The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class

February 18, 2016

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”

I paused, chewing.

“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.

“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

I responded by reminding her (and my two- and four-year-old, who were also at the table) what I’ve told my kids many times: It’s true that MOST of the time, a boy marries and girl, and a girl marries a boy. But SOMEtimes, it does happen that a boy marries a boy and a girl marries a girl. (I think that “married” is the only word they have for attraction and romance, not to mention domestic partnership.)

I told her that it made me sad that her Morah said that it doesn’t happen. It made me sad for the people who are gay. This is how Hashem made them, and this Morah is pretending they do not exist. What I didn’t tell her, is that I was most sad for the gay child in her class. Because chances are that yes, even in her Orthodox day school, there is a child, or children, who will later discover (or might already know) that they are gay. Think what it does to these children to hear their Morah deny their existence.

My daughter knew her teacher wasn’t right, not only because of the gay people in her life. She also had read, many times, our books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which states unequivocally, “Some families have two moms; some families have two dads,” along with “Some families look like each other; some families look like their pets.” Also true.

My daughter had also recently read a book called And Tango Makes Three, a true story about penguins in Central Park Zoo. Two boy penguins are not interested in the girl penguins, but are interested in each other and become companions. They are sad when they discover that they do not have an egg in their nest, like all the other penguins. The zookeeper finds an extra egg that had no penguin to take care of it, and Tango is born, making their happy union into a family. My daughter got the message, that if it’s biologically true for penguins, it could also be biologically true for humans.

These books were baby gifts from a dear long-time friend of my husband’s, who happens to be gay. I have to admit that, while I was content to read the Todd Parr books to my kids right away, I hid away And Tango Makes Three for many years – six years to be exact. I had only just pulled it off the top shelf and left it around for my first grader to read. It was not because my children weren’t ready for the book, but because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for what my children’s questions might be. I wasn’t sure of my own feelings about homosexulaity in the Orthodox community. I wasn’t sure how I would respond, how I would engage with my children’s curiosity.

What I’ve learned, as a parent and as an educator, is that many of these conversations can be quite simple. Especially with young kids, and even with older ones, the most important message is simply that gay people are here. They are all around us, they are among us, they might even be us. They are Jewish and not, Orthodox and not, married and not, with children and not. A simple dinner conversation, spoken in soft tones, and in six-year-old language, can make it clear to children that gay people are here, and that Hashem made them that way.

Thankfully the Orthodox community is beginning to address the reality that LGBTQ individuals are among us. But beyond that, I write this piece in order to model what it might look like to have conversations with our children about complex and difficult situations. LGBTQ issues are only one of many tough subjects that may arise around the dinner table. Be ready for other important conversations, too. Be ready to explain that we don’t drive on Shabbat while other Jews do, without demonizing or disenfranchising those other Jews, and without diminishing our deeply-held value of halacha. My daughter recently said that all Jewish girls wear skirts that cover the knee. I needed to address the fact that even though it is what we do in our own family, there are Jews who dress differently. Complex conversations like these also happen outside the Jewish realm, of course. We need to discuss racism in a way that children can understand, explaining that there have been times in history when people with a different skin color were treated differently, terribly, were even enslaved, and this is wrong. Somehow, we are well prepared with robust information for our children about why they shouldn’t talk to strangers and why it’s important that they work hard in school. Let’s also be ready to converse with them about the complexities of life.

The conversation I had with my children about homosexuality was not complicated. I didn’t quote psukim from the Torah, or enter into halachic discourse. There will be time for that. Parents of adolescents will need to take a more nuanced approach. However, if parents speak openly and honestly about these complex topics when children are young, then the conversations when they are older become less fraught, more open and honest.

And then there’s my daughter’s teacher. I think about what that teacher might have responded. Had she been adequately prepared and trained for this kind of question, she could have spoken about the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. She could have been honest about the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada, and has been for over a decade. She might have even been able to voice her own discomfort (or the halachic difficulties) with gay marriage, while also acknowledging that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. But the teacher was clearly caught off guard, and was not prepared to offer any answer, hence she simply brushed the question aside.

I was inspired by this video from an Eshel retreat. I hope that someday, every LGBTQ Orthodox young person can say something like this: “I’m still a Bais Yaakov girl; I just happen to be queer.” I think about that gay child in my daughter’s class. Will that child find a safe space to be both Orthodox and gay? Will he need to bifurcate his identity, thinking that he cannot be both frum and homosexual? He will, no doubt, face many challenges. But let him at least be recognized, rather than invisible.

