By Robbie Medwed | Guest Columnist
A few short weeks ago I was sitting in a palace in Salzburg, Austria, overlooking a castle nestled into the steep peaks of the Alps and surrounded by nearly 60 Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and allied activists from around the world.
It was a surreal experience, realizing that, while we all hailed from wildly different parts of the world — the United States, Canada, Argentina, Hungary, Russia, Mexico, Great Britain, Israel and elsewhere — we were all doing the same work across the planet: making the Jewish world more welcoming for LGBTQ people.
The gathering was called Eighteen:22, a subversive reference to Leviticus 18:22, the first of two biblical verses traditionally interpreted to prohibit male-male sexual relations and used as the basis for anti-LGBT rulings and actions across faith traditions throughout history.
Eighteen:22 was created as a Connection Point program of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
Over the course of three days we learned, debated, created and shared together. And as wonderful as all those moments were — and they really, really were — the most powerful moment of the gathering was the realization that every one of us was there because we had been told by mainstream Judaism that there was no place for us. We had been told that we weren’t wanted, we didn’t belong, and we needed to go somewhere else, and none of us accepted that.
We were brought together because every single one of us said, “Just as our gender or sexual identity is immutable, so is our Judaism, and we belong.”
Every single one of us took our Judaism into our own hands and created organizations, programs or welcoming spaces for folks who had been told they didn’t belong, and it is incredible.
There were people who had created Orthodox + LGBT minyanim (prayer groups) and social groups. There were people from Russia who could be involved in LGBT life only in an academic format for fear of their own safety. And there were numerous others creating inclusive and safe social and educational spaces to remind us all that we, too, deserve a place at the Jewish table.
It was certainly empowering, and I returned to Atlanta energized and ready to expand what we’ve been doing at the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN), armed with new skills and tactics gathered from colleagues around the world.
When I returned, to say I had whiplash would be an understatement. In a first for SOJOURN and the Jewish community, over 40 Jewish agencies are coming together in support for the LGBT community and will march together at Atlanta Pride on Oct. 11. I was ecstatic to hear the news.
At the same time, four Jewish agencies in Atlanta said that uniting with SOJOURN for Pride — or even for a suicide prevention program or discussion of bathroom safety — would be too “political” and “divisive,” and they were concerned about the statement that they would be making to their members. (They said some other, very offensive things to us, too, but I don’t want to embarrass them here.)
What is the “political statement” that these agencies would be making by joining with SOJOURN and the Atlanta Jewish community for Pride?
It would be a statement that, as Jews, we cannot accept that 20 percent of all lesbian, gay and bisexual people and 41 percent of all transgender people attempt suicide because of a lack of societal acceptance. It would be a statement of understanding that this is a problem that can be solved by opening our doors, creating safe spaces, and embracing our community members exactly as they are, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
It would be a statement that when we accept people exactly as they are without conditions, we literally keep them alive, and when we demand that LGBTQ people hide who they are or attempt to change who they are, suicide rates skyrocket.
It would be a statement that accepting LGBTQ people exactly as they are — and celebrating them — is the ultimate act of pikuach nefesh, preserving life.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Jews still face disproportionate abuse, bullying and discrimination in daily life, and even more so in the South. Our synagogues and Jewish agencies have the power to help end this abuse and truly improve our world. All we need to do is stop trying to hide behind a claim of politics and realize that we’re talking about our children, our friends, our neighbors, and, yes, our congregants.
It’s not enough to refuse on the grounds that we may make some people uncomfortable. Discomfort is an incredibly small price to pay to keep children alive.
Many people have asked me what the one takeaway from Eighteen:22 was and what I learned. I learned that there are incredible people around the world putting their livelihoods — and sometimes their lives — at risk to increase LGBTQ acceptance.
I learned that even here in Atlanta, the capital of the LGBTQ South, literal homophobia and transphobia — the fear of embracing LGBTQ people and celebrating them — is alive and well in our Jewish institutions, especially in institutions that claim to represent the entire Jewish community.
I learned that our work is far from over, even in places and with people who claim to be welcoming already.
But most of all, I learned that those of us who are doing this work every day are not alone. That there are good days and there are bad days, but in the long run there will always be far more good days than bad.
And I learned that even though the institutions and people against full LGBTQ equality seem to be getting louder, the number of institutions and people working toward full LGBTQ equality is growing exponentially every single day across the world.
There will be a time when people stop using the claim of politics as a shield to hide their homophobia and transphobia, and there will be a time when the idea of having to be loudly welcoming and marching in the streets to show acceptance will seem quaint. But until then, we’ll keep marching, keep working and keep fighting.
You’re welcome to join us and the rest of Atlanta’s Jewish community Sunday, Oct. 11. You can find details at sojourngsd.org/atlpride.
Robbie Medwed is the assistant director of SOJOURN.