with the LGBTQ community.

I appreciate the progress represented by these expressions of support, but as a lesbian, I do not actually feel supported by them. The Orthodox Union issued a statement saying “it is clear that those people who were murdered … were targeted because of their identification with the LGBT community. … No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.” Yet this same group lobbied against marriage equality and supports religious exemption laws that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

An assurance of solidarity must move beyond compassion for loss of life to affirming the dignity of those who are alive. Without the resolve to support cultural change and policy reform, expressions of solidarity may provide immediate solace but, ultimately, they leave LGBTQ people standing alone.

In the aftermath of Orlando, this is especially true for LGBTQ Jews of color, particularly Latin queer Jews. I’ve noticed that most of the Jewish media’s coverage about the Orlando shooting has not acknowledged the experience of Latin LGBTQ Jews who may see themselves in the victims more acutely than Jews of other backgrounds. This erasure adds to their pain and sense of isolation in the wake of this tragedy. True solidarity means honoring the diversity of our community both in the media and in our communal discourse.

Solidarity also means reflective accountability. It means asking questions: What enables such hatred to flourish? How have I been a bystander in a culture of bigotry? How have I been complicit in a legal system that perpetuates second-class status for LGBTQ people? Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The challenge of Heschel’s observation is that words alone are not enough to right the wrongs all around us. Responsibility requires both words and action — not only in the aftermath of a crisis but all the time.

Idit Klein. Photo via Keshet

Unfortunately, after horrific acts motivated by ideology or committed in the name of religion, religious communities are often quick to disassociate from the perpetrator. When Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox ex-convict, stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last summer­ — murdering 16-year-old Shira Banki — Jewish community leaders, including many Orthodox voices, did not hesitate to condemn the attack. Yet many of these leaders asserted that Schlissel’s views do not represent Judaism or Torah. I disagree. As a committed Jew, I acknowledge with sadness that Schlissel’s views do represent certain aspects of our religious tradition. We have critical work to do to challenge these currents of bigotry rather than disregard them.

As a queer Jew, the solidarity I seek from other Jews is not simply ignoring the passages of Torah that are used to discriminate against LGBTQ people. I seek recognition that homophobia and transphobia actively exist in our modern Jewish community and are perversions within our interpretive tradition. I seek the acknowledgment that religion is too often used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. By acknowledging this painful reality, we have the opportunity to condemn the ugliness in our tradition and still hold up all that is beautiful.

As part of my work at Keshet, a national organization working for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, my colleagues and I host a series of Shabbatonim for LGBTQ and ally teens. Each time we host a Shabbaton, I am struck by how many of the teens share that they’ve never before felt so validated, seen and free.

“At the Shabbaton, I finally felt like there was no part of myself I needed to hide, and I was able to embrace myself in its entirety,” a gay teen recently wrote to me.

Nearly all the teens who participate in our Shabbatonim are part of Jewish communities that would describe themselves as inclusive. Most of them have very supportive parents. They attend high schools with gay-straight alliances. So how is it that kids who have so much support in their lives still feel so alone in the world as queer Jewish teens? Our leaders are clearly falling short. The sign posts for inclusion must be more visible. The language of support must be audible all year round, not only during Pride month or after a tragedy.

It shouldn’t take a crisis like the Orlando shooting to catalyze religious leaders’ support for LGBTQ people. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to see people in faith communities — and political leaders of many religious backgrounds — take a bold step toward equality for LGBTQ people beyond attending a vigil or producing a statement.

Just as we are hearing a growing chorus of voices reject the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and demand action for gun reform, I call on all who offer solidarity with the LGBTQ community to continue to stand with us as we move forward. Solidarity must outlast our mourning.

After Orlando: Heartbroken, but with resolve

My heart is broken. I woke up Shavuot morning inspired by a night of study with my Reform colleagues and our communities. I was ready to receive the Torah at our morning service as we stood at Sinai again and then celebrate the continuation of gay pride weekend the same day.

Yet, I awoke to horror and tragedy. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was targeted by a madman, a terrorist who murdered young people dancing the night away. He murdered LGBTQ young people because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. He murdered people because he was taught to hate. He terrorized our nation and me because of his radicalization that has gone unchecked.

And then the texts came in from community activists that a man had been detained in Santa Monica on his way to West Hollywood’s LA Pride parade armed with weapons and materials for an improvised explosive device.

I am still shaking. Young people ought to be out on a Saturday night dancing. Celebrating the gift of their youth, with the pulsing beat of the bass line all that they should hear. Not the sound of rapid, automatic gunfire and bullets tearing through flesh.

Shavuot morning services should have lifted us up as we received the Torah again. I could not wish my congregation a chag sameach on this blood-stained morning. I couldn’t help but focus on the sixth commandment, “Lo Tirzach,” “Thou shalt not murder.” Has our world gone so mad that it enables murder to be committed in such wholesale ways?

This is not the first time that the LGBTQ community has been attacked. The gay pride movement got its start as a response to a police raid on a gay bar in New York City in 1969.  And the LGBTQ community remembers only too well the fire in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, and the murder and torture of Matthew Shepard in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1998, or the hundreds of violent deaths of transgender people, gay men and lesbians each year. Even this year, in March in Los Angeles, a young man was shot by his father because he was gay. This kind of hatred and violence is not isolated to some remote small town or a particular region of our country.

This heinous crime committed in Orlando rings across our nation. For me, it must be a wake-up call. Gun violence is an epidemic. Those who oppose background checks for gun buyers or removing assault weapons from the streets are sorely misguided. How many more have to die? We said it after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the murders at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. We said it after Virginia Tech and just two weeks ago at UCLA.

Our Jewish community knows only too well the consequences of terror and guns in Israel and here. We have experienced firsthand the horrific moments at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the murders at the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle and the cafes in Tel Aviv. We as a community must work hard to change the national conversation about gun violence.

The hate-filled rhetoric that surrounds us must be silenced. There are too many political leaders and religious leaders who teach that the LGBTQ community is less than human.

The backlash against the LGBTQ community since last year’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is vicious. With the introduction and passage of so many legislative bills across the United States that take away basic human rights, even to use a bathroom, the environment against LGBTQ people has become even more toxic than before. Many of those bills give businesses and individuals the right to discriminate in the public square. This coordinated attack on the LGBTQ community gives permission to continue to dehumanize gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people. Why are they so afraid of us? Of me?

We must not give in to our fears, but must live our strengths and act as our God teaches us to act in the belief that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I believe we must insist on better from ourselves and those who want to lead — be they clerics, politicians, teachers, celebrities or journalists.

The LGBTQ revolution began as an effort to be left alone. It began as a way to say “Stop harassing us. Let us be ourselves, and we will speak up and march for and with our dignity and for our rights.” That is really the idea behind pride.

When we talk about this past weekend — and the pride celebrations of the LGBTQ community — this, my friends, is what we are striving for. The freedom to be ourselves. To stand strong in our abilities. To assert our equality and speak our truths. And even when they try to strip us of our civil rights, to fight not with anger, but with dignity, love and strength.

We, the Jewish people, have always been an “or lagoyim,” a “light to the nations.” We have just received our Torah once again at Sinai in the wilderness. The great Babylonian rabbi, Rava, taught that when people open themselves to everyone like a wilderness, God gives them the Torah.

It is time to teach and lead that openness to all. Our Torah teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This must be our commitment to changing the rhetoric and hate focused at the LGBTQ community. It must be our commitment in thought and deed and, yes, in the House and Senate, and state legislatures and everywhere.

Today I am still mourning the deaths of these young people in Orlando. Young people whose lives were cut short. I send my consolation and condolences to the families and friends who have lost someone in this violent tragedy. I pray for healing for all those injured and give thanks for the responders, the doctors, nurses, police and fire departments, ambulance drivers and people who helped rescue and treat the victims.

But when the time of our mourning has ended, I will redouble my efforts to eradicate discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community. I will work for safe and sane gun regulations and reach out to those that are perceived as “other” in friendship and love.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and the current president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Shavuot and Pride Week: A double holiday turns to grief

Jewish mysticism holds that every year at around midnight on Shavuot, the skies open up, as they did in the Torah story over Mount Sinai, for prayers to ascend to God.

Not long after the skies were supposed to have opened this year, 49 people were murdered by a terrorist in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and 50 more were wounded — the deadliest mass shooting in American history. 

On the opposite side of the country in Los Angeles, news of the massacre instantly transformed what would have been a festive, double-holiday weekend — Shavuot and pride week — into a community-wide exercise in grief, courage and solidarity.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood learned about the massacre in a text from the shul’s rabbinic student as she was preparing for the Sunday morning holiday service. The devastating news came after a long night at a Shavuot teach-in with seven other Reform synagogues at Stephen Wise Temple.

The news quickly put a damper on a weekend that began at Kol Ami with a Friday evening gay pride service.

“We prayed for the welfare of lesbian, gay and transgender people; we prayed for our straight allies and friends,” Eger said in a phone call with the Journal. “And then you wake up the day after Shabbos in the midst of supposedly a holiday where we’re wishing each other ‘chag sameach’ [happy holiday].”

She added, “I said to my congregation this morning, ‘I don’t really feel like I can do the joy part this morning.’ I can’t wish them a happy holiday.”

By the time the pride parade was starting in West Hollywood on June 12, the news was beginning to percolate through concerned calls, texts and social media posts.

Neil Spears, a board member at JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ support and educational organization, read about the massacre before he even got out of bed. But the news suddenly became personal when he got a call on his way to the parade from a friend who had been at the nightclub that evening.

The friend was calling to tell Spears about a man who’d been heading to the L.A. pride parade when he was arrested in Santa Monica with weapons and supplies for explosives. 

He also mentioned that a friend of his had been killed in Orlando, and another was unaccounted for.

“I just had to sit down on the sidewalk,” Spears said. “I just had to stop and pause, because it hits really close to home.”

