September 18, 2019

Sharing LGBTQ Journeys at IKAR’s Pride Shabbat

Steve Byrnes (left), Jamie Mandelbaum and their daughters. Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox courtesy of Steve Byrnes

Ada Douglass realized she was a lesbian when she was 28. “It was like a revelation from heaven,” she said. “A deeply confusing revelation from heaven.”

Douglass was one of four IKAR members who shared challenging and uplifting moments at a Friday-night LGBTQ Shabbat dinner marking Pride month.

“I’ve been an out lesbian for four years and two days now,” Douglass said. “I’ve found community, both in the queer world and the Jewish world, and I’ve gotten married to a woman who thought she was straight when we started dating. Here I am. This is me.”

For Gina Rozner, defining identity “has been a life-long and fluid journey,” she said at the event.“The more comfortable I became with the gray and the unknown, [the more] people felt obliged to assign their own labels to my identity. When I walk into a room, I am assumed to be gay simply by the way I look. Assumptions like this have impacted the way I understand my queer identity.”

After her first relationship with a woman ended, “my world was turned upside down,” Rozner said. “Not only was I heartbroken, [I wondered] what did this mean for me? Was I gay? Was I still straight? Was I bi? None of these labels felt authentic. This was exhausting and painful as each label felt like it invalidated another part of my experience.”

Rozner said that now, “I most comfortably describe myself as a person who likes people who broadly understand my journey with gender identity and sexuality.”

The youngest storyteller, 18-year-old Levi Kessler, described his youth as a time where he lived “mostly in my head, not knowing what the future had in store.” He said the first time he felt like himself was at his bar mitzvah, when he “slayed the Torah portion and drash” before quoting “the great sage and prophet Taylor Swift, to be brave and to ‘speak now.’ ” He added that his parents made him an electric suit for his entrance dance to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” at his party. “That was truly a ‘coming out’ event,” he said.  “That was the moment where I felt okay and accepted.”

“In this temple, I have been surrounded by loving and accepting people who are supportive of me 100 percent.”

 — Levi Kessler

“In this temple, I have been surrounded by loving and accepting people who are supportive of me 100 percent. … I have learned along the way that this is not the way the greater world works. This community is a bubble,” he said, revealing that at a roller-skating rink with friends recently, someone called him and his friend “fag” and “queer.”

“I’ve learned from experience that the best way to handle ignorant, disgusting people is to spend time with those that spread love and acceptance,” he said. “We need to make our bubble bigger. We should build out this tent at IKAR and in LA at large.”

Steve Byrnes, the eldest speaker at the event, had words of wisdom to impart: “I have lived a life of miracles and wonders,” he said. “The 20-year-old me would’ve thought the life I have now was impossible  — more like science-fiction. Back then, coming out seemed like a form of death, ostracized from family and friends, wandering the Earth alone. Dramatic and Old Testament-ish, I know. But that’s exactly how it felt … . And some of my fears came true.”

Byrnes said his father disowned him when he came out in 1984, but over time, his father “went from disowning me to saying that Jamie [Mandelbaum] and I have the best marriage of his four children.”

Byrnes and Mandelbaum have been together for 35 years and have two daughters.

Byrnes echoed Kessler’s appreciation for IKAR, which he called “a pluralistic community where we all are seen and walk with dignity. I’m a man keenly aware of my blessings.”