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‘If You’re Not Ready for Us, Get Ready for Us’

A roundtable discussion with LGBTQ Jews about making progress in the Jewish community, the barriers that remain, and the problem with ‘inclusion’

Abigail Pogrebin
June 23, 2022
The Minyan
Roundtables on the state of the American Jewish community, bringing together people from a shared demographic or background—everyday people with personal opinions, not experts who earn their salaries discussing these issues.
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This article is part of LGBTQ+ Voices.
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Pride Month should not be the only time we check in on how the Jewish community has changed when it comes to LGBTQ Jews. But Pride Month is a nice excuse to gather 10 LGBTQ Jews and ask whether they’ve found a home in Jewish life—if they were seeking one.

The participants in this inaugural edition of The Minyan were found by reaching out to rabbis, LGBTQ leaders, and friends whom I trust around the country. I asked for recommendations on who might be thoughtful and candid about their Jewish reality right now, and I pre-interviewed every person before our June 9 conversation to get a sense of their story and assure a variety of background, age, identity, and geography. Every person in this group could warrant a fascinating and educating article on his/her/their own, but the common denominator is this: They identify as LGBTQ, and they all care about being connected to Jewish community in some way.

Their ages, locations, and the adjectives they use to describe themselves

Ari: 47, New York City, gay man

Shoshana: 31, Brooklyn, trans nonbinary/transwoman

Aviad: 32, metro Detroit, bisexual man

Jaime: 53, upstate New York. “I am the T in LGBTQIA, and I am a gay guy.”

Esther: 25, New York City area, nonbinary lesbian

Rebecca: 52, Atlanta, queer

Daniel: 30, Chicago, gay man

Sarah: 30, Ogden, Utah, lesbian

Meg: 36, Phoenix, queer woman

Steve: 63, Los Angeles, “old fashioned gay”

How many of you think of the Jewish community as a welcoming place for LGBTQ Jews? Show of hands. I’m seeing nine wavering hands that suggest you’re in between yes and no. None of you say the Jewish community is fully welcoming. Daniel answers no. Why?

Daniel: There definitely are many parts and places of the Jewish community that are welcoming. But so much of it is not. I was born and raised in an Orthodox community and affiliated with a lot of Orthodox communities. Because there’s so much in the Orthodox community and outside it that is either not accepting of LGBT at all or only accepting of certain parts—like lesbian and gay but not trans people, for example—that it wouldn’t be fair to say we’re welcoming as a Jewish community while such a large chunk of people are stuck in communities where that is not the case.

Steve, were you a maybe?

Steve: I know that in the greater Jewish community there’s a lot of nonacceptance. But in my particular Jewish community, I feel completely accepted. And I think the LGBTQIA community at my shul feels completely accepted. From the top down, our founder and lead rabbi, Sharon Brous, has led a shul that is basically all about social justice and diversity. And our board is represented with people from our community, LGBTQIA+. There are several people of color also on the board.

There definitely are many parts and places of the Jewish community that are welcoming. But so much of it is not.

Rebecca: I’m happy to share why I’m a halfway answer. I come from a synagogue in Atlanta that was founded by gays and lesbians. We collapse LGBT, gender, and sexual diversity all the time in our world, our society. And I think there’s different experiences for people who are bisexual, gay, and lesbian versus somebody who is trans nonbinary, gender nonconforming in our Jewish community. I think denomination sometimes matters, but I have been at liberal or Reform synagogues where I’ve had more questions and responses that I was surprised by—that were quite negative. I grew up in a Conservative shul, my sister is Orthodox, so I had a wide range of experiences. I belonged to a Reconstructionist synagogue. And I have seen good and supportive and inclusive responses in all.

And how many lean more toward, “Yes, it is welcoming”? Two. Ari and Meg.

Ari: The Jewish community I’m responding to is the one that I’m a part of. It’s similar to Steve’s response. That’s why I’m saying yes. I’m a member of a large, welcoming Reform synagogue, and it’s never felt like an issue. If I zoom out and look at other parts of the Jewish community, sure: We could speak forever about the way in which those communities are exclusionary. So I chose yes because I was looking at it from my immediate community.