When he arrived at the JQ International office, which is on the parade route, he found that security had been stepped up because of the Santa Monica incident. He was supposed to lead a meeting of the Jewish Queer Straight Alliance (JQSA), a group for teens, but entry to the office was restricted to minors. So they met on the sidewalk with the parade in full swing.

At one point, Ron Galperin, L.A.’s city controller and the first openly gay person elected to citywide office, came by on a float while Spears was meeting with the teens.

“I said to them, ‘That guy up there is gay and Jewish,’ and then they cheered,” he said. “They were happy to know that.”

In advance of the parade, Galperin released a statement saying, “The parade is a chance for the LGBT community to come together in the name of love — love for one another and for ourselves. Today we extend that love to our brothers and sisters in Orlando and march in solidarity with them.”

Tami Miller, JQ International’s development director, who marched in the parade with people from her organization and other Jewish groups, said that the number of marchers was lower than in years past because of the holiday.

She said she hadn’t heard about the massacre until after she arrived at the pride parade — by which time, fortunately, she had a group of friendly faces to help her cope.

“Today was our vigil,” she said. “And the way we did our vigil is to be proud and be strong.”

Miller added that the organization will be looking to expand its program, offering inclusion training for Jewish organizations on how to interact with LGBT issues and vice versa.

At the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards, Beth Chayim Chadashim Cantor Juval Porat and Rabbi Heather Miller stood alongside a banner reading “World Congress of GLBT Jews.”

Speaking from the parade by phone with the Journal later that day, Porat said events such as the shooting in Orlando should galvanize the community around LGBT issues.

“Today, LGBT people and their allies should march prouder and louder and more colorful, and just shout out the values upon which I believe society can be healthy — and that is love and acceptance and inclusion and, most of all, less focused on fear and less focused on bashing others and judging others. … It might sound banal and trite, but this is what it’s about. It’s not easy; we’re trying to model that,” he said.

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a national organization that works toward LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community, said in a statement that she had been contacted with messages of solidarity from Christian and Muslim leaders. 

“When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai,” the statement read.

It continued, “So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.”

Rabbi Zach Shapiro, who leads Temple Akiba in Culver City and is married to Galperin, offered his thoughts in an email to the Journal.

“Ecclesiastes teaches, ‘There is a time to be silent and a time to speak,’ ” he wrote. “While a moment of silence may feel appropriate in memory of the precious souls that were murdered — silence won’t make the very real issues we face disappear.” 

He added, “It is a time to speak to each other. We can only face these issues when we engage in earnest, and often difficult, conversations.”

The hate narrative and Muslims in America

On the sixth night of Ramadan, June 11, I broke my fast at a synagogue during a Havdalah-Shavuot celebration. Around 10:30 p.m., at almost the same time that Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., I called an Uber to get from the Westwood synagogue to my apartment in midtown Los Angeles. The driver took an unusual route. “I’m not going through West Hollywood,” he said. “I don’t want to see all that gay parade stuff.” He was a white, middle-aged, Christian man. A beaded cross dangled from his rearview mirror. He asked me where I was from. I said I was Pakistani. “You don’t look like them,” he laughed and added, “That’s a compliment.”

Let us be frank about what it is. The two most acceptable forms of discrimination in America today are discrimination against gays and Muslims. It is politically, socially, legally acceptable to be a bigot with regard to practicing Muslims and a person’s sexual orientation. In the past six months alone, countless politicians backed by the Christian right have pushed for hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills through state governments. These include bills like North Carolina’s sweeping HB2, which denies even basic legal protections to gay and transgender people. 

At the same time, Muslims in the United States have to tolerate the racist ravings of presidential candidates and television anchors. The word “terrorist” is now reserved exclusively for Muslims, a dubious indignity that the 1.6 billion Muslims of the world must accept as theirs alone. The political causations behind the rise of ISIS are no longer debated, but every time a madman pledges allegiance to it, the rest of the Muslim world is immediately answerable for his motivations. 

There are more than 3 million Muslims in America, and some of them, like some Orthodox Jews and orthodox Christians, do not support gay rights. The route to acceptance has been a morbidly slow evolution across all major world religions, made worse by the lack of political and legal institutions to contradict widely held religious beliefs. 

The four major schools of Islam are in utter disagreement on homosexuality and challenge one another on the legal premise of punishment, if any. Islamic literature has been rife with homoeroticism over the ages, and in modern narratives, progress is being made as global acceptance increases. It is also true that the state of gay rights is most abysmal in seven Muslim majority countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death. In yet others, including Indonesia, Turkey and Jordan, homosexuality is legal and LGBTQ rights are improving. 

But is homophobia in Islam relevant to the case of Omar Mateen, a non-devout, possibly gay Muslim man with unproven links to any fundamentalist organization?

Yes and no. It should not be completely ignored that Mateen’s violent motivations might have found their root in his parents’ religion, or that he declared allegiance to multiple (albeit contradictory) terrorist organizations in a last-minute 911 call. Having said this, that cannot be the primary or even secondary point of focus.

Religious leaders at the Islamic Center of Southern California speak about solidarity in the wake of the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Amal Khan

Once more, much of the conversation in America disowns what is inconvenient to include in its political and cultural narratives this election year. Mateen was a gay-hating, gun-touting Muslim terrorist with Afghan parents, according to the media narrative. But what Mateen was, was a mentally unstable American terrorist with legal access to assault rifles.  

The only thing that separates Omar Mateen from Adam Lanza, from Aaron Alexis, from James Holmes, Timothy McVeigh, Christopher Harper-Mercer or Dylann Roof is his name. That this point needs to be raised in 2016 America is a humiliating measure of the state of racism in this country. On Saturday night, it was Omar Mateen, born to Afghan parents, who killed 49 people. On the morning of June 12, James Howell, born to white parents and from Indiana, was arrested with a cache of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition in Santa Monica on his way to the West Hollywood gay pride parade.

The fact is that homophobia, like hate, is not a Muslim problem. It is a global problem. Legal and immediate access to automatic assault weapons, however, is solely an American problem.

So, no, America should not get to choose who it owns. America should not get to embrace the Muhammad Alis as its own, but reject the Omar Mateens as somebody else’s. It should not get to turn a debate about its own gun laws, its intelligence failures and its homegrown homophobia into a hate-filled, racist narrative about immigration and Islamic fundamentalism, which is exactly what political opportunists like Donald Trump are now doing.

On June 13, one day after the murders in Orlando, the Islamic Center of Southern California was a champion of common sense and solidarity. In the settling chill of dusk, an interfaith vigil welcomed speakers from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Sikh clergies, gay and straight, who denounced violence, oppression and the war of religions in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Arik Greenberg, founder of the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice, identified himself as a secular Jew. He expressed concern over a systematically instilled anti-Islamism, likening America today to the climate of hostility in Nazi Germany, when ordinary Germans were brainwashed into believing that there was not a single decent Jew who lived among them. “I see this tactic used by many American leaders, making people believe that if they scratch the surface of any Muslim, they’ll find a terrorist underneath,” he said. 

For over an hour, people in headscarves or kippahs, tattooed women and priests, police officers, gays, lesbians, Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and Christians spoke of a common human dignity. “To the wicked opportunists,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “you are on the side of ISIS because you believe in a war of religions and getting cheap political votes through fear and violence.”

With an array of rainbow flags fluttering behind them, the gathering was solemn. Stephen Rohde, chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), ended the vigil by saying, “It is a matter of our survival as a nation, as a widely decent and good people to stand here together.” 

And stand they did, long after the day’s Ramadan fast broke, and the sun set. When people finally dispersed, it was in the silent spirit of hope, holding white candles and reflecting upon the true diversity of America’s greatness.

At Beth Chayim Chadashim, remembering the victims of Pulse with prayers and tears

There were tears. There was solidarity. There was singing. There was hope. There was love.

More than 100 people gathered at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) for a vigil held in honor of the victims of the June 12 shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando. Police officers stood outside the synagogue, as did security guards. People were given name tags as they came in so it could be verified that they had gone through the security.

Gay conversion therapy active in Israel

Conversion therapists who claim they can turn gays to heterosexuals say they have found a haven in Israel.

An estimated 20 to 30 licensed psychologists and social workers and 50 non-licensed therapists practice some form of conversion therapy in Israel, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

Before it was ordered shuttered by a New Jersey court in December, the Orthodox Jewish nonprofit Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing had referred patients in Israel to some of the psychologists and therapists operating there.

Among the conversion therapy clients are Orthodox Jewish teenagers from the United States who attend yeshivas and other post-high school programs in Israel.

There is no law restricting conversion therapy in Israel, but the Health Ministry advises against the practice.

In Israel, therapists say there is greater acceptance of their work than in the United States, AP reported.

Hate at the Creating Change Conference

After four years of attending the Creating Change Conference, I was shocked and dismayed by the anti-Semitism I experienced at the 2016 conference last month in Chicago. Let me give you some background and then I will tell you what happened to me.

I was expecting to reconnect with my colleagues and friends from all over the world. Imagine thousands of LGBTQ and ally activists gathering each year to celebrate, learn from one another and grow as an international community. Creating Change is the LGBTQ National Task Force’s pride and joy. It’s an environment that is supposed to excite participants, fuel their drive to be activists and celebrate all the facets of our vibrant LGBTQ communities. With so much social justice work to be accomplished, it is usually an awe-inspiring experience to see individuals riled up to make a difference in the world.

At each conference, there is a Jewish Working Group that hosts a range of workshops and programs meant to strengthen the intersection of LGBTQ and Jewish identities. Two of those events planned for this year were a community-wide Friday night Shabbat service, followed by a reception at a different location, with speakers from the Jerusalem Open House (JOH) and hosted by A Wider Bridge, the pro-Israel organization created to connect Israelis, LGBTQ North Americans and their supporters. After months of recovering from the deadly extremist attack during last summer’s pride march in Jerusalem, the JOH has been busy caring for its community. This was an opportunity to lift up the leaders of JOH. As the organizers from A Wider Bridge said, it was a chance to embrace JOH as part of a global community with common goals across borders regardless of religion, nationality or citizenship.

