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May 24, 2013  RSS feed
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Panel urges greater acceptance of LGBTs through word and deed

Jewish Press

Panelists (L-R) Rabbi Betsy Torop, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, Dr. Rachel Silverman, Jay Michaelson and Rabbi Robert Judd. Panelists (L-R) Rabbi Betsy Torop, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, Dr. Rachel Silverman, Jay Michaelson and Rabbi Robert Judd. Making changes to synagogue websites to declare that a congregation is welcoming to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community is nice, but may not be enough to convince people who often feel they are outsiders, said Rabbi Jason Rosenberg.

“Even terms like ‘welcoming’ and ‘tolerance’ can be offensive. To tolerate is to put up with something you do not like,” he said, adding that even saying one is welcome “may have people feeling they are different, but welcome, when we need to make them feel they are one of us, and welcome.” His comments met with consensus among others on a five-member panel of Jewish leaders taking part in a public discussion on LGBT issues, “My House Shall Be A House for All People: The Blessings and Challenges of Being an Inclusive Jewish Community,” earlier this month in Ybor City.

The event was organized by Tampa Jewish Family Services and moderated by Lydia Adams, clinical director at TJFS.

Participating on the panel with Rabbi Rosenberg, of Congregation Beth Am, were Rabbi Betsy Torop of Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon, Rabbi Robert Judd of Congregation Kol Ami, author Jay Michaelson and Dr. Rachel Silverman.

Michaelson, who now lives in New York but grew up in Tampa, is author of God vs Gay? – The Religious Case for Equality. Silverman, an LGBT advocate while at the University of South Florida, is now an advisor to Pride and Hillel students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

The panelists agreed that those likely to feel like outsiders can be made to feel a part of things through words and actions of clergy leaders, by making sure life-cycle rituals and other synagogue activities are inclusive. This applies not just to LGBTs, but also ethnic minorities, multi-faith families, or anyone else who feels they are not fully embraced, they said.

“When we say we are welcoming to all,” Rabbi Torop said, “there are still some who wonder, ‘Does that mean me, too.’” She said it is up to the clergy and congregants to make sure they understand that they do mean they welcome all.

The rabbis agreed that they have to create expectations within their congregations of how to treat folks who might feel slighted.

Michaelson noted that especially for older congregants, “going from zero to 100 percent acceptance” is not easy, and offered a “feel, felt, found” approach to conversations with those reluctant to embrace the LGBT community. He said it goes along these lines: “I know how you feel, because I felt that way too, but now I found a different view.”

Silverman said she would advise congregants, “You might not be OK with LGBTs, but you can still be nice to them.” She said once people try doing that, if they keep trying, one day they will find they are not doing it to be nice, but because they do accept them.

“People get stupid wholesale and get wise retail,” Michaelson said, adding that one-on-one conversations are the most effective at changing attitudes.

Rabbi Rosenberg said it is hard for members of the Tampa Rabbinical Association to agree on anything, but there was unanimous agreement when they recently decided to write a column that ran in the Jewish Press, proclaiming that they welcome the LGBT community in all their synagogues.

A member of the audience asked the panel members to assess where they think Tampa is in terms of acceptance of LGBTs and if they have seen progress. All agreed that throughout the nation, attitudes have changed a lot in recent years and most seemed to think Tampa has made good progress.

“It is up to leadership to keep the momentum going,” said Rabbi Judd.

“It [the Bay area] is still a community with a lot of challenges,” Rabbi Torop said, adding the relatively small population of LGBTs is a limiting factor here. She also noted that among youths, nearly everyone knows of someone who is gay or lesbian and it is not a big deal to them, but for the elderly, who grew up with different values, it takes time to change opinions.

The challenge, said Rabbi Rosenberg, is not the attitude of youth on that issue, but to ensure they learn to value being Jewish and remain members of that faith.

Silverman said Jews are often involved in civil rights and other social or political causes and that getting them invested in promoting equal rights for LGBTs will only help generate greater acceptance and send a message to that community that the Jewish faith welcomes them.

One member of the audience suggested that just as congregations celebrate confirmations and b’nai mitzvahs as transition events, a celebration of someone “coming out” would show a congregation is inclusive of the LGBT community. He wondered if there was any ritual within Judiasm for that.

“I wrote a Jewish ritual for coming out,” Michaelson responded. When panel members were asked what gifts the LGBT community brings to their synagogues, Michaleson said, “There are so many unique perspectives that loving differently can bring to Judaism – bringing new thoughts and perspectives on things we thought we knew.”

“It is the gift of diversity,” said Silverman. “Feminist contributions to Judaism have made it a better religion. Any diversity creates a gift because you are crafting a better understanding of people. The ability to laugh at ourselves, think deeply and debate and joke about it – Jews and LGBTs both are that way.”

Rabbi Rosenberg noted that about 3 percent of the nation’s population “is not straight and we are not in a position to say no to that number of people. People have been written out of Jewish history because they loved a man. Brilliant minds have been lost to us and we are diminished.”

“We all bring our own gifts, our own stories and all, whatever their journey, enrich us,” said Rabbi Torop.

“The one gift LGBTs or any Jew who is outside of the box gives us is when we look at them, we get to look God in the face,” said Rabbi Judd.

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