A reason for optimism

A reason for optimism

A Frenchman, a German and a Jew were wandering in the desert. All three were parched with thirst. They each craved their favorite drink.

The Frenchman proclaimed, “I am thirsty! I must have a glass of wine!”

The German said, “I am thirsty! I must have a frothy beer!”

The Jew said, “I am thirsty! I must have diabetes!”

Jews are a worrying lot. We often are consumed by fear, and see our glasses of wine and beer as only half full. Perhaps that is from years of persecution, or perhaps it is just part of our DNA. Any way you slice it, we are pessimistic.

On Sukkot, which ended this week, we were commanded to be optimists, to see the good in a world we reflexively are used to seeing through a dark lens. When we recited the holiday’s liturgy, we saw that it is called the “time of our “joyousness.” Thus we are commanded to be positive and happy, for seven days at least!

With this teaching in mind, indulge me to share a particular thought in light of the news that broke last week that I have seen in a particularly positive light.

Gil Steinlauf is the senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington D.C. – a storied Conservative congregation. Before that he led Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. In a raw letter to his community, Rabbi Steinlauf revealed that he is gay. He explained that his marriage would end – but his respect and love for his wife and children would not.

It is not my place to address his letter or his choices. Rabbis are people first. Each clergyperson is entitled to dignity and privacy for his or her own sake and for the sake of his or her family. Suffice to say, I applaud Rabbi Steinlauf’s courage, and I pray that he finds all the peace and fulfillment he seeks.

The letter that accompanied the rabbi’s note to his congregation captured my attention as well. It was from the synagogue president, and it carried the imprimatur of the board of trustees he represents. The letter was unequivocally supportive of the rabbi and his choices, and it set the tone and boundaries for the congregation. It asked the congregation to give the rabbi and his family the time and space they need as they take the next steps in their lives. The rabbi’s role at the synagogue was never called into question. The deep admiration the rabbi’s congregants feel for him was made evident in each word of the communication.

Twenty years ago, congregations summarily fired rabbis who came out. Presidents in those days wrote letters explaining why the behavior was an abomination and why the rabbi’s practices were against the best interests of the Conservative movement and of the synagogue. Many colleagues who came out found themselves unemployed and unable to regain traction. Some of these rabbis lost their families and left the rabbinate – some even left the religion altogether – because they could not find the support systems that allowed them to be comfortable in their identity in their faith community.

Fast forward 20 short years, which is the blink of an eye in the history of the United States, and far briefer than a millisecond in the time span of creation. Synagogue presidents now are championing their rabbis’ honesty and courage. Synagogue leaders are setting the tone and demonstrating, in both word and deed, what a welcoming, inclusive, and embracing community is all about.

LGBQT concerns are the civil rights issue of our generation. Seeing how far we have come in such a short time is reason for us to be proud. In a time full of pessimism and cynicism, learning the right way quickly is something that rightfully fills us with joy.