Our Shabbat service was a beautiful event and concluded with Salaam, a Hebrew and Arabic song with lyrics that speak of peace for all people. The second that our service was over, we heard the raised voices of hundreds of protesters waiting for us in the hallway just outside the service. They were calling for the destruction of Israel. They were yelling that we are the “oppressors of people of color.” They yelled that we were “responsible for Black people being killed and sterilized.” We weren’t at the reception for JOH yet, but for those of us who went, the crowd of protesters were there attempting to block us the entire way.

At the reception, they blocked the door, letting only some of us through. Within minutes, they stormed into the reception and took over the stage. The representatives from the JOH had to be escorted out to safety. Protesters continued to run around and scream in our faces. After 30 minutes of this relentless screaming, the event was shut down.

I was reminded of the stories I’ve heard and read about the European ghettos being stormed by torch-wielding anti-Semites, blaming our ancestors for countless horrors. Fortunately, none of us were physically injured, but many of us were yelled at for the rest of the weekend and called “Zionist racist oppressors.”

My own personal views were irrelevant to these protesters. I am what most people would consider to be on the left of the discussion about Israel and how it should it make peace with the Palestinians. But because they saw me as an Ashkenazi Jew, they cast me into a group to be demonized and attacked. They gave up an important opportunity to find a connection with me and instead labeled me a racist because of what I looked like and because I am a Jew.

The organizers of the Creating Change Conference have expressed apologies and made statements about the events that transpired, being careful not to blame one group over another. However, their statements make it clear that the organizers need to revisit their own policies so something like this doesn’t happen again.

Those of us in the Jewish Working Group spent several days supporting one another and standing strong against those who were bullying us. Our goal is to always share as many viewpoints and opinions as possible in order to have an honest and transparent dialogue. Where we go from here is still to be determined, but as one of the leaders of JQ International and the Jewish Working Group of Creating Change, I promise we will continue to work to eliminate the type of incorrect assumptions about LGBTQ Jews that were displayed at the conference. We will continue to demand safe spaces for all community members regardless of their skin color, religion or nationality.

I don’t have a quick fix for the problem at hand, but for those of us who have spent our lives working on social justice causes, we know that, unfortunately, the solutions are never swiftly realized.

Asher Gellis is executive director of JQ International,

Gay community must build a tent large enough to include pro-Israel voices

The central prayer of our people, the Shema, is often interpreted as a message of unity and the interconnectedness of all things. This can be a powerful force for bringing people together, for helping us to see the common humanity and the spark of the divine that unites us, whatever our seeming differences may be.

But last week we saw something else, how a claim of interconnectedness can be used as a wedge to drive us apart, to turn people who might be allies on many issues into bitter enemies because of disagreement on others.

Last week, A Wider Bridge was set to sponsor a program at Creating Change, the nation’s largest conference of LGBTQ leaders, presented by the National LGBTQ Task Force. The mission of A Wider Bridge is to build connections between the LGBTQ communities of Israel and North America, and our guests were two leaders of The Jerusalem Open House, an essential organization that works to build LGBTQ community in Jerusalem in a challenging and diverse environment.

Jerusalem Open House has spent the past six months helping its community recover and heal from the horrific violence at last summer’s Jerusalem Pride Parade, which resulted in the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki and the serious wounding of several others. Leaders of Jerusalem Open House came here expecting to be embraced and supported by the LGBTQ community at the conference.

Instead, our program was disrupted by protesters, a threatening atmosphere of hate and intimidation was created, and the Jerusalem Open House leaders were not permitted to speak. Many of the Jewish participants at the conference were truly shaken by the ferocity of the protest, especially the anti-Semitism that was on display in some parts – including the chant of “from the river to the sea, all of Palestine must be free.”

What we came up against was “intersectionality,” a theory which includes the axiom that all oppression is rooted in the same causes, that struggles that might seem distinct from one another are really the same and must be fought together.

At its core, we find a truth here that is helpful – we are not elevated if we can only see our own pain, our own struggle, and if we lack empathy for the oppression of others. But in practice, intersectionality often leads to rigidity and dogma, the abandonment of critical thinking and the demonization of people who might otherwise be allies.

Israel is a complicated topic, about which there is no consensus in the LGBTQ community. But intersectionality is used to suggest that there must be consensus, that “good queers” should know they obviously need to hate Israel, and that there is no room for conversation or hearing other viewpoints. Case closed.

Arthur Slepian, second from right, and other Jewish activists at the Creating Change conference in Chicago. (A Wider Bridge)Arthur Slepian, second from right, and other Jewish activists at the Creating Change conference in Chicago. Photo courtesy of A Wider Bridge

Throughout the week we heard over and over, including from speakers at plenary sessions, that “there is no place at this conference” for any discussion of Israel that is anything but a complete condemnation. When African-American queer feminists spoke of the connection of their movement to the anti-Israel cause, the canard of the “forced sterilization” of Ethiopian women in Israel was repeated on several occasions. Some people believe that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.

(I will add that those who say it is “obvious” that LGBTQ people should support Israel reflexively simply because Israel has a relatively positive record on LGBTQ rights are also being simplistic.)

The bottom line is that movements advance by building broad coalitions, often with people with whom they disagree about certain things. The successes in the struggle for LGBTQ rights that we have had here in the United States are a prime example of this kind of broad coalition building. A movement that devolves into an ideological echo chamber with demands for rigid adherence to one agenda is not likely to grow and flourish.

Clearly we have work to do inside the LGBTQ community.

What lessons can this episode bring to the Jewish community? As Jews, we are often great at arguing and debating with one another while remaining in solidarity. The Talmud itself gives us a tradition of civilized discourse. And we are a people whose wisdom teaches us that “both these and these are the words of the living God” – that is, opposing viewpoints can both be reflections of the divine imperative.

But of late, we too are prone to say that those who hold to certain views have no place in the Jewish community – or, worse, are anti-Semitic. I can think of many examples, including last summer’s overheated debate on the Iran nuclear deal.

So as we offer our critique of the LGBTQ community for not having a tent large enough to safely include the voices of those who care about Israel, let us also look with some introspection at how we are managing the tent of the Jewish community. Once again, Jews and queers have a lot to learn from each other’s experience and wisdom.

Arthur Slepian is the executive director of A Wider Bridge.

Letters to the Editor: Responses to Dennis Prager’s column on ‘the Torah and the transgendered’

The following letters are reponses to Dennis Prager's Dec. 4 column, “The Torah and the transgendered.”

Read Dennis Prager's Response

We are 235 members of the synagogue that Dennis Prager referred to but did not identify: Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC).

When PJTC needed an education director, it was clear from our first meeting with him that Rabbi Becky Silverstein was the best person for the job. Some of us anticipated that members of our community may have questions or concerns about the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender, and our leadership prepared to address any inquiries we received. Those anticipatory meetings, however, lasted far longer than any concerned conversations.

Rabbi Silverstein is an exemplary rabbi and teacher who communicates a message of love and community, and challenges us to empathize and to question in the talmudic tradition of our people. His passion for Torah is evident in his everyday conduct, as well as in his Shabbat sermons and when he teaches our children.

PJTC deeply values Judaism and Torah. We did not, as Prager suggests, hire Rabbi Silverstein out of “compassion,” nor do we embrace him now because we think he feels “awful.” Rather, we proudly call Rabbi Silverstein our teacher and friend because he epitomizes the best aspects of Torah and reminds us daily that we are all created in the image of the divine.

Geoff DeBoskey, Faith Segal, Franci Levine Grater, Joshua Levine Grater, Ruth Several, Amy Richardson, Hayley Karish, Roberta Tragarz, Sandy Hartford, Cantor Ruth Berman Harris and 225 other members, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center


“Do not judge your fellow person until you arrive in his place,” our sages say.  

We Jews have a long and painful history of being persecuted for the crime of not fitting in, of being different. For anyone who sees himself as a Jewish teacher or guide to do this, especially by using the considerable power of his pen against a vulnerable young person, [he] risks the danger of acting in a way that can only be defined by our collective memory as rish’us, plain old-fashioned wickedness.

Having said those things without reservation, let me make it equally clear that I do not speak from a position of moral relativism. If this or any rabbi were speaking up for promiscuous sexuality, for abuse of others, or even for irresponsibility in relationships, I would be on the other side. The very opposite happens to be true in this case. This is a young rabbi who truly loves our tradition, cares deeply about Judaism and has a great talent for teaching Torah.  He (I follow the rabbi’s choice of pronoun) also happens to be committed to faithful monogamy.  

We have plenty of places to direct our righteous anger right now. Let’s keep it away from one another. We all have better things to do and more important battles to fight.

Rabbi Arthur GreenIrving R. Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion, Hebrew College  


Once again, in a tired and predictable manner, Prager has chosen to take the entire Torah and say, “Only my interpretation is correct, only my reading is accurate.” In personally attacking both my synagogue, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, of which I served as the rabbi for nearly 13 years, and my colleague and friend, Rabbi Becky Silverstein, the stellar education director that our community hired over a year ago, Prager has trespassed on one of the very values of the precious Torah he claims to love and respect as his “guide in life.” 

Prager is entitled to his personal views on the binary nature of gender, and his interpretation of the Torah, but that doesn’t make him the final arbiter of anything. I find it sad that he doesn’t have the decency or respect for the dignity of another human being, Jewish leader and an entire community.  Maybe a little of his much-maligned “compassion” would serve him. However, he would do well to limit his public display of ignorance and willful misreading of Jewish texts, primarily the Torah, which much wiser and profoundly more knowledgeable sages than either of us, understood was anything but black and white.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center 


In response to your recent article, “Torah and the transgendered,” (Jewish Journal, 12/2/15).

