Creating A More Open Jewish Community – Guest Speaker Rabbi Lisa Gelber


On Friday, April 15, 2016, Rabbi Lisa Gelber was guest speaker at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in a program jointly sponsored by our lifelong learning program and our Chevrei Tikvah LGBT Chavurah. A former associate dean at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gelber addressed the way in which the rising generation of Jewish educators, rabbis, and leaders are connecting with the LGBT and range of diverse families they are meeting in the Jewish communal world. Below are her remarks on “Creating A More Open Jewish Community.” We encourage you to post, share, or comment on Rabbi Gelber’s talk, to continue this valuable dialogue.

At a birthday party the other day, my daughter excitedly told me that E (the birthday girl) has an Uncle Jeremy. “How cool,” I responded. “Just like you have an Uncle Jeremy.” This commonality was thrilling for my daughter. Clearly, that was not on the birthday girl’s mind. Eyes wide, she turned to her Uncle Jeremy and said, “She’s adopted.” The uncle replied, “What?” E repeated herself, “She’s adopted.” Again, her uncle said, “What?” E got right in his face and said, SHE’s ADOPTED. By then, my daughter was off scavenging for chocolate and I was left wondering if “adopted child” was what people saw when they looked at her. At 6, this was the most important thing for this girl to share with her uncle about my kid. I realized I have been so caught up in the pride I feel for my child who easily tells the story of how she came to be in our family – or, better yet, how she helped to create our family – that I forgot, really forgot that others would internalize that story, and perhaps my daughter, as other. Adopted could potentially become her sole identity. Was that ever an awakening for me as someone who strives to be intentional in life.

I raise that this evening because I believe living most fully in community – what Judaism calls on us to do – requires attention to how we direct our energy, make conscious decisions and exist within the realm of others. We must bring our intention to creating sacred space to see and appreciate the identity that accompanies our presence as we bring ourselves most fully into this world.

As a community assessment, one of my rabbinic colleagues uses an identity molecule to address identity. Everyone receives a paper with a circle in the middle. Your name, or the name you’d like to be called goes in the center circle. That’s surrounded by a series of additional circles. Each person, individually, fills in the circles with the various identities that make up who they are. In my bio I’m named as rabbi, mother, teacher and spiritual guide. It could also say runner or writer. Friend. Sister. Daughter. When everyone completes the form, the group shares the named identities. From that emerges a conversation about the identities that arise AND what is missing; what has not been shared into the room; who is invisible. From there, we engage in conversation about how we, as community, make space for everyone.

Critical to any conversation or examination of open Jewish community is a commitment to understanding how people may be visible as who and how they are. The creation and sustenance of inclusive community requires something more than categories and facts. Community with the vibrancy of family, in its broadest sense, requires dialogue. Dialogue demands trust. Trust that we matter. Trust that we can be seen; that others actually care who and how we are. Love and curiosity as understood through the language of contemplative practice motivates this knowledge; a wondering of the heart and soul; a commitment to understanding in a deep way; to embracing the other; to embracing oneself.

Think for a moment about Shabbat. Shabbat honors difference. It is about setting something aside to make space for everything else to be different. We talk about the sacred and the profane; the holy and the not yet holy. During Havdalah – another separation – we deliberately use the b’samim, the spices to bring some of that Shabbat feeling into our new week. There is a merging. The boundaries are more fluid than we think. Shabbat is a contemplative practice. It is an experiential lens through which we begin to see and feel into the world in a different way. It is training for our minds, our bodies and our souls. Through this lens a membership form is not merely a place to collect data but rather a storage house for people’s identities, the beginnings of what they want known about themselves.