Meg: As someone who’s converted to Judaism in the last five years, I come from a place that was not very welcoming. I was raised Catholic and I live in Arizona, which is often in the news for not so good political reasons. But I go to a synagogue that’s closest to our house and feels very welcome. I’m on the board. There are other gay members on the board. For a long time we had a gay rabbi at our synagogue, and I think representation matters. It’s a Reform synagogue, but we drew in Jews from all over town who identified as part of our community, I think in part because that representation was so important. And even though that gay rabbi is no longer here, like Steve’s synagogue, ours is a really social justice-focused synagogue. I feel like I’m surrounded by peers.

Creating a space in LGBT spaces where Jews and non-Jews alike can come together and feel welcome—specifically by somebody who is of the cloth—I think is critical.

Can you raise your hands if it is important to you to be openly LGBTQ in Jewish spaces? [Eight raise hands.] I’m seeing everyone except for Ari and Daniel. Raise your hand if it is important to you to be identifiably Jewish in LGBTQ spaces? [Five say yes.] Aviad, Esther, Steve, Daniel, Rebecca. Can I hear from you, Jaime, as to why your answer is no?

Jaime: I don’t go to the LGBT community, so to speak, to express my Jewishness. I go to express my queerness. And I go to the Jewish community to unpack my queerness somehow and figure out why God made me this way, am I part of all of this? And so, if the question was, do you feel like you need to be kind of out-Jewish among gay people? Not so much, actually. I feel like I need to be out-Jewish among goyim generally.

Can you say a little bit more about where the Judaism helps you understand the queerness?

Jaime: Because I’m trans and gay. And I came out and dealt with this in the late ’80s, early ’90s, before there was a whole panel of people I could potentially talk to about this. I felt very alone and I felt, “Why did God do this to me?” and “What is my place in the universe?” And I kind of came to the conclusion actually that it’s a blessing, not a curse. I know that God exists, because God has been involved in my life and has smiled upon me in many ways.

Esther: I am in the first generation of nonbinary clergy people that are openly going through seminary. But being a person who, in the near future, will be clergy, a lot of my work is outreach, bringing people in who may not otherwise find community. I think people would often be surprised, when they show up at some sort of LGBT event, that there’s a disproportionate number of people who are Jewish. I work in the suburbs of New York City every weekend, and I have been trying to find friends, posting on LGBT chat boards. And when I write that I work at the local synagogue, they say, “Wait, there’s a gay-friendly synagogue in this area?!” People have no idea. And I’m not in an Orthodox institution; I’m on the other side of that. People still don’t feel like they’re welcome in [a more liberal] synagogue. And I personally have had past experiences of not feeling welcome in synagogue. I have been fired from a job while I’m in seminary for being trans. I was rejected from a pulpit because they were afraid I was going to be a militant trans person in my first year. And so, creating a space in LGBT spaces where Jews and non-Jews alike can come together and feel welcome—specifically by somebody who is of the cloth—I think is critical. I think that transcends religion. You know, when I’m able to form connections with someone, it’s important regardless of your religion. And so I feel it’s really critical. I actually have had to leave activism spaces because of a hostility toward Judaism. And I refuse to back down on being openly Jewish because people need to know that whatever place I am in, it’s safe to be a Jewish person and it’s safe to be a member of the LGBT community.

My life has been about finding the right communities where I could be accepted and could be who I am without too much tension or friction.

You’ve mentioned moments of pain, moments of feeling the sting of assumptions and prejudice. Is anyone willing to share a moment that might give a window into the reality of exclusion, bigotry, insensitivity in a Jewish space?

Jaime: If I think about when I was really small—and this is not anything mean or ill-spirited by my community or anything—but I started to go to Hebrew school and I was preparing for my bat mitzvah, but I didn’t want to be a bat mitzvah. I wanted to be a bar mitzvah. As a very small kid, to be gendered like that turned me off. Similarly, being in chorus in elementary school, we were separated out by gender. I mean, it’s really being separated by voice-part, but you’re separated out by your gender. I think that those things had a really profound impact. But there’s nothing mean about the vocal divisions, there’s nothing evil about them. They’re just tradition. So you, Esther on this call, are, in a sense, going to change everything—not necessarily on purpose or being radical. It’s a very simple thing: Is it a bat mitzvah? Is it a bar mitzvah? I called it my “not mitzvah,” actually.

