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Six Weeks

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Surprised to learn that I do not have a congregation, people often ask me if I’m a “practicing rabbi.” Recently, the question was formulated more broadly: “What do you do?”

I paused for a moment, mostly to ensure that I didn’t answer flippantly: “I drink too much coffee and eat a lot of Nutella.”

Sometimes it’s a challenge to define my “Independent Rabbinate” in just a few sentences. I probably ought to prepare an elevator speech.

What do I do?

I write. I’m working on the manuscript of my second book. I teach Torah and facilitate art workshops. I work primarily with adults, but sometimes with elementary and middle school students. I teach in community centers, synagogues, churches, coffee shops and office buildings. Sometimes I travel great distances to teach; sometimes I do so without ever leaving Metro Atlanta.

As I thought about how to answer this question, I envisioned the central place where I teach, the one place other than my home where I spend the most time working. That’s when I realized that campers arrive in six weeks.

at the wheel full

In six weeks, I’ll celebrate my tenth summer at Ramah Darom. In the fall, I’ll direct the Jewish Women’s Getaway for a second time.

What do I do? Many things.
What do I love? Being at camp.

Perhaps my favorite thing about working at Ramah Darom during the summer is my commute. I walk across the camp—from my room in the Marcus Retreat Center to the ceramics studio in the Art Building—several times a day. No remembering where I parked the car; no forgetting where I left my car keys. At the end of a busy and, usually, messy day, my friend Deana and I put a few extra miles on our sneakers after dinner.

Six weeks.

I’d better start a shopping list. I’m going to need coffee and Nutella, and more socks.

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Choosing Sides

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I spent my formative years—the ones in which sexual orientation identity develops—in suburban New Jersey, blissfully unaware of the suffering of certain classmates.  I had no idea there were people around me who felt they were born into the wrong bodies; who believed they were damaged, somehow, because they were different; who felt betrayed by their religious leaders or their parents when told that they were sinners.

Public high schools, in those days, did not support Gay-Straight Alliance clubs or maintain safe spaces for LGBT students and teachers.  Nobody was coming out of the closet in high school. Anyway, I was a late bloomer—other students knew about these things, but I was not terribly self-aware. My teenagers know more than I did at their age, and probably more than I know now. I have a lot of catching up to do.

In my late forties, I’ve learned to be self-aware of my privileged status as a heterosexual, or cisgender, woman. [As a writer and word enthusiast, I’m intrigued by this new terminology: Cisgender, a corollary label to transgender, can be used to define individuals whose gender identity matches that which was assigned to them at birth.  Cis is a Latin prefix meaning “on this side of.” It is the antonym of trans, which means “on the other side of.”] This process of learning to recognize my own biases and the privileges of my birth—after all, I believe I was born this way—can be a painful one. There are moments of realization, when I learn things about myself and feel ashamed at how little I truly understand about the experiences of my LGBT friends.

Yesterday, I had one of these painful moments.sojourn

In the midst of leading a discussion about the weekly Torah reading, which contains two verses often cited as the “biblical prohibition of homosexuality,” I stumbled over my words and immediately felt the color rising to my cheeks. I realized that I’d made an assumption; one that I had no business making. Quickly recovering, I softened my statement by admitting my bias and asking the participants, particularly the gay men in the room, if mine was a reasonable assumption.

Lucky for all of us that SOJOURN had created a safe space for our Lunch-and-Learn. Lucky for me, really, that I found friends at SOJOURN to serve as guides along my journey. SOJOURN— an acronym that stands for Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity—seems an apt name for an organization with a mission to provide resources, education, and support for LGBT individuals and for their families and friends.

Sojourn, as a verb, means to visit or stay as a temporary resident. I feel that I can sojourn among these friends, as I begin to discover what it means to be “on this side of” my gender identity while others may be “on the other side.” We don’t need to choose sides. We need only to be aware that it is a privilege to learn from one another and grow together.

Three Links to my Moments of Realization:

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The Truth Hurts

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When our children were young, we had an agreement with their teachers: “We promise not to believe half of what they tell us about you, if you promise not to believe half of what they say about us.” This went a long way toward preventing hasty judgments and angry accusations.  In fifteen years, no teacher we encountered was the worst, meanest or most incompetent; nor were we the parents whose phone calls they dreaded returning. Sometimes half of our kids’ complaints about a teacher were true, but our commitment to arrive at an understanding of the truth together with the teacher saved us a lot of unnecessary embarrassment.

I was reminded of this yesterday, while reading a deluge of Facebook status updates about the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, most of which began with the phrase “Can you believe THIS?” and included a link to an article with the headline, “Jews Ordered to Register in East Ukraine.” Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. Moreover, I couldn’t believe how many of my FB friends believed and shared it. When rumors that fit with our perception of truth are reported as facts, we are easily persuaded to believe them wholeheartedly.

More disturbing to me was the post on a colleague’s wall of an article with the headline, “Mayor ‘Kind Of Agreed’ with White Supremacist Accused of Killing 3 at Jewish Centers,” which was followed by numerous comments invoking the f-bomb alongside characterizations of this mayor as ignorant and evil. I don’t disagree with these assessments of the man; I am merely concerned that in venting our outrage we fail to deal with a deeper issue—the fear and pain his remarks stir within us.

Am I troubled by these recent developments? You bet I am. I was incredulous, and felt utterly betrayed, as I read Frank Bruni’s op-ed. The realization that I’d believed the wrong half of the truth and argued that anti-Muslim attacks outpaced anti-Jewish attacks here at home was difficult to absorb. When I read the piece a second time, however, I felt validated by Bruni’s confession about his own miscalculations: “While most were motivated by race, about 20 percent were motivated by the victims’ perceived religion — roughly the same percentage as those motivated by the victims’ presumed sexual orientation. I didn’t expect a number that high.” How much do our assumptions and expectations lead us to confirm our beliefs—partial truths—as the TRUTH?

the truth

Clearly, humans have a complicated relationship with truth. While we possess a desire to know the whole truth, we mistrust others that claim their beliefs to be true. These competing needs—to maintain our grasp on the truth and to dispel the untruths of others—can cause an unbearable anxiety that impels us to react with urgency rather than thoughtful reflection.

When we are anxious, it is natural to construct a personal narrative to make sense of the events outside our control. It’s easier to blame others for our pain—wrought up with anger we enjoy an adrenaline rush that masks our true terrors—than to confront the fear that resides within us.

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