As Pride Month comes to a close, I have been thinking a lot about how to engage our children and students to build a world with greater acceptance, love, and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within Jewish life beyond the month of June.
We learn in the Jewish tradition that all humans are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We also learn the concept of kavod habriyot — our sacred commitment to respect human dignity. These ideas inform and guide our Jewish obligation to be welcoming to everyone who wishes to become part of our synagogue community at CSI Nyack.
Pride is a worthy celebration but also a time to acknowledge both the progress we’ve made as a Jewish community and that we have a long way to go. I’m proud of the Conservative movement’s commitment to Jewish law, but I also acknowledge its long internal struggle to move beyond a set of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policies over the last two and a half decades. I was a student in the undergraduate program at the Jewish Theological Seminary when the teshuvot about more fully welcoming LGBTQ+ people was accepted.
That was a huge moment for the Conservative movement. I remember the buzz in the residential halls. This was 2006. I am so proud of how far we have come — but I know that still the work is not done. As a parent of young children and an educator in the synagogue, I want our children to grow up with a greater love and awareness of how the Jewish community and the LGBTQ+ community can and needs to work together and to support one another.
Here are some ideas for how we can continue to show and teach that Judaism values every person, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, who have not always been welcome within Jewish spaces.
1. As an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, the first thing I want to do is to listen and learn. In Rockland County we have a close relationship with the Rockland County Pride Center, and we take our cues from them. We often approach human rights with the best of intentions, and our vision becomes clearer when we understand the needs more fully. I have learned that showing up and partnering with the LGBTQ+ community is extremely important. We model inclusion by working together as partners.
2. Books can be powerful tools in helping to teach our children. Two books that have Jewish stories and acknowledge LGBTQ+ families are “The Flower Girl Wore Celery” by Meryl G. Gordon and “The Purim Superhero” by Elisabeth Kushner. “The Flower Girl Wore Celery” tells the story of a Jewish lesbian wedding. “The Purim Superhero” is a fun Purim story that centers around a family with two dads. These books normalize families with same-sex parents within a Jewish context. When working with young children, these books are powerful resources.
3. Bring your children to rallies, Pride Shabbatot, Drag Queen story hour, and other programs or events as an opening to talk about acceptance in your homes. Our children are always listening. Our actions and our language instill values in our children. We all learn through experiences. When we show up and bring our children we are creating opportunities for teachable moments and reflection.
4. We can be more aware of gender norms and how they might stifle children and students. My toddler son told me that his sister could not have his sippy cup because she gets the pink one. I share this example because it is so easy for us to perpetuate gender norms in ways that could be unhelpful or even destructive. When we praise boys for taking care of the home and talk about women professionals who serve in traditionally male roles, we help to change the story of socialized gender roles. We open up the possibilities. Since I was an adolescent at Camp Ramah, I have worn a kippah, tallit, and tefillin during weekday morning services. Many of the female students at my synagogue have adopted the practice of wearing a kippah while in the synagogue. We took a traditionally male tradition and invited all of our Torah learners to participate. I cannot adequately describe the joy I feel when I look at the array of kippot that our children wear on the bimah each Saturday.
5. As educators and parents, accepting our children and students for who they are and meeting them on their terms is so important. We are role models for them, and our acceptance can be life-affirming. By signaling to our children that we love them regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, we give them an opening to confide in us. We have a responsibility to nurture and nourish young people who are on their own sacred journeys of self-discovery. It is a gift and an opportunity to be an unwavering supporter of our children as they figure out who they are becoming.
There is a rabbinic dictum, “Words that originate from the heart enter the heart.” When we model that all love is sacred, our students and children internalize that. Pride often is a time both of celebration, and for the recognition that there is a struggle for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people within all Jewish spaces.
When we open our hearts, listen to the LGBTQ+ community, and proactively show our support and love, we are fulfilling Jewish values.
Ariel Russo, the rabbi of CSI Nyack, was educated by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and inspired by Camp Ramah. In her spare time she wrangles her kids into car seats and explores the lower Hudson region with her husband.