Esther: You commented on two things that are a huge deal in my seminary program. I now call everything a “B-mitzvah” until otherwise specified. I even had two cisgender young ladies who wanted to call their ceremony a “b’nai mitzvah” or a “B-mitzvah,” but not “b’not mitzvah” [the traditional plural for girls] because they didn’t want it to be so gendered. And I was like, “All right, ‘B-mitzvah,’ let’s do it.” You don’t have to be trans to use “B-mitzvah.” And as far as singing voice parts, we are moving toward pushing the ideas of treble and bass voice parts, because in our studies, we come across cantors who are very much trebles, but they are cisgender men, and we come across women who are contraltos, who are very much cis women. And then there’s various combinations in between. I am often, when I am singing in a choir, a tenor, and have been my whole life. That has nothing to do with my gender and everything to do with my voice part. So the big push in my seminary right now is to move away from “men’s” and “women’s” voices to treble, baritone, tenor, bass voices, that kind of thing.

Shoshana: Going back to moments of exclusion, there have definitely been a few times when I’ve been in a Jewish community that hasn’t worked as I expected. I’m married to a rabbi. And while that rabbi was in school—they were at a very large, well-known liberal institution—and even then, the head rabbi was openly hostile to the idea of a nonbinary, AFAB [assigned female at birth] rabbinical student not wearing a more feminine outfit. This reaction to me was very common. Another experience I had was when I trained as a mikvah guide at the 92Y. Someone—a ciswoman—came up to me and asked how I could be trans and be in a space like this, how could I be in what they considered a safe space. This person was also concerned with the way I was dressing. I was dressing in my usual way, which is femme. And this person was like, “How can you dress that way in front of people, in front of children?” And I said, “Well, I’m not really a sex object; I’m a person.” That’s kind of how that works.

When I came out, we were in the AIDS epidemic and it was a really tough time to be gay, to be a gay man. And I can’t believe the things that I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Has that kind of reaction improved? Have you seen an evolution?

Shoshana: I find myself choosing to be in very self-selective spaces. I tend to go to either queer-derived or queer-affirming spaces where I can just be. And I let the rest of the community do what they’re doing. It’s not because they’re doing anything wrong; just because I want to live and let live.

Aviad, you also have the added layer of being a Jew of color. When you are walking into a room, do you feel like you need to lead with your multiple identities, that you have to announce them in some way?

Aviad: I’ll start with the bisexual part of my identity. Because I think for me—even though it’s important for people to know my Jewish identity in LGBTQ+ spaces, it’s a little bit more important for me that people know that I am part of the LGBTQ+ community in Jewish spaces. And I think that’s because, in part anyway, I was raised mainline Protestant. I spent six years at a very conservative Protestant Christian school growing up, where if I came out as bi, I would have most likely been expelled. Since then I’ve been dealing with hang-ups about religion, being able to come to terms with my identity both in and out of religious spaces. And it’s important for me that people understand. I don’t start conversations with, “Hi, I’m Aviad and I’m bisexual.” But it’s important that when the conversation arises, when it’s appropriate, that I do talk about this part of my identity. Because in a way, it’s me reclaiming a relationship with the divine that I did not have access to growing up. It’s a relationship with the divine that looks very, very different than I had as a kid. That’s a good thing. In terms of my identity as a Black Jew, I’ve had microaggressions toward me in the past, like people assuming that I’m not Jewish if I enter a Jewish space that I’ve never been in before, or people mistaking me for another Jew of color who doesn’t even really look like me at all. And it hurts. But I also know that more often than not, it doesn’t come from a place of hatred, it comes from a place of ignorance, and it’s just a reminder of the work that still very much needs to be done.

There are so many experiences I’ve had where I’ve been in queer Jewish spaces and it’s just felt magical.

