As Sophia Petrillo was fond of saying, picture this:
A minister at a predominantly white church calls up an African-American neighbor who is not a member of the congregation and informs him that the church is going to be celebrating African-American History Month on such-and-such a date and they’d love for him to come. When asked about the program he’s told that a gospel choir from an inner city church will be singing and a lovely luncheon will be served after services.
Why was the African-American neighbor invited to this event? What role if any, does he have to play? Or to look at it from his perspective, what’s in it for him?
If a rabbi or lay-leader of a synagogue were to come to me as an LGBT member of the Jewish community and ask what kind of programming can they can do that would entice me to particpate or potentially join the congregation down the road, I would answer without hesitation, I would love to meet other Jewish LGBT people.
Thank God, in 2014 in the community in which I live, every synagogue regardless of denomination is welcoming of LGBT people. There are almost 2 million people in Central Ohio and it is estimated that there are over 20,000 LGBT people in the metro-Columbus area. I’m sure I haven’t met most of the Jewish members of the local LGBT community. We need a forum for connecting with one another.
A year ago with encouragement from a friend, I myself tried to launch a Jewish LGBT group. After a dismal turnout to the kick-off meeting, I spoke with a few LGBT leaders in the Jewish community. We don’t need a need an exclusive Jewish LGBT group anymore, they told me, such a group would serve no purpose; we are welcomed by all the synagogues as members and leaders. I couldn’t help but note by the way that all these people telling me that such a group was not needed happen to be partnered. For the record, I am not.
Do single LGBT people and partnered LGBT people have different needs and agendas? Do straight single adults have different social needs that partnered/married heterosexuals? Of course!
I did give up on organizing a Jewish LGBT group but have no doubt that a majority of single Jewish LGBT people in the community are not affiliated with any of the predominantly heterosexual, family oriented synagogues in the community.
So I was thrilled some weeks ago when a local rabbi of a synagogue I do not belong to called and proudly informed me that her congregation was going to host a Gay Pride Shabbat program and she hoped that I would not only attend but help promote the event in the LGBT community. I was excited by the prospect of an evening under Jewish auspices at which I could connect with other LGBT people. In follow-up planning meetings and telephone conversations, we learned that the program for Pride Shabbat would include a concert by a gay men’s choir and a nice dinner, all of which was being sponsored by a generous family. Sounds perfect, no?
I gladly reproduced at my own expense some flyers for the program and distributed them at different venues frequented by the LGBT community. Afterall, I had a vested interest in seeing a good turnout for Gay Pride Shabbat.
Two days before the program, my 86-year-old mother who is a resident at a local Jewish assisted living facility informed me that she would be joining a van-load of people from the facility who were going Friday night to an area synagogue for Shabbat dinner and a concert.
“What shul are you going to Ma?” What d’a you know? It was the same one I was going to. Mom knew nothing about Pride Shabbat.
So what was going on? Why are straight senior adults being bussed in for a Gay Pride Shabbat program I wondered? I love my Mom, but I would never think of going out to a gay club or bar with her in toe. I felt confused and frankly, somewhat violated. Gay Pride Shabbat was apparently not going to be the program I was expecting it to be.
The rabbi who was organizing the evening confirmed as much to me in responding to an email I sent to her expressing my regrets for not wanting to participate in a general community Shabbat program simply because of its name or the entertainment.
In her own words she wrote: “I can only assure you that the intention of Pride Shabbat (as it was originally conceived and now executed) was for this to be a community gathering bringing together the LGBT, Jewish and greater Columbus communities for an evening of inclusivity, music, community-building, and rejoicing in who we are, individually and communally.”
In other words, the objective the Gay Pride Shabbat program from the start was to host a very public celebration of that particular Temple’s inclusivity. Noble agenda; any institution that is welcoming to all members of the community should be proud of their inclusive nature. But Pride Shabbat was really not about addressing the needs or interests of gay people in particular, now was it? This was about advancing the congregation’s public persona and development agenda.
So what about me? What about my agenda? What was my role in this event? I suddenly felt like that African-American neighbor who was needed as a prop in a white church’s celebration of African History Month.
I sincerely apologized to the rabbi in a follow-up email. I got it wrong, I told her. I missed the whole point of this program as you envisioned it.
She should have let things go at that point and we could have parted on a positive note. “So you’ll be there?” she quickly wrote back. We were talking past each other. The rabbi couldn’t answer the question, why should Mitch Gilbert be there? But she apparently thought that my place as a gay member of the Jewish community was to be in attendance at her Temple’s community celebration of their open tent.
I think it’s essential that synagogues offer special clubs and programs for children, teens, women, men and senior adults. I myself spent the first 2 decades of my career as a Jewish communal professional organizing and promoting synagogue youth programs. Would any synagogue NFTY, USY or NCSY group enjoy any measure of success if parents and grandparents were invited to all their programs?
Have the barriers to LGBT inclusion come down so fast that when predominately heterosexual congregations do programming for LGBT people the format has to be that of a town-hall-meeting so people of all ages and backgrounds can pat each other on the back for hanging with the gays?
For the record: I don’t run to any program or activity at any institution simply because they unfurl a rainbow flag for one event. I’m a person with needs and expectations that I don’t think are unreasonable. If clergy and lay leaders in the Jewish community want to do outreach to the LGBT community, ask us we want, ask us what we need? We’ll gladly tell you.
I totally see where you were coming from and what you wanted and needed program-wise. I was also surprised that my mom was going to this event which I understand had a huge attendance. I hope someone listens to you.