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by Mira Sucharov, November 17,2010

Picture this. You attended synagogue regularly when your kids were young. There, your son marked his bar mitzvah, before sitting on the board of the shul’s youth group. At 28, your son got engaged -- happily for him, to a fellow Jew, since talk of conversion with prospective non-Jewish partners in past relationships had fallen flat. Your son and his betrothed planned to return to Ottawa for the wedding. But when they approached your rabbi, they were turned away. 


Any shul will happily marry two Jews. But not every shul will marry two gay Jews.


Communities at their core are places of refuge and protection. At their best, they are havens of familiarity and vehicles of social identity. When energized and well-oiled, communities spring into action when needed. 


Noting the loneliness and poor health of isolated seniors, Canadian Jews build multi-million dollar facilities to help the aged live in dignity. Being aware of Jewish poverty, we support Jewish family services and stock the shelves of kosher food bank. Realizing that Jewish literacy is on the decline, we band together to strengthen our Jewish schools.


But what are we doing for our community’s gays, and specifically for our gay youth who, as the chilling teen suicides of the past few months across the United States reveal, may be in deep distress?


Awareness of LGBT issues and acceptance of homosexuality have admittedly come miles since I was young. Today, gays can come out with much less fear of societal reprobation. A former campus Hillel staff member, who himself is openly gay, explained to me that today’s university students are more afraid of the reactions of their parents, were they to come out, than of their peers. 


In 1990, the Reform movement voted to allow openly gay clergy (Reconstructionist Judaism in 1985), and, in 1999, to allow its rabbis to perform same-sex marriages. (Reconstructionist Judaism encourages its clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages.)


In the Conservative movement, attitudes are quickly evolving: in 2007, the movement voted to allow its rabbis to perform same-sex “commitment ceremonies,” while allowing openly gay and lesbian rabbis to be ordained. This decision was closely followed by openly gay adults being allowed to staff United Synagogue Youth programs. (Amazing to contemplate the hiring discrimination that was in play just a few years ago.) 


But the fact that many gay Jewish youth still cannot count on their rabbi -- given that these movements leave the decision up to the individual clergy member -- to marry them sends a troubling message. 


And with the exception of important worldwide examples like Rabbi Steven Greenberg, openly gay Orthodox Jews are nearly an oxymoron. (The excellent documentary Trembling Before G-d tells their heartrending story.) 

There’s an arresting line by Leonard Cohen in the documentary film I’m Your Man. Of his Za-Zen master, Cohen recounts: “He didn’t care who I was. And he did care who I was.” It’s a brilliant dualism. For outreach to work, our institutions must enable gays to be both invisible and visible. When they drop their kids at the JCC preschool or stand on the bima at their daughter’s bat mitzvah, two dads need to be seen simply as two dads -- or two moms -- doing what parents do.


But we also need to affirm the variety of sexual orientation in our midst, rather than ignore it. At its most basic, homosexuality is about sexual attraction. But it’s also an identity, one that typically entails a loosening of the boundaries of traditional gender attitudes, and certainly the redefinition of traditional gender roles. 


With identity comes both practical concerns and the need and desire for recognition. If I’m a gay Jew and wish to marry inside the faith, how best can I meet prospective partners? If I am religiously observant, how can I reconcile Jewish tradition with my sexual orientation? And if I want my gay and Jewish identities to be tightly interwoven, is there a vibrant gay Jewish group I can join?


Most importantly, with identity comes the need for affirmation. If it is part of who I am, I no doubt crave recognition around that identity. Just as we encourage our Jewish youth to be proud of being Jewish, we need to enable our gay Jewish youth to be proud of being Jewish -- and gay. This means embracing diversity in our community, and pressing our institutions and our community leaders to smash down the barriers to inclusion. Saying “everyone is welcome” is a great start. But there remain practices that need changing. And we just might save some Jewish lives doing it.

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