‘Across the Spectrums’
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‘Across the Spectrums’

Fair Lawn shuls to celebrate being Jewish and gay

Rabbi Rachel Salston, left, Tzivya Kraus
Rabbi Rachel Salston, left, Tzivya Kraus

Back in March, when the Jewish world was thinking Passover, Tzivya Kraus of Fair Lawn was thinking three months ahead, to June.

That’s Pride Month, a time when people who identify as LGBTQ celebrate their identity and community.

Ms. Kraus is a member of the Fair Lawn Pride Subcommittee, part of the Fair Lawn Community Relations Committee. Committee members are planning a big block party, a celebration of Pride Month with a theme of “We Are Families,” that will take place on Sunday, June 26.

But as the planning went on, something began to bother her. She realized that there was nothing specifically Jewish about the celebration. “There was no space where we could express ourselves as part of the LGBTQUIA+ plus community, but also as Jews,” she said. “I wanted there to be a Jewish space for my family.”

So she reached out to Rabbi Rachel Salston at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation Bnai Israel and Rabbi Salston said, “Let’s do something about that.”

That “something” will happen next Tuesday evening, June 21, at 6 p.m. with the First Annual Northern New Jersey Community LGBTQIA+ Jewish Pride Service and Celebration, a Chag Ha Ga’avah. It’s set for outdoors at Rabbi Salston’s synagogue, at 10-10 Norma Avenue in Fair Lawn. Chag Ha Ga’avah translates as Pride Holiday.

Ms. Kraus lives in Fair Lawn with her wife, Jennifer Mendelsohn, and their three little ones, Ezra, 4, Eytan, 2, and Dahlia, 1. Ms. Kraus is an acupuncturist, massage therapist, and doula by training; now, though, she’s a stay-at-home mother.

Ms. Kraus is a proud member of two groups – she’s an Orthodox Jew, and she’s a lesbian. “There are a lot of spaces in the world where you can be proud and open and free and identify as LGBTQIA+,” she said. And there are many places — including Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, where she grew up, and Fair Lawn, where she’s a member of an Orthodox shul, Congregation Darchei Noam — where it’s easy to be Orthodox. (She also belongs to two Conservative shuls, the Glen Rock Jewish Center and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.)

But there aren’t that many places where she can openly and comfortably be both lesbian and Orthodox, Ms. Kraus said.

Ms. Kraus moved to Bloomfield years ago to earn her master’s degree in acupuncture; she was a student at the Eastern School of Acupuncture and Traditional Medicine in town. That’s where she discovered Congregation Ner Tamid, a Reform synagogue just down the road from her school and decided to go to a service there.

“I wasn’t out yet, and very much feeling that I was the only person like me, both Jewish and lesbian,” Ms. Kraus said. “I didn’t know there were organizations for people who could help me be who I am.” She sat alone in the back of the sanctuary at Ner Tamid — and then she realized she wasn’t alone. Cantor Meredith Greenberg, proud and out, was on the bimah, and she celebrated her Judaism with her wife and children.

Ms. Kraus said that was a watershed moment for her. “Wow!” she remembers thinking, and wondering, “Could I ever do that?”

Though that was more than 15 years ago, Ms. Kraus said that when she got back in touch with Cantor Greenberg for some guidance as she began to plan a Jewishly centered event for Pride Month in Fair Lawn, the cantor actually remembered her as being scared and alone all by herself in the back of the sanctuary. (Ms. Kraus didn’t join Ner Tamid, and she didn’t talk to the cantor, but still she was memorable.)

And now here she was, planning a Pride event.

Cantor Greenberg was happy to give Ms. Kraus an outline for a Pride celebration, including a religious service she had been part of some years before. Then, three local synagogues — B’nai Keshet and Congregation Shomrei Emuno of Montclair and Ner Tamid — joined forces to hold a Chag Ha Ga’avah.

Ms. Kraus took the outline to Rabbi Salston, who ran the idea past the North Jersey Board of Rabbis; the board was on board with it.

The theme of next Tuesday’s program is “Across the Spectrums” — those spectrums are of Jewish life and thought, and of gender identity. “Our speakers will represent folks across the spectrum of Judaic thought and practice throughout the denominations, and across the spectrum of LGBTQIA gender and sexual identities,” Ms. Kraus said. “There is a broad spectrum of each of these categories, and we aim to bring perspectives from across them both.”

As she ran point on the program, Ms. Kraus reached out to some of those organizations she didn’t know existed 15 years ago and asked them to be part of the Fair Lawn celebration. Those groups include Eshel, which creates community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox Jewish communities; JQY, Jewish Queer Youth, whose mission is dedicated to providing social, mental, and educational support; and Keshet, which works for the full equality and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in Jewish life.

The stakes are high for Ms. Kraus. “There is so much hatred and so much discrimination, and as someone who identifies as Orthodox, there are definitely not spaces carved out to make Pride Month special in Orthodoxy,” she said. “Both of the parts of who I am, Orthodox and lesbian, both things being supported and loved, acknowledged and respected, that doesn’t happen most of the time in my life. Sometimes I have to choose to appear to be one or the other, to hide one part of myself or the other.”

She realizes she’s not alone in the need to hide parts of herself. “There are too many at-risk kids out there,” she said. “The pandemic made it worse because so many of us were stuck at home and not able to seek outside support. That was why doing this event became so important.

“Tuesday evening’s service will be like a call to action. I want people to see that there is a possibility to be both at the same time. You don’t have to hide or let go of one for the other.

“You can be true to your sexual and gender identity without losing your Jewish identity.”

Attendance at the Jewish Pride Service and Celebration is free but registration is required; register at http:/bit.ly/Jewish_Pride_Svc2022 or email JewishPrideCelebration@gmail.com

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