I noticed that that you tried to shame an individual rabbi and the transgender community as a whole, in service of posing the question of the authority of the Torah in modern times.

Two weeks ago, we, at Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world's first LGBT founded Jewish community, memorialized the recorded hundreds of trans people murdered or taken by other forms of violence this year alone, during international Trans Day of Remembrance. Many fell to the hands of murderers incited by the very arguments you are expressing. Many took their own lives due to the type of spiritual violence that your view perpetuates by questioning a person's theological commitments, relationship to Torah and ultimately, God.

If you'd like to have a principled discussion on the role of the Torah in the modern world, great. Let's work it out.  It is an important conversation to have and it has been discussed since Jews were given the right to become citizens of modern nations. Let's continue the conversation l'shem shamayim- for the sake of heaven. But the type of shaming and verbal violence you inflict through the power of your pen and spoken word kills.

Thank God the Torah reminds us that God, in God's own image, created male and female. It is right there in the verse you quoted, just two words earlier: “In the image of God was he created, male and female.” Perhaps those who would otherwise be harmed by your words will find comfort to know that according to Torah, God is not confined to binary genders. May they draw the conclusion that it should not be applicable to God's human creations either.

Rabbi Heather Miller, Beth Chayim Chadashim


Dennis Prager is entitled to his anxieties about the breakdown of gender roles and identities throughout our society; we are all challenged to think differently today about the social order in light of the emergence of gender fluidity as a way of life, and it is reasonable to expect that confronting this new reality will be more challenging for some than others — especially for those predisposed to conservatism in other walks of life. 

But Prager overreaches in his casting as the liberal ethos the value of compassion over and against the normative/conservative ethos of Torah in two dangerous and problematic ways:

First, Prager adduces but one source from the Torah for his argument, from the creation of humankind in Genesis 1. This choice of prooftext is ironic, to say the least: The Torah’s vexing terminology suggests the first creation is multigendered and not binary. Moreover, Prager speaks of Torah as a Karaite, ignoring the history of interpretation in rabbinic text that played with, stretched and made spectral the idea of gender in ways that dramatically transcend the clean black-white divide that Prager imagines in “Torah,” as in other arenas in his moral universe. 

Second, the casting of Torah against compassion also misunderstands the deep interrelationship between the two. Compassion is one of Torah’s most central defining values, the widow and the orphan the central social objects of Jewish moral and religious obligation. Jews who struggle at the margins of the social order, or those who live at the threshold of ordered identities, do not demand of us that we jettison compassion for the brutality of “Torah”; they remind us of the obligations of chesed, of compassionate embrace and loving kindness, that were meant to be the inheritance of Torah all along. 

Yehuda Kurtzer, President, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America 


I am absolutely ashamed of the Jewish Journal for allowing the publication of Dennis Prager’s attack on a rabbinic colleague and his synagogue. Sadly, the Journal has a long history of publishing Prager’s vitriol and personal attacks on hard-working and devoted rabbis. His hurtful words belie his bigotry, which used to be reserved for gay and lesbian rabbis and now continues to expand to transgender rabbis. Haven’t we enough bullying? It is precisely this kind of immoral attack that Prager is known for. Words like his have been responsible for pain and suffering. 

The Torah has many interpretations. In my reading of Talmud and Torah, our sages recognized that we don’t live in a binary world. How sad that Prager picks up the radicalized right-wing old bathroom arguments used in the city of Houston by Christian extremists to defeat an equal-rights amendment. Are we to fear transgender people because they are predators? Is that what he is implying? Trans men and women have the most to fear. Statistics show they are the ones who are victims of violence and murder, often at the hands of white men like Prager. 

Liberal Jews use Torah as it was intended as our covenant and document of our relationship with the Divine One. And as our sages recognized, Torah is a living document interpreted in every generation in different ways. That’s why we have so many volumes of commentary.  

Perhaps Prager ought to reread our tradition’s take on character assassination because he isn’t living by the words of our Torah. In Pirke Avot 4:11, Rabbi Eliezer says that when a person embarrasses another in public, he loses his share in the world to come. He emphasizes that even though the perpetrator might be a fully observant Jew and a kind and generous person, if he is abusive, offends or embarrasses someone else publicly, he loses his part in the next world.

Perhaps it is time for a public apology from the Jewish Journal for engaging in such abusive behavior, and most especially from Prager for this and so many times he has bullied others through twisting of Torah. 

Rabbi Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami


My thoughts are not with Prager at this time. My thoughts are with you — the trans teen or adult who may have read Prager’s piece or heard hurtful things in the Jewish community, including my friend and colleague attacked in Prager’s article, Rabbi Becky Silverstein. 

To you: Ner adonai nishmant adam — the candle of God is the soul of a person. Bless you for the meaningful work you have done to connect with your soul; your precious and holy neshama. Your courage and willingness to take risks is more than inspiring. It models for us all the deepest values of our tradition. And it deepens our communities in ways they are longing to grow. It creates new possibilities for everyone to discover our own souls. This community is filled with teachers and colleagues and leaders who welcome you and your voice and your Torah. Bring your light.

Rabbi Susan GoldbergWilshire Boulevard Temple 


I commend Dennis Prager on the accuracy of his title, “The Torah and the Transgendered,” and suggest that his readers be mindful of the title and its limitations.

Judaism is a biblical religion but not only a biblical religion and not just a biblical religion. Oral law interpreted biblical law and not infrequently transformed and muted biblical law by the very process of interpretation.

The Talmud has extensive discussions of the transgendered male. It seems that the rabbis knew far more about transgendered persons than they did, for example, about lesbians, and their approach is far more nuanced than the biblical statement. Naturally, they vigorously debate its implications and its religious policy implications.

Because the Torah was given by God, I presume Prager would also concede that according to the Torah, a fetus is not a person, and abortion — whether permitted or not, deliberate or not — is not murder. Exodus 21:22-23, states: “When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other misfortune ensues, the one responsible shall be fined as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on judges’ reckoning. But if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

Rabbinic interpretations explained that the other misfortune was the life of the mother, not of the fetus.

Michael BerenbaumDirector, Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, American Jewish University


I wonder if Dennis Prager knew before writing his screed that 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in the course of their lifetimes. Too many transgender teens and adults, after being ostracized, rejected, shamed, fired, raped and misunderstood, determine they simply do not belong in the world. Prager is a self-appointed community provocateur — a role he seems to enjoy — but I desperately want to believe that if he knew this (widely available) fact, he would have paused for a moment before posting. Otherwise, to publicly mock a threatened minority and to single out for public shame and rebuke one transgender person in particular — a dedicated educator and rabbi in our community — is not only reckless but also cruel. Prager’s column has gotten a lot of traction, but it does nothing to advance the greatly needed conversation around the legitimacy and centrality of Torah in the lives of contemporary Jews, the topic he purports to address. Instead, it only belies its author the legitimacy to engage that conversation at all, as anyone who has learned Torah knows that public humiliation, considered the equivalent of death (BM 58b), is an offense far more egregious than a man trotting out in high heels.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR


Dennis Prager claims to use Torah as his guide, yet he probably wouldn’t condone death for a woman who commits adultery, nor would he propose that as the standard for determining social policy. 

We also claim Torah as our guide. For us, the fundamental principle of Torah comes right at the beginning: God created the human being in the image of God, male and female God created them.  That means Judaism requires that we work to create a world where all human beings can live as if they really were created in God’s image. In our view, that is a world where transgendered people are fully accepted. We have worked hard at our temple to create a safe space for all of the members of our community. That includes bathrooms for people of all gender expressions and programs in our religious school to teach our children about diversity and respect. We are proud of the Reform movement’s recent decision affirming this commitment to full equality, inclusion, and acceptance of people of all gender identities and expressions. To us, this is good social policy as well as authentic Judaism.

Rabbis Laura Geller, Jonathan Aaron and Sarah Bassin, Cantor Lizzie Weiss, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills


I like to pick up a free copy of the Jewish Journal every week to keep informed of diverse activities and thinking in Jewish Los Angeles, so I felt appropriately challenged and motivated by David Suissa’s column in the Nov. 27 issue, inviting people like me to contribute toward the Journal’s support. Then I read Dennis Prager’s ugly and mean-spirited column in the Dec. 4 issue and decided to make a contribution to an LGBT organization instead.

Claire Gorfinkel, Altadena


When earlier last month Mr. Prager assailed against non-orthodox Judaism as not going deep enough with Torah, I championed his cause.  However, it seems that this month, it is Mr. Prager who has lost his way.  Torah has always been a dynamic; indeed, the rabbis prompt us to “Turn it, turn it, for everything is inside.”  And indeed, it is this directive that connected Maimonides to Aristotle; Saadia HaGaon to Islamic Kalam; and where would S.J. Hirsch be without Descartes, Wissenshaft without Marburg, Kaplan without the social sciences; and most importantly, where would Torah be? Torah is a dynamic; an involvement of the highest integration of human faculties.  Indeed, this is why it is still authoritative.  And in an age where our world is turning with insights from emerging Jewish thinkers outside of the yeshiva like Judith Butler and gender performativity, queer theory, gender studies, women’s studies — all sitting on our bookshelves next to our Sefat Emet, Rambam and Bavli, is there no other logical next turning of Torah than to refract it through our world of contemporary thought until we find new visions?  In the words of Susan Sontag:  “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”  Torah is an art of the highest aesthetic.  It reflects the greatest of our potential as thinkers, rhetoricians and lovers.  Mr. Prager, why not use all of our faculties when turning Her?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro, The Open Temple


Though I disagree with the content of Dennis Prager's latest column, it is not actually the content or his conclusion that angers me enough to contact you.

Prager says that compassion is a beautiful personal trait, though insufficient for public policy.  In dragging Rabbi Silverstein personally into the article, he undermines his own argument by making it personal.  To my knowledge, the two have never interacted.  Bringing the story of another human being into his argument makes the musings emotional rather than his purported goal of a detached, intellectual approach.  Which torah allows for public shaming of an individual who poses no danger and has done no harm? 