We all know—and probably it’s worthy of a yawn to you at this point—that there’s this tension between tradition and evolution. Core to Judaism, for many people, is the idea that it’s lasted, and it remains something recognizable, from generation to generation. How that gets balanced against reimagination and redefinition is part of what I think is alive here in this conversation. How do you respond to people who say, “Are you trying to change this thing so that it’s unrecognizable?” or “How do we hold on to this thing that I know and treasure from my ancestors?”

Daniel: Am I trying to change this thing? Yes, I am. And I’m also a member of the clergy. And I think trying to change this thing is very much within our tradition. Things have evolved so much from 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and certainly from 3,000 years ago when the Torah was first written. I think part of our tradition is that things evolve over time. So, yes, I want to change it; not to the extent that it’s unrecognizable, but in steps. When I was ordained as a rabbi, my teacher told me, “I don’t know all the answers to all the questions about how queer people can be a rabbi. And that’s one of the reasons I’m ordaining you—so that there can be people like you, and other people who are working on this and can do this work.” The work can be done. But if you’re constantly not creating spaces where LGBTQ people are affirmed and can feel safe and comfortable, then that’s not going to happen.

Ari, you were raised in a family where some members have clear lines around tradition. How do you see some of this landscape changing?

Ari: My life has been about finding the right communities where I could be accepted and could be who I am without too much tension or friction. And for that reason, I have landed at the synagogue where I am now with my husband and our kids. I am proximate, because of family members, to more Orthodox and frum communities. And I know what their answers are and I know their point of view. And it’s not a place where I feel empowered to have an engaged discussion about halacha and Orthodox interpretation of these issues. Because they would likely speak ad nauseam about the rabbinical interpretations for centuries. And I would have a few responses, and that would probably be it. I have a brother who’s a Breslov Hasid in Jerusalem who leads an extremely frum, observant life. So I just know that in his community, my family—who I am, how we live—are not accepted. I live my life on the other side of the planet. My parents are stuck navigating between their two kids, and my brother is on the other extreme.

In the Venn diagram of my life, my Jewish self and my queer self are the same. I don’t feel like I have to be different people in different spaces.

Because of your specific generation, you’ve seen quite an arc in your lifetime. Can you just give us a sense of just how much has changed?

Steve: It’s really evolved at warp speed. I didn’t see it coming necessarily. I mean, when I came out, we were in the AIDS epidemic and it was a really tough time to be gay, to be a gay man. And I can’t believe the things that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Now at IKAR a few years ago, I headed the LGBTQIA group where we were trying to make changes within IKAR and they mostly involved issues around trans members. Everything our task force suggested pretty much happened: We got a gender-neutral bathroom, some language was changed. But when I was working with this group, I was really aware of how I came from a place of total gratitude that we’ve come so far. And yes, we can do better, we can always do better. But at IKAR, as I said, I have no complaints. They’ve really addressed everything that’s been brought to them. But a lot of these people in this group—and a lot of them were straight allies in this group, but they were all younger than me—very much like this group, they were just my kids’ age or a little bit older, and they were very impatient with things. And I would say to them sometimes, “God, you guys, this is what it was like decades ago. We begged for scraps. There were ballot propositions in deep blue California to deny us marriage, to deny gay people from being schoolteachers.” I have to say, with this Supreme Court, I’m really terrified of everything that’s going to change, including gay issues. Privacy might be out the door, and I think they could easily revoke gay marriage because precedent doesn’t seem to matter.

Shoshana: I wanted to make two points. The first is that there are today halachic spaces where the tradition and the needs for change are wrestled with. My wife is a Conservative rabbi and I’m a Conservative Jew and that’s been a space, in addition to some traditional egalitarian spaces, where the tradition is already being wrestled with. And you can still be observant. I personally am shomer Shabbat, shomer chag, and shomer kashrut. That is an essential part of my life. And I can’t imagine not being those things any less than I can imagine not being trans.

The other point I think it’s important to mention is joy—the joy of being queer and Jewish. There are so many experiences I’ve had where I’ve been in queer Jewish spaces and it’s just felt magical. You know, the one quick example I’ll give is going to queer Talmud camp at SVARA. It was interesting—I found that even in SVARA, there were different pockets of people and I found a lot of really radical trans Torah happening among the trans and nonbinary clergy, but also just people who are very invested in these texts. There was, for example, a whole presentation on the trans Toldot [generations] of all the patriarchs. This has always been a queer story. It was transformational.

