Leap of faith: We must continue to be at the forefront of inclusive religion

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Leap of faith: We must continue to be at the forefront of inclusive religion

Co-Founder of Queer Yeshiva says communities should now progress further in embrace of LGBT Jews

Last week, a report for the BBC showed that LGB people are over-represented among Jews. We made it into the Top 4 spot – thrashing Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. In the inclusion leagues for lesbian, gay and bi people, it looks like we are really winning.

I was pleased with the result, but not surprised. Over the past half century, Progressive Jews have paved the way to make our synagogues more welcoming.

In 1980, Lionel Blue came out as the first openly gay rabbi. He was already a beloved preacher and national broadcaster. At that time, there was a huge moral panic around gay men. The media made up stories about how they were grooming children and invading bathrooms. As part of this, The Sun outed Rabbi Blue. But he embraced the label, told his story on his own terms, and published a pamphlet advocating for gay inclusion in religion.

Then, in 1984, Sheila Shulman and Elli Tikvah Sarah were accepted to Leo Baeck College as the world’s first openly lesbian rabbinic students. They both dedicated themselves to lesbian and gay liberation.

Rabbi Sheila Shulman founded her own congregation, Beit Klal Yisrael, which became a welcoming home for people that had felt excluded from traditional Judaism. Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah worked in mainstream synagogues, proudly performing same-sex wedding blessings long before Britain even considered making gay marriage legal.

Because of their efforts, and those of many others, Progressive Judaism now enables Jews to live authentic lives within all traditions. In Progressive synagogues, same-gender couples can have fully affirming marriages – indeed the movements campaigned for it. Our children are completely accepted and raised in the communities. We have celebratory Pride Shabbats across the whole country. There are wonderful networks of queer Jews.

The same BBC report, however, showed that there were far fewer trans Jews than you might expect. In fact, there are more Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs who feel safe to be openly trans than there are Jews. That is disappointing, but also not surprising. Despite projects such as Twilight People, trans people in the Jewish community feel there is hostility towards them.

It is also the case that Jewish life is very gendered. The clothes we wear, the mitzvot we do, and the roles we play are filled up with sexist assumptions. Trans people necessarily challenge those stereotypes. Nevertheless, we are making great strides forward. Rabbi Mark Solomon presented a gender-neutral ketubah to help non-binary people get married. Many Progressive synagogues are now affirming trans members with name-change ceremonies.

I hope we will progress further, because there is clearly a need for it.

Two years ago, I was part of a group that launched the Queer Yeshiva, a Talmud study group that was explicitly run for and by queer people. There is such high demand for this that, every time we launch an event, it sells out within a day.

Queer and trans Jews are calling out to our communities to embrace and accept them. It is our responsibility to answer their plea, and not give in to the hateful rhetoric. This all provides the opportunity for Progressive Judaism to continue to be at the forefront of genuinely inclusive and trans-affirming religion. I hope we will be.

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