I suggest that– like anyone who looks up from our multifaceted tradition with a clear answer and no qualms– Prager must have begun his article by assuming the worst of transgender folks in general, and Rabbi Silverstein in particular.  I would invite him to meet some trans people, do some reading about what claims are and are not being made about the torah, and then to come back to the table with a more balanced view.  After all, the torah has seventy faces and Prager's is only one.

Emily Fishman, Brookline, Mass.


Dennis Prager's recent article “The Torah and the Transgendered” should be read as an example of the dangers of being ignorant of 'Torah' and of Jewish tradition.  Prager begins by asking: “Is the Torah really the best guide?”  Based on the ensuing paragraphs, it seams that by “the Torah” Prager is referring to the most simplistic possible reading of various biblical verses.  If so, than the Jewish answer to his question is “No, the best guide is Torah.”  Torah is a more general term that includes all of Biblical and Rabbinic literature – laws, stories, ethics, philosophy, theology, and culture.

Prager stakes his claim “for the Torah, the distinction between men and women is fundamental” on Deut 22:5.  In the Talmud, this verse prohibits cross-dressing only when used as a disguise to invade someone else's space (bt Nazir 59a).  For Rashi, when used for the purpose of adultery (Rashi on Deut 22:5).  For Rambam, when used for the purpose of arousing desire and/or idol worship (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 39)  Etc.  Moreover, the Talmud is well aware that not all people fit into male and female and therefore discusses in several places: androgynos, tumtum, ay’lonit, and saris.  While none of those sources are socially liberal by modern standards, I would argue that for Torah, the distinction between men and women is not so fundamental.

On the other hand, “compassion”, which Prager so easily dismisses, is most certainty a fundamental Torah value.

Prager is correct that compassion is not itself sufficient to create policy.  Often social policy generates unintended consequences.

Therefore, compassion must be tempered by wisdom and reconciled with pragmatism.  Wisdom is built by experience and the rabbinic tradition has thousands of years of experience.  We should not ignore that advantage and trust a simplistic reading of The Torah. Instead, we can embrace our tradition by trusting a more nuanced, mature, wise, and compassionate Torah.

The Talmud (bt Shabbat 31a) relates that a potential convert asked Hillel and Shammai: “How many Torahs do you have?”  Each answered “Two, one written one oral.”  When asked if he could be converted with only the written Torah, Shammai refused but Hillel was able to teach the man to accept oral Torah.  Immediately afterwards, the Talmud (same page) relates that another potential convert asked Hillel (and Shammai) to summarize all of Torah on one foot.  Hillel famously says: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah.  The rest is the commentary, go and learn.”  In that spirit, I would like to invite Mr. Prager to study Oral Torah and not stop until he discovers its compassion.

Stevie Green, Los Angeles


Mr. Prager’s piece this week, “Torah and Transgender” crossed the line and didn't belong in the Jewish Journal. Beside the absurd claim that any community that hires a trans-person views Torah as “essentially useless” (I wonder what that makes Yeshiva University, following its appointment of Dr. Joy Ladin) the fact that he specifically and personally attacks a rabbi in the Los Angeles community for “insisting” on his gender identity was completely inappropriate. 

The Jewish Journal should be a place of robust debate about issues and values, and I appreciate the diversity of viewpoints you publish, but it is the editor's responsibility to ensure that debate doesn't devolve into personal attack. This article did not match the values of the Jewish Journal and serious consideration should be taken as to whether you continue to publish Mr. Prager’s writings. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program


I recently read Mr. Prager's above referenced article and felt strongly that you should know this: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from the religion with which I was raised, the religion of my parents and Bubbe and Zaide. The rabbi he criticized, whom I know personally, is what brings me back. I was appalled at the personal attack and misrepresentations made in that article.

The views espoused by Mr. Prager are antiquated and discriminatory, but to the Jewish community, they are deadly. If our religion was dominated by people like Mr. Prager, I could no longer partake of it – though I am not transgendered, I would still not be welcome, and I can't say that I would want to join in. However, when I speak about Judaism with the aforementioned rabbi or attend services where everyone is welcomed without judgment simply because we are all united by the bond of being Jewish, I am brought back – I want to be here, present, connected.

I'll say it again: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from my faith. The rabbi he mentioned is who brings me back.

Emily Farquharson, Esq.


I have often speculated that the reason Jesus and his teachings of Love took root is because the Israelites had forgotten that God's Love is what enlivens Creation.  After reading Mr. Prager's opinion piece, I'm sure of it.

Evelyn Baran


Your article by Dennis Prager, “Torah and the Transgendered,” is shockingly filled with hate, bias, and misunderstanding. I don't live in SoCal, so I know nothing about your newspaper and its editorial policy. It is astonishing that such an article would be published anywhere. Really horrible. I know that you can do better. The GLBTQ community needs support, not disdain and condemnation.

Rabbi Dr. Elyse Seidner-Joseph, Makom Kadosh


As a current rabbinical student and someone who hopes to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah and Jewish values of human dignity, justice and compassion, I was saddened to see Dennis Prager's piece, “The Torah and the Transgendered”  printed in the Jewish Journal.

I was not only disturbed by the way in which Prager misrepresents Torah, but also by the way in which he appropriates religious texts in order to shame individuals.  Prager's argument rests on the assumption that Torah is a religious text which outlines one clear and inherently “right” way of living in the world.  This position is inconsistent with Jewish tradition and undermines the true diversity and multivalent expression of Torah.  For example, the Torah teaches in Leviticus 20:10 that adulterers shall be stoned to death, and in Exodus 34:14 that anyone who violates Shabbat shall be put to death.  I can't imagine that Prager, or anyone else for that matter, would advocate implementing such a practice today, and yet it is stated quite clearly in our Torah.  And I don't think  that anyone who chooses to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah would argue that our choice not to follow these practices is leading us towards a doomed future in which we will be forced to admit that straying from these principles has harmed us fundamentally.  

Prager also fails to mention the instances in Torah which not only affirm gender diversity and the possibility of an individual experiencing themselves and expressing themselves outside of a gender binary, but also discuss how such individuals may participate in Jewish communal practice.  For instance, Bikkurim 4:1 discusses the androgynus–someone who expresses themselves like a man and like a woman. Clearly this text takes no issue with the fact that some people do not fit within a gender binary and instead focuses on possible avenues of self-expression and religious practice for such community members.

The erroneous claim that Torah stands against non-binary expression implies that those individuals who do not express themselves within a gender binary are violating Torah.  This is not only a misappropriation of Jewish text, but a violation of the very Torah which Prager claims to represent.  It is taught in Bava Metzia (58b), one who publically shames his neighbor, it is as if he has shed blood.  And in Sotah (10b) we learn that a person should rather throw themselves into the fire then shame someone else.

This week there was a massive shooting in California.  Worldwide there are millions of displaced people, refugees who are fleeing for their lives.  In this country, people are struggling to be seen, fighting to have their lives recognized and protected appropriately.  There is rampant injustice and suffering in the world. With so many important conversations on the table, so many problems that need to be solved in order to protect life and human dignity, Prager's misappropriation of religious texts in order to problematize gender expression in this moment represents skewed priorities.

I agree with Prager that Torah is valuable and that we should lead lives guided by righteousness and morality.  But, it makes me sad to see him misrepresenting the Torah I love and using it to shame individuals who express themselves outside of a gender binary.  It makes me sadder still to see a mainstream Jewish publication printing such words.   Prager's article, in its attempts to use religion to undermine and invalidate self-expression and to claim that non-binary gender expression is outside of Torah, contributes to the rhetoric of hatred which enables and motivates violence.  This, in the name of Judaism, is unconscionable.

Each day, we bless our God who long ago peered into the Torah and spoke the words which created the world.  We, as beings created in God's image, have an obligation to continue this holy work.  It is our duty to look deeply into Torah and to see its potential to create worlds of goodness.  Mr. Prager, I hope you will join me in this work.  I hope you will join me in seeking to understand all those whom we encounter in the world as beings created and expressing themselves in the Divine image.  May we all be blessed to use our words and our Torah learning to promote human dignity.

Aliza Berger


In his most recent column in your paper, Dennis Prager asks, “Is the Torah really the best guide?” He posits that non-Orthodox Jews see the Torah as “essentially useless as a guide to living,” using as proof the acceptance of transgender Jews by many congregations and institutions. In doing so, Prager ignores the import of Oral Torah, Rabbinic literature and Jewish thought and the value Judaism places on interpretation of Torah and a discourse of ideas.

Prager’s assertion that Rabbi Becky Silverstein, anonymously referenced in the column, believes that, “the Torah’s view on gender distinction is irrelevant,” is akin to slander. In fact, Rabbi Silverstein has written and taught extensively on gender in the Torah, Jewish thought and Jewish law. Moreover, having had the honor and pleasure of learning Torah from Rabbi Silverstein, a truly talented teacher, I can assure you that few are more guided by Torah than he.  If Prager had actually asked Rabbi Silverstein, his synagogue, or indeed any of the individuals or institutions maligned in the column about the role of Torah in their lives, he may have avoided breaking the Torah’s command, “you shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:17),” which Rashi interprets as a warning against provoking fellow Jews with words. It seems this column ignores this mitzvah and several others in the Torah. I guess he must be consulting some other guide.

Stephanie Berkowitz


I am offended the Jewish Journal published the transphobic commentary titled, ‘The Torah and the Transgendered’ [sic] by Dennis Prager. Why would you would include such bigotry and ignorance in your publication?

The article is ignorant (“transgendered” implies something has been done to someone, rather than acknowledging how someone self-identifies), white supremacist (the whole bit about affirmative action), and displays a lack of compassion (it’s well documented transgender people are high risk for attempted suicide because of society’s treatment of them, including in articles just like this).
As a cisgender, straight, white woman, I stand with transgender individuals and affirm their right to dignity and respect.
I hope you will too, in the future.

