By Idit Klein
“Are you Jewish?”
A young teenage girl stood before me eagerly awaiting my response. When I answered in the affirmative, her face lit up and she peppered me with questions:
“Do you speak Hebrew? I do!”
“Have you been to Israel? I’m going this summer!” “Were you ever in BBYO? I am!”
It was October 11, 2009 and I was at the National Equality March in Washington, DC joined by other queer Jews and allies behind a banner that proclaimed:
If Not Now, When?
The Jewish Community Supports Full Equality and Justice
Within moments, I was surrounded by ten beaming, wide-eyed teens and learned that they all are members of a DC area BBYO (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization) chapter. Their advisor had told them about the Equality March and their consensus was immediate: of course they would go as a group to march for equal rights for LGBT people. They were thrilled—and proud—to see a Jewish community contingent and said they wished that other Jewish youth groups had come.
I was moved by their very presence, their excitement, and their unqualified enthusiasm about being there. After we went our separate ways, I realized with some delight that I had absolutely no idea if all of them were queer or if none of them were queer; if someone in the group had two imas or two abbas, or if all of them were raised in heteronormative families. Straight allies are critical to the fight for LGBT rights, and it can be important for a heterosexual person to publicly claim straight identity and model being an ally for others. Yet it can also feel tiresome and unwittingly homophobic for straight people to “explain” their presence in queer space.
What I loved most about this encounter with the BBYO kids was that it was self-evident to them that they were there because they are Jews and to be a Jew means to stand for justice, including justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. For this group of youth, queer inclusion in their Jewish community doesn’t mean showing a movie on gay issues once a year. Queer inclusion means full integration of people, programs, and political priorities into Jewish communal life.
As an activist for queer inclusion in Jewish life, I spend a lot of time and energy organizing, training, and educating in re- sponse to homophobia and heterosexism. How a day school teacher should respond when she hears “you’re such a fag” hurled at a student as she walks down the hallway. What a young gay man should do when, upon coming out to the head of the Reform summer camp where he’s worked as a counselor for three summers in a row, he is told, “We’ll give you private staff housing this summer. It wouldn’t look right to put you in a boys’ bunk.” How a newly out trans teenager can find support in the Jewish community when his rabbi refuses to use his chosen name in a confirmation ceremony.
The work of responding to homophobic words and actions will continue to require resources and attention. But I think often of the pride and clarity in the eyes of those BBYO kids, their ease in acting as Jews for queer justice. I think of the values that animate who they are today and imagine the communities they will build in the future.
Idit Klein serves as the Executive Director of Keshet, a grassroots organization working for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans- gender inclusion in Jewish life.