By Idit Klein and Justin Rosen Smolen
Two days after the November 2016 election, Idit received an email from Erin Schreiber, a Hillel director at a small college outside of St. Louis. Erin described how early that morning a transgender student reached out to her in crisis. The student said he felt terrified about what the future might hold for him given his perceptions of the incoming administration. Erin drove to the Hillel office to meet the student, trying to compose herself and imagine what words of comfort she could offer, even as she was consumed by her own fear and shock about the election results. She opened her office door, still not knowing what she would say and then nearly stepped on an envelope that was stuck under the door. She opened it and saw that inside were the LGBTQ Safe Zone stickers she had ordered the previous week from Keshet. She pulled out a sticker just as her student walked in and held it up saying, “Look! There is hope in the world. We have a whole community that is standing with us.”
Our work at Keshet enables us to engage with Jewish communities around the country, and we often hear such stories. Stories of LGBTQ young people feeling vulnerable and finding support in a trusted rabbi, youth group advisor, day school teacher, or other educator. Yet we also hear stories of LGBTQ young people who seek support and fail to find it. We hear directly from queer Jewish teens about how they look to the leaders of their Jewish communities for signs of solidarity, especially now. Queer Jewish teens tell us how grateful they are when Jewish leaders speak out about LGBTQ rights in the broader world of inclusion in their own communities. They also tell us also how profoundly let down and alienated they feel when their leaders remain silent.
There are indeed many ways that Jewish educators, clergy, and other leaders can demonstrate support for and solidarity with people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. To guide these professionals, we have developed three modalities for fostering LGBTQ inclusion: signaling, responding, and celebrating. When practiced together, these modes help create Jewish communities where LGBTQ Jews feel at home and the entire community benefits from the warmth and vitality of a fully inclusive community.
Signaling: We recite in the passage following the Shema: “You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” This text from both Deuteronomy 6:9 and our daily liturgy stresses the importance of making our intentions, values, and commitments explicit. So, too, we encourage Jewish institutions and communities to apply this mandate to how they invite the participation of LGBTQ youth and adults. For example, LGBTQ Safe Zone stickers, like the ones the Hillel director requested, signal to queer and trans Jews that they are both seen and embraced. Many queer Jewish kids have shared personally with us that when they see an LGBTQ Safe Zone sticker on a teacher’s desk or a youth group advisor’s office door, it assures them that they could confide in a trustworthy adult if and when they feel ready. We, too, feel a sense of comfort and belonging whenever we travel to communities and see a LGBTQ Safe Zone sticker. Something so small as a sticker can speak volumes.
Responding: Symbols like Safe Zone stickers are important signposts of inclusion. The next critical step is knowing how to respond to an LGBTQ community member who needs support. A youth group advisor, religious school teacher, or other Jewish educator may be the first person young people confide in about their sexual orientation or gender identity. We know a 15-year-old girl at a Jewish day school who approached her beloved Tanakh teacher with trepidation. She said, “Can I share something with you? I’m a lesbian. And I’m in love with my best friend.” Without skipping a beat, the teacher responded, “Mazal tov!” That student will always remember that the first person to whom she came out responded with love and support. She will likely also remember that she sought—and received—affirmation from a trusted adult in a Jewish context.
Jewish educators also may witness—and must respond to—anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment. We know a sixth-grade boy who was called a “faggot” by another boy in front of his entire Hebrew school class. His teacher immediately stopped the class and delivered an impromptu lesson on the importance of respectful speech and upholding human dignity. She made it clear that disrespectful language was unacceptable in her classroom and in the Jewish community. She cited Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.” She reminded her class of sixth graders that all of us are responsible to stand up in the face of injustice.
Celebrating: When the rights and dignity of LGBTQ people are threatened, a responsive Jewish community explicitly affirms queer and trans Jews. Yet Jewish communities must move beyond affirmation to create joyful moments and rituals that celebrate the narratives and lives of LGBTQ Jews. At Keshet, we center the experiences and identities of queer and trans Jewish youth at our LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbatonim (Shabbat retreats) throughout the country. With the guidance of Keshet educators, teens create and facilitate programs on topics such as queer Jews in American culture, LGBTQ youth mental health, and gender diversity in Hebrew language and Jewish texts. Whether in sacred moments or in everyday conversations, the experience of feeling at the center of a community at the Shabbaton helps teens develop pride and confidence in their identities as LGBTQ Jews and as leaders in both Jewish and secular contexts.
We encourage leaders and facilitators of all Jewish community settings, beyond those designated specifically as queer teen programs, to center the experiences and lives of LGBTQ Jews. All of us, particularly those of us who are marginalized in Jewish life and in broader society, need to know that our Jewish communities view us as vital to the Jewish story. If we take seriously the injunction “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), we must create community for others as we desire it for ourselves.
When Jewish educators create space for LGBTQ young people to thrive at the center of Jewish experience, queer and trans young people will claim their rightful place in the story of our people. Moreover, all young people will understand the rich diversity of the Jewish narrative.
LGBTQ young people still face a barrage of degrading messages, behaviors,and policies in our society. We have a responsibility to create a different reality in our Jewish communities. On our literal and figurative doorposts, let us inscribe messages that uplift, affirm, and embrace. If we do, LGBTQ young people will join us.
Idit Klein is a national leader for social justice with more than 20 years of experience in the non-profit sector. Since 2001, she has served as the founding executive director of Keshet, the leading organization for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in the Jewish community. A graduate of Yale University with a Master’s in Social Justice Education from UMass Amherst, Idit was honored by the Jewish Women’s Archive with a “Women Who Dared” award and selected for the Forward 50, a list of American Jews who have made enduring contributions to public life.
Justin Rosen Smolen (LC ’08) is national director of Youth Program at Keshet, where he works with teens and educators around the country to create inclusive, vibrant, and celebratory spaces for LGBTQ young people in Jewish life. Justin is a graduate of the dual-degree program of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and Jewish thought. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, he holds a Master of Public Administration in nonprofit management and a master’s in Jewish studies from New York University.