Wendy Volkmann

Aviva plans for an inclusive future

As of October of this year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill granting all transgender children in foster care the right to placement consistent with their gender identity, regardless of the sex listed in government records, California’s social service agencies were obliged to rewrite policies to plan for a more inclusive future. 

A few agencies, however, among them Hollywood-based Aviva Family and Children’s Services, had anticipated that sweeping changes were imminent and were already in the midst of careful self-assessments and interagency discussions on how to better meet the needs of LGBTQ clients. 

“Here we are, in the heart of Hollywood. This is an area of huge diversity and acceptance, and we need to be stepping up and showing that we are really welcoming,” Regina Bette, president and CEO of Aviva, said during a recent discussion at the agency’s offices. 

Aviva currently is at the forefront of local organizations working to prepare the entire youth social services system to navigate LGBTQ issues in the coming years.

Founded in 1915 as an adoption center and residential facility for single women in the Jewish community, Aviva has developed into a nonsectarian, comprehensive agency covering four main areas of service: residential care for adolescent girls, foster care and adoptions, wraparound care and community-based mental health.

“We have to be open to serving people where they are, and serving them as they are,” said Jeffrey Jamerson, vice president of programs and services at Aviva, calling transgender issues “the next platform of transformation.”

A 2014 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, funded by the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s RISE initiative (Recognize, Intervene, Support, and Empower), found that approximately one in five foster youth in Los Angeles — home to the largest population of foster youth in the country — identify as LGBTQ. 

“That’s a huge segment of our foster care system that are not getting their needs met,” said Bette, who was previously on the RISE leadership committee. “They are not going to be prepared to go into adulthood, they are not going to feel good about themselves, they may not even make it.”

The Williams Institute study served as a call to action, Bette said. 

About a year and a half ago, Aviva began sending its staff and prospective foster parents to training sessions with the RISE initiative, a pioneering project backed by the federal government tasked with creating a service model for LGBTQ youth in the foster care system, including combating heterosexism and transphobia, and working to reform policies and best practices. 

And, for the first time, Aviva is receiving calls from county agencies looking for foster placement specifically for transgender youth, said Karina Souquette, Aviva’s assistant vice president of foster care, adoption and intensive-treatment foster care.

Last month, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation awarded Aviva’s Foster Family and Adoption agency its “All Children-
All Families” seal of recognition in acknowledgement of the organization’s commitment to serving LGBTQ youth and families. 

At the start of the process, Aviva used an HRC survey to assess its staff’s preparedness, using the results to conduct a year’s worth of training sessions.

The seal is awarded to agencies that demonstrate their commitment to addressing LGBTQ cultural competency and inclusion by meeting 10 benchmarks covering policy, staff training, and inclusive language, among other areas. To date, the HRC has awarded the seal to over 50 agencies.

In addition, Jamerson is Aviva’s representative to an ongoing “Transgender Needs” collaborative workgroup convened by the Los Angeles County Probation Department to prepare new policies for the county’s group homes. 

According to the group’s leader, Lisa Cambell-Motten, director of the probation department, Aviva is one of four group homes in the county that are ahead of the curve. 

“But the kids are ahead of all of us,” Cambell-Motten said.

One of the issues is that the agency’s license specifies that its residential treatment center is for girls only. 

“I don’t really know if it is all-girl, to be honest,” Bette said. “It’s youth. I don’t know whether we have any biological girls who identify as male. Now we are trying to use ‘youth’ more, but it is really an evolution.

“We are coming up to speed to accept youth in our programs based on what they identify as, but our licensing … they are not fully up to speed yet, but I think they will be there soon,” Bette said. 

The licensing organization, Community Care Licensing, also is participating in the workgroup, and Cambell-Motten said she expects the organization’s certifications to change as a result. 

But there are difficult issues that the workgroup still needs to resolve, including “the possibility that a [self-identifying] girl could become pregnant with her roommate.”

Cambell-Moten said she expects the group to continue meeting throughout the next year. 

In the meantime, Bette and her staff are in the process of updating their program statements to account for gender fluidity. 

“We are evolving as an organization. We are doing it in what I hope is a very respectful and natural way. We are building on the strengths and interests of our staff and helping them to move forward,” Bette said. 

Israel’s dance superstar, cultural ambassador

Ido Tadmor is probably the closest any Israeli dancer and choreographer has come to achieving rock-star status in his home country. 

He’s a former dancer with Israel’s Bat-Dor and Batsheva dance companies who earned the 2011 Landau Prize in Israel for lifetime achievement. He was also the main judge for four years of the popular TV reality competition “Nolad Lirkod” (“Born to Dance”), the Israeli version of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Now the Israeli legend is coming to Los Angeles to perform two duets with Elwira Piorun, a former soloist with the Polish Dance Theatre and the Polish National Ballet. They’ll perform “Engagé” and “Rust” on Sept. 26 at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at CSU Los Angeles.

Piorun is a choreographer, dance teacher and co-founder of the Zawirowania Dance Theatre in Warsaw. That’s where Tadmor and Piorun met — he taught master workshops at a dance festival, and she participated in them. After the classes, he proposed that they try collaborating.

“Elwira is a beautiful and mature artist who brings a lot of depth into the work. There was an immediate professional attraction between the two of us. I feel like it comes across on stage in a very positive way,” he recounted in a phone interview from Tel Aviv.

Tadmor, the artistic director of the prestigious Israel Ballet, invited Piorun to Israel for a dance residency, where they began working on “Rust” and “Engagé” with Rachel Erdos, a British choreographer based in Tel Aviv. 

“Our collaborative process was based on Ido proposing fragments of choreography which I was learning, and adjusting it to my body and coordination,” Piorun wrote in an e-mail interview.

The two have much in common: Both are artistic directors of dance companies as well as artistic advisers to festivals. But their language barrier forced them to communicate with their hands to make themselves understood. That became the central theme of “Engagé.” The dancers play a couple that become romantically involved and even move into an apartment together, but they never physically interact.

“A certain barrier came into the creation, probably because it was, especially at the beginning, quite difficult to communicate,” Tadmor said. “But in the end of the day, we have a very special bond onstage and in rehearsals, and also in our private life, we became close friends.”

Tadmor regularly visits L.A. for performances and workshops, including at the Luckman in 2012. He was invited to perform these two pieces here after Luckman Executive Director Wendy Baker saw the premiere of “Engagé” at the 2013 Tel Aviv Dance Festival.

“I was so moved by the sincere expressiveness of the artists,” Baker wrote in an e-mail. “The performance was exceptional, and I knew I wanted this work danced by these artists in the Luckman season.”

Tadmor, 51, is in excellent physical condition because of a strict training regimen. He dances five to seven hours a day and works out at the gym five times a week. He became a principal dancer at 19, and his style combines classical ballet and contemporary dance. In recent years, he has also worked as an actor and fashion designer but said he wants to continue in dance. He’s currently preparing a new piece, “Episodes of Soldiers and Widows,” which will premiere at the annual Jerusalem International Dance Week in December.

Tadmor was one of Israel’s first public figures to speak openly about his sexuality and the challenges facing the country’s LGBT community. He came out in 1982 and has continued to advocate for gay rights and HIV awareness. In 1990, he choreographed his first work, “Seven Last Words,” as part of an event he produced for the Israel AIDS Task Force. In 2006, he played a son dying of AIDS in the movie “Tied Hands,” directed by Dan Wolman, alongside leading Israeli actress Gila Almagor. In 2007, he danced at a gala fundraiser supported by the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai, India, to raise funds for a shelter for HIV-affected children run by the Catholic Church.

The dancer made headlines in Israel in August, after a stranger began shouting homophobic slurs at him while he was sitting with friends at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv. The man, Shay Navian, blamed homosexuals for the decay of Israeli society and said they should all be forced to leave. The incident happened shortly after an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed six people during a gay pride parade in Jerusalem; that attacker has been charged with fatally stabbing a teenage girl.

“It became more frightening and became more dangerous when he started saying that if the gay people continue having parades in Jerusalem, more people will be stabbed and that I will be stabbed. It was very aggressive and very extreme,” Tadmor said.

Tadmor filed a complaint with the Tel Aviv Magistrate Court, and police arrested Navian the next day. He said he decided to report the incident to help bring visibility to the issue. As a TV personality and esteemed member of Tel Aviv’s cultural elite, he knew he could draw media attention to the event. Religious Jews in Israel have become more hostile to gay rights, Tadmor said, and gay people in Israel are feeling a backlash to their increased visibility. 

“We are unfortunately in a very bad time, where more extreme people and extreme parts of the society are becoming more vocal and more physical in their deeds,” he said. 

Tadmor has spent plenty of time outside Israel. He formed his own troupe in 1995, and toured with it to Tokyo, Madrid, Paris, Moscow and the U.S. He also lived in Spain and the Netherlands, but chose to return to Israel to live and create there. As he leads workshops and performances abroad, he said he’s called upon to explain Israel to those who view the country as aggressive and militant.

“In this country, we have, of course, a lot of problems. We have a war going on all the time, but there are also amazing things going on here. There is beautiful art developing here. The dance scene in Israel is getting stronger. Feature films are getting better and better, and being shown all over the world,” Tadmor said. “In that sense, I am kind of an ambassador of art and culture of Israel.”

Ido Tadmor and Elwira Piorun perform “Engagé” and “Rust” at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at CSU Los Angeles. Tickets are $25-$45. For more information, go to

New Machzor offers progressive take on gender equality, LGBT acceptance

From the Reader’s Kaddish to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a new set of High Holy Days prayer books for the Reform movement is filled with an eclectic mix of texts. 

“The purpose of the book is to be open to everybody. So if someone doesn’t connect to a prayer, there are many alternatives,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which publishes the machzors. 

