I received notice today that Nehirim, Keshet JTS and the JCC of Manhattan are planning to hold a healing service (see details below) to mark the wounds that LGBTQ Jews have felt as a result of the public discussions and repudiations of our lives.

I appreciate this, but this event sparked another question for me–and that’s the question of what it means to heal, and the things people need to heal. It sparked the necessity of saying I want more. I want more for the hundreds and thousands of LGBTQ Jews who have been disfranchised, who have felt less than, inferior, who have been told they are dirty or a disgrace, who have been lied to and shamed. Who have been forced to turn away from community and faith. I want a public apology, a true public teshuvah, for the pain inflicted, for the deeds that have been done, for the lives that have been so pained, for the people who have had to endure these wounds and did not walk away–for the people like Rabbi Benay Lappe.

Rabbi Benay Lappe is just one example of the lives that have been harmed. Lappe, a wonderful educator who continues to give back to communities today as Rosh Yeshivah of SVARA, had to be closeted in order to attend, and be ordained by, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Just three days before her ordination, Lappe was interrogated by a Dean after an anonymous student told of Lappe’s long-term relationship with a woman. Lappe was forced in this moment to make a decision that no person should have to make. She knew why she had spent the past five years closeted. She knew that she wanted to leave JTS in hand with an education that she could bring to her community, long marginalized from having access to learning text and Talmud. But here she was confronted head-on with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. At the end of her two-hour interrogation, and years of having to deny who she was amongst her peers and in classes that denied her existence as holy and just, she had to deny her identity so she could graduate.

Lappe’s story doesn’t end there–in 2003, after years of successful teaching and scholarship, Lappe describes in a public letter how she was offered a teaching position at a Solomon Schechter day school, to then have the position rescinded.

From her letter:

If you do not, believe me when I tell you that when they do come to full awareness of their sexuality, they will either reject Judaism or will reject themselves-because you are teaching them, even if by only your silence, that they cannot be both. In the former case, they will be deprived of their heritage, live spiritual lives divorced from their natural patrimony, and the Jewish community will be deprived of their gifts. And in the latter case, they will live lives doomed to unhappiness and a lack of emotional and spiritual fulfillment-at best.

You are their rabbi. It is your job to teach these young people that, no matter what their sexuality, their tradition embraces them completely. If you do not, they will struggle alone to reconcile the two truths of their lives which they will believe the world around them to be telling them are incompatible. Is it any wonder that gay and lesbian teens are two- to three-times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers? That 30% of gay and lesbian adolescents make suicide attempts at least once? That gay and lesbian youth represent 30% of all completed teen suicides? Not only their Jewish identity but their very lives are in your hands. You have only one choice: to help them love themselves, or to help them hate themselves…

We are a movement which allows for a range of opinion on many issues, including halachic issues. I urge you to consider creating a school community in which not all rabbis or teachers may agree with you, but may embody a fuller representation of our movement’s range of options. I do not ask you to agree with my understanding of Leviticus, or of human nature. But I ask you to give your students the opportunity to learn another Conservative opinion on the matter.

As rabbis, it is our job to teach and to lead. It is not our job to succumb to baseless prejudice and small-mindedness. On the contrary, it is our job to challenge our constituents to a greater understanding of God, of one another, and of themselves. And it is our job to be challenged by one another, and to strive ourselves for greater understandings of God’s will.

In our professional careers, we are given few chances to do something truly momentous. We are given few chances to make a historic difference. We are given few chances to literally change the world. We are given few chances to literally save the lives of our students. You will not be universally popular if you decide to retract your objection to the hiring of a gay or lesbian teacher. It will not be easy for you to withstand the criticism of some of your ba’alei batim. But you will have few opportunities in your career to ever do something this important again.

I am enclosing with this letter a stack of semester- and year-end evaluations written by my students at the Milken Community Middle and High School, many of whom come from Conservative as well as Orthodox homes (not a single parent from which, I might add, ever expressed the slightest objection to my teaching their children). When you consider denying your Schechter students the opportunity to be my students, I want you to realize exactly what you’re depriving them of. And when you think of your Schechter parents, ask yourself what it is, ultimately, that you think they want from their children’s teachers, and how they want their children to be influenced in the classroom. I think these evaluations speak for themselves.

What now for the people like Rabbi Lappe? It is important for us as a community to come together, to share our stories, to find ways to heal. Yet, I still think of the words Benay wrote in 2003, “Today, to the disgrace of our tradition, gay and lesbian Jews have been rendered captives by rabbis who either lack their ancestors’ courage to be legal activists or who fail to realize the enormous pain they perpetuate with their inaction. We risk our nefesh as a people when we pretend that the only way to do the right thing is to step outside of a Jewish legal framework. And we risk our nefesh as a people when we diminish Jewish law – and God – by hiding behind an impoverished caricature of both, claiming that “Our hands are tied,” or “It’s God’s will,” allowing injustice and human suffering to continue.”

Today, some Rabbis have shown their courage, but this question of how we heal lingers with a bitter taste in my mouth as institutions remain in limbo, as there remains no real public apology for the lives that have been damaged and lost.

I hope people will come together to have these moments of sharing together, as much as I also hope that one day, there is something more that we see from our leaders–a resounding call of what we know to be our truth.

After the Flood, the Rainbow: A Healing Service for LGBTQ Jews
Mon, Feb 19
7 pm, Free
JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. (at W. 76th St.)

Join faculty members of Nehirim for an informal evening of ritual, healing, and talking about gays and lesbians and the organized Jewish community, its members & denominations. Many in the LGBTQ community have felt wounded by their ‘movements of origin’ as they came out and searched for an accepting Jewish community. Recently, many Jews have felt a sense of disconnect or even despair in the wake of the recent debates about homosexuality. Informed by current events, this evening will not be a debate about the issues. Rather, participants will experience 90 minutes of stories, song, and ritual to begin the healing process for LGBTQ Jews, and their families, friends and allies. Co-sponsored by Keshet JTS and the JCC in Manhattan.