Discovering Love for Israel as LGBTQ Jews: Drash [Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-34:35)] / February 14, 2014


By Arthur Slepian, “A Wider Bridge” Executive Director 

Shabbat Shalom.   And Happy Valentine’s Day.   Thank you Lisa for inviting me on to the bimah, it’s always a pleasure and an honor to be here at BCC.   I appreciate that you all chose to be here tonight, when  you could be out on a romantic Valentine’s Day date.   And I will mention that not only is tonight Valentines Day and Purim Chatan, it’s also one of several wedding anniversaries for my husband Gerry and I.  On Valentine’s Day in 2004, then Mayor Gavin Newsom opened San Francisco’s City Hall for same sex weddings.  Hundreds of couples waited for hours on what were rather festive lines outside the building for the chance to get married.   The State Supreme Court later nullified all those marriages, so Gerry and I had another wedding in October 2008, and that one stuck.

I came here to talk about love.   Judaism has a lot to say about love.   For example, we are instructed in Deuteronomy with these familiar words:  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And in this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites get in a lot of trouble for bestowing their love not on God, but on a golden calf.   The tablets which Moses brings down from Sinai contain the Ten Commandments, which instruct us, among other things, on love for our parents, and the fidelity of our love for our spouses.

But my question for tonight is not about love for God or the people close to us, but about love for Israel.   On the trips that A Wider Bridge leads to Israel, we invariably have people who say at the end:   I didn’t come here expecting to fall in love with Israel, but I did.   What could it mean to love a country?  What are the people we bring to Israel falling in love with?  (I thought about calling this talk: “Why do Jews fall in love?  And why do birds sing so gay?…)

Let me offer two suggestions:   First, I think people fall in love with the experience of being in Israel and being able to be their whole selves, Jewish and queer.

On our trip we always take some time to share a bit of our journey as a LGBTQ Jew.   The stories we hear are varied and powerful, as each person reflects on the journey of their life that had brought them on this trip.   There were people in our last group of all ages, from their 20s to their 60s, from all parts of the U.S. (and the UK and Israel!), gay, lesbians, and transgender and gender queer, and from a multitude of Jewish traditions.  Many of the group were in Israel for the first time, and for all of us it was the first time to experience Israel in an LGBTQ group.    Yet if there was a common theme in our stories, it was a desire to be whole, to be our queer selves and our Jewish selves together, with pride in all of it.   And there was a sense of great joy that we were finding a taste of this wholeness in Israel, with a new community of friends.

Here is one story:

Michael is 28 and lives in New York City. Michael’s first and only prior trip to Israel occurred ten year ago when he graduated from high school his parents sent him to spend a year at a yeshiva in Israel. During that time, he came out to his school and his parents, who coerced him into joining a reparative therapy program in Israel which continued when he got back to the U.S. As he describes it, this first trip was one that invalidated his identity and left him wondering if there was a place for him in Jewish life, and in Israel. By contrast, returning to Israel with A Wider Bridge 10 years later, on a trip that enabled him to celebrate his gay and Jewish identities together, is a key part of a journey that is enabling him to find his way back to Jewish life and to connection with Israel

As we travel around Israel, we see that LGBT people are visible to a degree that surprises most visitors.  We meet with young LGBT filmmakers, musicians and activists.   The cafes and bars of Tel Aviv are filled with out and proud gays and lesbians.   And as I lead these trips each year, I get to see how even in a short period of time, Israel is changing.   Here are a few examples: Five years ago there were just two LGBT Pride marches in Israel, In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.   Last year there were more than a dozen, including in Haifa, Be’ersheva and even Ashdod.   Today the café outside the gay center in Tel Aviv is filled with same-sex couples with baby strollers and young children.   The “Gayby boom” in is full force in Israel.   And five years ago, the organizations that serve Israel’s religious LGBT Jews were just getting started.  On our last trip we got to go to Gavrah in Tel Aviv, a new “party line,” where once a month a local bar becomes a joyous gathering place for Orthodox gay men, and you get a discount if you come wearing a kipah.