It should be a shared space between people, and no one is ‘including’ anyone else, which implies a hierarchy.

I want to go to Rebecca and Sarah, particularly since you’re not on the coasts. Let’s start with Sarah: the fact that you have a Mormon dad—am I right about that?

Sarah: He would say that he’s not Mormon anymore, but he grew up Mormon, yes.

And your life partner is Mormon?

Sarah: She’s also ex-Mormon.

OK. But you certainly have a perspective on the religious spectrum in Utah. There’s not a lot of Jews where you are; you’ve really helped to create something of an outlier when it comes to Jewish community in your town. Can you give us a little bit of a sense of what it feels like to be living in a way that diverges from the majority so consistently?

Sarah: When Shoshana talked about joy in queer Jewish spaces, I had to think of the last time I was in a queer Jewish space, and I can only think of one. So it’s really nice to know that there are places out there for people like me where people find joy. And that’s not to say that I don’t have plenty of joy here, but it’s kind of lonely with me being one of I would say maybe five “out” Jewish people in my congregation, and that’s rounding up (and includes my girlfriend, who’s not Jewish). It’s definitely isolating. And my little congregation in Ogden is tiny. We have about 49 member units right now, and that’s really big for us. So yeah, it’s small. My synagogue is very much DIY; we don’t have a rabbi, we don’t have any staff. It’s really what you make it. And when I moved back from college in Seattle to my hometown synagogue, which is really all I’ve ever known, and I started leading synagogue services and joined the board of trustees, I really wanted to make it fit me. And that meant coming out to the members and coming out to myself, which was harder. And really just saying, “Damn the consequences; I want to see if I can fit here.” And I can. And I’m really glad I can.

Rebecca, can you give us a sense of how things are going when it comes to LGBTQ Jews in the South?

Rebecca: Well, they’re awful legislatively. It’s not just the South. It’s the Midwest. It’s the Southwest. It’s scary, it’s terrifying here. And people need to be educated. I recently spoke to an influential civic group who wanted to know what to do and what not to do. But they gave me only 10 minutes to talk. They recognized they were shortchanging the conversation, but it still happened, and they didn’t have time for follow-up. You know, Atlanta is a very large city with a large Jewish community. I grew up in Boston, but I’ve been here for almost 30 years, and I have seen a tremendous amount of progress.

The number of people who are identifying as LGBTQ+ is growing and this trend is going to continue growing. So if you’re not ready for us, get ready for us.

Meg, since you’re also a convert, can you talk about whether Judaism in some way was a window into thinking about your LGBTQ identity?

Meg: My wife is a rabbi and I do feel like Judaism opened some windows for me. I was drawn to the appreciation for otherness. When I was converting, I studied with a rabbi who really encouraged me to see the part of me—that has always been social justice-minded and that has worked professionally in civil rights law—to see that part of me as Jewish. That has been so transformational for me. In the Venn diagram of my life, my Jewish self and my queer self are the same. I don’t feel like I have to be different people in different spaces. That has been really beautiful for me, coming from a Catholic background where growing up I was taught that people like me—their families and their love—was sort of conflated with sin, which was a confusing thing for a kid to learn. And so I do hear that we certainly have work to do. I hear you all saying that. But for me, the contrast is so stark, that in my particular spaces that I am in, it is so beautiful that we have come this far. I never imagined it for myself. And I think the fact that we have all these voices on this call … And that I know so many in rabbinical school [who are] gay or nonbinary at this point. So I think there’s going to be a ton of new leaders coming out, too, who are going to just keep helping to change the world, which is great. So I feel very welcome and I really love my community.

How many of you have chosen either a synagogue or a spiritual community because it is LGBTQ-focused or friendly? Raise your hand if that is how you chose your prayer community. I’m seeing five of you: Daniel, Rebecca, Shoshana, Aviad, and Steve. And for the others, is the answer no?

Esther: My prayer community is where I work as a student clergy person. I don’t get a lot of choice in where I end up. We do a ranking system. I don’t really have a choice. I might have more choice once I’m ordained, but I don’t have it now.