The lens through which we create community should include kids as well as adults. It’s incumbent upon us to build the trust that invites conversation and dialogue with younger generations in real ways, not just for the moment but to model and educate how community can come to be. We must ask, how can we be most honest and practice creating sacred and expansive community? Certainly, there are challenges. One of my rabbinic colleagues who works in a national organization for teens maintains that policies are often not yet aligned with intentions. He experiences the landscape as a furiously moving field in which established groups and organizations with grounded history encounter difficulty keeping up with change. He is transparent about that. Honesty is critical for making space for everyone who wishes to be a part of community. His Torah (his personal Torah) is about admitting limitations and from there extending oneself to imagine and work towards what might be. He cannot do that alone. He counts on the kids to speak up about how they are and what they need. This colleague has internalized the teaching of Avot – Ethics of Our Ancestors – Ayzeh hu chacham? Who is the one who is wise? Halomed mekol adam. The one who learns from every person.

Kids can and need to be our teachers. In doing so, they learn from and educate one another. The invitation to find their voices may provide a sense of safety to teach towards the vibrancy of inclusive community. This same colleague shared that the requirement to complete a form that asked if participants were male or female elicited the following response from one teen (out of hundreds), “That question creates a binary that makes me feel excluded.” Having to choose male/female at this moment in my self- exploration leaves me out. That response from one individual became an invitation to opportunity. Let me tell you how you’ve made me feel unseen, unknown, without a piece of my identity from one voice led to how might we turn towards that person’s truth? How might we open the conversation to the larger group so that we learn about one another – our hopes, our fears, our challenges and dreams. What happens to one affects the whole. Judaism is grounded in a commitment to the individual in community. Those two constellations always move in their orbits. Our goal is to keep both in sight.

One challenge raised by this colleague is that he yearns for a deeper collaboration among youth organizations. I believe he’s right. Sharing best practices makes for robust learning and self-investigation. Hitlamdut, the learning of the self (deepest self awareness) strengthens individuals and has the capacity to transform organizational structures. Sitting among professionals in this way demands vulnerability. It also offers the landscape in which to articulate goals, think big, out of the box and practice dialogue that requires risk by building a sacred community of trust.

All of this revolves around what a community can hold. Another rabbinic colleague preaches from the bimah about acceptance of difference and how diversity makes us stronger. She shares that message in a global manner, not imbedded in a particular issue. Her Torah – the Jewish wisdom that guides her rabbinate – meet people where they are. This rabbi uses the broader message to invite one on one conversations, opening the door (so to speak) for people to feel like sacred dialogue can take place when they are willing to bring their story, their narrative, their identity forward. Holding back in this way, contracting oneself to make room for the other (or as a leader, for many others) isn’t always easy. I know this colleague has engaged in discernment about her messaging. She wrote to me from a place of honesty and reflection, “I realize I might be missing a lot of potential work and someone might not feel there is space for them because we have waited to have that conversation until they shared their need. And I struggle with that….Clearly different situations require different approaches. It seems like the quieter approach rouses (sic) less anxiety and drama.”

There is more than one way to make space for others, to engage and bring people away from the margins. Good leaders know their audience; in what ways one can push and agitate, how to raise tough questions, when and why to introduce change. This rabbi internalized a lesson from rabbinical school about observation and attention to how things surrounding change may cause anxiety or assist with transition. Attention to how people respond to change guides her role as leader in community. This Torah of patience and tzimtzum (contraction) is her authentic voice. It is a good match for her community.

The hope is that Jewish leaders land in the right community; when we don’t, we call upon our skills and knowledge of mind and heart to adjust our leadership to best meet the needs of the community in moving them forward. The goal is to keep moving. As a people, we are always on the way to the Promised Land. We can (and must) be still sometimes. But, stasis as a way of being will kill us as a people. I would say, a rabbi, cantor, Jewish educator or communal leader who feels stuck because their Torah is not the word of the congregation needs to have the courage to step away, to find a better match for the sake of their own spirit and the spirit of the community.

Some communities and their religious leaders easily start from “yes” when new opportunities and circumstances arise. One colleague shared that when he was asked to do a naming ceremony for a transgender congregant in discernment about transitioning, he (the rabbi) said, “Let’s figure it out. What ritual will best honor this time on the journey and place this holy soul within the context of the community where he has grown into who he is today?” The emphasis here is on finding expressions of Judaism that deepen the meaning of what is happening moment to moment in someone’s life.