But the changes in the two-book set, “Mishkan HaNefesh” (Sanctuary of the Soul), go much deeper than the addition of poems, essays, meditations and even artwork to its 1978 predecessor, “Gates of Repentance.” The standard prayers — in Hebrew and English text, with full transliterations — are part of volumes that offer a progressive take on gender equality and LGBT acceptance.

One noticeable difference is the changes when referring to God’s gender. Unlike traditional Hebrew prayer, where God is exclusively referred to as “He,” the new prayer book uses gender-neutral terminology, according to Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of CCAR Press.

“For the most part, we didn’t change the Hebrew text, except for a couple of instances, where we give a version in the feminine,” Person said. “There are places where we used both male and female imagery when referring to God. We’ll also use one image when it works, and another image when that works best. It’s gender neutral except when we’re trying to invoke a certain feeling.” 

Also, while congregants traditionally are called up to the Torah by their Hebrew names, which includes being identified as the son or daughter of their parents, “Mishkan HaNefesh” includes a third option. For those who do not identify as “ben” (son) or “bat” (daughter), they can be described as “mi-bayit,” or coming from the house of their parent.

The two-volume machzor includes separate books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They will be used at about 300 Reform congregations in the U.S. this year, as well as in several Hillels and hospitals with Jewish chaplains, according to Eger. 

Although officially making its debut now, the book has been in the works for years and has been test piloted by congregations across the country. 

“We field tested it with members of our synagogue and overall had such a positive response,” Rabbi Suzanne Singer, senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Riverside, told the Journal. “There were a few passages that we didn’t like — we didn’t think they inspired awe, and were [not] uplifting — and when we told them about it, they addressed those concerns.”

The CCAR’s previous prayer book for the High Holy Days featured only Hebrew prayers and translations, along with scattered commentaries. Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue in Brentwood views the book as a stepping stone for himself and his colleagues.

“[The book] challenged us as clergy to make decisions on how to go from the beginning of a service to the end,” Feinstein said. “There are times when we only use the traditional Hebrew, and there are other times when we also want to incorporate something new, where someone who is having difficulty relating to the text can find another way.”

For those who do not connect with the classical liturgical text, there are counter-texts that argue with the prayer. “A Prayer of Protest,” for example, is offered as an alternative to the prayer of Avinu Malkeinu, which discusses God’s compassion. 

“Some of us have cancer. Some of us can’t find work. … Some of us have lost a child,” “A Prayer of Protest” says. “Avinu Malkeinu, why? Avinu Malkeinu, are you there? Do you care? Restore our faith in life. Restore our faith in you.”

“Many people are really struggling and are sitting there angry at God,” Person said. “ ‘A Prayer of Protest’ acknowledges that struggle.”

There is also an alternative for those who have trouble with the frequent standing that the service requires. On the page opposite Asher Yatzar, which thanks God for a healthy human body, it acknowledges one’s physical struggle:

 “I can look at my body as an old friend who needs my help,” it says. “Or an enemy who frustrates me in every way with its frailty and inability to cope. Old friend, I shall try to be of comfort to you to the end.”

Despite all of the additions to the machzor, it was a case of subtraction that got the notice of some congregants testing the prayer book at Beth Chayim Chadashim on West Pico Boulevard. Rabbi Lisa Edwards, whose essay on women’s roles in Rosh Hashanah is included in the prayer book, spoke about some members’ concerns on the shortening of some prayers.

“Some people expected the traditional Torah portion to be complete, which it isn’t exactly,” Edwards told the Journal. “We used a prayer book called ‘Wings of Awe,’ which had a bigger Torah portion. By and large, though, I couldn’t be more thrilled about this new book, and neither could our congregation.”

Still, Person said, “The Hebrew text was barely touched, and the Torah portions in this book have more of the text than ‘Gates of Repentance’ did.” 

Each volume of two — with covers made from recycled soda bottles — costs $42, but synagogues that purchased them early received discounts. While some congregations asked members to buy their own books, others provided them with the help of sponsors. 

Although the covers state that they are for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, some people, including Eger, think they will be of use all year round.

“While on one hand there is tradition, this new book is something very special,” she said. “This is the people’s machzor, and it’s one that you’re going to want to take home and study and enjoy in your free time, too.” 

Gay pride parade stabber indicted for murder

The haredi Orthodox man who stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, leaving a 16-year-old girl dead, was charged with murder.

Yishai Schlissel, 39, was indicted Monday in Jerusalem District Court on one count of premeditated murder in the death of Shira Banki, six counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault.

Schlissel in a statement to the court said, “The pride parade must be canceled to elevate Shira Banki’s soul. If you care for her well-being, you must cease this blasphemy against God. The parades bring harsh decrees upon Israel.”

Schlissel has eschewed legal counsel, saying the court does not recognize Jewish law, and has not cooperated with the investigation.

The Jerusalem District Prosecutor’s Office asked that Schlissel remain in custody until the end of the legal proceedings against him. The court agreed to hold him over until Tuesday, when a hearing will be held on the request.

Schlissel had been released from prison three weeks before this year’s parade after serving 10 years for a similar attack at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in 2005.

According to the indictment, Schlissel was prevented from entering the parade at one entrance point by two police officers.

The Reform movement’s new holiday prayer book is radically inclusive

When some Reform synagogue-goers open up their prayer books this High Holiday season, they will be greeted with snippets of poems by the likes of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda. Feminist and LGBTQ-friendly terms and phrases will be subtly incorporated into the prayers, and scattered between those prayers will be original woodcut prints inspired by the holidays.

How can this be, you ask? The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal organization of North American Reform rabbis, has revamped its High Holidays prayer book for the first time since 1978.

The new prayer book, or machzor, reflects an effort to be more inclusive of women and LGBTQ Jews. In some cases, God is referred to as a woman. One passage substitutes the words “bride” and “groom” with the gender-neutral “couple.” In a blessing that calls congregants to the Torah, mention of gender is left out in a gesture to transgender people.

“There’s no way to give you a percentage [of what has changed] — it’s a totally new book,” said Rabbi Hara Person, the rabbinical conference’s director of publications. “Of course, it’s based on the structure of any machzor … but it’s not just a sort of tweaked version.”

The new prayer book also features what Person calls counter-texts, which accompany traditional prayers and challenge their assertions. For example, the important Untaneh Tokef prayer is followed by a philosophical Carl Sandburg poem and then by the new sentence: “I speak these words, but I don’t believe them … clearly there’s no scientific foundation …”

In addition to textual changes, the new two-volume book contains original artwork for the first time: 11 commissioned woodcuts by renowned artist Joel Shapiro, to be exact.

The goal, Person says, is to make all Jews, no matter how religious they are, feel more comfortable during High Holiday services, even if they only attend due to family pressure.

When the prayer book was unveiled at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’s annual convention in March, 180 synagogues had already ordered it. That number has now risen to approximately 300 as the holidays approach.

So far, Person said there has not been much negative backlash among Reform rabbis. The book had been in the pipeline for seven years – four years of which involved testing the book in services at select congregations across the country – so those in the know have been expecting the changes for some time.

“We haven’t gotten any calls or emails saying What did you you do?” Person said. “I think that the piloting and the education process paved the way because it became a very interactive process.”

Memorial held for teen killed in gay pride parade stabbing

Hundreds gathered in Jerusalem for a memorial to Shira Banki, the teen who died from injuries suffered in a knife attack at the city’s gay pride parade.

Friends and supporters of Banki and the LGBTQ community held the tribute on Sunday night in Zion Square. Banki, 16, a high school student from Jerusalem, had died hours earlier at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, where she had been fighting for her life after being stabbed in the chest and stomach on Thursday. She was one of six stabbing victims.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, told the vigil participants that Banki was murdered due to “extremism, because we don’t know how to accept the other.”

“Students in Israel need first of all to know: Don’t be afraid to be who you are and what you are,” he said.

Banki was marching to support her gay friends, her family said in a statement. The family agreed to donate her organs, Hadassah hospital announced.

“Our magical Shira was murdered because she was a happy 16-year-old – full of life and love – who came to express her support for her friends’ rights to live as they choose,” the family statement said. “For no good reason and because of evil, stupidity and negligence, the life of our beautiful flower was cut short. Bad things happen to good people, and a very bad thing happened to our amazing girl.”

The statement also expressed “hope for less hatred and more tolerance.”

Israeli politicians from across the spectrum expressed sorrow about the teen’s death.

Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox man from Modiin Ilit in the West Bank, remains in police custody after being deemed psychologically fit to stand trial on Friday, a day after he allegedly stabbed the marchers. Schlissel had been released from prison three weeks earlier after serving 10 years for a similar attack at Jerusalem’s 2005 gay pride parade.

All that glitters is Ari Gold

Sir Ari Gold isn’t actually a knight, but the popular singer and LGBT rights activist can be seen in shining armor in photos on his website. His bold and scandalous style, outspoken nature, and catchy music blending dance and R&B sensibilities ensures no one could ever mistake him for Jeremy Piven’s conniving “Entourage” character of the same name.

“My concerts tend to be more about a fantasy,” Gold told the Journal during a phone interview from his home in New York City. “I try to bring an energy to the room in which it feels like there’s no discrimination, there’s no oppression. … I always like to bring this triumphant, positive feeling. It’s almost warrior-like.”

One of Gold’s newest projects is an autobiographical musical, “Pop Out,” which will debut in New York on July 23 at Dixon Place. It traces his journey from a child star singing on shows such as the cartoon “Jem,” to a yeshiva student struggling with his identity, to a proud and out pop star.

“It’s something I’ve been developing for a few years,” Gold said. “When it comes to LGBT people, it’s important to tell our stories because for so long, our stories were not heard.”

Gold recalled how, growing up Orthodox in New York City and attending yeshiva, he was forced to repress himself. Later, he said, “I became very politicized when I was able to leave the bubble of yeshiva and went to college and studied all these amazing ideas I never thought about … things like what you might call ‘pro-sex feminism and queer theory.’ ”

Unabashedly political in his views, Gold cites the second-wave feminist mantra that the “political is personal.” In fact, he may have been too political in early versions of “Pop Out.”