Let us urge our day schools to equip our children’s teachers with the skills and sensitivity needed to respond to their questions. Let us open the door for these conversations with our children while they are young, although it is never too late to start. Let us take responsibility for making our community open and honest about the fact that gay people are among us. Do it for the gay child in your child’s class… who could even be your own.


Transgender Orthodox Jews

August 6, 2015

by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber

 

An analysis of the challenges–both halakhic and social–faced by transgender individuals in the Orthodox Jewish world, with some suggested resolutions. 

 

INTRODUCTION – THE COMPLEX NATURE OF GENDER

One of the most stable identity markers for most people is their gender. We live in a world that divides itself neatly into categories of “male” and “female.” This is true of our language, our bathrooms, our sports teams, etc. For many of us, this reality is perfectly comfortable and intuitive. For those who feel that they were born the wrong sex or who don’t feel comfortable with either of the most common gender identities,[1] this dichotomy can feel isolating.

As challenging as being transgender already is in the larger world, Orthodox Judaism poses some unique challenges. In this essay, I will outline some of these challenges and suggest ways of ameliorating or solving the problems. My goal is to stimulate thought about how to integrate transgender Jews who wish to be part of the Orthodox world, into our shuls and our communities in as seamless a manner as possible.[2]

Read the rest of this entry »


The Missing Question: How Do We Experience Authority? – By Rabbi Josh Feigelson

January 16, 2015

This past fall, the Orthodox/halakhic community experienced the most honest public conversation about itself that I think I’ve ever seen. The arrest and investigation of Rabbi Barry Freundel opened up a series of powerful conversations. Husbands and wives talked about gender roles in Jewish law; friends talked about their feelings about rabbis and Jewish law at kiddush, at Shabbos meals, and walking to and from shul; and, most remarkably, the Jewish press, from the blogosphere to Facebook to the Times of Israel to the New York Times, openly and publicly discussed these questions. In my lifetime, I can’t remember anything like it.

While I welcome all of this discussion, I think that much of it has missed a central, big question, which has to do with a couple of central words, namely 1) authority, and 2) authenticity. To put the issue in the form of a question, I would raise it this way: 1) In what, or in whom, do we place authority? 2) When do we feel authentic? And 3) What do the two have to do with one another?

In some ways, the second question really comes Read the rest of this entry »


Pew, Continuity and Conversion – Guest Post by Prof. Zvi Zohar

July 31, 2014

Precis

The findings of the recent Pew survey teach us, that the Jewish community in the United States as a whole is in a state of crisis (aka she’at ha-dhaq) with regard to the simple – but crucial – issue of numeric continuity. This fact has halakhic consequences: we can (and should) apply be-di-avad rules, follow minority opinions etc. to the utmost of whatever halakha can allow, with the goal of overcoming or at least ameliorating the she’at ha-dhaq situation.

In this paper I argue that Orthodox rabbis should shoulder halakhic responsibility for preventing numerical decline of American Jewry as a whole (i.e., they should make halakhic decisions not only caring for the future of Orthodox Jews, but for the future of all Jews).

Concretely, this means that they should be warmly encouraging towards all persons who seek to become Jewish, and follow the most lenient options for giyyur extent in halakhic literature with regard to what is the minimum required be-di-avad for a giyyur to be valid. In doing so, they can rely upon the views of the three great scholars I cite, whose halakhic stature is objectively no less than that of rabbi Moshe Feinstein. (The fact that they are less well known in the U.S. basically reflects the quite insular world of many American Orthodox rabbis.) Even were it the case that these rabbis express a minority opinion, that is of no consequence here, because we are not discussing what is the most correct position in an ideal world le-khathila but rather what options exist that can be employed in a be-di-avad situation.

Prof. Zvi Zohar is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan University. He has written extensively on the history and development of halakha. His most recent book is Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2013).

Introduction

The October 2013 Pew Report underscored the fragility of the Jewish future in North America and has led to anguished discussions and debates regarding “continuity”, i.e., how to reduce the number of Jews relinquishing Judaism and Jewish identification in favor of other options.

But given the nature of the American religious scene, as I will present below, it is simply impossible to assure Jewish continuity by such a strategy alone. Rather, only if a strategy of easing the path of conversion is joined with current educational efforts and programs do we stand a chance of achieving continuity.

Such a strategy is of course at odds with the notion that conversion should be discouraged and difficult. However, that notion itself was not the primordial position of our tradition but rather historically conditioned. Encouragement of would-be converts and the intentional application of   the more  lenient positions found in our sources  can be fully justified from within the halakhic tradition — particularly in times of crisis such as ours.

