An Ally All the Way or Not at All?

Last Thursday night, I attended a program that was put on by three Jewish organizations in Denver.  This program included a viewing of Prayers for Bobby, which is a movie which explores a young man’s journey to coming out as a gay teenager and the struggle his very religious mom has with him coming out.  After the movie, there was a panel of speakers which included one of the producers of the movie, a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi.

While the movie was really well done and did an excellent job of telling the true story of this boy’s life and his mother’s religious transformation, the thing that struck me was the panel discussion at the end of the program.

To start with you had a producer of the movie who had grown up in Denver and had struggled with being a young Jewish gay teenager in the community.  While the movie wasn’t his story, he considered aspects of Bobby’s story to be similar to his own.  You had a Reform rabbi from one of the largest Reform congregations in Denver and you had an Orthodox rabbi who has lived in Denver for a year and a half and is in his first full-time pulpit position.

Both rabbis have participated in programs hosted by Keshet, which is an organization that is “working for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life.”  And both rabbis identify as allies for the LGBT community.

When the panel discussion started, both rabbis shared their own philosophies and some of the philosophies surrounding their Jewish denomination in regards to LGBT issues.  (Although, I would say that while all Jewish denominations have standard practices and guideline regarding LGBT issues, every single rabbi and community interpret these practices and beliefs differently.)

Each rabbi received applause after certain statements they made and the dialogue and conversation with the audience was going well until an audience member asked a question regarding if either rabbi would perform a civil union (which had been passed in CO in 2013) or wedding.

Both rabbis replied that they would not perform a civil union.  The Reform rabbi said he would attend a civil union and offer up a prayer and the Orthdox rabbi said he would also attend but would not perform a civil union.

This is where the conversation and dialogue turned on these two rabbis.  For one, the audience member who asked the question got up and said “this was not acceptable” and left the theater.

Then the producer shared his own thoughts and said, “if I can be born into a congregation, bar/bat mitzvahed in a congregation, confirmed in a congregation, but cannot be married on that bimah. That is how we alienate our community.”

As an ally who has a gay brother, I completely agreed with what the producer said because that is what is currently happening.  As a recovering Jewish professional, and a lay leader for many groups including Keshet, Jewish synagogues and groups are always trying to figure out why people are leaving their Jewish faith and the Jewish community but here sitting in front of us is a prime example of how the community turns its back on our LGBT brothers, sisters, friends, parents, etc.  Why would someone that feels like they are never going to be welcomed fully by their synagogue or community want to participate in Jewish life?

However, I also struggled with the fact that these two rabbis who knew what the program was about, shared their personal and religious viewpoints, and self identify as being allies and have both spoken up in support of LGBT issues in the past (including one of them signing a proclamation in support of Civil Unions) were being beat up for their stance on performing civil unions.  Yes, I did not agree with their remarks on civil unions and felt a deep pain for all of my Jewish LGBT friends and my brother but I also felt that both of these rabbis were truly speaking up as allies.

I can’t even imagine five years ago that rabbis in Denver, Colorado would be speaking openly at an event in support of LGBT issues.  To have a community which regularly hosts panels of rabbis discussing these issues is a step in the right direction.  The fact that an Orthodox rabbi is willing to participate in these dialogues and identify as an ally is even more rare.

Yes, I know and have friends in the LGBT community who have said that an ally is someone that will support equality 100% but I struggle with the idea that it is an all or nothing thing.

Put yourself in the shoes of these rabbis.  For one rabbi in speaking in support of LGBT rights, you are going against everything that you have been taught and what you say can greatly impact your future professional life and opportunities.  For the other rabbi, while you support LGBT rights, your movement and your synagogue’s viewpoint on certain marriages has a certain definition that you aren’t willing to clash with currently.

Do I agree with them?  No.  Do I want them to continue participating in the dialogues and helping them continue to challenge their beliefs and the beliefs of their denominations/synagogues? Yes.  For 2.5 years, I worked for an Orthodox rabbi who was very stuck in his beliefs when it came to LGBT issues.  However, after numerous conversations and community events, this rabbi began speaking up in support of the LGBT community.  Did he fully embrace 100% equality?  No.  Did his personal viewpoint change and become more welcoming? Yes.

The change is not going to happen over night and while I would like to believe allies are 100% in. I also believe that these dialogues are too important to take an all or nothing stance.  Would this program have the same impact if the rabbis weren’t there?  Probably not.  Is it better to have rabbis speak about their personal support while still wrestling with the religious aspects to performing a marriage as a rabbi?  Yes.

Who is to say we should judge how much an ally is an ally?  Without the support of people who self identify as allies, where would the LGBT community be today?  Where would the Jewish community be?  Where would the black community be?  It is baby steps.

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