“That political impetus was always very at the forefront for me, but [the director] reminded me that at the end of the day, we’re talking about love and sex and the way we interact on a personal basis,” he said.

Gold was forced to confront tough moments from his own life while creating “Pop Out,” including the death of a former partner and past troubles with his parents. 

“The relationship is incredible these days,” Gold said of his mother and father. “But it was not always that way. There were at least a couple of years in which we were not on speaking terms.”

Gold’s older brother, Elon, a well-known Los Angeles comedian who last year wrote in the Journal about a hate crime he experienced with his family on Shabbat, has been supportive. “I think about the parallels between my work and my brother’s work, too … We both have this strong sense of wanting to be proud, and sort of insist on the specificity of our experiences,” Gold said.

Gold recalled a trauma of his own back in 2011. “I was sitting with a boyfriend at the time on the bus on the way to the Catskills to see my family, and we were sitting arm in arm. That was about the extent of our PDA, and the bus driver told us to sit at the back of the bus.” 

Gold was horrified and tweeted about the experience. The story was picked up by then-Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, sparking outrage that went viral.

But Gold’s story isn’t all lows. He’s enjoyed success on the Billboard charts with songs such as “Where the Music Takes You,” which won the USA Songwriting Competition, and “Love Wasn’t Built in a Day,” a collaboration with L.A.’s own Grammy-nominated Jewish saxophonist Dave Koz that won an Independent Music Award. Of course, the recent legalization of same-sex marriage also is a high point. 

“So many of us [in the LGBT community] do come from religious backgrounds … so to get the support from the priests and the rabbis, that makes a huge difference,” Gold said. “It absolutely is real change … these decisions have a real effect on people, on people who have gotten married in one state and they need their marriage to be recognized in another state, and that’s real.”

He added: “I’ve had the distinct honor of being able to sing at a number of gay weddings. I have this gay wedding song that’s called
‘Bashert,’ so it also incorporates my Jewish identity.”

Some people cautioned Gold that exploring both his Jewish and gay identities in one show might be too much for people to handle, an idea Gold calls laughable. “I always felt very connected to my Jewish identity,” he said, noting that all of us are complex and not made up of just one aspect.

Gold said he is excited to share his show and his story, and he hopes to eventually take “Pop Out” on tour, visiting cities such as Los Angeles.

Gold also is preparing to release his fifth studio album, “Soundtrack to Freedom,” a new collaboration with Dutch producer Subgroover. He’s releasing the album under the name Gold Nation, and it will be dropping later this year.

“I just wanted something that was a little more open,” Gold said of the name. “Anyone can be part of Gold Nation. We are all one Gold Nation Under God, I say.”

JNF Canada cancels Huckabee speech amid LGBTQ objections

The Jewish National Fund of Canada has canceled a scheduled speech by U.S. presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee

Huckabee, who is vying for the Republican bid in 2016, had his Oct. 15 speaking engagement in Ottawa canceled on June 10 following objections from the Canadian LGBTQ community, the Canadian Jewish News reported.

An online petition at calling for Huckabee to be pulled from speaking at the JNF Negev Dinner noted that comments from the former Arkansas governor “spread degrading hatefulness towards and about transgender people.”

“This is a segment of our community that needs your support, not the appearance of yet further rejection and abuse, as clearly promoted by your announced speaker, Mr. Huckabee,” the petition said.

The petition also noted that Huckabee publicly supported Josh Duggar, a member of the family featured in the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting” who allegedly molested some of his underage sisters and a family friend.

Josh Cooper, JNF Canada’s CEO, told the Canadian Jewish News that the petition, which had 31 signatories as of Monday, “had absolutely no impact whatsoever” on the decision to cancel Huckabee’s speech at the dinner, which this year will support autism research in Israel.

In an email to the weekly newspaper, Cooper said that Huckabee was initially selected because “he is a staunch supporter of the State of Israel” and “has never wavered from this position,” but was disinvited because “the media spotlight has recently focused on Mr. Huckabee’s comments about issues that bear no relevance to JNF or autism.”

Huckabee gave a speech last month at the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention in which he referred to transgenderism as a “social experiment” and joked he would have pretended to be trans in high school if he’d known it would allow him to shower with girls during gym, the Canadian Jewish News reported.

Thousands celebrate gay pride in Tel Aviv

Tens of thousands of people participated in Tel Aviv’s annual gay pride parade, whose theme this year was the transgender community.

Friday’s parade, Tel Aviv’s 17th, featured an appearance by Conchita, the transgender Austrian performer who last year won the Eurovision song festival, Army Radio reported.

Some participants in the procession from Meir Garden’s Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Community Center to the city’s beach painted rainbow colors on zebra stripes of road crossings across the city, according to the report.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated members of Israel’s gay and lesbian community ahead of the parade.

“As Pride Week unfurls, I would like to send my congratulations to the LGBT community,” Netanyahu wrotein Hebrew on Twitter. “The fight for recognition for every person as equal before the law is a long one and there is plenty of progress to be made. I am proud of how Israel is one of the world’s most open-minded countries in its treatment of the proud community and that its discourse is becoming each year more respectful and accepting.”

Israeli media devoted considerable attention to the initial refusal of Bar Ilan University, which has many religious students and a leading Bible studies department, to allow a gay pride event. Following the critical coverage, the university has allowed gay students to hold an event Sunday.

The Israel Defense Forces also noted marked Pride Week on its official website with an article featuring an interview with a transgender lieutenant who was a woman when enlisting in the IDF.

The lieutenant, identified only by his first name, Shachar, recalled how he received special permission to wear a men’s uniform while serving in the IDF as a woman, after he explained his gender identity issues to his commanding officers. He was asked about this choice of clothing during the final stages of his training as an officer, Lieutenant Shachar recalled.

“I decided to answer the question to the whole group, and that was the first time that I had done so before a large forum. I said I wear men’s uniform because that’s how I feel, how I’ve always felt,” Lieutenant Shachar said,

JQ International opens its WeHo doors

It was 9 p.m. on a Thursday and Asher Gellis, founder of the out-and-proud nonprofit JQ International, was sitting on a barstool at Revolver, a West Hollywood hot spot, as scantily clad performers shimmied on tabletops. 

Earlier that evening, his blooming organization had hosted a housewarming party upstairs — complete with a mezuzah hanging — at its new headquarters. Referred to as “JQlub,” the new digs are a big transition for JQ, which up until the previous week was run out of Gellis’ Echo Park apartment.

Nearly 100 people attended JQlub’s unveiling, the air charged with excitement as board members and community allies scouted the cozy 800 square feet of new territory. With brand-new floors, teal walls and big, bright windows that overlook the traffic and neon signage of Santa Monica Boulevard, JQlub’s new space feels more like a Greenwich Village studio loft than a nonprofit’s meeting space. Then again, JQ isn’t your typical nonprofit.

It goes back to when Gellis, now 39, was 26 and undergoing major life transitions. He had just left his job within the Jewish community, broken up with his Jewish boyfriend and was left thinking, “Where do I go now?” Searching for his place within Judaism, he founded a community of his own with JQ. 

“It started as a community and then turned into a nonprofit,” Gellis said.

Currently, JQ is an integral resource for the Jewish LGBTQ community, spearheading programs for teens (The Valley Jewish Queer Straight Alliance) as well as organizations, schools and workplaces (Inclusion Consulting). It also offers a social service referral call center for LGBTQ individuals and their families (The Warmline). JQ even paired with Birthright to help host two LGBTQ-friendly trips within the last three years, with more trips slated.

That’s all to say JQ has been busy, but it couldn’t have done it alone.

“It’s amazing to be a gay Jew now, when the Jewish community has made the LGBTQ cause their No. 1 cause,” Gellis said enthusiastically. With hands-on support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, he said, “We’re not just getting funding, we’re getting partnership.”

Scott Minkow, vice president of partnerships and innovation for Federation, spoke at the JQlub housewarming, giving credit to Federation president Jay Sanderson and others. He said he’s proud of the work Federation and JQ are accomplishing together.

“This is not the Federation of your parents,” he said. “This is not even the Federation of five, 10 years ago.”

JQ board member Neil Spears gushed about the need for JQ and its new space. Before the ceremony, he told the Journal, “It’s important that we have a space, but what’s more important is what’s going to happen here.” 

Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers and chair of JQ’s board of directors, told the Journal that JQ finally gave him a place to embrace both of his identities: “I’m Jewish and I’m gay,” he said. 

Shotz was one of many volunteers who labored for a month renovating JQlub. “I painted those floorboards,” he said, pointing to his craftsmanship. And after all that sweat and toil, “I’m glad we finally have our own space,” Shotz said.

“It’s a miracle in the LGBT world,” mused Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or about JQ’s existence. She officiated the ceremony at JQlub for hanging a mezuzah — a ceramic tallit inscribed with the Hebrew letter shin

“Everyone who walks through this space is protected by the doorposts of Israel,” Bat-Or told the Journal after everyone had left the space and gone downstairs for an after-party at Revolver. Bat-Or, also a family therapist, runs The Warmline and said it received 450 calls last year, and more are expected this year.

Meanwhile downstairs, JQ board members and allies mingled at the nightclub. Gellis was the man of the night, as people lined up to speak with him. When Gellis was a teen, he said, he remembers haunting similar establishments; not prepared to “come out,” he’d occasionally muster up the confidence to frequent these spots solo. 

“It was horrifying and terrifying. I’d walk in, walk around the tables and walk out,” he reminisced about his gay club rendezvous while sipping a cocktail. But now, 20 years later, his offices and headquarters are located just above this thriving nightclub. 

It’s a big step for JQ’s founder, who instead of attending this club solo, was accompanied by his French boyfriend, Arthur Guillosson, sitting proudly by his side. 

“He’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” said Guillosson about Gellis. “He reconnected me with my Judaism.”