For other colleagues it is about intentionality; weaving the myriad faces through the ongoing experiences of the community. The message of our Torah reading cycle at this time (last week Tazria and this week Metzora) hi-lights the skin ailment – tzara’at – that places the sufferer outside the community. The Torah tells us the one in pain is to exclaim tamei, tamei. This is often translated as impure; my colleague Rabbi Sara Luria of immersenyc – a community mikveh project suggests we understand this word as not yet ready. Not less than, as impurity might evoke. Rather, not wholly with you. In our world today, how is it that we come to be not wholly with the community? It could be for a variety of reasons – fear, exclusion, judgment. Even if wee don’t know how this state came to be; we, need to know it exists in that moment. The rabbis of the Talmud wisely explain this exclamation as an invitation to compassion from others, calling the community to embrace and support the afflicted, as the Talmud states, “He must make his grief publicly known so that the public may pray for him” (Shabbat 67a). The take away, the one in pain has the power to push the community to respond.

That call for support and to be seen will fall on deaf ears and closed eyes without regular attention to the cultivation of sacred community, a commitment to all as created b’tzelem elohim – in the image of the holy and Divine creator. While we’d like to say this is natural, it too takes practice. Rabbi Nosanchuk asked me to address the ways in which new clergy are being prepared to lead open communities. There are challenges. For all their good intentions, Seminaries do not yet have sufficient role models in all of the ways in which we strive to create sacred community. We can identify with someone’s values and characteristics in ways that motivate and inspire us and still need more obvious role models; people who face the same challenges and struggles, whose families look like ours, whose children have responded to the same questions and reactions as ours, those who have stepped away from the family constellation that demonstrates we must have children, or wear certain clothes, or feel certain things. I believe, as well, that Seminaries must be honest that creating spaces in which people of myriad identities and family structures feel safe and honored and welcome to be their most full selves is aspirational. Just as those places that train our religious leaders must be sensitive and aware of creating sacred space in the academy, so too must we strive to be open, aware and in constant conversation.

One of my wise education colleagues listed for me the ways in which she addresses the needs of creating a most open Jewish community relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and the diversity of family constellations in the classroom. She added a session to the day school practicum that deals with gender issues. She dedicated a session in a colleague’s supervision class to this framework. She teaches a course on gender and education when she can. She conducted a webinar for alumni. But, as she said, “who knows who even saw it.” And, I am compelled to raise up – she is only ONE person; ONE instructor, trying to squish critical learning into often already existing curricula. We need to see diversity as one of our sacred curricula, an authentic curriculum of living Torah. The students in our seminaries are thirsty for it. Our holy communities need it to thrive.

The Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is blessed to have a dedicated staff member for kids as they grow. Your Chevrei Tikvah LGBT Chavurah is part of the fabric of this community. Your rabbis push for transformational change. You are having the conversation implicitly and explicitly. I want to challenge even this shul that is so clearly paying attention. Do the following – keep God at the center. We know that as the Israelites travelled through the desert, God rested over the mishkan (the tabernacle) in the form of a cloud by day and a fire by night. No matter what was going on for the people God’s presence remained visible wherever they travelled. We must make room to hold God’s presence, creating space within our hearts, our souls and our minds. We must strive to accept one another for who and how we are. We must pay attention to what is going on around us and within us. This helps to align our intentions with our actions, even when our action is inaction.

In just a few days, we’ll fulfill the commandment l’hageed, to tell our story by means of the Haggadah. Our communal narrative should affirm diversity. Our tradition reminds us l’dor vador lirot et atzmo k’ilu yatza mimitzrayim – in each generation every one of us is called on to see ourselves as having come out of Egypt. Let us take the invitation to emerge from a narrow place into a space of freedom and liberation, demanding honesty and equity in community, kindness to one another and compassion towards oneself. May we be willing to risk to make space for others and ourselves so that the voice of sacred community resounds among us.