But on this last trip we also learned that LGBT life in Israel is surely not a new phenomenon.  During our visit to Jerusalem Open House on the concluding Shabbat evening of our trip, members of the Jerusalem LGBT community came to join us for our Kabbalat Shabbat service, led beautifully by Cantor Juval Porat.   Lots of young people showed up, but also a much older couple, Mordechai and Ariel.    And as Moredchai began to tell me his story, I said “Wait, here is the microphone, you need to tell all of us.” Because the story was that these two men, both in their 80s, had been living together as lovers in Jerusalem for 55 years.   As Mordechai said,” There have always been gay people in Israel.  Our loves might have been a bit more undercover, with a bit more mystery, but we have always been here.”  Mordechai had a great history lesson for us, and he spoke about how proud he was to see the work of a new generation of LGBT activists.

Second, I think people who come to Israel fall in love with the idea of being part of the Jewish people.

It seems to me that sometimes we define our Jewish experience in very narrow ways.    I am Jewish with the 10 people in my Jewish yoga group or meditation class.   Or I am Jewish when I cook latkes or kugel for my family.  Or I am Jewish at my local JCC or synagogue community.   And we lose sight for a bit that being Jewish connects us to Jews everywhere; that we were all at Sinai, that we are a people as well as a religion.   Tribe is a word that has fallen out of favor, and here in the 21st century, we sometimes prefer to see ourselves connected in some universal way to all of humanity, and we don’t focus on our more particular connection to the Jewish people.

There is a well-known story told about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the great teacher, composer and performer, who spent a lifetime touring American college campuses.  He said:

“I ask students what they are. If someone gets up and says, I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic. If someone says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.”

Rabbi Lord Jeffrey Sacks of the United Kingdom teaches: “You cannot be just a human in general, without being something in particular.  It’s like trying to speak language in general without speaking one language in particular.”  Cynthia Ozick writes: “If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar we will be heard far. But if we choose to be human rather than Jewish and blow into the wider part, we will not be heard at all.”

So my theory is that what happens on our trips is not simply that people are connecting with a country, but that being in Israel enables us to have perhaps the strongest experience of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.  Because Israel is the largest, boldest expression of Jewish peoplehood on the planet.  There are the sounds of Hebrew everywhere, the smell of falafel, the quiet of Shabbat on the streets. There are Jews everywhere, doing amazing things, in agriculture, technology, medicine and the arts.   And there are LGBT people everywhere working to make the country a better place.   We saw that there is a place for us, as LGBT Jews, in this peoplehood.

Dr. Lawrence Epstein writes, in his essay on Jewish Universalism: “Israel was to be a light unto the nations.  A light needs a standing place.  A holy nation must be a nation.”

And lastly, what are we to make of this love of Israel in light of what so many people see as its imperfections.    Israel’s very existence is perhaps a miracle, and she is contributing so much to the world in agriculture, medicine, technology, culture, and by continuing to be a free and democratic country in  part of the world where both are in short supply.   There is so much to be proud of.  And yet, and yet….there is also the occupation, the discrimination and racism toward Arabs and other minorities, the lack of religious pluralism and true acceptance of all of the streams of Jewish thought and practice.   Israel never seems to fully live up to the idealized vision of our hopes and dreams for the Jewish homeland.

And yet it is perhaps our dreams that sometimes prevent us from seeing how much there is to love in the very complicated reality of the present.

Novelist Amos Oz writes: “Countries and nations are born out of geography, they are born out of history, out of politics, and out of demography.”  But…“Israel was born out of a dream, and everything – everything at all that is born out of a dream – is destined to feel like a slight disappointment. The only way to keep a dream perfect and rosy and intact and unspoilt is never to try to live it out. A fulfilled dream is a disappointing dream. This is true of writing a novel, this is true of building a house, this is true of living out a sexual fantasy, and this is true of building a nation. Israel has a certain air of disappointment about it, but this is not in the nature of Israel. It is in the nature of dreams.”

I think what happens on our trips is that, through all the imperfections, people get a glimpse of that dream.  We get a glimpse of a new manifestation of what being part of the Jewish people can mean. And we bring it home with us, and it changes for us, maybe a little or maybe a lot, what it means to be a Jew.  And we learn something new about love.  Shabbat Shalom.

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