On Friday mornings at school, the entire community gathers for tefilah – the only time during the week that the community gathers as a whole. It often is a time of high energy and joy. Usually, when we enter the Bet Knesset we see something like this up high on the front wall:
Last Friday, though, we saw this:
It was “Pride Day” at RZJHS, what used to be known as “Gay Pride Day”. It was sponsored by “Ga’avah” – the Hebrew words for pride – our student club for students who are LGBTQ+ and their allies. And, as it turned out, it was a day on which not only students who are LGBTQ+ to take pride in their identity and to express that pride publically but for the entire school to express its pride in them and to take pride in the community that we have created: safe and respectful of each student for who s/he is. This is not yet a finished project but, I think, we are well on the way there. Let me tell you more of last Friday’s story.
During our Friday morning tefilot, early in the service we have something called a kavana – like B’Chavana – a short reflective piece meant to set a tone for the davening.
The kavana last Friday was delivered by a young woman, Emma C, whom I had the joy and privilege to teach last year. I had come to know Emma as bright, sensitive and articulate; a woman who knew her mind and chose to speak to moral issues in an assertive but not aggressive voice. I was looking forward to Emma’s words with great anticipation. I was not disappointed. Emma stood before the school community with the dignity and grace of someone much older as she shared these words:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
Hillel’s famous teaching addresses 3 relationships. First, one must figure out their relationship with themselves. Then, one’s relationship with the world around them. Finally, If not now, when? I interpret this to be telling us that we need to act on these relationships now.
My experience as a teen, and a Jewish teen, and a queer Jewish teen, has been one of questions and poetry. Because of my somewhat complex and ever-changing identity, I have come across, struggled with, and ultimately answered the personal question of “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
The second question, “But if I am only for myself, who am I?”, was answered for me in my childhood. If I am only for myself, I am not a feminist, not an ally, not a member of a community. I am a feminist because I fight for others; I am an ally because I stand up for others; I am a member of a community because I care for others. If I am only for myself, I am not a heart and a soul and a voice, but empty. I have learned by example from my family and communities to fill my soul with love and open my heart to the struggles of others. To raise my voice for those who cannot speak, and to silence myself when it is not my story to tell. This is what it means to be an ally.
“If not now, when?” Each generation must ask and answer this question. My generation – our generation – is the still nameless, post-Millennial, pragmatic, globally interconnected, diverse, remarkably queer generation of the “now”. Our generation, Jewishly, is the still Zionist, tzedek pursuing, proudly Jewish, remarkably queer generation of the “now”. Despite these labels, we must internally define ourselves as allies today.
It is a Jewish responsibility to be allies and to answer Hillel’s questions for ourselves. I now invite you to think about who you are, what you stand for, what you’re going to do about it. We must be for ourselves, but not only for ourselves, and we must be allies now.
When she finished an ovation arose from the community, a remarkable show of solidarity. But there was more to come.
After the silent prayer, I typically lead a song that begins quietly, builds and then ends. I am always mindful of the time, because running over means being late to first period class. On this day, as the song built, a group of a half-dozen young men who like to dance came and encircled me and the prayer leader in a hora. Very soon, another half-dozen young women did the same – a little less typical. After a bit of that, I began to wind the song down so that we could move on but the circle persisted in dancing so I began to play again and they continued to dance. Once again, mindful of the time, I began to wind down, only to find that, to my left, they had put Emma on a chair to lift her high in celebration. Once that was over, I again began to wind down only to find them resisting as they invited another student, a transgender student who is in mid-transition, and lifted her up. The look of joy on her face at feeling the acceptance of the community was matched only by the same look on the faces around the congregation. Only then could we finish singing and conclude the service.
The remainder of the day was spent in the glowing aftermath of this joyous celebration, a living affirmation of our belief that each and every person is created in the image of the Divine.
I cannot tell you how blessed I have been to have come to this school at this later stage in my career. It has challenged me, taught me and regenerated me in countless ways, especially relative to these issues of gay rights and respect. Moreover, I am able to draw on many things that I learn and gain in order to share them in my learning with you as well.