Gavriel Ansara is a polycultural polyglot from an observant Jewish background with ties to several continents. He is a board member of Keshet, Boston’s Jewish GLBTQI advocacy and education organization, and founder/coordinator of Tiferet, a Keshet project designed to meet the needs of Orthodox and traditionally observant Jews who self-identify as gender and/or sexual minorities. An educator, healer, and literary alchemist, his current research involves pioneering holistic psychological models for positive trans youth development and needs assessments for diverse trans youth populations to make successful transitions to adulthood. He has given numerous guest lectures and invited presentations.

IB of JVoices: What does it mean to you to be Jewish?

Gavriel: It means that I have an ineradicable obligation to strive toward making each moment of my life a seamless prayer that pays homage to Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the
Divine Beloved. Being Jewish compels me to give voice to those whose voices are without validation, to use my malchut (sphere of influence) to promote the sanctity and dignity of existence, to devote myself utterly to Tikkun Olam, to fulfill my mission as a potential light of justice and Torah in the world.

For me, being Jewish is about knowing G-d intimately rather than restricting myself to the intellectual sphere of mere belief. Being Jewish is less about a fixed destination than about constantly drawing closer to G-d, opening myself more deeply to sacredness, to discovering myself as thoroughly as possible so that I can give more of myself to Hashem.

My Jewish heritage leads me to pursue social justice and to challenge myself and others to examine biases, limitations, and barriers to our individual and collective growth. As a Jew, I am forced to grapple with tradition and halacha with intellectual integrity, accepting Torah as a living organism that neither ignores the personal and contemporary circumstances of my experience nor wavers based on mere convenience.

Being Jewish is complex, mystical, soulful, passionate, ecstatic, painful, and profound.

IB: What makes you feel connected to other Jews?

Gavriel: I feel connected to other Jews when we connect through tefillah, zmirot, conversation, ritual, chevrutah study, and through mystical experiences during which we are stripped of klippot, of surface pretenses and ego-driven tumah (impurity).

I feel a sense of belonging and home when I am in Jewish environments that welcome cross-cultural Jewish experiences, when I encounter people who seek to validate and ennoble other Jews and non-Jews rather than to condemn or dominate them.

As a traditionally observant Jew, I seek to glorify halachic Torah life by modeling respect, compassion, and love for Jews whose observances and opinions differ from my own. I try never to assume that people who do not share my observances are less holy or less close to G-d. On the contrary, I believe that each of us is placed in our various contexts by Hashem H”self. To accept the dominion of G-d, I must transcend pedestrian prejudices and superficial judgements to find the mystical truths beneath appearances.

I aspire never to be so arrogant as to pass judgement on why G-d has placed one Jew in a secular context and another in a traditionally observant context. I have ceased using the terms “religious” and “non-religious” to distinguish between differing levels of Jewish observance. How can I possibly know the inner souls of my fellow Jews well enough to label them irreligious? How could I presume to achieve the omniscience that is possessed only by Hashem, the Knower of Our Secrets? All people may be religious or non-religious in actuality, regardless of the external manner in which they display their relationships with Hashem.

I believe that the Torah obligates me to grapple with halacha and the everlasting brit that my ancestors made with G-d, without whose deliverance the Jewish people would not exist. I do not believe that my Torah observance qualifies me to ridicule or insult Jews who do not share my observances. It is this very ridicule that turns so many Jews away from traditional Jewish observance.

IB: What makes you feel disconnected from other Jews?

Gavriel: When I hear Jews making racist, classist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, hateful comments about entire groups of people, it breaks my heart as a Jew. I grieve for the sins of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and lashon hara (evil speech) that we– all of us– commit on a daily basis as a people, against the same strangers that the Torah entreats us to welcome and protect. I am soul sick when I encounter cultural chauvinism among Jews. I have never felt more disconnected from other Jews than when I heard a fellow Jew use a racial epithet during kiddush.

I have no spiritual or emotional defenses against the bigotry of other Jews. This behaviour leaves me bereft, speechless, isolated, and empty. I only wish that the same people who bicker about the nuances of kashrut would recognise that they endanger the souls of all Jews with their Torah-prohibited speech. As a halachic Jew, I am painfully aware that failure to challenge this sort of bigotry among self-proclaimed halachic or Orthodox Jews permits the desecration of G-d’s name, chas v’shalom.

Unfortunately, several friends from less traditional Jewish contexts have reminded me that this bigotry is present in non-traditional Jewish contexts as well. Contrary to what some people would prefer to believe, Orthodox Jews do not have a monopoly on hatred or narrow-mindedness.

IB: What kind of Jewish community do you have, and what kind of Jewish community do you desire?

Gavriel: I know many other traditional Jews who share my commitment to social justice from a Torah perspective. I seek a Jewish community that shares my belief in the abiding legitimacy of traditional halacha while respecting the equally legitimate concept of halacha as a organic process that must reconcile the unwaivable dictates of tradition with the need to be responsive and meaningful to contemporary Jews.

Despite the fact that I am blessed with a rabbi who shares my tzedek values, I lack a community that shares my values and confronts the bigotry in its midst. My spiritual life continues to suffer as a result of this unfulfilled need. I refuse to give up either my halachic observances or the commitment to social justice that is inherent to my traditional way of life.

So I play educator in synagogue when I crave a space in which I could merely throw myself into connection with the Divine and with my people, without shields, without worrying that I will be stabbed in the heart by the poisonous speech of my own spiritual family.

There is no peace in my current communal Jewish life because there is no justice. This place of discomfort is a place of truth, and so I struggle with alienation, cleaving to Hashem as my one safe harbour. I do not know for how long I will dwell in this communal midbar. I trust that Hashem will continue to send enough spiritual man (manna) to sustain me in my journey through the wilderness of modern Jewish life.