During Pride festivities in the United States last weekend, tears flowed as freely as the celebratory libations, and pure joy mixed with utter disbelief following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the country – an accomplishment that seemed preposterous only a few years ago. The victory, of course, derives from decades of struggle and strategy, pain and persistence.
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“As a marriage equality activist since the 1980s, I prayed and worked to see this day,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California, and the newly appointed, first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism.
“I remember officiating at Jewish weddings for lesbian and gay couples long before there was civil recognition, and praying under the chuppah that one day society and our civil authorities would recognize our marriages,” she adds
Eger is one of many Jewish leaders who envisioned and worked toward marriage equality before it became a national reality. Now that the impossible has become possible, what are the immediate responsibilities of Jewish institutions in honoring the court’s decision? What are the crucial battles ahead? And what’s the next, big dream?
In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, Jewish institutions should explicitly address the milestone and express their support through synagogue e-mails, websites, services and sermons, says Rabbi Lisa Edwards, of Los Angeles’ Beth Chayim Chadashim, the first synagogue in the world founded by gays and lesbians. Embracing the decision, she adds, means “welcoming Jews and their chosen partners to marry under a chuppah – in sanctuaries, with rabbis and cantors officiating, and ketubot [traditional marriage certificates] signed.”
For Eger and Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge – an organization connecting Israelis and LGBT North Americans – Jewish educational institutions are crucial for addressing LGBT needs. Educators, Eger says, must “combat the scourge of bullying in our day schools and religious schools.” For his part, Slepian notes that Jewish schools must integrate marriage equality into their curriculum “so that our children know that there is value in all types of families.”
And while the marriage ruling validated same-sex relationships, many in the LGBT community say transgender inclusion is the next crucial battle – an idea that resonated with several Jewish leaders.
“Most Jewish communities are just beginning to think about what it means to include transgender Jews,” says Dr. Joy Ladin, a professor of English at Yeshiva University and a pioneering transgender activist.
Edwards echoes the sentiment: “Transgender inclusion requires openness on everyone’s part, a willingness to get acquainted, as well as acknowledgment and removal of the multitude of stumbling blocks to transitioning and to freedom of gender expression.”
'Combatting bigotry and hatred'
Legal analysts predict that in response to the recent court decision, the United States will see a flush of religious freedom laws crop up in more conservative states, advanced by those who believe recognizing same-sex marriage infringes on their beliefs. Many worry that such laws will lead to legally sanctioned discrimination.
Eger insists that the Jewish community must counter this development, and serve as “a spiritual voice combatting the voices of religious bigotry and hatred that foments such violence against LGBTQ people in word and deed.”
Orthodox Jewish institutions may be among of those that feel threatened by the ruling; indeed, that community has been slow to acknowledge the existence and needs of its LGBT population.
“In most Orthodox communities, this work has barely begun,” says Ladin, but she also mentions organizations like Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth which “are fostering what will ultimately be huge changes in Orthodox communities’ recognition of and response to LGBT Jews.”
Many Jewish leaders say that now that same-sex marriage has been anchored in law, the LGBT community must recommit to combatting other, long-festering problems – like “economic injustice, ending discrimination in the workplace for LGBT people, global rights for LGBT people, police accountability, LGBTQ youth homelessness, systemic racism and persistent anti-Semitism,” says Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi of New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the largest LGBT synagogue in the world.
Despite universal marriage equality, couples may still be denied housing and social services in many states because of their sexual orientation, Ladin points out. “We need to finally pass national non-discrimination legislation, so that no American can be fired or evicted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”
Jim Obergefell, left, the man behind the landmark Supreme Court gay marriage ruling, hugs Jeff Sigler, of New York, after laying a wreath at the Gay Pioneers historical marker. (AP)
In need but powerless
In contemplating the greatest obstacles to achieving these domestic goals, Slepian looks to the political map of states where it is still legal to discriminate based on one’s sexual orientation. “The challenge will be coalition building,” he explains, “as most of the state legislators and governors in these states are Republicans.”
While party affiliation may determine some legislative battles, Ladin sees class and racial prejudice as constituting other barriers. “The challenge will be maintaining broad moral passion and support for LGBT people who are not the white couple in the big house next door in the suburbs,” she says. “The people who are most in need of support and protection are those with the least political and economic power.”
While Jayson Littman, founder of Hebro, a New York-based event producer for gay Jews, sees the Jewish community as a potential advocate for LGBT citizens, he points out that traditional religious texts may continue to be an obstacle preventing some from fully recognizing and embracing LGBT people.
Littman: “Often times, those who oppose equal rights are masking their homophobia behind verses in the Torah. And it will still take hard work and determination to continue to change the minds and hearts of those opposed to the Supreme Court’s decision.”
Meanwhile, as the Jewish LGBT community and its allies mull immediate concerns, they also look ahead to the next big goal.
“My dream is that in 20 years – another generation – we will have so expanded our understanding of what it means to be human that the differences of gender, sexuality, race and class will be seen and valued as representing different possibilities for humanity,” says Ladin.
And though halakha (traditional religious law) seems immovable at times, Amichai Lau-Lavie, spiritual leader of Lab/Shul in New York and a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has faith in its evolution.
“I suspect that 20 years from now, halakhic norms will shift in most Jewish contexts including the more pious and observant to welcome the LGBTQ family and friends,” he says.
For Slepian, the impossible dream involves a White House. And, in it: “A gay Jewish president!” he declares.
Before embarking on the next stage of the post-marriage equality march, Rabbi Kleinbaum insists on savoring the moment. Evoking the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt, she says: “We know there are ways we are out of Mitzrayim, even though we have not yet arrived in the Promised Land,” she says. “I believe, like Miriam at the sea, that it is essential to pause and dance and celebrate each victory.”