Retreat brings queer Jewish faith leaders to SF

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday December 10, 2014
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More than 60 LGBT Jewish theological leaders descended upon Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood this week to explore queering the Jewish faith during the first-ever Nehirim LGBTQ Jewish Clergy Retreat.

A majority of the religious leaders came from around North America while a handful traveled from Germany and Israel.

This was the first queer religious Jewish retreat since the 1980s �" as far as anyone can recall �" according to Rabbi Debra Kolodny, executive director of Nehirim, which produced the four-day spiritual event that ended Wednesday.

Nehirim is a national community of LGBT Jews, families, and allies advocating equality and diversity based on Jewish tradition for a more just and inclusive world, according to its website.

Bringing Jewish clergy and students together to discuss queer Jewish theology was a dream that Kolodny, a 54-year-old bisexual woman who resides in Portland, Oregon, had talked about with colleagues for a dozen years.

"I would have these conversations in the hallways with my friends or breakfast or in between the workshops about, 'Oh my gosh! I downloaded this unbelievable text and look how it applies to bisexual consciousness or how it affirms a queer identity,'" said Kolodny.


Bringing like minds together

Opportunity struck to fulfill that dream when she took the helm of Nehirim in 2013. Immediately, Kolodny set out to develop the retreat that grew from simply bringing Jewish religious leaders and students together to creating a clearinghouse for rituals.

"I was inspired to help move the Jewish world forward to a higher level where every queer Jew felt empowered, where every queer Jew felt that their experiences could be found in Torah, could be reflected in Torah, could be affirmed and supported and celebrated," said Kolodny.

When they go home "whatever broke open for them will then be magnified many times over when they go back into their teaching or into their congregations," she added.

Breaking wide open is what this retreat set out to do. On Monday, December 8 panelists presented thought-provoking perceptions of Jewish theology.

"There is no normative Jewish theology and that in itself is the first queering move," said Rabbi Jacob J. Straub. "We should consider ourselves free ... in the multitude of envisionings to envision and to experience.

"All of our human imperfections give rise to needs and to yearnings that our images of God ought to address in a very satisfying, inspiring, centering [way] leading to a very self-accepting and connected way of being," Straub added.

The retreat covered a history of queer Jewish theology; interpretations of scripture; congregational life, including transgender and interfaith; and the faith leadership movement.

Kolodny recognized that while North American queer Jewish leaders have paved a path to be welcoming, it's not enough. Many Jewish communities outside of the United States still suffer from the effects of the Holocaust and are only now emerging beyond recreating traditional rituals and theology.

"We live in a time in this country where being out as a faith leader isn't necessarily isolating or scary," said Kolodny. "It's different in the rest of the world."

She pointed to Germany, where the Jewish population remains small.

"There's a tiny, tiny Jewish population in Germany because of the Holocaust. Just being a Jew in Germany is so difficult and so isolated, everything is painful," said Kolodny. "To give those folks the opportunities to be with their peers felt critical."

Jalda Rebling, cantor of Ohel Hachidusch, of which she was a co-founder, described Berlin, which doesn't have many rabbis and many, if not all, of the congregations in the city are Orthodox. Rebling believes that Berlin's following of the traditional Jewish faith is fallout from the Holocaust.

Until recent years, people seeking out alternative interpretations of the Torah and the Jewish faith and life, especially expatriate Jewish Americans, haven't had anywhere to practice, she said.

"After Shoah, our parents had to recreate Jewish life," said Rebling. "There is [little] space for real changes, but there are a lot of people who need a different approach and that is the point where they find me."

Rebling, who didn't want to be defined by labels, found her "bashert (soul mate) in a female body." She said that she came to the retreat "to get inspiration, to get connected to my colleagues in the important work that I'm doing."

As a cantor her responsibilities are somewhere between being a rabbi and orchestrating the spiritual music, by caring for her community, she said, pointing out that cantors traditionally work closely with rabbis.

It was her goal, as it was for other Jewish religious leaders who traveled from Germany and Israel, to gather inspiration and find kinship among elders and peers.

Efrat Rotem, a 36-year-old butch lesbian who is a rabbinical student in Jerusalem, recognized that she is able to study and practice Jewish theology from a queer perspective because of the work done by American queer Jewish spiritual leaders who paved the path before her.

They also provided a blueprint as many of the issues LGBT Jewish clergy faced three decades ago are now challenges being discussed in Israel, said Rotem, who is also a new rabbi at Kehilat Halev, a small inclusive reform community at the Daniel Centers in Tel Aviv.

"Some of the things that we are going through in Israel already happened here," said Rotem. "We can learn from it. We can learn how to better deal with the challenges ahead of being LGBTQI clergy and also how we can benefit as LGBT people, as congregants not just of course as spiritual people.

"We are here to make the world better when we leave it," added Rotem. It's a part of creating a different kind of Judaism where it's not talking about "the chosen people, it's talking about equality."

Like Rotem, Rebling felt empowered by the retreat and the fact that there is a body of queer theology already available.

"That is amazing for me," said Rebling, stating that meeting other queer Jewish faith leaders gives her strength and empowers her, "to live a joyful life as a Jew, however you are created and whatever your destiny is in this world."

Kolodny agreed, "We are in a different place, but it's all on the same journey."

In Kolodny's eyes, the goal of the retreat was for people to feel inspired as out queer Jewish professionals, even for those coming out of the Orthodox community.

She wants people to "emerge so much more healed and empowered and joyful in their whole selves that they are released and relieved," she said. That new healing will empower them so "they can explore new opportunities for themselves because they are no longer sitting in that place of hurt or pain."

"It would be amazing to me ... that we can just see the beautiful and amazing unique contributions that we made that are not just about being welcomed, but that we are about our holy destiny," said Kolodny, pointing to other religious faiths, where Native American two spirited or queer people were the healers, the shamans of the culture.

The event was supported by a $35,000 grant from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, according to Stephanie Rapp, senior program officer of Jewish life and special projects.