Stating the Problem Honestly

Even if 100 percent of all children born to Jews in the United States were to remain Jewish, the Jewish population would decline significantly over time, because of the simple fact reported by Pew that Jewish adults aged 40-59 have an average of 1.9 children – while 2.1 children in a family represents the minimum fertility replacement level, that is, the level at which births equal deaths in a society with good health services. Although I am Orthodox, the fact that Orthodox Jewish families have an average of 4.1 children is no consolation to me. My concern is for the future of the entire community and not for any particular sub-group alone. Indeed, I believe that religiously and morally, such horizons of concern are befitting all Jews – and especially the Orthodox.

Read the rest of this entry »


Kol Kallah- The voice of a Kallah teacher

May 2, 2014

Guest post by Sarah Robinson

 

Almost as soon as I was married, I was asked by other women to study with them in preparation for their marriages as observant Jewish couples. The Kallah classes nightmare scenario outlined by Dr Maryles Sztokman was in my head for sure. The separation between spirituality and pleasure, brain and belief, personhood and obedience. I was sure it didn’t have to be that way.

Rejecting the role of teacher, I have preferred to form a learning partnership with the brides I have taught where each has her area of expertise. My expertise being my experience of marriage and relationships and hers of her self awareness and understanding of herself in relation to Jewish Law and to her relationship with her husband to be. It would seem that an insightful and informative one on one discussion between a married woman and one whose marriage is imminent cannot possibly be lecture format. How do you know where she is starting? Does she have positive or negative impressions, experiences shared by friends or family, a conflict right there already in the room?

Suffice to say I am not alone in this approach. I was extremely fortunate to attend an intensive seminar in March 2011 run and staffed by Jofa in conjunction with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat and incorporating presentations by Dr Batsheva Marcus the clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality and renowned sex therapist. collected like minded educators committed to both hunanising halacha and demystifying the sexual relationship in order to communicate honestly and in an educated way about both.

The greatest benefit of the course by far, was the creation of a group in that room which would stay in touch with each other, help explore sensitive issues, share knowledge, insight and understanding, and radically change the face of transmitting a unique, ancient and value filled approach to marriage much in demand by couples in our community. Many of us teach couples together and while both halacha and sensitivity can be effectively taught, the challenges of bringing each of the people truly into the room and attending to their sensitivities regarding halacha knowledge and self awareness is immense. This is the task undertaken by those who have participated in training and who continue to discuss and struggle with the tensions implicit in this area of living.

Sarah Hass Robinson is a licensed clinical social worker and Jewish educator in Manhattan


A Family Discovery – Yom HaShoah Comes to Life

April 28, 2014

As the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, I never heard the story of the murder of our family members directly from my grandfather – he never liked talking about it – but it was told and retold to me by my mother. She pursued graduate work in Holocaust studies, she lectured on the topic, she chaperoned hundreds of teenagers on visits to the camps and crematoria. So immersed was she in Holocaust literature that our bookshelves brimmed with the classics.

As for me, after all this exposure, I had somehow reverted to my grandfather’s silence. Not that I wasn’t willing to talk about it, but the fact was simply that the Shoah was a closed piece of my history, sealed and far away. The schools I attended did such a good job of Holocaust education, as did the summer camps – which would not let a Tisha b’Av go by without showing images of gas chambers or talking about the destruction of European Jewry – that I somehow felt saturated. I didn’t need to talk about it anymore.

Until now. My second cousin received an email from a gentleman in Israel. He had heard there were members of a Chanowitz family (my mother’s maiden name) in the United States. Since this man’s mother was a Chanowitz, he thought perhaps we were distant relatives. He knew his mother was the only survivor of her entire family, which had included nine children. But perhaps this was a cousin through his mother’s distant family.

He proceeded to tell his mother’s lineage and all the details of the family. As my mother read me the original email over the phone, I was in shock. This man’s mother, was none other than Asna Mera, who figured prominently in our family’s story, the story I had heard so many times growing up.

Asna was the second sister of my grandfather’s family. She was taken away in the first of the roundups, along with many of the leaders of the community. The story I had heard (and details are now being clarified) was that when the Jews had heard that there was danger, the entire Chanowitz family barricaded themselves in their home for protection. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Asna insisted that they should open the door despite the danger, because it could be a Jew in need of protection. And so the other family members barricaded themselves into the back of the house while Asna opened the door. It was a German soldier, who immediately took her away. Asna was shot and buried in a mass grave in the forest, along with the rest of the group. She was just a teenager when she was murdered.

And now, we hear that Asna actually had somehow escaped and had made a life for herself in the former Soviet Union, that Asna had children and grandchildren, a family. My family.