Ari, in terms of places like CBST [Congregation Beit Simchat Torah], which was known for years as “The Gay Synagogue” and was created essentially for LGBTQ Jews to have a home decades ago, is there a perspective that you have on why you didn’t choose to belong there or to someplace similar?

Ari: I chose a community with my husband that felt comfortable for us and where being gay was a nonissue, I guess. So it wasn’t the primary issue or the founding issue or a factor in the establishment of the congregation or one of the driving principles that led it. When we were discussing where to join, I also raised the question of the future of those communities that had been built as gay and lesbian, trans—(these synagogues probably called themselves gay and lesbian communities at the time). I questioned what the future of those synagogues and congregations might be when so many other parts of Reform Judaism and Conservative and other parts of Judaism have also opened their eyes and hearts and arms in a way that they hadn’t in 1960 or ’70 or ’80.

I want to get at what I know is this tension—everywhere, but in LGBTQ spaces for this discussion—about being out as a Zionist. For those who identify as pro-Israel, are you comfortable being pro-Israel in LGBTQ spaces? Raise your hand if you are. I see Daniel and Steve. That’s it. For those who are not comfortable being pro-Israel in LGBTQ spaces, can you raise your hand? I see Rebecca, Sarah, Aviad, Esther, and Meg.

Esther: I am originally from the middle of the country and I did a lot of activist work when I was in college. And I actually had to stop doing activist work, regardless of my own views on Zionism, because at the coffee shop that we were meeting at to do work, there were Zionist conspiracy books on the shelves that basically pinned most of the world’s problems on the “cabal.” Regardless of my own Zionism, it obviously was not a safe place for Jews. So I did not return to that.

It’s me reclaiming a relationship with the divine that I did not have access to growing up.

Meg: This is what came up for me when you asked whether we were openly Jewish in LGBT spaces. And I do really feel like it’s not necessarily one political party or the other, or Jews or non-Jews, when it comes to people who feel differently about Israel; we are incapable of talking about this topic in any kind of civilized way, with any kind of nuance. And because of that, it’s just easier to avoid it.

I learned in my research for this article that “inclusion” has become a very toxic word. Why is inclusion a problematic word when it comes to LGBTQ Jews?

Daniel: Because you have to include me. Right? Then you are welcoming me into your space. And I don’t feel like that should be the case. I feel like it should be a shared space between people, and no one is including anyone else, which implies a hierarchy.

What is the most important thing that other Jews should know about LGBTQ Jews?

Jaime: God made us, and God loves us, too.

Esther: We have existed for all of recorded history and will continue to exist for the rest of the future of the Jewish people.

Shoshana: God is queer, and God is nonbinary. And that’s part of faith in the Divine: coming to terms with that.

Daniel: We’re not waiting for anyone. We’re living our lives. And a lot of us are pretty happy. And we’re not sitting around waiting for some panel of rabbis to decide if we’re going to be happy or not.

God made us, and God loves us, too.

Rebecca: If we want Jewish continuity, we have to stop shaming and shunning people. We are contributing to Jewish continuity.

Ari: We’re sitting in synagogue for some of the same reasons you are. We’re all brought to this experience and this tradition for the same reasons, regardless of where we are, who we come from, and what’s driving our identity.

Sarah: I would say that just as you can look into the Torah, scripture, and just see infinity, the same thing is true with the Jewish people and with LGBTQ Jews. Like Esther said today, we’ve always been here. Like Shoshana said, we’re going to be around. And it’s strange to say from my place here in Utah, surrounded by so much of another religion, not being part of the dominant religion, but we’re here.

Steve: I would ask people who don’t want to include us in Jewish life, if they stone their disrespectful children? I think the Torah is so much more expansive than their view of what the Torah is.

Aviad: Not only have we always been here, but our numbers are getting even higher. The number of people who are identifying as LGBTQ+ is growing and this trend is going to continue growing. So if you’re not ready for us, get ready for us.

Meg: It’s in everyone’s best interest—if continuity is important—to get on board, because the next generations will be Jews of color, interfaith families, LGBT Jews. … These are the people who the young Jews want to see in these spaces. And it’s really only a matter of time.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.