And suddenly my family’s history, and my own, opened up again. Suddenly the tales of the Shoah were happening right here and right now. I felt the strange feeling of gaining family, of reviving the dead, of repairing a broken chain of my identity and of my family. It felt like a world reborn.

And then the realization hit: if this entire branch of my family could suddenly reappear, and could elicit such a feeling of rebirth and of hope, what of all the branches that never got to be? All the siblings who were, in fact, brutally murdered? Where are their descendants now? Where are all my dear cousins who should now be raising families of their own, as I am? And for the first time, I understood the loss. For the first time, I felt like a survivor.

The third generation is a strange place to be. It is the point where it is easy to step aside and allow the family story to be just that – a story rather than a living, breathing reality. For all these years, the Shoah was tucked away like a family heirloom. Now, it was suddenly dusted off and bequeathed to me, along with the loss and the void. It is my loss, too.

This piece originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, April 24, 2014.

To read more about my family’s unfolding story, see this article from the Chabad Lubavitch Headquarters. (Our connection to Asna Mera’s family was made because of my family’s roots in Chabad.) My grandfather, Yisroel, is pictured at the right. 


Crowd-Sourced Bibliography on Tefilin, Partnership Minyanim, and the Future of Orthodoxy

February 28, 2014

Will Rogers once quipped, “I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”  To which I would respond, “I don’t belong to an organized Jewish denomination; I’m Orthodox.”

Dozens of scholarly articles, essays, and blog-posts, have been published in the past month exploring the question of women and mitzvat tefillin and the phenomenon of Partnership Minyannim. This may all be a “tempest in a teapot” or this may become a milestone in the history of our community and its self-definition. To help record and organize all that is being written on this topic, I am creating a crowd-sourced bibliography. Please post links in the comments to articles/blog-posts/essays and I will add them to the bibliography once each week or two.

Reflecting the mission of this blog, priority will be given to articles that focus on how these issues percolate within the Orthodox community. I will also prioritize those writings that contain original analysis of primary sources. But, if there is something that you have read which you think should be part of this bibliography, paste a link in the comments and make a case (please also list which section the source belongs).

Part I: Girls Wearing Tefilin at Orthodox High Schools

The Jewish Week: Ramaz Would Permit Girls to Wear Tefilin

Rabbi Josh Strulowitz: It’s Not About Tefilin But Embracing School Choice

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark: SAR Principal Explains Decision to Allow Girls ot Wear Tefilin at School Minyanim

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein: Much Ado About Something: Women and Tefillin

Rabbi H. Schachter: Transcription of a letter by Rabbi H. Schachter on Women Wearing Tefilin, transcribed by Rabbi Josh Yuter

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt: Reflections on the Tefilin Debate

Part II: Analysis of Women and the Mitzvah of Tefilin

(With a strong representation from Harvard Hillel in the 1990’s…)

Rabbi Ethan Tucker: Gender and Tefillin: Possibilities and Consequences

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper: Gender and Tefillin: Assumptions and Consequences

Shira Fischer, MD: In Pursuit of Intellectual Genorisity: A Rejoinder to R. Aryeh Klapper on Gender, Tefillin, and Normativitiy

Rabbi Shlomo Brody: Women and Tefilin: A Response to Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Shlomo Brody: Women, Tefilin, and the Halakhic Process

Rabbi Jeff Fox: The Truth About Women in Tefilin

William Friedman: Why Women Can – And Must – Wear Tefillin

Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber: Tefillin and Clean Bodies Part I

Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber: Tefillin and Clean Bodes Part II

 

Part III: RCA Documents on Partnership Minyanim and Reactions

Partnership Minyanim in the Pages of “Tradition.”

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: A Response to Rav Herschel Schachter shlita

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: A Resposne to Rav Herschel Schachter shlita (English Translation)

Professor Aaron Koller: Women in Tefillin and Partnership Minyanim: A Response to Rav Schachter

Rabbi A. Goridmer: The Boundaries and Essence of Orthodoxy: A Response ot Aaron Koller

“Menachem Mendel” Partnership Minyans in Israel

Rabbi Dr. Yoel Finkelman and Professor Chaim Saimon: A Next Step in Debating Partnership Minyanim and Women in Tefillin

Part IV: Opinions and Advocacy

Dr. Elana Sztokman: Orthodoxy Must Not Reject Its Most Committed Women

Rabbi Avi Shafran: TefillinGate Unraveled: In Orthodoxy Women Just Don’t Wear Tefillin

Avigayil Halpern: You Say I don’t Need Tefillin: Here’s Why I Do

Eden Farber:  Not-So Blurred Lines

Professor Aaron Koller: On Submissiveness